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Crack the Spine Issue fifty-Eight


Crack The Spine Issue Fifty-Eight March 26, 2013 Edited by Kerri Farrell Foley Collection copyright 2013 by Crack the Spine


Contents

Cara Long Breaking Habits Aleksander Plonski Growing Mad in Brooklyn Kim Peter Kovac The Lawyer’s Ink Jack Hill Taco Bell Broadway Philip Kobylarz Preaching to the Converted Robert Laughlin Sowing Seeds of Wheat Brian P. Vowels Never, Ever Bring This Up Again


Cara Long Breaking Habits

“Took a shit and the hogs ate him.” This is my Uncle Steve’s answer to my question about where my brother is. “That’s nice,” I say. “It happens. My hand to God,” Uncle Steve says. A few minutes later, as I’m finishing my coffee, my brother stomps into the kitchen with his boots still on, dripping snow. “Bobby,” I yell, “take your goddamned boots off!” “Whoa,” Uncle Steve says. Bobby goes back to the mud porch to take off his boots. He re-emerges with his pants rolled up to keep his socks from getting wet. “Why don’t you change your pants too?” I ask Bobby. “Can’t,” he says. “I’m heading back out in a few.” I take a plate of pre-made sandwiches out of the fridge and slide them over to him. “Here,” I say. Bobby takes two sandwiches. He says to Uncle Steve, “you going back out?” “Nah,” is all Uncle Steve says. Bobby looks at me. “You?” he asks. “What do I want to go out there for?” I spit back. “I spent all morning out there. I thought you two were done already.” “She’s got a date,” Uncle Steve says, turning his thumb toward me. I roll my eyes. Bobby shrugs. “Me and Dad can finish anyway.” “I already helped split and haul a ton of wood,” I say. “I’m not going back out again.” “It’s fine,” Bobby says, finishing the last bite of his first sandwich. “I know how you all get,” I say. Uncle Steve stands up and says “well…” before heading out of the kitchen. “God,” I say, leaning in toward Bobby. “I can’t wait for him to leave.”


“What’s your problem?” Bobby asks. “He annoys you too,” I say. “Not so much anymore,” he says. “Uncle Mike will be here tonight, in case you’ve forgotten” I say. “Right. I gotta bunk with you then.” Bobby says. “Un-unh,” I say. “It’s sofa city for both of us. Aunt Rita is coming tonight too and she’s bringing a friend or something.” Bobby stands up from his stool. “I better get back out,” he says. “Take a sandwich for dad,” I say. I hold out a baggie. “I already have it ready for him.” Uncle Steve pops his head back into the kitchen. “Need any help with anything before I go pick Mike up from the airport?” he asks. I shrug. “Not much to do,” I say. He nods. “Guess that’ll change tomorrow once everybody’s here.” “Yeah,” I say, “but Aunt Rita will be here and she’ll just take over.” Uncle Steve chuckles. “Seemed like a pain when we were growing up,” he says, “but I guess it has its uses.” “Mind if I grab one of those sandwiches for the road?” he asks. “Help yourself,” I say. “Back in an hour or so,” he says. I clean up the kitchen, mopping the floor because of Bobby’s boots, and then head upstairs to take a shower. I turn on the water and make it extra hot, intending to stay in a long time. After today, the house will be crowded for at least 3 days for my grandmother’s funeral. She died two days ago. It wasn’t a surprise – she’d been dying for over a year. Aunt Rita was just here last month and we all knew it wasn’t going to be long back then. Grandma never complained once about dying, even though she had been in pretty good shape before her diagnosis. “Everybody has their time,” she said to me soon after she broke the news to the family. I started coming home from college every other weekend so I could help clean up around her house and go to the store with her. They only gave her 6-8 months, but she got 12 mostly good months. Only toward the end did I have to start doing things by myself. A few weeks before she died I came home with all the groceries and cleaning supplies and toiletries as usual and my grandmother looked at all of it, then said to me, “you probably don’t need to be buying so much anymore.” The way she said it, so matter of fact, made me laugh. She laughed a little too. “I always was a pragmatist, Megan” she said.


I have volunteered, along with my Aunt Rita, to go through my grandma’s house to clean and sort her remaining belongings. I told Aunt Rita over the phone that grandma left pretty specific instructions about who got what, what stuff should be donated, etc… Aunt Rita snorted, “I bet she did. That woman probably called her death to the second.” Aunt Rita and grandma had a love-hate relationship. Aunt Rita is bullish, like grandma, but about different things. I don’t know, I never really got close to Aunt Rita. My mother didn’t like her much. They had some pretty big clashes, and they could start over anything. One year, it was over whether they should shell or un-shell the nuts we put out on Thanksgiving morning. I turn the water off and step out of the shower. I am supposed to go out tonight, but now I’d rather not. I make a mental note to call Josh and cancel. As I’m drying off, I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and it takes my brain a moment to register that it’s my own reflection that I’m seeing. The way my face looks - the skin, the eyes – reminds me of my mother. Until this point, I have never seen her face in mine. Everyone always says that I sound like her, but no one has ever said that I look like her. I give myself a hard once over and press my palms against the sink so I can lean in to examine my face. In an instant, my mother is gone, and I’m back to looking like myself, like my father. As I dress, for some reason hurrying, I review the phone call I had last night with my mother. She called to tell me that she’d decided against flying in for the funeral. “I don’t think it would help anybody,” she said. I almost offered that my grandmother had liked her, had always liked her, but I knew she had made up her mind so I let it go. Over the years, I have found that the best way to deal with my mother is to let things go. “How’s your father handling it?” she asked me. “He’s sad,” I said. “Spends a lot of time doing chores that don’t need to be done.” Then before she could ask I added, “Bobby’s okay. He helps dad out a lot. I took him out for pizza the night I got home.” “I worry about your brother,” she said. “I wouldn’t,” I said. “Still,” she said. “It would be nice if I could see more of him.” I remember letting out a deep sigh at this point in our conversation. My mother expects us – maybe she has always expected us – to make allowances and concessions for her while overlooking our circumstances. When I was seven, she made me ask my teacher if we could move the school play out by a week because she had planned a vacation with her sisters for that week. I remember my teacher’s face, first confused, then shocked, then maybe a little sad.


“I’m sorry, Megan,” she said to me, “but we’ve been planning this for over two months.” She tried to smile a bit, then offered, “Maybe we can tape it for your mom?” “Bobby is finishing up high school, Mom. He can’t just come out and see you whenever.” My voice when I said this to her was a little fiercer than I had intended, and I was glad for that. There are times when letting things go is hard, when I want to cut my mother down right to the bone. “I know,” is all she said in return, but then she ended the phone call abruptly, promising to call me again after the funeral. At that moment I understood that my mother was not selfish – she was a plain and simple coward. I turn the light off in the bathroom and step into the hall, absorbing the quiet, but it is quickly interrupted by the sound of a truck pulling into the driveway. Uncle Steve is back with Uncle Mike. I go downstairs and throw on my coat to go outside to meet them. Later on that night we’re all sitting in the living room, and Bobby and me are listening to my father and his brothers trade growing up stories. My father has the woodstove going full blast. Uncle Steve is wondering out loud why his mother never moved out of their big house after their father died. “Daddy died young,” Uncle Mike says. “Why would she want to pack everything up and leave? Me and Dave were just barely out of the house and you and Rita were still in school.” “I don’t know,” Uncle Steve says. “I guess I just expected her to.” Dad says to me, “Megan, when are you and Rita heading over to grandma’s house?” “Right after the funeral, I guess,” I say. “I already helped grandma box up and donate some of the stuff. She said Aunt Rita would be a pain about it.” The men laugh. Bobby says, “I can help too, if you want.” Uncle Mike nods. “We’ll all do our part,” he says, “cant let Megan and Rita have all the fun.” My dad and his brothers spend the rest of the night telling family stories, some of which I’ve never heard. They take advantage of Rita’s absence and tell us stories about her youth – like how when she was 14 she got caught skipping school. She was with a boy, a friend, and they had taken her dad’s shotgun and were shooting up beer bottles in the woods. Someone had called the cops, and both Rita and her friend were arrested. I was surprised to hear this story now for the first time – it seemed to be something Rita would be proud of, but I guess she caught hell for it and that wounded her pride. After a while, my father stands up and yawns. “Whadya say boys,” he says to his brothers. “Should we call it a night?”


Later, around midnight, I hear a key jiggling in the front door lock. Grandma’s dog Iggy, now our dog, starts to growl softly. Aunt Rita finally bursts in, shushing the dog. “Shhhh, Iggy,” she says, “you know who I am.” I look over at Bobby, asleep on the other sofa. I can tell he’s only pretending to be asleep. I get up and flick on the hall light for Aunt Rita. “Megan,” she says, “I hope we didn’t wake you.” “It’s alright,” I say. “I realized that you probably didn’t know where you’d be sleeping tonight anyway.” I look over at her friend. She’s got really long blond hair, fastened into a neat braid that nearly reaches her waist. Her skin is very tan, almost leathery, and her face is strong, but friendly. “Hi,” she says, sticking out her hand. “I’m Rochelle. Sorry about your grandma.” “Thanks,” I say to her. I turn to Aunt Rita. “You all have the privilege of staying in my room for the next few days.” “Where are you staying then?” Aunt Rita asks. I point to the living room. “Me and Bobby,” I say. “Oh,” she says, dropping her voice down. “It’s not a problem,” I say quickly, then add, “there’s food in the fridge, if you’re hungry.” “Is everyone else here already?” Aunt Rita asks. “They are,” I say. “Ugh,” she says. Rochelle laughs. The two head up the stairs with their bags. Iggy watches Aunt Rita go up and wags his tail. “Poor Iggy,” I say, and bend down to kiss his snout. I wake up pretty early the next morning and find that Aunt Rita is already up, cooking breakfast. “Good morning,” she says brightly when I pad into the kitchen. “Coffee’s ready.” “Thanks,” I say. She moves toward the coffee pot. “Sit,” she says to me. “I kicked you out of your bed. The least I can do is get you a cup of coffee.” I sit down on a stool and hunch over, trying to stretch my back muscles. “Couch that bad?” she asks. “No,” I say. “Iggy slept on my feet. I don’t think I moved all night.” “He always does that,” she says. “Tonight he can sleep with me and Rochelle. She loves dogs.”


I get the feeling Aunt Rita wants me to ask her about Rochelle, but I don’t feel like indulging her. Instead, I ask her what she’s making. “Blueberry pancakes, home fries and scrambled eggs,” she says proudly. “Dad and Bobby probably won’t be up for a bit,” I say. “Then theirs will be cold,” she says. It turns out that everyone in the house except me and Rita has decided to sleep late. Over breakfast, she asks me a few questions that are intended to go nowhere: how’s school? (Fine); How’s Josh? (fine); What am I doing this summer? (working). Then she asks me about my mother. “She’s not coming,” I say. Rita stares at me intently, blowing on her forkful of eggs. I raise a hand. “I know,” I say. “Your mother,” she says shaking her head. “I was hoping she’d come so she could meet Rochelle.” She has a twinkle in her eye when she says this. “Is she your girlfriend then,” I ask. “Who knows,” she says nonchalantly, then chuckles. “Who knows what any of us is to anyone else?” As we finish our breakfast, the others start to trickle in. Rita announces, “you all have to wash your own plates when you’re done. I cooked,” she says, pointing around the room, “so you clean.” Rochelle smiles broadly. “She’s so bossy,” she says. I watch my father and my uncles’ glance down at their hands and feet as if waiting for a cue. “Marilyn stay home with the baby?” Aunt Rita asks Uncle Mike. He nods. “Oh yeah, dad,” I say, “I spoke to mom yesterday. She’s not coming in for the funeral.” My father nods. I instantly regret saying this in front of everyone. “Big surprise,” Rita says while sipping her coffee. Steve says, “where’d you get the blueberries, Rita?” She turns and fixes a hard look on him. “Where do you think?” she says. “From the fridge?” Rochelle offers, but is ignored. My father says, “Don’t you two start.”. “I asked a simple question,” Uncle Steve says. “A stupid question,” Aunt Rita says. “Enough,” my father says sternly, leaving his plate on the counter and exiting the room. I look over at Aunt Rita. She seems so proud of herself, puffed up like a peacock. Sometimes I think I’d like to ram my fist right into her face.


Bobby says, “I’ll do the dishes.” Rochelle volunteers to dry them. My uncles and Rita clear out, but I stick around to feel Rochelle out a bit more. Bobby asks me if I’m done with my plate. “Yeah, take it,” I say. Rochelle says, “I can wash the dishes too if you want.” “It’s not a problem,” Bobby says, filling the sink with suds. “Bobby is the best dishwasher in this house,” I say. “I miss washing dishes sometimes,” Rochelle says. “My new house has a dishwasher.” I launch right into it and I ask Rochelle where she met Rita. “At a mutual friend’s,” she says. “We were there for a barbecue.” “How long have you known her,” I ask. Bobby shoots me a quick sideways glance. “A few months,” she says. “She and my mother never got along,” I say. “But I guess you kind of figured that.” “She filled me in on everyone on the ride down here,” she says. “Aunt Rita doesn’t get along with a lot of people,” I say. Rochelle takes a plate from Bobby and dries it lazily. “Yeah,” she says, “she has her ways.” “Did you ever meet our grandmother?” I ask. “No,” Rochelle says. “Rita didn’t think it would be a good idea.” “Why?” I ask, perking up. “Like I said before,” Rochelle says, looking directly at me and shrugging, “people have their ways. I try not to upset any of that.” Bobby shoots me a ‘knock it off’ look, but I’ve already decided I’m done because I think Rochelle is through with answering questions. Anyway,I doubt that I’ll see or even hear about her again after the funeral anyway – Aunt Rita has a habit of staying single. I try and etch a mental picture of Rochelle into my minds eye. But then she surprises me and asks, “What about you?” Bobby has finished with the dishes and excuses himself from the kitchen. “I thought Rita already filled you in on all of us,” I say. “Sort of,” Rochelle says, “but I like to hear from people directly.” “I don’t think I’m all that interesting,” I say. There’s a small pause. “Let’s see then,” Rochelle says, leaning back against the counter drying her hands on the dish towel, “what was the first question you asked me?”


“It was about Rita,” I say. “I know enough about Rita,” she says, placing the dishtowel next to her on the counter. “Tell me anything.” My father walks into the kitchen and places his arm on my shoulder. He says, “Let’s head over to grandma’s. I got a call from the church about picking up her furniture today.” Rochelle smiles and says “Rain check.” We arrive – all of us- at the funeral home at the exact time the Director had told us to. My grandmother, to my great relief, chose to be cremated. “It won’t be me anymore anyway,” she had said of her decision. Aunt Rita pulls the funeral director aside to ask some questions. Bobby and I take our seats at the front, near the alter. “What are we supposed to do?” he whispers, with a worried look. “I really don’t know,” I say. “I think dad and them will do most of the talking.” Bobby wraps one of his hands around his neck to rub it. “This is awful,” he says. People start filing in about twenty minutes before the service. I recognize only some of them. They talk mostly to my father and Aunt Rita. A few nod at us and offer condolences. My grandmother’s funeral makes me feel like a little girl again. Neither Bobby nor I know what to say, or what to do with our hands. I scan the room for Rochelle, but don’t find her. Aunt Rita is comforting Mrs. Wabash, one of grandma’s closest friends. Uncle Steve silently joins Bobby and me. The three of us sit with our eyes forward until the service begins. The minister says a lot of nice, general things about my grandmother, who he barely knew. My father delivers the eulogy, and he’s better than I would have thought. A few other people, including Aunt Rita, get up and say some words about my grandmother. Neither Bobby or I do. I pretty much said everything I needed to my grandmother herself. During one conversation, where I asked her what other kind of life she might have liked to lead, she said, “Megan, I don’t indulge those type of thoughts. Leads to depression.” Then she said, “always think about the life you’re living right now and you won’t make too many mistakes.” After the service has finished and most of the people have gone, I head outside for a quick walk. I turn my phone back on and call my mother. I tell her what grandma had said to me and I ask her to think about it, then hang up. I notice that my hands are trembling, so I shove them into my coat pockets. From behind, I can hear someone running up toward me so I turn around. It is Rochelle. “Wait up,” she says. “I could use some fresh air.”


“Are you heading over to grandma’s with us?” I ask. Rochelle doesn’t answer my question. Instead she says, “I have a daughter about your age, you know. Her name is Suzanne.” “Oh,” is all I say. “I notice you didn’t say anything during your grandmother’s funeral,” she says. “No,” I say, “but she and I talked a lot before she died.” “You and she were close?” Rochelle asks. “Kinda,” I say. “But sometimes it’s hard to get close to the people in my family.” I look over at her. “At least for me it is,” I say. “They have their ways, I guess.” Rochelle laughs. “Don’t we all,” she says. Aunt Rita pulls up next to us in her car. “Get in you two,” she says. “It’s freezing.” Rochelle climbs in on the passenger side and I hop into the back seat. Aunt Rita adjusts the rearview mirror so she can look at me. Holding her eyes on mine she says, “So.” “So,” I say back. We finish the ride to my grandmother’s in silence. I lean my head against the back window and trace circles in the condensate that has collected. In a few days time, I will be back at school. “You okay,” Aunt Rita asks as we pull into my grandmother’s driveway. “Uh-huh,” I say. I have made a series of smaller circles inside the largest circle. “Concentric circles, eh?” Rochelle says. “That’s how I find my way around new places.” I wipe the circles away with my hand, erasing them from the window. “I know my way around here pretty good,” I say. “I guess you do,” she says. She starts to say something else, but is cut off by Aunt Rita, who is yelling at us to come on. “We’re burning daylight,” she yells to us from the walkway. Rochelle looks back at me and gives a faint smile. We step out of the car with our backs to each other, closing our doors in unison.

Cara Long hopes the next Mayor of New York City will make the creation of affordable housing a top policy priority in her/his administration. Her work has appeared/will appear in Whiskeypaper, Boston Literary Magazine, Halfway Down the Stairs, SmokeLong Quarterly and the Circa Review.


Aleksander Plonski Growing Mad in Brooklyn

Torn and twisted in the torrent of the full moon night pieces of my life, charged up with caffeine, floating in liquor barefoot through the gutters of the mutant pyramid we were made to believe in and climb sacrificing every last holy scrap of being in exchange for an irrelevant lottery ticket the winner of which will get to cut the last winner’s throat! and the crowds will cheer zealously hungry for blood that will sanctify their own surrender

Mad with southern winds of chance swooping in with violent gusts upon prophetic wings of carelessly naked lovers devout and sublime in their acts of self inflicted torture and burning pleasure abandoning hallucinatory justifications founded on zodiac rhymes and riddles pronounced by drunk demigods perverted by the illusions of our fathers


Seeking patience in the midst of the full-fledged panic rage that like the mist, exudes from the concrete pores of the summer city rank with rotting garbage of mass-produced misery rolling up the South Slope streets with a swagger of the sunrise birds sick in the gut with a spinning head severally blown, fucked and broke

Aleksander Plonski was born in 1977 in Gdynia, Poland, where he attended elementary school. From 1987 to 1991 he worked as an actor in musical theater. At the age of fifteen he moved to Brooklyn, New York, where he attended high school and then went on to study Philosophy and Literature at Stony Brook University, from where he graduated with honors. After his studies he worked as an analyst in the heart of the global financial center until 2008. In 2004 he started a design studio with his wife and has worked extensively in the graphic design, silkscreen and mono printing. He left New York in 2011 and eventually settled in Montevideo the following year where he lives, writes and works as an English teacher.


Kim Peter Kovac The Lawyer’s Ink

It all changes with the prison tattoos. During boarding the flight from Sydney to Los Angeles, the tall lanky man folds himself into the adjacent seat. Behind slightly greasy dirty-blonde hair, his eyes are hooded, and slyly (perhaps shyly?) scan what surrounds. Not unfriendly, yet coiled at his core is an subtle electric physical wariness like a cobra, rather like a blue-eyed cobra. Later, soft tapping on a Mactop brings to focus his hands and what are clearly prison tattoos. Not gang symbols - an initial on the left hand and a Celtic-ish graphic on the right. Connect the dots of fuzzy outlines, crude art, the particular blue coming only from the ink of cheap ballpoints: he’s been in the joint. Though, to be sure, it’s not just tats - the wary eyes and energy: the stigmata even the ink-free acquire behind bars. There’s a huge disconnect, though: he’s a lawyer, in Oz keynoting at a conference on restorative justice. He’s articulate and witty, insightful enough to jump from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation commission to a community program for gangs in East LA without batting a (hooded) eye. Such a blend of humor, compassion, drive, and smarts are not the usual makeup of ex-cons, and the unspoken code does not allow asking what the crime was or even if he was in the joint. No matter, it seems clear he was, perhaps studied law while inside, then continued outside, and there you have it. Many hour later, as he exits the plane at LAX, carrying the computer case in his right hand, the quasiCeltic tattoo comes into focus again, though the color is now subtle, the edges now sharp and clean.

Kim Peter Kovac works nationally and internationally in theater for young audiences with a focus on new play development, networking and mentoring, and is one of the founding editors of the international TYA playwrights network, Write Local. Play Global. He has had a number of articles and op-ed pieces published in small-circulation national and international publications. Recently he published an op-ed piece on www.HowlRound.com and has had poetry, prose poetry and Flash Non-fiction published on or accepted by The Vine Leaves Literary Journal, the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts and Eunoia Review. He lives in Alexandria, VA.


Jack Hill Taco Bell Broadway A dreadlocked man stood in front of me in line and ordered a bean burrito – no beans – and stepped aside and asked for a water cup. The cashier slid a blue bucket, filled to the brim, to him over the counter. He carried it with both hands and waited on the platform for his order. I stepped up to the cashier and ordered whatever and they handed me a five gallon bucket for soda. Dr. Pepper bubbles spilled over the dispenser gutter and onto the floor. “Sorry,” I said to the cashier. “I didn't mean–” “We'll get it,” she said, smiling. “Michaelangelo! Spill! Ammonia-mongocide! Dr. Pepper!” A giraffe necked out from the kitchen area and sprayed purple from it's mouth, washing the brown soda pool on the tile into a drain in the middle of the floor. A vent in the ceiling flipped on and extracted the fumes from the lobby. I nodded and said to the cashier, “Amazing! My giraffe's still learning to carbonate!” The cashier smiled and yelled, “2786039! Your order's ready! 2786039! Bean burrito, no beans!” The dreadlocked man, order 2786039, stood under the drop, cocked his head back and closed his eyes. Steam blasted his face. I inhaled bits of the burrito, sighing. “This is not what I ordered!” 2786039 yelled. “This is not what I fucking ordered!” He heaved the water bucket at the cashier and missed. Blue splattered over the orange walls. He leaped from the platform toward the cashier, his dreadlocks smacking my face as he passed. I dropped my soda bucket and Dr. Pepper funneled everywhere, riding through the tile grooves in all directions. 2786039 pounded his fists on the cash register and demanded his money back. “2786039. Bean burrito. No beans,” the cashier said. “I wanted extra onions!” he yelled. A construction worker entered the Taco Bell and stood behind 2786039, saying, “you need to leave or we're gonna have a problem.” 2786039 looked around, shaking his head. He walked toward the exit and kicked a chair over and screamed, “fuck this Taco Bell! I'm never coming here again! Fuck this place! There's a million fucking Taco Bells!”


Bells chimed as he disappeared into the fog. The construction worker chuckled and said to the cashier, “there's a bad element in this part of town now.� The cashier nodded and asked Michaelangelo to spray the spill and took the construction worker's order. I refilled my bucket with Dr. Pepper and climbed onto the platform after my number was called, looking up toward the drop, holding my soda with both hands.

Jack Hill works in recycling, edits Crossed Out Magazine and Trenchfoot Gazette, and lives in Northern California.


Philip Kobylarz Preaching to the Converted

He claimed to have seen an owl on the train bridge at night perhaps with a hurt wing because it didn't move when he approached, but turned its head one hundred and eighty degrees then hissed like a cat or a mute expressing pure hate, and then it perched quiet and repeatedly winked. He said that during one of his many cross-country trips for who knows what reason he stopped his car in what was maybe Missouri or Kansas, got out, and walked long and steadily into a weed field unable to see what he was actually stepping in, getting into, due to darkness and thickness of vegetation and the off-key whistling of the wind probably masking the rattle-shake of rattlesnakes, partially hypnotized by the smell of pollen and fertilizer and soil soaked by humidity, to see, surrounded by darkness and obscurity, a full moon pulsing in blood red. He described in an amazing lack of detail the duration he sat on a desert denuded bluff at sunrise and watched the sun arch over Shiprock so that its shadows gave it a movement and the dry plains around it shivered in waves of heat. He claimed to have swum with a catfish that was as long as his own body in a rare deep part of the Mississippi river and that its head whiskers felt him, touched him, and he in turn stroked its smooth white milky underside. He told us these stories and more because he knew they were true and that, like him, we were so eager to simply believe.

Philip Kobylarz lives in the East Bay of San Francisco. Recent work of his appears or will appear in Tampa Review, Apt, Santa Fe Literary Review, New American Writing, Prairie Schooner, Poetry Salzburg Review and has appeared in Best American Poetry. His book, "rues," has recently been published by Blue Light Press of San Francisco.


Robert Laughlin Sowing Seeds of Wheat

sowing seeds of wheat the sower’s thought: secrete growing shoots of wheat the grower’s thought: complete mowing sheaves of wheat the mower’s thought: repeat

Robert Laughlin lives in Chico, California. He has published 100 short stories, 200 poems and one novel, "Vow of Silence."


Brian P. Vowels Never, Ever Bring This Up Again

At the ringing of the phone, I returned my scissors and coupons to the dining table but my husband reached the phone sooner than I could rise and back my chair away. He answered mid-ring. Daniel shouted to me from our upstairs bedroom. “Laura, it’s Tom from work calling!” Daniel had not yet risen from bed having chosen to sleep longer than normal – it being a rare, peaceful weekend for us. “I’ll be right there, Danny,” I called; my voice raised just enough for him to hear me while I worried and wondered what could force boss to call on a Sunday morning. I hoped I didn’t have to go into the office to correct any issues with the inventory audit I worked so hard to complete. For five weeks I prepared for that audit but no matter how much preparation I put in, the pressure was more than I could bear. I thought for sure that something was seriously wrong with the results. “Honey, let me know when you pick up the phone!” Daniel shouted down to me. I was so nervous that I hesitated to reach for the kitchen telephone. I stopped short near our new refrigerator to hastily consider the potential causes for Tom Stephens, my boss at N---- to telephone me at 8:35 on a Sunday morning. Again, I prayed there wasn’t some colossal mistake on our annual year-end physical inventory. “Honey!” I heard again. I took two deep breaths and murmured, “Please God, tell me I didn’t screw something up.” I cautiously removed the handset from the base station and pressed the talk button. “Hello,” I mumbled and then I heard the click of Daniel disconnecting the bedroom telephone. “Laura, it’s me,” Tom stated, quieter than normal; he was not his customary jocund self. Thomas Stephens, the twenty-year accounting veteran of our warehousing division, rarely took life, or himself, too seriously and we loved him for that. His light banter kept everyone in the organization relaxed and comfortable and his demeanor created a pleasant, peaceful working environment. Yet, despite his jovial nature, he demanded excellent performance from everyone and being a woman with a disposition to please, I always felt immense pressure to do well for Tom. I was unused to his sudden seriousness and this caused my worry to intensify further. He continued, “Sorry to bother you on a Sunday morning…” I cut him short.


“It’s no bother Tom. Really, I was only cutting coupons from the paper. Why are you in the office today? Is everything all right? Did something go wrong in the audit?” I imagined lowering the impact of the bad news if I broached the subject first to show, what I hoped to be, an appropriate and sincere amount of concern for the quality of my audit work. “I’m not in the office Laura, but I’m heading there now.” “Why are you heading in today? Do you need me to come in to help you with something?” My nervousness translated into repeated questioning and at that moment I worried more about annoying him. “No,” Tom hesitated shortly before continuing, “I think you should stay home. I guess you didn’t hear the news then?” “No…what news?” “I wanted you to hear from me considering you worked closely with him.” He paused again. “Worked with whom?” “Dean’s wife called me late last night to let me know...” Again, I cut him off, “Oh my lord! What happened?” “There… was an accident…. on his property…,” he halted as he spoke. “While he was out mending the fence running along his property line, Dean overturned his ATV. He died as a result of the accident and that’s all I know at this point.” “I just saw him Friday night after work and he said he wanted to go to Starbucks yesterday morning and then do nothing but read the rest of the day,” I declared. “The audit stressed him out.” “He said the same to me but I guess his plans changed.” “Can I do anything?” “No, I don’t think so, not at this point at least. You should just stay home and take care of your family. I’m running to the office to get some forms ready for Dean’s wife. She’s already asked me if there is any paperwork she needs to fill out. I’ll have to talk to HR, I guess. I don’t know why she should worry herself about this now. You would think there would be more important things to consider. If I learn anything more, I’ll give you a call. Bye.” With that said Tom hung up the phone and continued along his way to the office. Dean dead? That couldn’t be real. My body tensed and my jaws clenched. I didn’t cry and this surprised me because I wept all the time and for the slightest of reasons. I considered for a moment how the shock of Dean’s sudden death caused me virtually no reaction and then, with a jolt, Suzanne’s face popped into my head. My unconscious brain instructed me to not grieve yet. “Shit,” I said aloud


and thankfully with no one around. Daniel stayed in our upstairs bedroom and I heard some EPSN promo coming from our bedroom television. I thought about poor Suzanne. This news was certain to devastate her. I needed to call her. I considered for a while how or if to approach Suzanne with the information regarding Dean’s death. Suzanne and I worked together in Accounting only for a couple of years before she transferred into Finance becoming a Financial Analyst. Nevertheless, throughout that short period working together in the same office, we became like sisters, sharing intimate details of each other’s lives as if lifelong friends. I thought it best if I just called and told her gently. She needed a sympathetic voice more than anything. I lunged toward my handbag and plucked out my mobile phone. I noticed one missed call. “Fuck! It’s Suzanne,” I remembered saying. I needed to get out of the house to talk with Suzanne. “Honey, I am going to the grocery store to pick up some doughnuts. Is that OK? What kind would you like?” I asked Daniel pretending interest in his breakfast choices, while poking my head up the stairwell. “Whatever works for you, Sweetheart,” Daniel replied. “Now that I think about it get the apple filled ones for me.” *** Suzanne Cohen lived across town, about a twenty-five minute drive through Nashville and into the southern suburbs of our fast growing metropolis. A high-spirited young woman, thirty-two years old and a mother of one child, Suzanne worked at N---- for five years. She loved life to the fullest, putting all of her energy into raising her six-year-old daughter and training for her fourth marathon inside of two years. As an avid runner, she jogged nearly forty miles per week during her peak training periods. Her stretched, lean body – virtually devoid of any body fat – gave her graceful strides. She took her training seriously but she didn’t let it completely consume her. Although she maintained a strict diet during training, she let loose at times, mostly between marathons, and she enjoyed our “Girls Nights” on Fridays, having an occasional margarita or two or even three on more notable outings. I secretly envied Suzanne’s ability to focus on motherhood, her career and her hobbies and all in that order of importance. My life was so different. Back then, I drifted without purpose, had a couple of miscarriages, had a stagnant career limited by chronic anxiety and a general lack of focus that made it quite difficult for me to find any modicum of success. I struggled, too, to maintain my figure and thus, I envied Suzanne’s physical attributes. The one thing I didn’t envy about Suzanne was her marriage to


Peter. My marriage with Daniel was rock solid and it exceeded all of my expectations while Suzanne’s marriage, on the other hand, had been troubled since the beginning. The birth of Gabby didn’t much help her marriage to succeed either; the plan was to have a child to make Peter more attentive and caring. It didn’t work. A lack of attention at home probably resulted in Suzanne’s enthusiasm at work as she craved appreciable, intellectual stimulation and she acquired it from her co-workers – especially from Dean. I dialed my mobile as I pulled out of the garage. “Hi Suz, it’s me. I’m so sorry I missed your call.” “I don’t know what to do, Laura. I really don’t.” Suzanne sobbed into the phone not letting me further the conversation that I had only just rehearsed while waiting for my Saturn Vue to warm up. “Suz, I am so sorry. I wanted to tell you myself but I guess you heard already.” “I spoke to Dean just minutes before the accident. He called me before he started to repair the fence. He told me he had to get out of the house to hear my voice. What am I going to do? He is my life.” Suzanne emphasized the present tense. She wasn’t about to let go of Dean. Dean had that kind of effect on the people around him – not just Suzanne. He even had that effect on me although my feelings were far from romantic. His personality was infectious and Suzanne instantly fell in love with him. I still remember the day she told me how she felt about him. Dean, for his part, fell for Suzanne just as hard. Her zest for life and her passion to live life to the fullest complemented his enthusiasm for new experiences and knowledge. He doled out knowledge, from bits of obscure trivia to deep philosophical thoughts, and Suzanne loved this about him. The N--Corporation brought Mr. Dean Templeton and Mrs. Suzanne Cohen together but their families always kept them apart. However complicated their relationship was I championed them as a couple as discreetly as I could. More importantly, I rooted for their success. Some time back, during a “Girls Nights” that didn’t live up to its much-publicized reputation, Suzanne and I found ourselves alone at a table in the bar area of an Outback Steakhouse. After a few glasses of merlot, Suzanne admitted to me her feelings for Dean. I was hardly surprised. Suzanne told me about the secret cell phone calls throughout the workday, the sweet text messages and tender emails, the heart-felt intimate conversations during the occasional lunch, and with unexpected candor, Suzanne relayed confidential details of not only her own marriage, but of Dean’s as well. Dean’s marriage was nightmarish according to Suzanne. He was simply miserable. The wife (now widow) was indifferent, unresponsive and intellectually inferior to Dean in most every way. Dean’s wife refused to contribute to the household chores and she remained content with her summer poolside chitchat sessions with girlfriends and then, when the weather turned cold, she enjoyed her winter shopping


expeditions around Nashville with those same friends. Dean needed and deserved better. Although his career responsibilities hadn’t increased, he threw himself into his work finding reasons to increase the amount of business travel and by lengthening his workday just to stay sane. Dean viewed his spouse as irresponsible and unaffectionate and no amount of counseling changed her behavior. Escapism seemed his only route to psychological and physical survival. She continued to tell me that night that Dean remained committed to holding his marriage together just long enough to see his teenage girls’ graduate high school. The oldest, a senior, was closest to matriculation but it was his youngest, just a freshman, that anguished him the most. He feared his marital ordeal to continue for three painful years. He repeatedly told Suzanne that upon Amy’s graduation, he would request a divorce straightaway. Dean confided in Suzanne that he never thought of himself as a cheater but he now understood how good people found themselves in those unfortunate positions. Up until the time of the Outback merlot-soaked conversation, Suzanne said her affair hadn’t reached the physical stage; I had no reason to not believe her but even if she lied to me, I cheered them just the same. I loved the idea of Dean and Suzanne. As a couple they would have rocked. I continued my drive to see her and as I recalled that night at Outback, my hands on the steering wheel trembled because it struck me that we had that conversation three years prior to Dean’s death. Amy was so close to graduation. “Laura, I need to see you,” Suzanne bawled into the phone. “I’m already in the car heading your way. Let’s meet at the Starbucks on Cool Springs. We can talk there. I should be there in about 15 minutes. Please be careful.” With that, I hung up the phone and said to myself, “This may take a while; I need to come up with a new excuse for Danny.” Daniel didn’t know about Dean and Suzanne and I needed a lot more time than a quick grocery store run would allow. *** Suzanne waited for my arrival, staring down at the table, her eyes nearly swollen shut and bright crimson. The coffee shop buzzed with activity and I cringed upon seeing the crowd. I made a massive mistake in picking that place because she was likely to run into someone she knew. “Let’s grab a table outside,” I recommended. “I’ll order our regular drinks.” Suzanne nodded and mouthed a barely inaudible, “Ok.”


After a couple of minutes, I returned with drinks in hand and grabbed a chair next to Suzanne. Suzanne paused for a second, then looked up and uttered, “We talked on Friday night for about an hour and a half. Dean said he planned to file for divorce and he had already spoken to an attorney. We were going to be together.” I wanted to ask her about her plans with her husband but I thought it best to wait until another time. A funereal atmosphere cloaked the office on Monday. Dean’s desk sat vacant, immaculate and orderly. Typical for Dean, he organized his desk at the close of every workday to ensure the following day started as efficiently as possible. After a 9:00 am managers’ meeting, Tom emerged to announce the arrangements for Dean’s memorial service. I immediately thought to telephone Suzanne to inform her and I dialed her four-digit extension. Suzanne’s desk phone chirped and she picked up in an instant. I didn’t even have a chance to say hello. “Laura, can we take a break together this morning? Outside if you don’t mind,” Suzanne asked me; the caller ID on the phone’s display announced my call. “Sure, why not? Let’s go now; I have some information.” I hung up the phone and proceeded to the empty smokers’ picnic table. I spoke first while Suzanne lit what she later explained was her third cigarette of the morning. “Dean’s funeral is set for Wednesday. There will be a visitation today and tomorrow.” “You know, I haven’t smoked a cigarette in three years,” Suzanne said in response, seeming to ignore my comment. “Dean talked me into quitting. He said,” mocking his serious voice, “‘It seems hypocritical to run marathons while smoking half a pack a day.’” Her modulation was low and monotonous, much like Dean’s mumbling when he was in one of his rare serious moods. She picked up several of his mannerisms over time. “He was right you know. By the way, I already knew about the arrangements. Ed told me.” “Ed, the big, burly warehouse manager?” “Yes, that Ed. The only people that know about me and Dean are you and Ed. I confided in you and Dean confided in Ed. They’ve been hunting buddies and co-workers for many years. Ed is handling this worse than me I think.” I was shocked. It was as if hearing about the affair for the first time. I assumed I was the lone party involved, but after several moments of careful reflection, I reconsidered that silly notion. Why would I be the only one with such intimate knowledge?


“Suz, can I ask you a question? Something has been bugging me since yesterday.” “Ok, go ahead.” “How have you been holding up? I mean, I know how you’ve been doing, but how have you been doing at home? How are you able to hold back in front of Peter? I don’t think I could do it.” “You know, on Sunday afternoon I had to be at Peter’s parents’ house. I did my best and I didn’t cry. I don’t think I said more than 10 words the whole day, but I didn’t cry. I’ve been leaving the house some, going on “runs,” so I pretend my red and swollen face…and tears…come from the sweat of training. Peter doesn’t know better nor does he really care. It’s particularly hard here at work too, because everybody keeps saying what great a guy Dean was and how much they are going to miss him and how he will be irreplaceable. If they only knew what he and I had, yet they talk about him as if they were best friends. He didn’t even know most of those people. It makes me sick just thinking about it.” I contemplated her words a moment or two and simply said, “I am sorry.” “I’m sorry, too. You don’t know how sorry. If we could have just one day, just one stupid day together in a house, our dream house, I would take it. I didn’t even get a chance at that.” “How are you going to move forward? I mean with Peter, will you stay or leave?” “I don’t want to think about them right now, Laura,” Suzanne said, lighting up another cigarette, “I know that sounds bad, but I just can’t deal right now.” “Maybe counseling will help. It may sound stupid and I am not suggesting for this moment, but maybe in a couple of months it will help you decide what you need. I know you’re a great mom and will do what’s best for Gabby.” Then it occurred to me that more was at stake here than helping Suzanne and Gabby handle their future plans; there was also the job of protecting Dean – the memory of Dean. Dean passed away a man deeply in love, not with his wife, but with the wife of another man. His almost grown children only knew him as a deeply committed father and husband. Yet, there was more to this man than anyone knew. He was profoundly complex and few rightly understood him. Suzanne understood him. I felt compelled to protect Dean’s memory for the sake of Dean and his family. Importantly, too, I deemed it significant for Suzanne’s sake as well. Where Suzanne may have wanted to shout from the rooftops about her love affair with Dean, I felt it necessary for her to have Dean’s memory and her reputation intact. To do so meant keeping private the memories of the love they shared. While I sat with Suzanne, I quivered to think people went through Dean’s personal effects, perhaps going through them as we spoke. Dean was a cautious, intelligent man and he probably covered his tracks effectively but anyone could make a mistake. Perhaps he left behind an email professing his


adoration for Suzanne. Maybe he left behind a reminder in a file folder or a text message on his cell phone. Anything was possible. I was more convinced than ever that I had to protect Dean’s memory. A secret such as theirs would be too difficult to maintain forever and the word would spread feverishly if there was any hint of seediness about it. I left Suzanne to smoke her cigarette and I headed to see Ed. I marched straight to the warehouse floor to locate Ed, as I knew he spent more time there than in his office. It didn’t take long to find him as he was huddled with some supervisors reviewing warehouse performance statistics. Ed held court outside an administrative area consisting of four cubicles and I waited for him to finish. “Ed?” Ed nodded accordingly. “Hi. I know we don’t know each other very well. I am Laura Clancy from Accounting.” “Hi Laura,” Ed replied with little cheer. “What can I do for you?” “It’s about Dean. I need your help to protect his memory.” Ed looked at me in surprise. I explained my situation and then we were off to his Dean’s desk. *** I had asked Suzanne if she intended to go to the funeral service; I secretly hoped she wouldn’t but I knew she would. I doubted Suzanne could keep her composure throughout the somber service but I was steadfast in my desire to defend Dean’s memory and her reputation. Myriad images swirled through my brain as I envisioned Suzanne’s attendance. I imagined what would happen if Suzanne exhibited to those unaware, an inordinate amount of emotion – an amount of sentiment disproportionate to that of a co-worker or casual acquaintance. I imagined Suzanne’s emotions superseding the widow’s. A public wailing wouldn’t have shocked me. If my fears came true, could people who might have once witnessed a lasting glance, a smile or even a wink between Dean and Suzanne, would they, if they saw Suzanne break down then assume an inappropriate relationship? I didn’t want her to run that risk. Suzanne had to be strong and resolute. Any emotional collapse could jeopardize my efforts. I wanted her to attend but act as normal as possible. Ed and I worked diligently to cover Dean’s tracks in the office. We knew we couldn’t help matters if Dean left evidence at home but we could help in the office. The office seemed like a safe place for the couple to maintain their relationship. It was where they met, where they worked and where they fell in love. I found several spurious excuses to go through his desk. I told Tom that I helped Dean with a project to audit billing statements and Dean kept some reports stored in his files. In repeated desk


visits, I tore through the files and tore through them some more to find any shred of evidence. I needed validation in my efforts and after my third excursion I found an unmarked manila folder toward the rear of a lateral file drawer. The folder contained a birthday card from Suzanne; a bundle of unsigned love letters – short vignettes regarding their times together – all accompanied by undated photos from a beach resort. Suzanne and Dean had found the means to escape for at least one week. Suzanne never told me about that. They looked so happy together in that photo. Ed attacked our quandary from a different angle. He told the IT department that Dean worked with a customer’s accounting clerk to research some unpaid invoices. Ed said he needed access to Dean’s email account to retrieve the needed information. Ed scoured Dean’s in and out boxes and thankfully found nothing incriminating. He felt relief but feigned disappointment to the IT engineer who helped him with access to the account saying to the IT guy, who stood behind him the whole time that the unpaid invoice information wasn’t there. On that dreadful Wednesday, the First United Methodist Church hosted Dean’s funeral with an overflowing crowd in attendance. The gloomy, rainy weather created a tenebrous ambiance inside the church. The attendees seemed to organize themselves by acquaintance type and placed themselves in quadrants within the pews. Family, both immediate and extended, placed themselves toward the front of the church. Friends of Dean gathered directly across the aisle with further subsets established – old high school and college buddies and hunters primarily. Behind the friends were the co-workers who, ironically, spent the most time with Dean but were treated as if they knew him the least. Both Suzanne and I fell in with this section, occupying the very last row with an easy escape route to the exit if emotions got the best of us. Ed sat directly in front of me, but three rows ahead in the “hunter” section. Other church congregants made up the last quadrant. Dean did not attend service regularly but attended enough, I assumed, that fellow church members thought they should offer their respects. All eyes focused on the widow with the exception of mine who watched Suzanne and then I watched only who Suzanne watched. The widow seemed to bask in the attention and she accepted everyone’s condolences with an unnatural eagerness. Suzanne followed her with her eyes. The widow’s effrontery offended Suzanne (and me for that matter). “Look at her,” Suzanne whispered into my ear. “She is so self-centered and cares only about herself. Dean’s dead for fuck’s sake and she pretends to grieve for the attention.” “Easy.” “Don’t worry, Laura, I’m not going to make a scene but if she truly loved him, her attention should be on the casket and not scouring the crowd like Dolly Parton signing autographs.”


“Here, give me your hand.” With that, Suzanne gripped my hand and squeezed it tight. The memorial service and burial drained both Suzanne and me. Suzanne cried throughout both ceremonies but she didn’t draw any undue attention to herself. After the burial, Ed and I caught sight of one another. Our quick but lingering gaze meant an impromptu meeting was in order and I walked toward my car with Ed several paces behind me. I removed my black overcoat and closed up my umbrella; Ed stopped to help, shook off the excess rain from the umbrella for me and wrapped it tight with its Velcro strap. “Well?” I asked. “Dean’s daughter gave me his work cell phone before the church service this morning.” “Did she question you? “No. I told them we needed to get his address book from the SIM card. It felt coldhearted but it was the best I could do. Once I know the phone is clean, I’ll send it back with a blank card,” Ed explained with obvious distaste for what he did. His eyes remained fixed at my feet as he spoke. I opened my car door and sat down to start the engine while Ed came around to the driver’s side. He closed the door for me and waited while I lowered the window. I set the car into gear and before releasing the brake pedal I said, “We need to never, ever bring this up again.” Ed nodded in agreement. I noticed Ed observe a solitary figure standing over the fresh dirt at the gravesite. A tear fell down the cheek of the big, burly man.

Brian is a Supply Chain Professional residing in La Grange, Kentucky. This is his first published story as he doesn't count one lone newspaper submission as a published work. He has a degree in Organizational Leadership from Northern Kentucky University and he is married. He recently finished the 9th draft of his first novel and hopes to have it published soon and with some luck some of his poetry may one day find its way to the public.


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Crack the Spine - Issue 58  

Literary Magazine

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