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Crack The Spine Issue Sixty-Nine June 26, 2013 Edited by Kerri Farrell Foley Collection copyright 2013 by Crack the Spine

Contents Kirby Wright Bones J. Davis On Laughter An Essay

Tim Kahl Pathos Celia Rudd Just Thoughts Luisa Caycedo-Kimura Lemons and Peppers Belle Ling The Opposite Mike Koenig An Unfortunate Truth Jason Ryberg Standing at the Intersection of Critical Mass‌

Kirby Wright Bones

Most women hate bones. They recoil biting fragments stuck in meat. “You’re carving all wrong,” my wife scolds. For women, bones flash the chain of life: birthing in fields; sucking on teats; playing till the sun sets; getting trucked to the slaughterhouse at the edge of town. Men don’t mind bones. If I hit a frag I spit it out like a bullet. Perhaps bones link us to our primal pasts, such as hunting mammoths with spears on icy plains. Back at the cave, women imagine death watching a girl drag a charred bone over the wall. They learn how to whisper.

Kirby Wright was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii. He is a graduate of Punahou School in Honolulu and the University of California at San Diego. He received his MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. Wright has been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and is a past recipient of the Honolulu Weekly Nonfiction Award, the Jodi Stutz Memorial Prize in Poetry, the Ann Fields Poetry Prize, the Academy of American Poets Award, the Robert Browning Award for Dramatic Monologue, and Arts Council Silicon Valley Fellowships in Poetry and The Novel. BEFORE THE CITY, his first poetry collection, took First Place at the 2003 San Diego Book Awards. Wright is also the author of the companion novels PUNAHOU BLUES and MOLOKA’I NUI AHINA, both set in Hawaii. He was a Visiting Fellow at the 2009 International Writers Conference in Hong Kong, where he represented the Pacific Rim region of Hawaii. He was also a Visiting Writer at the 2010 Martha’s Vineyard Residency in Edgartown, Mass., and the 2011 Artist in Residence at Milkwood International, Czech Republic. His futuristic novel THE END, MY FRIEND is forthcoming in 2013, and a book of selected poems will be published in 2014.

J. Davis On Laughter An Essay

Sometimes, I pull my head up by my teeth. With my head thrown back and laughter choking up my curved, taut throat, my muscles lose power, and my titled head feels too heavy. When oxygen finally grows more vital than glee, I do it. I curl my index and middle finger around my lower incisors and pull my head up. Laughter can do strange things to people, sometimes. I laugh the way one should, with the whole body. When every sinew isn’t shaking, stuck in subtle seizures, I am writhing about, whacking bare thighs, elbowing ribs, and clutching at clothes. It often looks like pain, or crying. Once, in Algebra II, the teacher, Mr. Post, was on the phone with the office while I laughed like that. Head buried in the crook of one damp arm while the other launched left, toward Emily Ziegler. My shoulders shook, and each snicker around me revived the salt streams like adrenaline. When the whole thing ended, I slipped to the bathroom to wipe my face and blow my nose, already forgetting what had been so funny. In moments like those, the act of laughing often eclipses the reason for it. It is not always like that, gleeful. Sometimes it’s nervous—the sharp staccato of the initial bites of sound only make a situation worst. There is etiquette laughter, a social construct that usually moves up the scale—the reason bosses don’t laugh this laugh like workers. Cruel laughter can make a best friend cry and me only laugh more, a choking harshness, as if I’m contracting hard in an I-know-better-way, but the laughter keeps clawing up through my throat. Laughter is sometimes named by the way your body releases it. A Pigeon Laugh (sometimes called a Bee Laugh) seeps through sealed lips with a fluttering hum like a pigeon’s murmuring. A Joker’s Laugh is silent. It escapes in puffs from low within the gut, quick and deep inhales and exhales—all

through a plastered, Joker-like smile. Both laughs show up in Laughter Therapy and Laughter Yoga. Norman Cousins, championed these modern nostrums in the late 70’s with his memoir, “Anatomy of an Illness. Diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, some say Cousins cured the incurable, that he stumped the doctors and reeled away, hand in hand with the Marx Brothers, a routine laugh track. In truth, the therapy pushed past comedy television and the results weren’t quite a cure, but he did laugh for anesthetics; he laughed for two-hour naps; he laughed to escape the pain.

Once, I felt like I was going to die of laughter on the white carpeted floor of my best friend’s room. I was maybe eight or nine, and I remember a moment of fear while my stomach convulsed, after I had stopped making sounds other than the shorts gasps that never drew in enough air. Even the fear couldn’t halt what was happening to my body. That is when I knew it was no longer laughter, when it was beyond both my desire and control. Laughter shows pleasure; it denotes delight. I felt none of those. I felt a sort of twisting pressure in my gut. I felt distraught, scared, sick, and yet the laughter shook me relentlessly, racked my body and forced my mind to death. That childish fear felt real in the moment. Only, perhaps it wasn’t childish. A Death Laugh is an unofficial kind of laughter. There are ancient and unproven death-laughs like the philosopher Chrysippus who died laughing after watching his donkey eat figs. One can’t help but speculate that Chrysippus must have been drunk off his own ass considering how unfunny a fig-eating donkey sounds. Alex Mitchell guffawed at a half-hour episode of “The Goodies” until it ended and he ended in a heart attack in 1975. His wife sent Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graeme Garden, and Bill Oddie, stars of the show, a Thank You letter I like that she appreciated it, her husband laughing into death. I like to imagine she is still alive, and she still tells the story at parties, inciting more laughter. I like to imagine her falling asleep at night with a tired chuckle instead of an ache, instead of lonely tears. I only know that the stories make me laugh. Perhaps that is a sick irony, to laugh at death-laughs.

I never picture myself laughing into death, even now, and I can’t settle on whether I would wish to or not. But I could see myself laughing into death. But not the real kind. Not the kind where the whole body convulses. Not the kind that that stopped Mr. Mitchell’s heart. There is another kind of laughter. It sounds the same, but it does not move the same. Like my first near-death laugh, this kind holds no pleasure. It eases out softer—in a sort of masochistic relief— missing the eyes and the gut, pulling the mouth too tight, leaving one motionless; it lives in the chest; it is hollow. Do you want to know when I laugh this laugh? When my mom told me she was going to have a mastectomy, I asked if Hooters would still hire her part-time. When I opened the bathroom door and he asked if we could just forget it, “yeah, sure thing, you think this is something new?” I laughed. When a friend told me last year he had cancer, I asked if having an organ removed helped one run faster. When I went to a therapist, she asked me if I had ever been able to deal with pain without laughing. Do you want to know the answer? I laughed.

J. Davis recently finished a Language Arts Education degree at Cedarville University. Still sequestered in the tiny Midwestern village where her university is located, she is schedule to return to the life and landscape she loves best in Denver, Colorado. With too few publications to brag, you can check out her work in Heavy Feather Review, The Boiler Journal, or S/tick magazine.

Tim Kahl Pathos

The pigeons grubbing on the lawn in the rain are startled by a gust blowing metal onto wood, the sound of this house chafing itself. The rain has been falling for three days on the moss-covered roof. The distant sirens are reminders that this is the season of power outages and flood warnings. More remote is the chance that a victim’s body has been found in an apartment. His neighbors remember his kind smile, the small talk he made at the mailboxes. Lying on the floor with his astonished mouth open, he seems to be absorbed in his own joy. But the dead don’t need to smile for anyone. Today I swatted a big housefly. I washed its corpse down the drain and hoped its vanishing act would take my fascination for the tragic with it. Afterward, in the silence, the pigeons feasting again on worms hidden in the lawn, I thought I heard the sound of a giant whisk scraping across the shakes, coming to stir this house in as the missing ingredient for some recipe of unforeseen calamity. But it was only the rain slapping the roof and drainpipe. The rain pities what it spits on. The spot on the ceiling grows larger, but there is no one in

the room with a camera to record it. The room is too white and stainless. The spot sits above our heads as we anticipate the next few days of forlorn sirens. They are coming to find us here motionless, waiting for complications, as we watch the pigeons in the rain, obeying their ruthless hunger.

Tim Kahl [] is the author of “Possessing Yourself” (CW books, 2009) and “The Century of Travel” (CW Books, 2012). His work has been published in Prairie Schooner, Indiana Review, Ninth Letter, Notre Dame Review, The Journal, Parthenon West Review, and many other journals in the U.S. He appears as Victor Schnickelfritz at the poetry and poetics blog The Great American Pinup and the poetry video blog Linebreak Studios. He is also editor of Bald Trickster Press and Clade Song. He is the vice president and events coordinator of The Sacramento Poetry Center. He currently houses his father's literary estate—(one volume: Robert Gerstmann's book of photos of Chile, 1932).

Celia Rudd Just Thoughts My thoughts are the ceiling fan. They are slow, creaking. Secondhand. Infinitely circular. I lie in this freezing room with a full bladder under one quilt trying to convince myself that I am warm and do not have to pee. I imagine the hardwood floors are unbearably cold, and I am not ready to announce that I am awake yet to the other inhabitants of the house. I want solitude. My mouth tastes like sleep— sour, dry, and contaminated by sinus drainage. I wonder if the ceiling fan is sucking the hot air up. I think about getting out of bed to turn it off, and then remember I need to pee and how I don’t want to move. The morning light peaks through the blackout curtain and I damn the name. The light still comes in. It doesn’t matter though; sleep is no longer in reach. The urge to pee is overwhelming. I think of when I was a little girl and would still wet the bed. My mother had me wearing pull ups until first grade. I used to be embarrassed about that, but now it’s just a fact about my childhood. Sometimes I feel like that was a different girl. That I only exist now, that it wasn’t me that existed then. That was the past me, I am the transplanted me. Maybe it’s because the memories are hazy, recreated by the stories told by the people who raised me. They say I used to dress up like a princess and dance around. They say it made me happy. With their stories, I could see a memory of dancing around my great-grandmother’s white-walled dining room with the loud kuku clock. The image reemerged like turning on the TV to find an old favorite movie on cable, familiar but not mine anymore. I hear footsteps on the creaking floorboards outside my room. They walk down the hall, towards my door. Don’t disturb me, I instinctively think. The door opens and my brother sticks his head in. “Did you sleep okay?” he asks. I don’t tell him I was cold. “Yes.” He complains of his hangover. I nod and act appalled and sympathetic when I am supposed to. I don’t feel appalled or sympathetic. Just cold. He goes to get in the shower and I remember how badly I need to pee. My bladder is pulsing. I get the image of a heavy, turgid water canvas that cowboys and the like used to carry in the deserted lands of the West.

I stare at the ceiling with an overwhelming urge to cry, about what I do not know. This sadness is unidentifiable. Is it even mine? Or someone else’s? I try to find where it came from, where it resides. It’s not in my bladder; there is no room there for it to hide. It’s not in my brain; the rotating planks of my thoughts would have chopped it up. It’s not in my eyes, or nose, or lips. Not my heart, or liver, or gall bladder. I breathe in and sigh out. I found it. It’s in my lungs, in the branches of my bronchioles. It must have come from the air. That ice cold air that froze me all night. I marinated in the sadness. I can’t disconnect myself from it now. I was never this sad as a child. I actually felt happiness. Nothing is simple anymore and the happiness is harder to feel. Ignorance is bliss. Innocence is bliss. Childhood is bliss. There is a loud noise and the sound of water running through pipes in the wall stops. His shower didn’t last all of five minutes. My numb toes and fingers itch for that warm water. My bladder pulses for relief. I urge myself to stand, turn off the ceiling fan, and walk into the bathroom. The room is wet like it has been sweating. Beads of water have collected on the floor, walls, mirror, and the small rectangular window. There is a dim, blue light that seems to emanate off of every object in the room. I use the toilet and wash my hands. The “warm” water is cold. I shiver. It starts as a reflexive twitch in my left shoulder and vibrates down my spine. I look into the mirror and see the mask of my face. Nothing is written there. Inside, there is everything. My eyes say nothing, but I look into them and know they know what is inside. I can see the understanding there, but it is only for me to see. I turn on the shower and the rush of water attacks the plastic tub with a violent sound. It warms while I stand naked on the wet shag rug. Behind the curtain, I wash my hair and body. The ba-ba of the tunnels of water is all I hear. I can’t even hear myself anymore. No thoughts but ba-ba. It echoes in my mind. Louder. Softer. Lengthened. Shortened. I turn of the shower and reach for a towel. The ba-ba continues. BA-BAAA. Ba-ba. BAAAAABAAAA. It contorts inside me. I hate the sound. I scream internally for it to stop. It goes on. Ba-ba. Ba-ba. BAAAAA-baaaaa. I want to think anything but this sound. I see myself in the mirror. I see there is nothing. Out loud I whisper, “ba-ba.” The sound stops. My thoughts are under my control again. I use a hot pink towel to dry myself. My mother bought it at the beach some years ago, that’s why it has a giant laughing toucan on it. It watches me with its one fat, black eye. I wrap myself with the towel, turning it to make sure the toucan is not visible. On the dinky plastic shelves behind the mirror, I find the radioactive-orange medicine bottle with my name on it. “Take once a day every morning by mouth,” it reads. The small, round pill lies upon my

palm. Its chalky whiteness is discomforting. The color of hospital walls, as if purposely reiterating the pill’s purpose. Put the pill on your tongue. You need it. It makes you tired and nauseous but at least you can breathe without the threat of that misplaced sadness. Words do not multiply without your control. Irrelevant numbers do not matter. You can take seventeen steps instead of the crucial even eighteen. Swallow the pill. Let it disintegrate and enter your blood stream. Allow it to curb your irrational behavior. It will silence the inane thoughts. Those stupid thoughts that plague you like a disease: a sickness that cannot be dissected like a malignant tumor or cut off like a rotting leg. But after the pill, they are just thoughts and you are just another girl: just another human with human thoughts. I leave the bathroom and walk down the hall to the 1970s style kitchen. My dad always talks about remodeling it, but nothing ever changes. The faux-wood paneling stares at me from all angles. The checkered blue linoleum floor cracks under my bare feet. I am cold again, in only this towel. I take a plastic bowl down, pour in my typical whole-grain cereal. The refrigerator houses an empty gallon of milk. I sigh, resigned to eating the cereal dry. “Morning darlin’,” my mother croons to me as she enters the kitchen. She is dressed up in a mint sweater set that reminds me of cold sherbet. “You want some tea? I’m making some for your brother and me.” She chuckles though I don’t know what’s humorous. My therapist says these feelings are normally genetic, passed down from parent to child. My mother blames my father. “Oh, I have a meeting at the church, then a lunch with Sherrie. Her daughter just got engaged! Can you believe it? Little Allie gettin’ married,” she rambles on as she gets the tea kettle, pours in the water, prepares the bags. “An August wedding they say. Bless her heart, I hope Allie has better luck than her mother with men. Poor Sherrie. That last husband cheated on her with his tennis pro! Just too cliché for real life.” I place each piece of cereal individually onto my tongue. Roll it around, mash it up until it’s a paste, then swallow. “Hun, while your hangin’ about, why don’t ya get some cups down.” It wasn’t a question. I set my bowl down. “And Virginia told me that Bill and Mary Ann are on the outs again. Marriage just isn’t the same anymore. People don’t put enough thought into it. Everybody’s just, ‘I like this person now.’ Not, ‘I want to spend every day making all the important life decisions with this person for the rest of my life.’ Oh, my.” She chitters on and each word is like an ice pick to my senses. I place three teacups on the white linoleum counter next to the stove and walk back to my bowl of dry cereal. Eating one piece at a time. Making the whole-grain paste. Swallowing the tasteless mush.

The tea kettle whistles. “Baby, here’s your cup.” I take it from her well-manicured and moisturized hand. I don’t meet her eyes and this seems to bother her. Her long fingers wrap around my jaw, those acrylic nails digging into the flesh of my cheeks. She pulls my face up. I bury the urge to flinch at her touch. “You took your pill, didn’t you? You can’t go on and off. The doctor told you that is very unhealthy. Could leave you unstable. You took it, didn’t you?” I stare into her wide, urgent eyes. They are suspicious of me. They look at me like I am some alien object. I find no understanding in their depths. “Yes.” She squeezes harder and I can feel my skin being pushed under her nails. “Your doctor has you on that medication ‘cause you need it. I can tell when you’re off. Everyone can.” It’s an accusation. “I took my pill.” Her face twists into a smile. It’s practiced. A distant friendliness. Perfunctory. “Good. You know how people talk in this town.” She slaps her hands together, as if cleansing herself from our contact. She walks out of the kitchen and her pumps clack down the hall. I’m cold, and the tea is only warming my hands. I don’t take a sip, just poor it down the sink. I’ve never liked tea. I go back to my room to get dressed in something warm.

Celia Rudd is an eighteen-year-old aspiring writer who would rather read William Faulkner, Kazuo Ishiguro, or George R. R. Martin than the latest “Teen Read.” She will attend the University of Alabama in the fall as a freshman. Currently, she is majoring in English with hopes to explore avenues in either speechwriting or screenwriting. She won a Gold Key Award for her writing in the Southeastern Region of the 2013 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. “Just Thoughts” was inspired by Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying. It must be noted her mother is nothing like the one portrayed in this work of fiction.

Luisa Caycedo-Kimura Lemons and Peppers

Lemons are yellow and round today. Not oval like the rants that screw our minds to surface in jealous rages. In Colombia all were limones—yellow or green. I tell my mother “amarillo,” Hold a lemon to her nose. “I changed your diaper,” she reminds me. I sing until she falls asleep. When Mom could walk, my husband asked, Señora, how do you say peppers in Spanish? “Peppers!” she said. The accent of a woman in two countries. The hottest peppers are female, more vibrant than hibiscus pink, or purple orchids. The surrounding ferns are green. “Peppers?” he asks today. The nursing home’s age dust or the mistaken lime of disinfectants makes Mom sneeze. Her hands twist on her lap—vines past season.

He places then withdraws his hand from hers, like a teenager in a movie theater. With lips folded inward she stares at her plate.

Louisa Caycedo-Kimura is an MFA candidate, a Teaching Fellow, and a recipient of the Robert Pinsky Global Fellowship in Poetry at Boston University. She was born in Colombia and grew up in New York City. A former attorney, she left the legal profession to pursue her passion for writing. Luisa has received awards for her poetry and was nominated for the 2012 Pushcart Prize. Her poems appear in various publications, including Connecticut Review, Louisiana Literature, PALABRA, San Pedro River Review, Ellipsis...Literature and Art, and Sunken Garden Poetry 1992-2011. Her poems have also been included in the writing curricula at colleges and universities.

Belle Ling The Opposite Train stays. Rain stops. I see the opposite face. I say hello, making any expressible gestures as possible, no matter how inexpressive they actually are (to you). I am here. Here. You always asked me if our faces looked alike. You asked me if we would be together for a life time like patience. Once, you argued with me that the bean curds had to be sizzled for thirty seconds before they could be turned on a hot fried pan. I could not wait. Hey, Wait, you said. Waiting, waiting for you to turn, here, to me. Here, you won’t, though you want to. Train doesn’t stay. I see rain take over the faces in the opposite train. Yours is unusually rounded in faith. Belle Ling is a university graduate from the University of Hong Kong. She has completed a Master of Creative Writing in the University of Sydney. She has a special interest in writing poetry. Her favourite novelist is Haruki Murakami, and her beloved poems are those which can capture insightful images with in-depth philosophical meanings.

Mike Koenig An Unfortunate Truth It was a relationship of convenience. What made it work was that neither Frank nor Sarah had delusions that they actually liked each other. At least they didn’t like each other in any substantial or long-lasting way. They didn’t vacation together or spend holidays together or meet each other’s parents. Frank didn’t feel the need to dress nicely or clean the apartment or wash the dishes before she came over. After two years the relationship developed into a Wednesday/Saturday pattern. On Wednesdays Sarah fixed a vegetarian dinner for Frank; on Saturdays they watched DVDs of TV shows at Frank’s house. They had recently caught up on Mad Men and were now working their way through season three of The Wire. After dinner on Wednesdays they would move to the living room, occasionally talking as Frank played poker on his laptop and Sarah graded papers. She worked with exceptional children. In Frank’s youth exceptional children were called special or different and before that retarded. Exceptional was the newest in a long list of PC terms that Frank’s banker brain couldn’t grasp. The denotation of the word was correct (they were exceptions), but the connotation was all wrong. Frank thought exceptional should mean enviable. An exceptional stock performed better, not worse, than average stocks and exceptional employees needed less supervision. Sarah’s use had the long-term effect of killing the meaning of the word– the way special had already been forever ruined. Even at forty-two Frank still paused if someone said he was special and replayed the exact phrasing in his head in search of sarcasm. Frank never mentioned any of this to Sarah. It wasn’t worth the argument, especially since he knew she loved her use of the word exceptional as much as he despised it. In truth, Frank rarely thought about Sarah when she wasn’t around. Sometimes they’d talk on the phone or email each other. But these were usually just to clarify plans that were set in stone. You coming over at six? Yes. Okay, see you then. Even on slow days when Frank’s mind drifted towards sex, it wasn’t Sarah he thought about. It would be Kelly or one of the girls he had dated in his twenties when one-night stands didn’t seem like a bad idea and barflies made for great company. Frank couldn’t exactly remember when this had changed. But somewhere along the way 2AM felt really late, and the barflies only remembered the 80s through VH1 retrospectives. And though no one ever called him old, the mirror didn’t lie. He had loose skin on the sides of his chin and white hair sprinkled on his head. He

felt ridiculous talking to younger girls who weren’t even in high school when he got his MBA. But more than anything else Frank had lost the desire to go out, which was one of the reasons Sarah was such a good girlfriend— they were both homebodies. Sex with Sarah was fine. He wouldn’t use the word exceptional or even special to describe it, but neither would she. In fact, he wouldn’t even suggest a change in the pattern (missionary style only) because he didn’t think she’d be any better in a different position. His only real complaint was that she was silent during sex. Completely silent. Not even a good-faith Yes or right there. In fact, the only way he could get a noise from her was to suck on her earlobes, which Frank did despite finding it gross. She’d let out pigeon-like coos, not terribly sexy, but better than silence. And noise, any noise, helped Frank finish. After sex she’d immediately dress, not just in her bra and panties but her whole sleep outfit, which consisted of sweat pants and a Florida State T-shirt. So while they had sex every time they saw each other, it had become more mechanical than anything else. Frank didn’t even feel the need to stay the night on Wednesdays, which made her declaration on a Saturday in late June even stranger. It was about a half hour after they finished, and Sarah was fully dressed and lying with her back to Frank. They never spooned or cuddled or even faced each other in bed. Frank had trouble sleeping with someone in the room and usually needed an hour after she fell asleep to fall asleep himself. He had considered asking her not to stay anymore, but that seemed too mean for a two-year relationship, so instead he suffered in silence and was rewarded with three special words: I love you. *** They hadn’t kissed until their third date, a record for Frank who believed the only way a woman knew you were interested in her was to kiss her. In his twenties, this had led to some embarrassing dodges at the end of first dates that weren’t actually dates. But it was better to have one awkward nonkiss than several awkward does she like me dates. He’d met Sarah at a wedding; one of Frank’s employees from the bank had married Sarah’s younger cousin. They were the only singles over thirty and spent most of the night less than an arm’s length apart. Their first date was for coffee two days later. Frank was at the shop when Sarah entered. He didn’t immediately recognize her. In the daylight, her face was unnaturally pale and thin. She looked half-starved, and Frank couldn’t believe he had talked to her for so long at the wedding without noticing this flaw. Her body, not just thin but bony, lacked any curves, and her hair was an uncombed nest of curls. When she sat at Frank’s table, he kept blinking his eyes trying to remember who this girl was and

what made her appealing at the wedding. The more they talked the more sure Frank was that he had made a mistake. She went on about vegetarianism and hybrid cars and the plight of dogs in shelters. Not one thing she said interested Frank, who assumed the good time he had at the wedding was from the booze and not the company. It was another two weeks before they went out again, a mutual friend’s Christmas party. This time Sarah was silent on her personal causes and they talked, rather effortlessly, about television shows. Sarah was a huge fan of 24 and discussed all its implications and criticism of the war on terrorism. Again Frank found himself by her side for the whole evening and felt that he could learn to like Sarah if he kept her on topic. By the third date, a simple trip to the movies, the kiss was a conversation piece as if Frank and Sarah were characters in a Woody Allen movie, well aware of how the night would end. As they drove home Sarah said, “Johnny Depp uses too much tongue,” adding, “don’t do that.” Frank shot back that she should “channel her inner Angelina Jolie.” This light back and forth gave the prospect of a goodnight kiss more excitement than Frank had felt since middle school, where reputations were made and ruined by the first meeting of lips. When they got to her apartment, Frank walked Sarah to her door, confident that the Johnny Depp comment was a clear sign that he would be rounding third base that night. Sarah put her key in the door and turned to Frank. There was a pause as Frank waited to be invited in, and Sarah waited for her kiss. Frank brushed the bangs from her eyes, a signal for both heads to move closer. Her mouth, being led by the tongue, was the exact opposite of what Frank expected. As it entered his mouth it slugged back and forth along his gums as if in avoidance of his own tongue. Until that moment Frank didn’t realize that a kiss, even a bad kiss, could actually be unpleasant, and he pulled away from the embrace. Sarah was smiling, a schoolgirl smile. “Well, good night,” she said, going into the apartment. And Frank, most unsatisfied, returned to his car. It would be another four dates before Frank was invited into the apartment and some ten before they actually slept together. Because the dates lacked a promise of sex, weeks often passed between them. On more than one occasion, the lack of communication convinced Frank that he wouldn’t see Sarah again, but she always reappeared with an invitation to dinner or a movie. And slowly things got better. In a high school manner she increased their routine: he was allowed to touch her breasts over the shirt, then under; he could rub her thigh, then dry hump her; then on the next date he actually touched the vagina. Not that any of this was done in a linear manner. If they didn’t see each other for a

few weeks Frank moved back a stage. She never explicitly said what he was allowed or not allowed to do; she just moved Frank’s hand when it went too far and Frank lived within the newly defined limits. And for a while that was their routine, dinner every so often that ended like a date for high school virgins. Sarah was neither a person he would seek with enthusiasm or dismiss with indifference. She was what he described to some of his friends as the very limit of date-ability, just pretty enough, just funny enough, just interesting enough, just smart enough to see again. If anything changed about her in any small way he might not be willing to date her. But she remained constantly tolerable, and in a world where women were increasingly uninterested in Frank, who in his own way was a five on a ten-point scale, tolerable, dateable was a good thing. *** Frank didn’t consider them a couple until that March, specifically when they went to the vernal equinox concert hosted by the City College Art Society. Frank still considered effort a prerequisite for sex and was willing to go despite having no interest. The concert was in a small park with a fifty foot stage surrounded by seventy folding chairs arranged in rows of five or ten. Frank and Sarah arrived promptly at eight, to find a group of teenagers, perhaps not even in college, performing odd tricks in the area between the stage and the chairs. Some were juggling tennis balls and others twirling glow sticks. A few girls used LED-lighted hula hoops to give a quasi belly-dance performance and to the left of the stage a woman was painting faces in tribal or (as Frank thought) Mike Tyson-like designs. The performance was something between impressive and professional but lacked any sense of cohesion. Instead of being a performance it looked like a practice session, and after ten minutes Frank was looking at his watch. The band, Peace for Guns, whom Sarah had “heard good things about,” didn’t come on until ten, which gave the couple ample chance to view the art gallery in a tent about a hundred yards from the stage. The collection, like the jugglers and hula hoopers, only vaguely seemed purposeful to Frank, though he did enjoy watching Sarah point out the pieces she liked and explain their beauty to him. By the time the band played, a group had gathered around the stage. Frank noticed that his was the only shirt with a collar, but was happy his date hadn’t opted for face paint or worn feathers in her hair, as many of the other women had. It was a vocal-less band comprised of instruments Frank couldn’t identify outside of the conga drums, a strange mix of stringed pieces of wood and homemade ceramic pipes, many of which had a hollow sound. The band played more of a jam session than actual songs and didn’t sound professional to Frank. But he stood behind Sarah with his arms around her waist and

slowly swayed to the music. When she looked up at him he had a gentle, content smile, which against the music background surprised even Frank. “Did you like the show?” Sarah asked as he pulled into her apartment’s parking lot. Frank’s hesitation answered the question. “I figured,” she said, adding, “thanks for being a good sport.” “It wasn’t terrible. It’s just not my thing,” Frank offered as he parked the car. “I like you,” Sarah said, “but we don’t need to do everything together.” Sarah then leaned over the middle console to kiss Frank. The kiss was not the best Frank had ever had, but was much improved from her first efforts. And while she did not invite Frank in that night (she had to get up early for some school event the next day), she also didn’t seem to mind that Frank didn’t offer to walk her to the door. As Frank drove home, he thought about the words do everything together. The comment seemed almost a promise of casualness. Frank could have the girl without the work. *** Sarah’s I love you was only a whisper, barely loud enough to be heard over the fan at the foot of Frank’s bed. It was more a thought than a statement, something that came from the comfort of lying next to a man and feeling safe, content. Until that moment Sarah hadn’t done anything that suggested love. She didn’t even use the word boyfriend when introducing Frank on the rare times they actually went out and ran into someone she knew. She didn’t hold his hand or hug him goodbye, or even offer to come with him to his aunt’s funeral only a month before. Now, three words were redefining what they were, and Frank’s silence, as five, ten, fifteen minutes passed, was redefining it still. He had frozen with the words, lying completely stiff, so stiff in fact that no one, especially Sarah, who had spent the night countless times, would mistake it for sleep. The minutes collected into an hour. Sixty minutes of silence. Sarah was also too still to be asleep. And so both parties knew that the other was awake and both knew the other knew they were awake and still neither would speak, or move, or acknowledge the awkwardness they both felt. Making things worse was an understanding that Sarah’s comment, while shocking, was also truthful. She did in fact love Frank, even though she couldn’t say what she loved or why she loved it. If she hadn’t said it, Frank might not have known it, Sarah herself might not have known it, but truth, even when as unfortunate as this, has a certain recognizable sound. And once a truth is brought into the world it never goes away. “Are you awake?” Sarah finally asked when the silence of the room had become too much. “Yeah,” Frank said.

Sarah rolled over to face him. “Can we forget what I said? I didn’t really mean it.” “Okay,” Frank responded. “Seriously, it was just,” Sarah stopped for second, then said, “I didn’t mean it.” Frank smiled, “It’s forgotten.” Sarah rolled back over and though there was still some tension in the room, it was not nearly as bad, and the two were able to sleep. *** The next day, Frank got up with the first buzz of the alarm clock. Without looking at Sarah he moved to the bathroom and immediately turned on the shower faucet. As the water hit his face Frank thought about his old girlfriends. Kelly in particular had given out blow jobs like party favors, something that seemed all the more wonderful now because Sarah didn’t do it at all. But Kelly also showed up unannounced at Frank’s office for surprise lunches. And she talked nonsense about politics, changing her mind if Frank disagreed with her. Towards the end he had to close his eyes when having sex with Kelly and imagine she was Natalie Portman, Keira Knightley, or some random woman from an adult website. When he opened his eyes and saw Kelly’s olive skin and dark sweat-stained hair, he felt like he was cheating. Though he sometimes did the same thing with Sarah, he didn’t feel bad about it. Sarah was just as likely to be imagining Frank as some celebrity, Johnny Depp, maybe, or George Clooney. This made Frank’s imaginings fair. Dating for Frank was foremost about equality of feelings. Ideally both people loved each other, but a close second was both people being okay with each other. Kelly was too willing to please Frank; she cared too much. Sarah, who wouldn’t change her opinion on politics, or her use of the word exceptional, or offer a birthday blow job, was Frank’s relationship equal. She was a silver medal, perfectly acceptable, if not exactly what you wanted. As Frank washed his hair he remembered his breakup text message to Kelly, “I don’t think we should see each other anymore.” They had only dated for a few months, so it didn’t seem cruel. In fact, Frank thought he’d prefer to get dumped via text than have to look at the woman doing it. But the real issue wasn’t the method; it was the aftermath. After breaking up with Kelly, it was six months of not dating, not having sex, not getting blow jobs. And some three years until he met Sarah and got them on a regular basis (at least dates and sex.) And now being that much older, it seemed like it would be that much harder to find a replacement. Frank knew the honest thing to do was to break up with Sarah; it wasn’t right to stay with someone you didn’t love and never would. But he also knew the best thing for him was to ignore the I love you and go back to the comfortable routine.

When Frank reentered the bedroom, Sarah was fully dressed in her day clothes and sitting on the edge of the bed. Her purse was over her shoulder and the light from the window pronounced the paleness of her face. She looked serious, like she had been rehearsing what she was about to say. “So, I’ll see you on Wednesday?” Sarah said. Frank nodded. “Maybe I’ll make that lasagna dish you like.” “Okay, sounds good.” “I can make something else.” “Lasagna’s fine.” There were a few beats of silence before Sarah got up. As she moved toward the door, the two had a small awkward dance trying to decide if they should hug or not. It ended with Sarah punching Frank’s arm in a way-to-go-kiddo manner, then lowering her head as she fast-pedaled to the front door. Frank sat on his bed for a minute, and replayed the punch on his arm. He took the phone from his nightstand and typed a message to Sarah: “I have a thing on Wednesday. Maybe next week.” He put the phone back on the nightstand and dried his hair. He then hung the towel on the closet door, and went up and down the row of clean shirts taking great care in choosing the right outfit. It was an effort he hadn’t made in a long time, one that felt overdue.

A Maryland native, Mike Koenig writes screenplays, teleplays, and fiction. He received his MFA in Creative Writing & Publishing Arts from the University of Baltimore and currently works at Discovery Communications. In 2013 his fiction can be seen in Phoebe.

Jason Ryberg Standing at the Intersection of Critical Mass and Event Horizon with Tom Wayne and John Deuser, 5:47 AM (Or, Hey Man, Is That an Accordion I’m Hearing?) A million fish wash up dead in a California harbor. 10, 000 cows keel over in Vietnam. Thousands of Starlings, Turtle Doves and Red Wing Blackbirds drop from the sky in Italy, Sweden, South Dakota. But elsewheres (and despite it all), we’ve still managed to put in another long (and more than respectable) night of consorting with spirits and keeping the Universal Kundalini humming at that slightly heightened pitch (of radians per reciprocal seconds) which has been rumored to induce an “informed euphoria” of sorts. And now the early morning streets (here in mid-town KC/MO, 5:47 AM)

are strangely Frisco/Portland-foggy and deserted like one of those old-school/bad dream/ where-did-everybody-go sci/fi movies from our paranoid, cold-war era past. Or so it would seem if not for the all-night diner with its purple neon OPEN sign in the window and the street light on the corner; a peach-tinted glow hovering above us like a stationary UFO whose (only mildly bemused) occupants are, no-doubt, wondering if these three zombified monkey-boys and their fucked up little planet are even worth the effort. And from somewhere deep inside the fog, a strangely musical wheezing...

Jason Ryberg is the author of seven books of poetry, six screenplays, a few short stories, a box of loose papers that could one day be (loosely) construed as a novel and a couple of angry letters to various magazine and newspaper editors. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri with a rooster named Little Red and a billy goat named Giuseppe. His latest collection of poems is “Down, Down And Away� (co-authored with Joshua Rizer and released by Spartan Press, 2012). Feel free to look up his skirt at

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Crack the Spine - Issue 69