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Crack the Spine

Issue forty-One


Crack The Spine Issue Forty-One September 25, 2012 Edited by Kerri Farrell Foley Collection copyright 2012 by Crack the Spine


Contents Kristin Forbes Fireball Mohini Dasari To Love (A Sestina) Michael Capel Concerning Charlie Fleenor Ashley Fisher Bigger Trees Morgan Podraza Sway Ashley Fields White Noise Rory Fleming Ocean Machine


Cover Art by Sarah Edwards Sarah Edwards is an experimental/street photographer. She is currently living in Montreal, Canada. Analog photography is her first love. She mainly works with 35mm film. You can see her work and ask her stuff if you want here: http://sez0.tumblr.com/


Kristin Forbes Fireball Jason’s walls were bare, save for one map of a thickly wooded, crooked trail in northwest Oregon, held in place with silver push pins at all four corners. “I’ll hike that some day,” he said to Tina when he noticed her glancing at it – where else could she look? – during her first visit to his house. He said this with firm conviction, and there was no reason to doubt his words. Tina liked Jason’s plan. She liked it in part because she felt like she was waiting for a time that had already passed her by, waiting for the thrill of her late twenties when she was already now into her thirties. Some day she’d travel and go to the art museum and stay up too late drinking pinos grigio – she used to think about these things, envisioning the clothes she would wear and the able-bodied men she would meet. Lately she thought only of which papers she needed to grade and what shoes she’d wear tomorrow morning. “Jason’s going on a long hike some day.” Tina repeated this news to her friends, echoing his firm tone, acting as if it were something in the definite works. As if he owned a backpack and a pair of hiking boots. As if he owned a water bottle. Jason owned a skateboard. This, too, appealed to Tina. They often met on Wednesday evenings at a café and drank overpriced coffee while deciding what to eat. The sandwiches at this cafe always fell apart, little shambles of meat and bread and lettuce and mayonnaise piled on cold, ceramic plates. Tina took to eating hers with a knife and fork, but Jason persevered and devoured his BLTs with bare hands, ignoring the mayo dripping down his arms. This café made Tina think of her father, a stoic man slowly succumbing to dementia at a nursing facility twenty minutes away. Her dad had always been the king of BLTs and grilled cheese sandwiches. He used a brush to coat the bread with melted butter, some leftover trick from his long-ago days waiting tables at a breakfast joint in the Midwest. “Be prepared for anything,” he’d say to his daughters when a grilled cheese sandwich landed on the kitchen floor behind them after he launched it across the room with a metallic spatula. “Shoulda had your plate ready to catch it.” The last time Tina visited her father, the caregivers couldn’t get him to eat anything. They tried pancakes. Eggs. Waffles. Toast. Pudding. Applesauce. Chocolate cake. Nothing. They tried crushing


his pills in chocolate milk, but he wouldn’t drink either. He swatted away every spoon, fork, plate, cup and straw that came in his direction. He opted instead to stare at a painting on the wall across the room: a watercolor beach scene, its blues as vibrant as the ocean itself. Tina didn’t talk about her father with Jason. She didn’t tell him about the applesauce and chocolate milk, the blank look on his face as he stared at the framed ocean from his wheelchair across the room, the way he used to flip sandwiches in the air with a spatula. “I’m thinking about Alaska,” Jason said with a mouthful of food. “It’s nearly fishing season.” “What does that mean?” “It’s a good way to make a few extra bucks.” “Okay,” she said. “I’m thinking about Alaska,” Tina learned, was about as serious as “I’ll hike that some day.” Later that night Jason and Tina would sleep together, their sex so routinized she could calculate the second she’d orgasm, but first she had to watch him collect bacon in his beard. She had to watch the mayonnaise slowly melt down his hairy arms. There were never enough napkins on the table. “I’ve never been to Alaska,” Tina said in a soft voice, and Jason momentarily looked terrified, as if the idea might appeal to her enough to want to come, too. She thought there was something wrong with her. Menstrual cramps, even if it had been weeks since her period? Hernia, appendicitis, tumor? Could she have abdominal cancer? It was like a fire spreading through her gut. Lava in her belly. Lung cancer claimed Tina’s grandma; stroke, her great-aunt. These instances were isolated, whereas the dementia was not. Tina used both hands to count incidents of Alzheimer’s or dementia in her family. Later: Let’s back up to the bare walls, Tina’s therapist suggested. Where did he keep all his photographs? Every time they started talking about Jason, they ended up talking about her family. Diseases. Dying. Jason would never put a picture up on his wall. Capturing a moment in time and displaying it for prosperity was too depressing, he said. He was the same way with birthdays. “Even wrapping paper,” he said, “makes me sad.” Tina’s therapist wanted to spend half a session dissecting his observation that a man whose vocation was photography was too afraid to display pictures on his own wall. “Don’t you find that interesting?”


he asked. (Don’t you find that leading questions are really just an excuse for the asker to state his own thoughts?) She did not wish to expand on this topic of Jason and the blank walls. She was much more interested in the thing about the wrapping paper. The fear of getting another year older. Last year Tina’s dad would still eat applesauce; this year he would not. A few facts. 1.) Tina once found mold in Jason’s coffee maker. 2.) Tina once pretended she was too sick to join him at his work party, asked if she could sleep at his place, and spent the entire three hours he was gone cleaning his bathroom and kitchen. 3.) Tina thought Nebraska was like all the others, like Alaska and Germany and becoming an EMT and learning French and hiking that crazy long trail in Oregon. 4.) Nebraska was not like all the others. 5.) Tina did not have abdominal cancer. Nor did she have cramps, appendicitis, a hernia or tumor. Her nurse practitioner was lovely, with auburn curls cascading past her shoulders and a scattering of light freckles across her nose and cheeks. “Perhaps you have anxiety,” this nurse practitioner suggested. Her voice was soft but her tone was firm. Tina sometimes wondered what Jason was like as a boy. Tina’s sister used to weave her hair into tight French braids and she taught her how to differentiate between the invisible sugar and milk at their tea parties (the milk was in the purple cup). Tina missed those girls: little girl sister, little girl Tina. Tina’s sister had her own children now and Tina had bills to pay. Her sister went in for surgeries on her spine and Tina cried on the edge of her bathtub. When she thought of those laughing, towheaded girls, she couldn’t reconcile then and now. A framed photo set on her dresser: her father looked like a superhero as he held one girl up on each muscular shoulder. The smiles on the sisters’ faces were identical and ecstatic. Their father lifted them high in the air, like they were flying. Flying but secure. “I miss the way it used to be,” Tina once said to Jason while sharing a bowl of chicken chow mein in his dusty gray kitchen. His beard was growing unruly and the house smelled like soy sauce. “What does that mean?” he said, and rather than explaining, she thought instead of how often one or the other of them was always asking that question. What she meant, she supposed, was this: There was once a time when Jason’s charcoal eyes grew soft and wide when he saw her. When he would breathe in quickly, his air caught in his chest, and release a crinkled smile. When he would ask her what book she was reading and tell her the story behind his latest photo. When he would link his fingers in hers, kiss her knuckles, and somehow be content.


But then: Maybe he should learn to fly a plane. What if he moved to Cairo? He could go to Texas. There are children starving in Africa, and who better to help them than the guy who’s never gone a day without his Starbucks and iphone? Maybe he should go here. Maybe he should go there. Maybe he should go far, far away. Tina used a knife to slice pita bread in half, pulling at the seams of the pocket to make room for the hummus. Slice and pull. Slice and pull. Her gut was on fire. The administrator at her father’s nursing facility called Tina often, letting her know how much he was declining. Phone calls that were once monthly now came daily. Yesterday he fell out of his wheelchair while attempting to tie his Velcro shoe. The day before he sat on his bed and yelled, refusing to take any of his medicines. Today he slapped an aide. During one visit, Tina pulled one of these med aides aside. “I know this isn’t really your area, but I’m having this pain in my stomach –” The aide’s expression toward Tina was an equal mixture of pity and disdain. “I’m just here to hand out the medicine,” she said. “For the patients here,” she clarified. Dinner at Jason’s place meant spaghetti and a bottle of cabernet. She brought a garlic bread baguette she picked up from the grocery store and asked if he needed help with anything. He did not; he was pouring sauce onto the noodles. Jason wasn’t clever enough to hide the letter. Her name was Marissa and they dated years before Tina came along. She was pretty, if such a thing mattered – and of course it didn’t, and of course it did. What mattered the most was this: Marissa created a life for herself in Nebraska. She helped people there. It felt good to help people. It reminded her of those college days when they organized blood drives together. Tina imagined that organizing blood drives was a lot like sitting at a table and being there when people signed in. She probably imagined this because that’s how Jason once described it to her, but Marissa’s “organized” had a nice ring. Like when Jason “organized” his laundry by throwing it all into the closet behind his bed. What do you say, Jason? Want to do something crazy? Why not Nebraska? I mean really, why the fuck not? Could he think of a single reason to say no? Love, comma, Marissa. That’s how she signed her letter. Tina read it once quickly, then twice slowly, all while Jason tended to the pasta with his back turned from her. She generally stopped after two glasses of wine, but decided that night to have three.


In the days that followed, she said it to herself quietly: I’m going to lose to Nebraska. She said it in the shower. She said it while painting her toenails. I’m going to lose to Nebraska while waiting for her bagel to pop out of the toaster oven. I’m going to lose to Nebraska riding the T. Nebraska while muddling her way through a lecture on sentence construction, trying to pretend she knew any more than these twenty-two-year-old kids. Nebraska! while crying on the aforementioned edge of her bathtub. He didn’t bring it up for weeks; neither did she. He took pictures of her wearing a cotton sundress in her backyard. Tina tried to make her eyes soft and wide. She tried to make it seem like she couldn’t be happier to be there. She tried to sleep beside him, feeling the warmth of his body pressed against hers, listening to the tick-tick-tick of the hallway clock. Looking out over his empty walls. Tina visited her father and he let her sit next to him, holding his hand gently. “I wish we could walk into that painting and just live there,” Tina said. She wondered if this was just what he was trying to do. The idea of actually visiting a beach was no longer feasible. His incontinence, his irritability, his dependence on the wheelchair and inability to deviate from a routine: he needed to stay here, in this place, where he was safe. Tina squeezed her dad’s hand and wished she could do anything to make life a little better. Jason didn’t need to pack much before he left. He stuffed everything into duffel bags and trash bags. Tina wasn’t sure if he owned a suitcase. She came over on moving day, her smile fixed, a mop and broom in her hand. “Don’t worry about the mess,” he said, but she was already sweeping his debris into a dust bin. She was already opening drawers and peering into cabinets, searching for something he might have left behind. Tina always worried about the mess. She asked Jason if she could keep his map. Though it was his only artwork, he was not reluctant to give it up. He passed it over with a shrug, dropping one of the push pins onto the floor as he did. Jason’s walls were bare again and he left without much of a goodbye. Tina offered to turn his keys into the landlord and Jason agreed, relieved. After he left, she sat on his empty floor, looking at his blank walls. She went out to a get a coffee and came back with a bottle of spray paint. Tina felt the weight of her missed twenties, her ailing father, and her nothing-relationship course through her as she swept long, wide arcs of black paint across the room in a fine, misty spray. She didn’t know why she did the things she did.


She only knew that Jason’s walls would never be bare again.

Kristen Forbes is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon whose writing has been published or is forthcoming in Bartleby Snopes, Down in the Dirt Magazine, Constellations: A Journal of Poetry and Fiction, Front Porch Review, Wavelength Magazine, Stork Magazine, Portland Tribune, Lake Oswego Review, Pause: Journal of Dramatic Writing, the Stand Up To Cancer web site, and other publications. She holds a BFA in writing, literature and publishing from Emerson College and an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University.


Mohini Dasari To Love (A Sestina)

Perched upon a slab of rock, I felt love dripping down from the cerulean Himalayan sky onto me. My heart lapped up the droplets, joy steaming like sweet chai. The air changed with every breath I took, and I smiled into the compassionate mountains and dreamed. Today I cannot tell you of what I dreamed this summer; but the crystalline moments in which love shone brilliantly like surya, the sun god, and smiled with pink sunbeams upon our heads- even the sky bows its head to love. Has anything changed? What of all the world's sorrows in the face of joy? If sandalwood beads fail to bring us joy then is our collective inner light something I dreamed during a feverish, turmeric sleep? Imagine we changed all our thoughts into peace bubbles, iridescent love sprouting from each of our third eyes into the sky, against gravity, and then the Buddha smiled, and patted our hearts, and our Buddhas smiled too, because there was nothing else to do. Joy cannot live in any box, not even an invisible sky, because joy is a something we merely dreamed once upon a moment, fast asleep. Wake up! Love for breakfast lunch and dinner, the menu changed


forever. Oceans drown into sky, but nothing has changed: the rosewood wheel spins. Imagine: no one ever smiled or cried or spoke. The world is black and white. Love is undefined. Not even sacred rose petals smell of joy. Even then, the white light throbbed and dreamed, kundalini exhaled and gave birth to a sky. Atop my hill, your hill, our hill, I exhaled unto the sky gratitude for the green Himachal peace that changed us, for I do not exist without you. We dreamed and created poverty, coffee and SUVs. Buddha smiled because it is The Way. There is much we do not know. Joy is holding hands with every soul at once; infinite love. To the end of the sky, the saffron-robed sun always smiled; nothing has changed; the river still flows with joy, and all the peace of which we've dreamed lies at the lotus feet of Love.

Mohini Dasari recently graduated from Rice University in Houston, Texas with a degree in Biochemistry. She is now a first year medical student at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Mohini's favorite place in the world is Dharamshala, India, in the foothills of the Himalayas, where she lived during Summer 2011 as part of a community service fellowship. Mohini has been writing poetry intermittently throughout her school years since elementary school, and has been published in R2: The Rice Review. Apart from poetry, Mohini enjoys Bharatanatyam, an Indian classical dance which she has learned from the age of twelve. Indian classical music and dance ripple her soul. She hopes to incorporate traveling and writing into her future career as a physician.


Michael Capel Concerning Charlie Fleenor May 14, 2010 Mr. Cudmore— There are more pertinent matters to address here, but before doing so I believe this letter will benefit from a helping or two of context. For the better part of twenty-two years I’ve been known around Riverfront not only as a mother, an active community participant and a full-fledged tax-payer, but also as an educator. That is not a word I toss around lightly. Nor is it my preferred reference, even. Such a multitude of duties contribute to the term educator besides actual teaching—softness of temperament, buckets of patience, the ability to strike fair and balanced judgment on an almost minute-by-minute basis—that I often find it difficult to believe it can be described in just four syllables. But if you were to query any of my former third graders, I believe, with no small amount of confidence, that they would describe me as thus. I’m not singing my own song here, Mr. Cudmore. I’ve ran into dozens of them over the years, in grocery stores, in the Housewares department of Target, and many have applied to me—face to face—those same attributes. I mention this only on account of the horrendous scene that unfolded last Sunday, during the Babe Ruth game between Tatlock Supplies and Russo’s Bar and Grille. Neither you nor any administrative representative of the league was present during the ugliness, but whispers and rumors have no doubt already reached your office. Perhaps you’ve received a copy of the police report, or even a letter of defense from the other party involved. If that is the case, read this immediately. My eyes are not as accurate as surveillance cameras, Mr. Cudmore, but if I am correct about your other options, I can claim with certainty that this is the most thorough, truthful account you will receive. My son Benjamin, fourteen, is a right fielder for Tatlock Supplies. Coach Gerald Tatlock, owner and proprietor of the store, is a close acquaintance of the family. Although Ben is somewhat slight for his age, and admittedly not the most aggressive or athletic child, Gerald gladly welcomed him to the team. Like me, Gerald views the Babe Ruth league as an outlet for the rampant energies of teenage boys, rather than a platform for vicious competition (Pee-Wee football was never an option). As a result, the Tatlock team seems to always have tremendous fun on the field, even if they win very few games.


The same cannot be said of Russo’s Bar and Grille. I have little objection to such an establishment partaking in organized city sports, even if they must drop the ‘Bar’ on their uniforms to comply with league regulations. While the sale of alcohol, along with the myriad of traumas attached to it, may not be the best example for the boys to model themselves after, I realize that sponsorship is a gift, and whoever is willing to provide it should be commended for doing so. It was instantly apparent upon our arrival at Veteran’s Field last Sunday, however, that Russo’s coach, Mr. Vincent Russo, was not remotely interested in the growth of camaraderie and sportsmanship within our children. His players were engaged in all manner of stretching on the field, sitting and spreading their legs to the edge of snapping and lunging toward their feet with their hands. Many of the boys’ faces were marred with grimaces. Some displayed giant bulges in their cheeks. I thought this might be some kind of symptom of torturous exercises, but quickly discovered that they were stowing huge wads of bubble gum in their mouths, emulating the ‘professionals’ who openly, and for some inane reason legally, chew tobacco during games. Clearly, Mr. Russo, in addition to sportsmanship and camaraderie, includes a future of lip and tongue cancer on his list of league virtues. I could see on my husband’s face a similar look of disapproval. But Allen reminded me we weren’t there to watch the Russo team. We carried on like other parents, shouting encouragements to Ben as he lobbed a ball—without a trace of aggression— to one of his teammates. The only real sign of trouble was the incessant slap of an extremely hard-thrown ball hitting a catcher’s mitt. It was the loudest thing on the field by many decibels; louder than anyone in the crowd, louder than any of the boys in uniform. I claim no expertise in the discipline of pitching, Mr. Cudmore. The only time I’d ever sat through an entire baseball game was as a child, when my father drove us down to Shea Stadium to watch his beloved Mets, during which I read the final chapters of Wuthering Heights (I was an advanced reader, like Benjamin, with an interest in literature and composition at a very early age). I do know the rules of the Babe Ruth league, and crystal clear limits are placed on the speed at which its pitchers can throw. I was not in possession of a radar gun that day. Your umpire was equally empty-handed (for budgetary reasons, I’m sure, but something you might want to consider nonetheless). I am certain, however, that this particular pitcher was well in excess of those limits. I’m referring, of course, to Charles Fleenor. It’s no secret to me, or any of the other parents whose children partake in Babe Ruth, that Charles is exceptionally talented, athletically speaking. I’ve seen his picture in the paper, and heard him mentioned on the evening radio programs Allen listens to


while tinkering with his spreadsheets. I am also aware (especially after Sunday afternoon) that Charles does not benefit from the most positive or stable home environment. Charles was once a third-grader of mine, and on one occasion I had to deal with his mother in parent-teacher conferences. I say ‘one,’ because she, Mrs. Fleenor, did not show up for the second parent-teacher conference. She spent most of our sole meeting warning me of her mentally unwell exhusband, a casualty, she claimed, of Gulf War Syndrome, and that I was under no circumstances to allow him in the school or accompany Charles home. The final moments of our meeting were reserved for her valuation of parent-teacher conferencing, which was non-existent. Aren’t kids just kids? she asked me. This, of course, from a woman who also saw little value in wearing a bra in public—not even during a parent-teacher conference. I commented to Allen as to the boy’s identity, and he said that he was already quite aware of who Charles was. The boys on the Tatlock team seemed also to be in the know. Many of them froze in their pre-game routines and simply stared at Charles. A few were flat-out and justifiably terrified, disappearing into the surrounding woods with certain lower extremity protective-gear in hand. I realize now this was my opportunity to prevent disaster. As in a classroom, rules must be firmly established at the earliest possible point. A Babe Ruth field is no different, and as the title of educator might suggest, my passivity has led to great regret. But I think you’ll agree, Mr. Cudmore, that where things went from here falls squarely on the shoulders of a single party. The game started in relative peace, if only because the Russo’s team took first at-bat. Our Ben meandered a bit in the outfield, as he sometimes does. He was, most likely, thinking more about his science fair project due this Monday, a Tesla Coil made from an old car battery and some coat hangers (already Ben has investigated several of the finer technical institutes in the state). From the bleachers Allen encouraged him, very politely, to focus on the task at hand. The first six Russo batters sent the ball over the fence. Ben, who is actually quite a good runner, could do nothing but watch them fly. It didn’t stop until after the seventh batter hit another pitch out of bounds, when the umpire stood up and waved his hands in the air. Slowly, shamefully, the Tatlocks came in from the outfield. As if we didn’t already know what was going on, your umpire felt compelled to inform the crowd, at nothing less than a barked shout, that this was the enacting of the ‘Mercy Rule.’ A flame burned through my head when I heard that. I imagined myself in a parent-teacher conference, offering to admit one of my students into the fourth grade even if they had performed miserably, and didn’t deserve to. And then announcing it publicly!


We cheered Ben even louder, and Ben, ever the boy, promptly pretended not to hear us. He seemed to be less concerned with his Tesla Coil now (completely out of character for him, especially with only a week before a due date), and more in tune with what Charles Fleenor was doing on the mound. What Charles was doing was throwing fast ball after fast ball down the middle of the plate; fastballs far too fast for fourteen year olds, who, in accordance with league rules, are supposed to receive pitches of no more than sixty miles per hour. Again, Mr. Cudmore, I am no expert. However, sixty miles per hour is the exact speed I drive much of the way to work each morning (down Route 5, where the speed limit is 65). I know exactly what a speeder looks like. It appeared that no one else did. Gerald Tatlock, unfortunately, was just as entranced with Charles as his team was. Immediately after the third strike was called I beckoned to the umpire. He signaled for time and trotted over to the bleachers, where in as low a whisper as I could muster, I asked him, quite politely, if he had any idea how flagrantly he was allowing league rules to be violated. He’s fine, I was informed. Then again, as if I was somehow in error. He’s fine. These are the kinds of explanations your umpires give, Mr. Cudmore, the guardians of integrity for an entire city-wide, tax-payer-funded sporting league. Given a potentially dangerous and lethal situation, I got a two syllable response. I had zero intention of settling on that. I made your umpire aware that without hesitation I would call somebody of importance, someone much higher on the chain of command than he was. Maybe they could address the situation? Without another word he turned back toward the field and waved Charles over to him. They met halfway between the mound and the plate. Mr. Russo joined them. Their words were unclear but the hand gestures of the umpire—palms out, pumping toward the ground—were very clearly instructing Charles to slow down. Charles nodded. I was surprised at how quickly he agreed, as boys his age typically have a difficult time taking direction. But just as it appeared the issue was being resolved, another man came trotting out from behind the bleachers, where he’d apparently been watching the game the entire time, and joined the conference (I use the term loosely, of course). There was no mistaking who it was. I’d never had the pleasure of meeting him before last Sunday, but in an instant I recognized him to be Charles’ father. All the signs were there: disheveled appearance, the unnecessary combat attire (his jacket still appeared to be crusted with sand). Apparently there was some value in my brief, otherwise unproductive conference with Mrs. Fleenor after all.


As if he were a league official himself, Mr. Fleenor poked his dirty head into the conference. Charles suddenly, with his glove concealing much of his face and most likely a grinning mouth, turned and walked back to the mound. Mr. Fleenor didn’t seem to notice; he lingered behind like exhaust fumes, shaking his head at the umpire and leering directly into his eyes. Making his second good judgment call of the afternoon, the umpire tried to walk away from Mr. Fleenor, but with little success. He was followed back to home plate, where the pleading continued. Every fifth word or so from Mr. Fleenor was significantly raised in volume. None had any place on a Babe Ruth baseball field. Several, less patient spectators began shouting for him to get off the field. Mary Tatlock, Gerald’s wife of and a fellow educator at Park Elementary (second graders), suggested that Mr. Fleenor investigate the soup kitchen at Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Rick Parris, our town property appraiser, even took out a five dollar bill and offered it to Mr. Fleenor in exchange for exiting the premises. Eventually, inspired either by embarrassment or a general awareness of how profoundly disruptive he was being, Mr. Fleenor sauntered back behind the batting cage, glaring at us like a mob of hostile foreigners. I dialed a 9 and a 1 on my cell phone, and readied my thumb to complete the call. Allen and Rick descended from the bleachers and stood guard over the Tatlock bench, where they could more actively keep an eye on Mr. Fleenor. It is highly uncharacteristic for my husband to physically involve himself in matters like these, but our Ben was now taking his place at the plate, and Allen knew there was little choice in the matter. Ben was obviously terrified, and who could blame him? He was surrounded by Fleenors. Keep your eye on the ball, Allen assured him, and when Charles finally wound up again, he of course sent another speeding pitch off the mound. This one was even faster, Mr. Cudmore. I’m not even certain Ben could see it. Your umpire, finally wising up, called it out of the strike zone. This time Mr. Fleenor utilized a highly graphic, highly unnatural reproductive act to express his feelings. Again, it was my charge to counter him. I’d seen Mr. Fleenor’s kind of intimidation before, a school-yard type of bullying where whoever stepped furthest over the line of decency became the most feared. Obviously, he had no idea that a bona-fide educator was in attendance. I led a rally of cheering to drown him out. The next two pitches were exceedingly fast, probably fast enough to break a vertebrate. But Ben, my smart little Ben, was playing the game being played on him. I would never encourage such deceit among my students, but it was the only way for him to even the odds. Hanging his skinny body as far back as he could, each pitch looked as if it were aimed at someone who wasn’t there. Each was called a ball.


But the moment wasn’t to last. What happened next, Mr. Cudmore, is what we refer to in the classroom as losing the core. Total meltdown. Before Charles could deliver his fourth consecutive ball, Mr. Fleenor swung around the batting cage and lunged directly at your umpire. With one swift movement (a product, no doubt, of highly specialized and highly lethal military training) Mr. Fleenor swatted away the umpire’s protective mask and punched him, closed fist, directly in the nose. Blood was everywhere in an instant. Ben, in a state of shock, stood as still as he had when at bat. Everyone seemed to be in a state of shock; even Allen and Rick, by no means large men but not weaklings, either, were stunned motionless. Fearing I was the only one in the crowd left with any amount of awareness and preparedness, I dialed the final one and began shouting into the receiver. There was an emergency at Memorial Field, I told the operator. A trained killer had gone wild and was attacking innocent bystanders. She seemed confused and asked me to repeat myself. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I replied by screaming at her, to simply send whatever authorities were available to Memorial Field and to make it quick. Once off the phone, I began shouting to my husband and Rick Parris, to Ben even. He was there with an aluminum bat in his hands, and, in accordance with self-defense laws (he was no doubt in harm’s way—it was happening so quickly that Mr. Fleenor very likely could have mistaken him for some Middle Eastern entity, and gone into attack mode), told him to strike Mr. Fleenor as hard as he could. He seemed not to hear me. By that time Allen and Rick were under the backstop as well. Mr. Fleenor was partially surrounded now, as your umpire was back on his feet. After discharging a few wild swings, Mr. Fleenor was taken from the back, into a headlock by Rick Parris. Not intending to hurt him, but rather subdue him, Allen and your umpire delivered a few measured strikes to Mr. Fleenor’s torso. From the crowd, I encouraged them to get him to the ground, but just as quickly as the civilized portion of the fracas had the upper hand, Mr. Fleenor delivered a stiff kick to Allen’s side. There was a wet snap, a sound which I knew to be broken ribs (the bones of third graders break easily and often— especially on our ill-funded playgrounds). It was here that Ben dropped his bat and rushed to the bleachers, where he tucked himself behind my arm. Our helplessness was palpable. As horribly as things had already disintegrated, the most traumatic, the most dangerous moment, was still yet to occur. Just as Mr. Fleenor broke free and turned to Rick Parris, a white blur flew through the melee, mere inches from Allen’s head, and struck Mr. Fleenor square in his sternum. He fell to the ground and began wheezing. A baseball rolled around his feet. And, as you may already be aware, none other than his son, Charles, was on the mound, still leaning over, as if he were waiting for a call from the umpire.


The police arrived with an ambulance in toe. Allen and Rick handed Mr. Fleenor over to the police. He was still having trouble breathing when they handcuffed him and placed him in the back of a patrol car. As happy as I was to see the violence he had caused quelled and over with, I couldn’t help but begin to think how things may have turned out differently. By the time Allen was done giving his statement to the police, and we were headed back to the car with our shaking, terrified son, my rage had risen even higher. Who would throw a baseball that fast into a group of unprotected people? What if he missed? I have absolutely no doubt in my mind now, Mr. Cudmore, that Charles did miss his target that night. A few inches to the left and my husband would most likely be dead, or worse, left lingering in a vegetative state. Every night since then I’ve gone to sleep wondering what sort of life it would be for Ben and I, driving to a hospital each day, giving Allen sponge baths, making sure his feeding tubes weren’t clogged. The police, unfortunately, do not share my concern. Mr. Fleenor has already been charged and processed, and is awaiting further punishment in Riverfront County Jail. What saddens me is the fact that Charlie, as of yet, has not been punished for his actions. Clearly he has not been led down a path of goodness, and as much I’d like to blame his parents for that, I can’t help but think that a child his age should know better. There is zero doubt in my mind, Mr. Cudmore, that you should know better. Already I’ve been in contact with an attorney from Perry and Perry. We are prepared to take action if you do not. It is my wish that before such a drastic, horrible event can be replayed, you will ban Charles Fleenor from Babe Ruth baseball. You will not ban him for a game, or two games, or even for an entire season. Charles should be banned indefinitely from Riverfront baseball, period, and if this letter is not valid enough proof, perhaps testimony, under oath in a court of law, will be. My hope is that this matter will not have to go that distance, but my hope is faint. I checked your credentials and see that you’ve never run a classroom; not one day in your entire life. Respectfully, Barbara Ware Park Elementary


Dear Mr. Cudmore— My mother said I should hand write this to show you how serious I am so sorry if it is sloppy but I am trying to take my time. I had a broken arm when we learned cursive in the fourth grade and mine is not so good. But my mother says that is the way I should write it and so that is how I am writing it. I think that if you let me keep pitching in the Babe Ruth league I will keep getting better. After that is the Mickey Mantle league and I know that I already pitch faster than alot of those kids too. I hope that if I can keep playing I will go to a good college and become a better pitcher. This way I will be able to make money and give some to my parents. I hope you understand that pitching is my favorite thing to do. I am sorry if I caused any trouble and I will not cause anymore. Already my father told me he will not come to anymore of my games and my mother never comes anyway. You will not have to worry about that from now on or me either. That’s a promise. Sincerely, Charlie Fleenor

P.S.—I almost forgot to tell you. Mrs. Ware was my third grade teacher and I liked her very much. I liked Mr. Ware too because he used to come in our class and tell us how cool it was to be an accountant. That is what I wanted to be before I found out I could pitch so good. I would not try to hurt someone I thought was nice. I was trying to hit my father. That doesn’t mean my father can’t be nice, just that he wasn’t being nice right then and there. So I had to stop it. My mother says it is not good to toot your own horn and I do not want to sound like a jerk but if I wanted to hit Mr. Ware I could of hit him. I am good enough to put the ball where I want it and I never miss.

Michael Capel is from upstate New York. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Sou'wester, South Dakota Review, Barnstorm, and Existere. He lives in Boise, Idaho.


Ashley Fisher Bigger Trees We tried to capture a single moment before it fled, became carried away with its own temporal nature. We fill in our own gaps, but the shades we each remember never quite match and branches never quite connect, our own versions of events irreconcilable. Spring will come, cover our fractured memory with foliage, hide imperfections with leaf and daffodil. And we will say, yes, we remember the trees, the woods, walking hand in hand that winter, forgetting the scale of the place, of the time, reinventing that moment.

Ashley Fisher is a UK-based poet originally from South Cumbria and now based in Hull. As well as writing, Ashley runs the Fresh Ink Open Mic nights in Hull and co-edits the poetry magazine Turbulence. He can be contacted, and possibly collected, at www.ashleyfisher.co.uk.


Morgan Podraza Sway

The air crackles and pops as the needles drops. Sinatra fills the room. I stand swaying with his voice as he pulls me close, but I watch the city line over his shoulder: kitchenettes and television sets click on, and the ground below is a stream of lights. The sun faints into the arms of the skyscrapers. I rock on the four-inch heels I’ve been wearing since six AM, but the needle lifts, and I’m swept up in silence; alone in the shadow of the grandfather clock.

Morgan Podraza lives in New Orleans with her hedgehog, Winslow. Her writing has appeared in Polaris, Conceptions Southwest, and Best Student Essays.


Ashley Fields White Noise

They were doing a dollar dance. Chase thought it was a stupid idea for a bunch of teenagers, but every guy there was waving bills at the birthday girl. They whirled her around the room, tucking money into her hand or pocket before passing her to the next set of arms. Her smile seemed a little too wide and fixed, shoulders stiff, but she let herself be passed from person to person. She kept her chin tucked down toward her chest, hiding the recent injury, and pretended that she wasn’t intimidated by being in a room full of people who could still talk. She was doing a good job, too. She landed in her good friend Dekker’s embrace, and relaxed against him. Chase clenched his fists as he watched him bend over and whisper in Adrian’s ear. She lifted her chin for the first time, exposing the barest hint of scarring above her high-necked shirt, and smiled in relief. Adrian’s arms were wrapped around Dekker’s neck, and she grinned over his shoulder. A few seconds of swaying back and forth, a twenty dollar bill tucked into a back pocket, and three twirls later, they were almost directly in front of Chase. He sidestepped behind a guy from school, and stayed long enough to see the confusion cross her face as she spun into someone else’s arms. His skin itched with the irrational urge to pound the guy pressed up against her. Instead Chase slammed out of the house, almost knocking over the gift table where his tiny red package balanced on top, and pounded down the stairs. Dekker caught up with him there, spinning him around with a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t Chase.” “What, dude?” he asked, shrugging the hand off, and stepping away. “Don’t ‘what’ me. I saw that, even if she didn’t.” Light, flickering and full of movement, poured out of the windows behind them, illuminating the wrap around porch and azalea bushes. Chase swatted a bloom, scattering soft pink petals across the walkway, and looked at Dekker in icy silence. “Your mood swings are getting old. Get a grip on your tantrum, and go the hell back inside.” “Screw you, man,” Chase said and walked across the yard. “You even care that she’s gonna be looking for you?” Dekker yelled behind him.


Chase kept going, ignoring Dekker’s last insult of “asshole coward!” and a few other choice words about getting the hell over whatever was bothering him until he neared the woods that edged the property. He glanced back at the house occasionally, at the one and a half story cabin he’d practically grown up in, as he headed to the darkness of an old, favorite tree. The wet, heavy atmosphere smothered everything, even the deep thrum of base from the party. The big trees that ringed the yard, oak, maple and magnolia, helped swallow up sound until it was just Chase and a chorus of crickets. It made Georgia nights perfect for silence and solitude. Crouching to avoid low hanging limbs, he moved to the trunk and began to climb. He snaked his body between thin, tightly packed branches, big waxy leaves and lemon scented blossoms brushing his face on the way up. He stopped a few limbs up, sprawled vertically across a succession of branches. A narrow bough cradled his hips from behind, his feet lightly rested below, and his forearms were propped above for balance. The house was visible through the foliage, and he watched shadows gyrate and sway in front of the windows to music he could no longer hear. In the dark to his left, he saw the dim, far-off glow of his own porch light. Rolling his neck back and forth to ease tension, he closed his eyes. It was so much easier to be out in the warm, dark night than to be in at that party where he felt like a stranger among his friends. Light and sound cascaded into the night as someone stepped onto the front porch and closed the door. The person was no more than a shadow backlit by the amber glow pouring from the windows, but he knew who it was. No one else stood like that, all hunched in on themselves like if they drew in tight enough they could just disappear. She should have been inside enjoying her eighteenth birthday party, the final hurrah before graduation. Instead Adrian was peering around the corners of the house, and looking in the cars parked in the driveway. Searching for him. Chase watched for a while as her silhouette wandered farther from the house. Stopping near the tree, bleached in shades of grey by the moonlight, she tilted her head back and looked up at the stars. They sparkled this far from town, layer upon layer of light in the endlessly deep night sky. She would have been pretty if it wasn’t for the scarring across her neck, a thick, surgically precise white line across her throat and the lumpy irregular circle just above her collar bone. The scars were glowing with an unsettling brightness in the stark light, and made it impossible for Chase to admire the long shock of hair that reached down to slim hips or the freckle sprinkled pert nose he used to tweak. Yes, without the scars, she was perfectly pretty. Just seeing the scars was enough to make his clammy skin prick with heat. It stabbed along his arms, and up around his tightening neck muscles. Around him, leaves began to rustle slightly, stirring up the


sweet lemon scent of the magnolia blossoms. The limbs trembled, then began to shake as Chase closed his hands around a slim bough and squeezed. The skin across his knuckles stretched painfully as he took two long, deep breaths. Those scars, innocently white in the moonlight, haunted him, and he could barely control his adverse reaction. She really was almost beautiful. As Adrian wandered closer, sweat slipped off his brow and ran into the corner of his eye, pooling with the moisture that was already there. Air shuddered out of lungs that were suddenly too tight for comfort as Chase fought to control his emotions, a warring of gut twisting anguish, deep seated revulsion the sight of those scars brought on, and something else. That unidentifiable thing, like a string behind his belly button pulling him toward her, that was the hardest to fight, the hardest to understand. The tree rustled below, and he imagined her pressing her face into a big, silky blossom, brushing fingers over big, waxy leaves, smiling. She loved this big, old tree as much as he did. Pulling his trembling hands away from the branch, Chase sucked in a slow, deep breath and held it, silently willing her to go away. One minute passed, then two. Adrian was no longer visible through the gap in the limbs. All he could see was tall stalks of grass bleached to bone and the distant two-story cabin, doll-house small and jeweled with light. The silence wasn’t comforting with someone else wandering around in it, but was rather sinister, like he was being hunted. There was another muted rustle then something soft brushed Chase’s ankle. It promptly clamped on and jerked. Without his hands up for balance, Chase’s body slithered off his perch. His head rocked backward, bouncing off the branch that had cradled his hips, and the back of his knees hooked around a different limb. He swung upside down and around, crashing through the lower limbs to hit the ground on his forearms and stomach. The fall wasn’t far, but he had enough momentum to make it hurt like hell. One leg was still lifted off the ground slightly, pulled up and back by shoelaces tangled in a cluster of magnolia blossoms. Dirt and debris clung to damp skin, uncomfortable and gritty. Wheezing for breath, he rolled clear of the limbs and flopped on his back. Adrian was standing a few feet away, hand on her hip. She tilted her head to one side and stared at him. She was smiling, but it was both amused and cruel, a look only the very oldest of friends can give. Bugs fluttered all around, black specks against the ghostly pale backdrop. He laid there, shoelaces still trapped by a thick tangle of leaves, breathing in the crisp, heady scent of crushed blooms. “What the hell, Adrian,” he groaned. She didn’t answer. She couldn’t. The stupid car wreck had taken that ability forever. She spread her feet and crossed her arms, looming over him. Chase gritted his teeth in frustration, tried to pull his foot


free. There was no point in arguing with a cripple who couldn’t yell back. He smacked his palms down in the bare, hard packed dirt he’d landed in and pushed up, aggravated almost beyond endurance. “Just go the fuck back inside, would you?” Her sneaker landed right on his hip bone, striking a sharper pain than any of the limbs he’d collided with. All the hurt and confusion disappeared, solidified into an all-consuming fury that pulsed through him like a live thing. Lashing out, he slapped a leg out from under her hard. He saw a flash of wide, startled eyes as she toppled down on him. Rolling in a tangle of knees and elbows, their weight pulled his shoe free and sent broken twigs and pieces of leaves flying. The night was still hot and heavy, and even Chase’s furious grunts and the thwack of fist meeting flesh were muffled into near silence. A lifetime of wrestling together made them pretty even adversaries, but after a particularly sharp punch to the ear, Chase used his size and weight to pin Adrian down. He’d gotten bigger than her a long, long time ago. He wrapped his legs around hers and pulled them out straight so she had no leverage, flattening her to the ground with his chest and hips. One of her hands was pinned between them, thumb resting against his collarbone. The grit of sweat and dirt was more noticeable there, where skin touched skin. Holding her wrist above her head, Chase levered himself up with his free arm just enough to look at her. Both of them were panting for breath, their chests pressing tight then easing apart. She didn’t struggle against him, just laid there and glared. A strand of hair was pasted to one cheek, an inky swirl across dove grey. The moon was full and bright, illuminating the crease between her brows, the smudge of dirt across her temple, the way her top lip was tucked over the bottom in a pout. “Well, wasn’t that nice? Been a while since I kicked your ass,” he said, and she quirked an eyebrow at him, still giving him a dirty look. He was trembling slightly, raging inside with a swirl of black emotion, but his voice was cold and calm, betraying nothing. He put his face close to hers, and said, “Maybe you didn’t get it, but I came out here to get away from you.” Why? He saw the question in the moonlight, but it was as silent like they were in an old black and white film. Just facial expression and gesture, and sad, pouty lips to say it all. No sound from her, never again. “Seriously?” he said. “Four, maybe five weeks out of the hospital, and you’re hanging all over every guy in town?” Honest shock was written across her face. She blinked up at him. Once. Twice. Then she closed her eyes, and shook her head softly. The motion knocked up a tiny cloud of dust and dandelion dander, and Chase let go of her wrist to wave it away.


You’re jealous, she mouthed incredulously, lifting her head a little to stare into his eyes. Chase turned his head slightly and gazed out over the yard to avoid the truth of her words. Her body softened under his, no longer straining, and he was suddenly aware of the bare legs pressed against his blue jeans. “Yeah, right.” He eased backward until he was kneeling over her legs. “Nothing to be jealous of. You can’t even talk anymore.” He barely twitched out of the way as she jerked her thigh up between his legs. The movement startled him, and he toppled over sideways. Adrian hadn’t tried to kick him there since they were eight and he had thrown a football through her 3-D puzzle of Tara from Gone with the Wind. She followed him up as he rolled away, and crouched in front of him. The way her nostrils flared told him she was furious, far madder than when she’d knocked him out of the tree, or punched him. “We are talking now.” She mouthed the words slowly, pausing between each word. She used her hands, too, in slow stilting jerks, trying to talk in the way they were teaching her at therapy. Black crescents fringed in pale grey lashes glared at him from inches away as she leaned in so close their noses were almost touching. He was looking right in her eyes like he’d imagined a million times, but he couldn’t help but glance down at the scars. “No we’re not,” he yelled in her face. “We’re not talking. You can’t. Don’t you get it, you’re fucking broken!” She just stared at him in silence, a little shocked and kind of devastated, and suddenly it was too much. He’d come out searching for some peace, hoping the still dark night would settle over him, and make his head and his heart quiet for the first time since he thought his best friend was going to die in that damn car crash. Instead, he was suffocating. The silence was so loud it roared in his ears like white noise, became static in his thoughts. The landscape was washed in death colors, grey and black, shades of charcoal. The night was like a dead thing, and in a way, so was she. “You’re in there dancing, like there’s nothing wrong. But, there is.” He knew it was unfair, remembered the way she’d tucked her chin over her scars, but he couldn’t stop. The words poured out with perfect clarity. She was easing away from him now, lowering her chin again. She wrapped her arms around herself, slumping into her newly acquired, self-conscious posture. “They all feel the same way, you know? Came to see the poor little crippled girl. That’s why all those guys were smiling at you. Pity.” He raised his voice again, the rich huskiness cracking with all the frustration he felt. “Nobody can look at you. Not without seeing those,” he said gesturing to her neck.


Not fair, she mouthed, shaking her head. She stumbled to her feet, and began backing away. Her narrowed eyes and pursed lips radiated defiance; she was almost as angry and upset as he was. But her body was crumpling in on itself slowly, shoulders starting to sag as she moved away. “Fair?” Chase’s laugh was an ugly thing, too hard and clipped for his whiskey smooth voice. He kept ranting, telling her how much it pissed him off that she couldn’t be fixed, and he didn’t want things to be different. That she shouldn’t have smiled or danced with all those boys, it wasn’t fair when she should’ve smiled just for him. She stood in the high grass, gazing across the yard toward the house where shadows were still flickering across the windows and no one had noticed the birthday girl was missing. She seemed to grow smaller with each word, like she was starting to think maybe he was right. She crouched down to sit, then stood again. She was fidgeting, drifting back toward the house one small step at a time, unsure how to respond. “How am I supposed to deal, huh? We can’t even argue anymore!” he finished, kicking up a chunk of dirt and grass. Something sharp nicked his forehead, and he slapped a hand to it, feeling the sticky ooze of blood and sweat and grit. Breathing loudly, every muscle in his body hard and tight, coiled with tension, he stared open mouthed. Adrian juggled a rock in her left hand, the right empty from the missile she’d just thrown. She might have been crying, but with the moonlight behind her, it was hard to tell. She lifted a finger and pointed, not toward the house, but down the driveway. Away from her, and the party, and all their friends. Chase stomped away, avoiding the house, and then started jogging down the driveway. He swung at the mailbox as he passed it, the skin of his knuckles bursting under the impact. His eyes itched and stung, and he swiped at them with a bloody hand. Feet pounding against the pavement, he ran hard to get away from what he’d just said to Adrian. His thoughts pulsed through his head in time with his footsteps, broken, broken, broken. His favorite girl in the whole world was broken. He flew through the dark until he came to the fork in the road that would take him home. The street was lightless, hedged in by dense trees on both sides that formed a canopy. It was blessedly shady on hot summer days, but infinitely black at night. Chase wouldn’t have found his way back if his feet hadn’t walked the route to Adrian’s thousands of times. He went back slowly, again basking in the silence and darkness of the hot summer night. A slight breeze blew up the road, ruffling through the tree-lined tunnel, cooling his skin and his temper. Everything was twisted up inside him, the unrelenting anger, the aching and tingling where Adrian had touched him, the overwhelming confusion. It was all there, always, just under the surface, a boiling


pot of suffering. He just didn’t know what to do with it. He scuffed his feet, and dawdled as he came back to the driveway, stopping to straighten the mailbox and pat out the dent in the flimsy tin. He headed up the driveway, weaving through the cars parked there, wondering if he should go back in, and say something or just wait outside until everybody left. He was a filthy mess after all. As he passed his car, the question was answered. A tiny red package was sitting on the hood, wrapped up a thick, satiny ribbon that sparkled with facets of gold and copper in the faint light from the porch. Chase was close enough to heat hear the music again, and see the silhouettes swaying behind the curtains to a sweet, slow song. But, he was alone outside with the tiny gift he’d brought for Adrian. He leaned against the door of his old nova, the metal cool and smooth, and just stared. He was going to give it to her, the tiny, pretty little package, on the night of the accident. It was the thing that should have tipped the scales from friend to lover, and sent them down a whole other path. Then she’d gotten hurt, and he’d gotten angry and their whole world had spun out of control until it was defined by this. A gift, sitting abandoned in the dark. The stinging returned, and tears tracked through the grime on his face because this felt like good-bye.


Rory Fleming Ocean Machine Are you commodified or beautiful When Kaguya sleeps And the Kingdom of the Moon is vacant For no one still believes in them The dusty burrows and abandoned shuttles Atop the vastest anthill For humans When the tides are dictated by collective memory “This is not as nice as last year,” or “This is just as nice as last year” I wade through these waters Something molten scratches the heels of my feet I jump back and think How we don’t know these waters As much as we predict Are you commodified or beautiful When that something is The tip of a rocket peeking out From forgotten sand

Rory Fleming is a writer of poetry and prose as well as a law student at UNC-Chapel Hill. He chases the intersection between the divine and the mundane and is starting to think it is an invisible boundary. He loves oceans and spaceships. He blogs at mehuggingspacecarrion.wordpress.com. His work is published or forthcoming in Eunoia Review, Emerge Literary Journal, and other publications.


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Crack the Spine - Issue 41  

Literary Magazine

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