Crack the Spine
Crack the Spine Issue Seventy-Four July 31, 2013 Edited by Kerri Farrell Foley Collection copyright 2013 by Crack the Spine
Contents Brianne M. Kohl Burn Baby, Burn Kate McNew Unspoken Apology to a Mother Alan Catlin Kegs and Eggs Les Zigomanis Day of Futures Kristin LaFollette Hard Candy Domenic Scopa Sun Cross Allyson Whipple Mitzvah Edward J.Rielly Reimaging
Cover Art “Love’s Lesser Lightening” by D.S. West D.S. West's writing has appeared previously in Crack the Spine and, under different and less memorable names, in From the Depths Online and the Deep Cuts: Mayhem, Menace, & Misery horror anthology. West's work relies on the aleatory nature of creative act, and is largely motivated by the inherent glee of getting to write statements like "the aleatory nature of the creative act." West's corporeal body currently resides in Longmont, Colorado.
Brianne M. Kohl Burn Baby, Burn Amber wasn't allowed to play in the Issa Eight house. It was a forbidden white Queen Anne elephant, tall with thin, brittle bones. Its snout shot long in the air, a turret jutting out from a black roof line. The porch was covered in spindles, paint rubbed raw to gray like sharp broken teeth. She wasn't allowed to play there but if she stood, toes touching the base board of that first step to the porch, no one could say she was really being bad. And, if she turned her head a certain way, cocked it a little, just a little, so the wind caught her ear, she could just barely hear it. The percussion of a woman's heel on a clean hardwood floor. A man's braying laughter. No, she wasn't allowed to play inside the Eight House. But, really, it isn't playing, visiting your dead. The town talked, chittering voices like squirrels safe up high on the branch, telling stories of the night the Issa House, that old ridiculous seat at 8 Birdsong Lane, burned itself out. The Issas had always held the castle. It sat up high on the hill, over looking the town but like her Aunt Val said, no one likes to be looked down on. Those same people always forgot, or thought not to mention, that more than the Issa's died that night. The town began to slough off layers of skin. Ash from the fire drifted down the hill and settled over the town. The mill closed down. Then, the little strip mall on the Boulevard went vacant. By the time the second-run movie theater had shuttered its doors, people had begun to sneer at what the castle had become. Amber's older cousin, Kayla, would lie and say she remembered all the happenings inside the Eight House just because she was four years older than Amber. But, they were just babies when the fire spread through - Amber had just turned two the night before. They both could have been burned up, turned to ash and dust like the walls on the inside. Somehow, Val got them out before the fire picked the staircase clean. No one else made it out of the Eight alive. After the fire, Val took the insurance money, what little was left after the burials and doctor's visits and bought one of those modular houses. It had a foundation; it wasn't just some trailer. They were never trailer trash. How can you be when the sun still glints across the sooty windows of the Eight House? The little house was just a make-do place, set up in the long shadow of the Eight. But, that's what the Issas' did, they made do. And, they always held the castle.
"Darling," Val said to Amber, her hand cupped around a Virginia Slim as she lit the tip. "Darling, put that animal down. It doesn't want you." She stretched the words out, like syrup dripping through a sieve. The tabby cat wiggled and squirmed in Amber's arms and she held tight, tighter, until she could feel little rib bones moving and shifting inside the cat's body. She rubbed her leathery cheek against soft, dirty fur. "Darling, that's Kayla's cat. Leave her be." Amber timed her breathing, inhaling as Val exhaled. She pulled that acrid pang of exhaust into her own lungs. She imagined it was Val's soul leaving her body, entering her own. She let the cat go, soft paws jumped over Amber's shoulder and landed, streaked across the lanai and through a hole in the bushes. "You love too hard," Val said to her, shaking her head. "You hold too tight." Val went back inside, letting the screen door slap closed. Amber heard her yell out to Kayla, telling her to turn her God damn music down. Amber left the lanai, left the looming shadow of the Eight and into the bright sunlight. She watched Val's chickens for a while as they ate ticks out of the yard. It looked like someone had thrown a handful of river rocks out in the grass, all white and tan and brown. She picked up a piece of gravel from the driveway, tossed it at the cluster of hens. They squawked away from her in a flurry of loose feathers. Looking up at the Eight, it was almost possible to believe it was whole and safe. That it wasn't a shallow husk, a dead hollow seed left fallow in the field. That it was a home. Amber walked over and stood at that first step, watching bugs crawl up and over the rotting wood. She liked to watch the ants build and rebuild their homes after a barefooted giant had come in, demolished everything. Those ants start, grain by grain to rebuild. She couldn't see the trail of scent they left behind, etched into the dirt so others would know to follow, but she knew something was driving them to one another. The smell of wet soot and ash swept out of the broken front door of the Eight and she thought about the ants, going home, rebuilding. She stepped up once, smashing the ants in place with her dirty bare feet. She stepped up again, wooden planks groaning. Somewhere inside, a trail of wet soot and ash had the power to take Amber to her family. She believed it. "What are you doing?" Kayla asked from behind. She wore one of Val's old skimpy string bikinis, stars and stripes, and cat-eye sunglasses. In her arms, she carried a green beach towel, a bottle of baby oil and a tall icy glass bottle of Pepsi. The bathing suit bagged at the butt where the elastic had started to give out. Kayla's breasts were just beginning to sprout into little buds beneath the flagged stars of her top.
"Nothing," Amber said and dropped down off the stairs. She rubbed a hand against the pink cotton shirt at her belly and looked around to be sure Val wasn't behind Kayla anywhere. "You know you aren't allowed in there," Kayla said and carried her towel over into the grass. Amber sat down on the bottom step and began to scoot her butt up and backwards, crab-walking up each step like a dare. Not the boss of me, she thought. Kayla laid her towel out in the sunlight, laid herself down. She began to slather the baby oil on her smooth tan legs. Amber cocked her head, tried to hear the ghosts of the Eight as they caught on the wind. Sometimes they liked when she sang to them so she crooned and stood to dance on the porch like one of Val's mangy brown chickens. The rotting porch was a stage; the town below, a theatre in the round. And behind her, in the wings, she could feel her parents waiting, waiting for her to join them in the crossover. "Burn Baby, Burn Baby," Amber sing-sang it under her breath, trying to coax the spirits out. "What is wrong with you?" Kayla asked, bolting up straight, her back rigid. "Why are you singing that?" Amber shrugged. She'd heard the other kids singing it in town and it had gotten stuck in her head, an endless loop of repeating verse. She smiled at the way the words fit in her mouth, like a piece of chewy fat on a pork chop bone. It was her favorite when they'd yell, "Burn Baby, Burn Baby, BURN!" Such a hopeful cheer at the end, like pom poms waving or parade candy being thrown out to the curb. Everything burns. "You idiot," Kayla said. "They are singing about you." Amber shrugged again and sang it louder. She could hear movement inside the Eight House and stamped hard on the wooden planks of the porch, bent her knees and stomped again. She twirled around and around like the little pink ballerina on the wind up jewelry box Val had given to her on her eighth birthday. With each passing loop, she began to see the blur of faces, such beautiful glowing faces, staring out from the huge bay window overlooking the porch of the Eight. The wind began to push against her, urging her on, telling her to go, go, spin. "Stop it!" Kayla screamed and threw one of her flip flops at Amber. "God!" she flopped back down and covered her eyes with her oily arm. Amber stopped spinning and the wind died down, the faces of her dead withdrew back into the darkness of the house. Amber ran a finger over her own arm, puckered with scars, red and white, mottled bright like the stars on Kayla's swimsuit. The burn ran up her left arm, over her shoulder and neck, across her chin and cheek. The skin never stopped feeling tight, stretched thin and wrinkled.
"Burn Baby, Burn Baby," Amber whispered, looking right at the entrance of the Eight. Right at the singed Mahogany front door and busted out transom windows. Keep out signs were bolted to the door frame. The front porch was dropped low from a crack in the foundation, that drooping elephant face shifted forward and falling, teeth biting out into the dirt in desperation. Kayla sighed. "Look, come over here, will you?" Amber turned, jumped down off the porch and walked over to where Kayla lay in the yard. Amber dropped down beside her and Kayla eased away, back onto her elbows. Kayla had her hair up in a long brown pony tail, tied high like a thick mane. Val said Amber's hair was dirty dishwater blond. So thin, and thinning, like silver tinsel on a Christmas tree. Every morning Val would fight and scrape Amber's hair back with a rat tailed comb until Amber would cry out. "Those kids," Kayla began but stopped. Amber sat and waited, watched as a bird carried mud up to the aluminum spouting on the Eight. "Those kids aren't being nice to you." Amber caught her tongue in her teeth and picked at the long blades of grass. Kayla continued. "They hit you. Even like that, with words or whatever. They hit you but you don't got to stay hit." Amber looked up. "What do you mean?" she asked Kayla but the words were already tumbling around in Amber's head. "Don't stay hit." It was a new song in her head. "Well, it means, if someone hits you, you got to hit them back. Or they won't never stop hitting you." Kayla picked up her bottle of Pepsi and the cold sweat around the base of the bottle dropped on her chest. She wiped it away, oil and water, and took a deep drink. As she gulped it down, Amber could hear little tiny bubbles popping in Kayla's throat. Kayla took a breath to clear the bubbles before continuing, "And with your face, someone's always gonna want to be hitting it." That night, after Val had chased Amber into bed, yelling for her to brush her teeth, Amber heard the front door of the Little House creak open and smack closed. The walls of the Little House were thin like sheets of tissue paper. If she pressed a hand against her bedroom wall, she could imagine it tearing through to the other side. She crept from bed and peered out into the dark hallway, heard Val giggling behind the closed door of her bedroom. From within, the timbre of a man's voice registered. "Come back, baby," he said. "Come on back over here. I got something here for you." "I already seen that," Val said but Amber heard the bed springs squeak as someone lowered down onto the bed. Amber eased out into the hall and walked barefoot into the kitchen. She was so quiet, mousestepping to the refrigerator and pulled out the heavy jug of milk. She watched the hallway, listening for movement, as she gulped a glass of milk down. Val never let her have anything to drink after ten
because of the accidents. Most of the time, Amber was able to hide her sheets but her bedroom had begun to smell like old pee. She had covered the wet with a towel but the mattress was yellowing to brown. The smell had begun to rot out into the hallway. So, she knew for sure, Val would slap her hand with the old green fly swatter if she caught her sneaking drinks. Amber refilled her glass of milk and began again to drink. Her belly was full but she couldn't stop until the glass was empty. Maybe this time, if Val slapped her, she wouldn't have to stay hit. Maybe this time, Val would feel the grate of the fly swatter against her own skin. Amber smiled into her shadow, cast out by the light of the open refrigerator. She set her glass into the sink, full already with dirty dishes and crusted bits of food, and climbed her way onto the counter top. She reached up to the top of the refrigerator and fumbled around until she found the dingy fly swatter. She whooshed it around in the air, a streak of green and white. She froze when she saw the fire. From the window above the sink, she could see the flames shooting out high and smoke billowing out in black curls as it belched from the upstairs windows of the Eight House. She crawled over dirty dishes and pressed her face against the cool glass of the window. Embers rained down like a brilliant red snow storm, swirling and inviting. She ran to the back door and out onto the patio. The cement floor felt hot beneath her feet but when she looked up at the Eight, all she saw was darkness. The fly swatter still in hand, she stepped out into the night. A barn owl called out, a deep hooting whoop before it screeched out a warning. It was a terrible sound, full throat and high pitched. The owl flew overhead and landed on the roof of the Eight. It's head swung all the way around, white feathers illuminated by silver moonlight. Amber walked up to the porch, taking each step in slow, careful movements. From deep within the Eight, something began to call. "Burn Baby, Burn Baby," it sang out, a melody pulled from the ash. She wasn't allowed to play in the Issa Eight House, she knew that. But, as as stepped across the threshold and the fire lit up behind her, casting sparks of cinders out onto the porch like fireflies, she smiled. It isn't playing, is it? Needing the dead?
Brianne M. Kohl is a graduate of Kent State University with a B.A. in Anthropology and a Creative Writing minor. So, naturally, she became a technical writer who dreams of slipping haiku between lines of code in syntax diagrams. She has been published in Black Heart Magazine and in â€˜In the Hardship and the Hoping: Poems of Northeast Ohioâ€™ by JB Solomon Editions.
Kate McNew Unspoken Apology to a Mother On the sidewalk, he held the egg, plucked carefully from dead leaves and twisted vines. She turned her head, braced for the splatter of shell, of life upon pavement and watched him sigh as the yellow oozed from shattered membrane. â€œNo snake,â€? he whispered and they agreed that this sacrifice had been necessary. As they walked inside leaving behind the spreading stain of stillness, she tried to swallow the lump in her throat and the heartache of a mother who will return to her broken nest of unborn babies and search wildly for what she will not find.
Kate McNew is a writer and creative writing teacher at the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts in Hagerstown, MD where she also resides. She received her B.A from Duquesne University in English and Communications and her M.A in Writing with a Poetry concentration from Johns Hopkins University. She spends her free time reading, creating, and traveling whenever possible. Previous publications include anderbo.com, Outside In Literary and Travel Magazine, and 20 Something Magazine.
Alan Catlin Kegs and Eggs
There was no official reading of The Commence to Riot Act, just a spontaneous gathering of hundreds of greet-the-dawn on the last day of a four day binge of speed, weed and beer that escalated into trashing parked cars along student ghetto row along Quail, Jay, Hudson and Ontario Streets; blocks long and hundreds strong, no one daunted by last call in bar nearby, highs boosted with fresh snorts and kiddies little helpers. A playful push, a car alarm set off then a kicking of blaring car escalates into jumping on the hood, sun roof, gangs of kids rocking cars, encouragement shouted from packedbeyond-capacity second story porches, hurled cups, then furniture, lamps, anything not nailed down, leading to inevitable 911 calls, the whole third shift on high alert, ten units and a Black Maria van. Commands to cease and desist are ignored even after truncheons are wielded, swung, strategically applied, along with plastic cuffs. Dozens arrested at
annual after the St Patrick’s Day Parade bash, also known as kegs and eggs, after morning at the bars with beer and bagels, mostly beer, gone totally wrong. Officials asserted, “There was no way this could have been foreseen.” Although local bartenders had been predicting this, and worse, for years. “Who knew you would need the riot police?” rebutted by observations that, “The biggest miracle of all that it took the inevitable so long to happen.” The stuff of legend and national news, once the videos went viral; clips still available online, years later.
Alan Catlin has been publishing since the 70’s. His latest full length book of poetry is "Alien Nation.”
Les Zigomanis Day of Futures
The Assembly The lobby in the Directory of Vocations building was gargantuan – that was the only word Zach Hoffman thought could describe it. It had white walls, high featureless ceilings, and display screens hung at regular intervals, showing vocational adverts and their educational pathways. Moving walkways, like they had at airports but quicker, zipped between the endless rows of benches, and there was the hint of antiseptic in the air, as if the Directory employed it to counter the daily turnover of masses and all their germs. Although there had to be at least a thousand seventeen-year-olds seated in the lobby, the collective conversation was kept to a quiet hubbub. It made Zach think of church, which was fitting since the Directory demanded the implication of piety, if not reverence. Of course, given how the Directory shaped lives, Zach didn’t find that surprising. He recalled reading in history books how people had once chosen their own vocations – or had let circumstance dictate their choices. He wished for that anarchy now. Zach scanned the faces of the other kids, seeing a range of emotions displayed – excited, nervous, scared, indifferent. Surely he couldn’t be the only one confused. He turned to Charlene, Harry, and Amy – the three friends he’d booked in with. ‘I'm certain the Directory will recognize my desire to become a lawyer,’ Charlene was saying. Her oval face was serious, and behind her rectangular spectacles, her eyes blinked owlishly. She’d tied her strawberry blonde hair back and worn a pale blue pantsuit with the intention of making herself look officious, but it only contrasted her youth. ‘I’ve taken every legal elective possible,’ she went on, ‘and I’ve read all the textbooks I could find. Yes, law will be a fulfilling career.’ ‘Cut the bull, Charlie,’ Harry said. Charlene’s eyes narrowed, and her jaw clenched. ‘Charlene,’ she said. A grin split Harry’s narrow’s face. He slumped on the bench until it seemed he might slide right down to the floor. Like Zach, he wore slacks, a shirt, and a tie, but unlike Zach, his shirt was untucked, and his tie hung loosely around his neck. ‘You're only chasing the big bucks, Charlie,’ he said.
‘No I’m not!’ Charlene said. ‘Right.’ ‘What're you going to tell them you want to do, Harry?’ Amy asked, making sure the hem of her skirt didn’t ride up indecently as she crossed her legs. The skirt was too short and her singlet with the shoestring straps cut too low. Amy knew how to buy favour – Zach had seen her do it often enough at school to get better grades. ‘Maybe I'll tell them I want to be a lawyer,’ Harry said, ‘and go into business with my good buddy Charlene.’ He suddenly embraced Charlene with mock affection. Charlene shrugged him off – and none too gently either. ‘You wouldn't!’ ‘Think of the partnership!’ ‘Don't you dare! You should have your own aspirations.’ ‘You’re right.’ ‘Really?’ Charlene regarded him sceptically. ‘And I have been thinking about something lately.’ ‘What?’ ‘Firefighting.’ ‘Really?’ ‘Think of it: I could run into burning buildings, rescue men, women, children … puppies!’ Harry seized Charlene in his hands and shook her. ‘Puppies, Charlene, puppies!’ ‘Ha ha. Very funny.’ ‘Maybe I’ll rescue a Dalmatian and call him Spots. He’ll wait for me by the front door, and when I get home he’ll wag his tail and jump up to greet me.’ Charlene sighed, a big explosion of breath. ‘Or maybe I’ll become a police officer – a detective solving grisly crimes.’ Harry leaned back, resting his chin on one hand in a mock pose of contemplation. Zach and Amy laughed. Harry was true to form. But Charlene scowled at him. ‘You can stop now,’ she said. ‘Or maybe I’ll be a racecar driver. I’ll become so good that my competitors will conspire to kill me. It’ll be the end of the season, I’ll round the first turn of the race which’ll win me the championship and, bang, I find my brakes are out!’ ‘I said you could stop it now.’ ‘But I could be anything! Or nothing! It’s all up here!’ Harry tapped his temple. ‘Thank you, Charlie!’
He grabbed her face in his hands and planted a kiss on her cheek. She shirked him off. Zach and Amy laughed again. ‘How dare you!’ Charlene said. ‘It’s one thing not to take this seriously—’ ‘Seriously? I'm seventeen!’ Harry shrugged. ‘Who thinks about a future at seventeen?’ ‘I do,’ Charlene said. ‘We all do.’ ‘I don't,’ Zach said. Three sets of eyes focused on him. Zach looked to the floor, hands fidgeting. To be like Charlene, so sure; or like Harry, cavalier; or even like Amy, who at least offered impudence. But he had nothing but uncertainty. ‘Is that what you're going to tell them?’ Charlene said. ‘You’ll be making a mistake.’ Zach knew that. Getting Tested was about dedicating your life to a future. The Directory then measured your potential to reach that goal. If the results were good, it was a free ticket for all the education required. If the results weren’t good, well, the Directory would then use the profiles from the Tests to determine a more suitable vocation. It still meant a free ticket, of course. Zach’s own father had wanted to be an architect, but had Tested inadequately. The Directory had decided he was better equipped to be an electrician. He’d eventually built a successful business. ‘What if …’ Zach looked up suddenly. ‘What if I’m not suited for anything?’ ‘Everybody’s suited for something,’ Amy said. ‘But there are stories,’ Zach said. ‘They call it “conclusion”—’ ‘They’re just stories!’ Charlene said. ‘Are you so sure?’ Charlene said nothing. The stories had existed for as long as Testing had, tales of seventeen-year-olds being terminated – concluded – because they were deemed useless and without future. While the stories seemed unfounded, innuendo fuelled them – if somebody moved suddenly or was killed in an accident, they’d been secretly concluded. ‘Anyway,’ Charlene said, ‘everybody’s good for something. Even Harry will Test positive for something like janitor.’ ‘Geez, thanks,’ Harry said. Zach said nothing. He couldn’t shake the thought. Plenty of times in the past – before the Directory, before Testing – people had manipulated welfare, collecting payments rather than finding a real job. People could be good for nothing. ‘What about you, Amy?’ Charlene said.
Amy shrugged. Charlene almost groaned. ‘You, too?’ ‘I guess.’ ‘What’re you going to say?’ ‘I’ll work something out.’ ‘You're mad. All of you. A future is a privilege!’ ‘Not everybody’s as motivated as you, Charlie,’ Harry said. ‘Charlene!’ A chime pealed through the lobby. Silence fell immediately. The display screens went blank. Then a metallic voice began to read out names, along with the rooms to which they were assigned, while the information appeared simultaneously on the display screens. Zach saw his name before it was announced. His breath stuttered in his chest, and the room tilted. His first instinct was to jump on a walkway and bolt from the Directory. He wouldn’t be the first. Of course, that meant a sizeable fine. He told himself he’d be okay, but panic welled up in his stomach. Harry clapped a hand on his shoulder, distracting him. Zach hadn’t heard Harry’s name called, but saw it – along with Amy’s and Charlene’s – up on the display screen. But of course they would be there. Since they’d registered together, it stood to reason they’d be called in the same batch of Testings. ‘Here goes,’ Harry said.
Zach and Christiansen Zach sat in a small, windowless room at a tiny table which held a touchscreen computer. His chair was solid metal and rocked on its swivel axis, which was bolted into the floor. There was an unbolted chair that was padded in the corner that looked much more comfortable. Zach considered pulling it up to the table, but then wondered if the action might get him in trouble. Maybe the uncomfortable chair was intended – maybe to add some distraction to the Testing. He had no sooner thought that when he noticed it was too hot in the room. He loosened his tie and unbuttoned the top buttons of his shirt and ran a hand through his hair. There was sweat on his brow. The door opened and a thin man with a receding hairline and oval spectacles entered. He wore the bland pastel-gray suit which was the clerical uniform of the Directory, and carried a Quire in his hand. The Quire looked like a small, rectangular sheet of glass about the size of a clipboard. Zach had seen them in the stores, but they were out of his price range.
‘I am Tester Christiansen,’ the man said, seating himself on the chair in the corner of the room. He accessed his Quire, which came alight, text, icons, and a keyboard appearing on it. Moments later, the touchscreen in front of Zach activated. Zach read the menu that appeared and listed the following options: IQ, Personality, Aptitude, Behaviour, Ethics, Spirituality, Preferences. ‘You will proceed with the Tests that have appeared,’ Christiansen said. ‘You may perform them in any order you desire. You may leave Tests and come back to them. Take as long as you like. And, please be aware, there are no right or wrong answers. Begin.’ Zach’s hand hovered over the menu. His fingers trembled. He had no idea what he was going to answer. How could he? He had no idea what he wanted to do. He closed his eyes, hoping some inspiration would enlighten him. But there was nothing – nothing but a vacuum in which all his pleas disappeared. He had nothing now but instinct, but maybe instinct would guide the way. Maybe instinct would reveal to him what his thoughts could not. He opened his eyes, selected Aptitude from the menu, and answered the first question.
Charlene and Morales Charlene sat back as she completed the last of her Tests. She tried not to show her discomfort to her Tester. Her chair was rickety and kept threatening to dislodge her, and the room was too cold. Lucky she wore the suit, although it was stiff and scratchy. Her Tester, Morales, sat in the corner. He was a short, stocky man with a bushy black beard and narrow eyes that made Charlene think of a hawk. Charlene wondered what sort of aptitudes stipulated that somebody should become a Tester – surely nothing too rigorous, since it was effectively clerical work. ‘I’m finished, sir,’ she said. ‘That was quick,’ Morales said. He activated his Quire and read through the text that appeared – the profiles of Charlene’s answers, which were calculated instantaneously. Charlene wondered what sorts of algorithms were used. There was a time that Testing offered, at best, guidelines about a person’s future. Now they were precise, revealing an individual’s nature better than they knew themselves. ‘You've stressed you want to go into law,’ Morales said, not looking up from the Quire. ‘Why?’ ‘To help make a difference,’ Charlene said. ‘Go on.’
Charlene took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and searched for the speech she’d memorized just in case of this question. It would’ve been something had she not been able to remember it. But there it was, awaiting her like an old friend. ‘I believe in my fellow man …’ she began.
Harry and Reyes ‘ … but I also believe in the State,’ Harry said, imagining himself a lawyer delivering a closing in one of those dramas Charlene adored watching. ‘For us to survive, we require a balance of law and morality. Unfortunately, in these troubled times it's too easy for us to be too zealous in the application of our laws, or too emotional in our own morality – emotional to the extent of losing sight of what's right and wrong. We must be vigilant, both in observing the laws that govern our society and protect us from descending into anarchy, but also for our fellow person. I feel I can do this through the practice of law, through becoming a mediator – if you will – between State and individual, because only through the facilitation of communication can we grow as a society.’ Harry grinned. It was quite a spiel. He’d heard Charlene rehearse it often enough, and was sure he’d stumble in mimicking her, but it’d flowed smoothly. He’d even improvised along the way. He’d have to tell Charlene how to improve it. His Tester – Reyes – looked at him. She was a tall, imperious blonde, a statuesque Amazon with high cheekbones and large blue eyes. Harry squirmed suddenly. He didn’t mean to. But Reyes was unblinking. Harry wanted to look away but knew he shouldn’t. If he did, it’d almost be like an admission he’d done something wrong, so he forced himself to hold her gaze. ‘I could be at home rereading one of my favourite books,’ she said. ‘What?’ ‘I could be at home rereading one of my favourite books. Instead, I’m here listening to you disrespect me.’ ‘Disrespect you?’ ‘Yes. You didn't write that,’ she said suddenly. ‘What?’ Harry said, hoping for the right touch of indignation. ‘Don't worry,’ Reyes said. ‘It isn't a crime.’ ‘It isn't?’ ‘No. Plenty of people come here with speeches written for them by family, friends, whoever. It's
doesn't matter, because at least it illustrates you want to have the right answer for us.’ Harry thought if he’d been anywhere else, he would’ve overacted relief. Now, he remained unmoved. He wished he could relax. But it was cold in the room. He was sure when he first walked in his breath had misted. Now, though, despite the chill, he felt hot, and his collar was too tight. ‘But,’ Reyes looked down at her Quire, ‘there is a problem.’ Harry hoped the shock didn’t register on his face, but he could feel his eyes widen momentarily. ‘What?’ ‘You profess a desire to go into law.’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘These Tests don't reinforce your claim. You're lying to me, aren't you, Harry?’ Harry didn’t know what to say. ‘Aren’t you, Harry?’ Harry looked down at his lap and shoved his hands under his hamstrings. ‘Aren't you?’ ‘Yes.’
Charlene and Morales ‘What a load of bull,’ Morales said after Charlene had finished the speech she'd rehearsed for weeks. ‘What?’ ‘Do you think we’re in a dramatic film?’ ‘It's the truth—‘ ‘If you came in here declaring you wanted to make a difference, you wanted to be this righteous crusader, I might've believed you. You want to facilitate communication between the State and your clients? That’s drivel. There’s another truth driving you.’ ‘W-w-what truth?’ ‘That you're a greedy, opportunistic, pig, and that you’re going into law for the money. Right?’ ‘No!’ Charlene shot to her feet. ‘It’s not a crime to be material.’ ‘I-I’m not—’ ‘It’s all over your Tests!’ Morales said, thrusting the Quire forward. ‘You’re a superficial woman. It’s not surprising. It was in your parents’ profiles.’
Charlene looked at the Quire. ‘You have my parents’ profiles?’ ‘Of course! It’s not just genes which are hereditary, you know. Attitudes, behaviours, it’s all relevant. Your parents were superficial. You were likely to be superficial. If you have kids, you’ll in all likelihood impress superficiality upon them.’ ‘No! No—!’ ‘You’re a superficial woman interested in stature and wealth.’ ‘No!’ Charlene fell onto her chair, which shook and tipped her to the floor. She landed on her butt, and her breath exploded from her lungs in an undignified exclamation. Drawing her knees to her chest, she folded her arms over her knees, cast her face onto her arms, and sobbed. She heard Morales get up from his own chair and come to stand over her. ‘It’s all right,’ he said, but there was nothing conciliatory in his tone. Charlene looked up at him, wondering what new humiliation was next. He held out a hand. ‘It’s all right,’ he said again. ‘There’s nothing wrong with superficial.’
Amy and Brooks Amy sat on her chair, which had a proclivity to rock, her long legs folded out in front of her. Since she’d sat down for the Tests, her Tester – a handsome middle-aged man with sandy hair by the name of Brooks – had leered at her unashamedly. She wished now she hadn’t dressed so salaciously, although when it came to Brooks, she wasn’t sure it would’ve mattered. There was just something lecherous about him. ‘Our society today,’ Brooks was saying, ‘is structured towards usefulness. You, me, your family, everybody has a purpose. That was a problem in the past, Amy. We had unemployment. Homelessness. Crime. People leeched our welfare. Now, we’ve tried to find purpose.’ Brooks lifted his Quire and held it between them, as if it was something distasteful he wanted her to take off his hands. His eyes challenged hers. Then nestled in her cleavage. Amy sat up, folded her arms across her chest, then unfolded them. No, screw him. She wasn’t going to hide herself from him. She’d come waging a war; she wasn’t pulling out now. Brooks smirked, like he’d known he’d gotten to her. ‘Do you know what’s in your Tests?’ he asked. Amy shook her head. Brooks withdrew the Quire and perused it, then sniggered. That was the only way Amy could describe it. It wasn’t a laugh or even a chuckle – it was a snigger, issued to show he found whatever he
was reading insulting. ‘You suggested you’d like to be a homemaker,’ he said. ‘A homemaker!’ ‘People get married, don't they?’ ‘They do. But if their only purpose in life is to get married and have children, then all they are is breeding stock. And what, in fact, are they teaching their stock? That it's all right to live without dreams? Without ambition? Without purpose? Absurd!’ ‘Why’s it absurd?’ Amy said. ‘People fall in love! People have children! Bringing up children is a fulltime job in itself!’ ‘So you will graduate from school, randomly pursuing one relationship after another, until you find the one in which you want to make a home. Then the breeding begins? This is all you want to do? What happens if you don’t procreate immediately? Or ever? What happens after the children leave home – what home do you make then?’ Amy had no response. ‘You must have some other answer, some desire, hidden deep.’ ‘I don't.’ ‘I think you do.’ Brooks scanned his Quire. ‘I can see something here.’ ‘What?’ ‘Do you like school, Amy?’ Amy shrugged. ‘I guess.’ ‘You have good grades.’ ‘I know.’ ‘Although the profiles in your Tests don’t suggests an intelligence commensurate with the grades you’ve been receiving. Hmmm.’ Amy said nothing. She knew explanations would make her sound guilty. So she flirted for better grades. It was a victimless crime. ‘What about going out with friends?’ Brooks asked. ‘Do you like that?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ ‘Not at the moment.’ ‘Have you had a boyfriend?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘More than one?’
‘I've had a couple.’ ‘Have your relationships been short?’ ‘What?’ ‘Have you had one night stands?’ ‘I don’t see how this is appropriate.’ ‘Amy, you’re wasting time. All these questions have been asked and answered in the Testing. You may not have realized it because the questions weren’t as direct as I’m being now. I’m merely asking them again so we can establish some common ground. Now, have you had a one night stand?’ ‘Yes.’ Brooks smiled. ‘Good,’ he said. ‘Now we're getting somewhere.’
Zach and Christiansen ‘Are you an anarchist, Zach?’ Christiansen asked. The question surprised Zach. He’d heard of people who tried to answer the Tests randomly, misleadingly, or contrarily, although the questions were designed to unravel any attempt at deceit. The profiles never lied. Zach didn’t know how they worked. They just did. But he hadn’t attempted deceit. He’d relied on instinct. Surely instinct hadn’t betrayed him – or, worse, revealed him to be some aberration. He wiped his brow. It was too hot in here. ‘Zach, are you an anarchist?’ ‘No.’ ‘Then how do you explain your profiles?’ ‘What's to explain?’ ‘You have absolutely no career in mind for your future.’ ‘Nothing interests me at the moment.’ ‘Nothing interests you?’ ‘I’m seventeen. Why’s that such a surprise?’ ‘Most teenagers would have some sort of plan. It might be wrong – oftentimes it is. That’s why we have Testing. Testing shows us the way. But they do come in with a plan. Not you, though.’ Zach lifted his shoulders, as if to suggest he was at a loss. ‘It’s also a surprise that even without a plan, you didn’t attempt bluster, or didn’t even try to lie.’
‘Lie?’ ‘Would’ve that been so hard?’ ‘Aren’t liars punished?’ ‘Sometimes. But sometimes, there’s truth found in lies – subconscious inclinations, if you like. Maybe in another time, we would’ve called them Freudian slips. But, you, no. No lies. No bluster. Nothing. How did you answer?’ ‘I just went on …’ Zach didn’t know if he dared say it aloud. He tried to swallow, but couldn’t. He tried again. It turned into a gulp. ‘Yes?’ ‘I just went on instinct—’ ‘Instinct! How primal! You are! You’re an anarchist, Zach! A free-thinking anarchist!’ Christiansen shook his head in admiration. ‘I guess you believe in truth. In freedom of thought. Stream of consciousness. That sort of thing.’ ‘I don’t understand—’ ‘Lies are the foundation of society, Zach! Everybody lies. The thing that makes you special, though, is you’re not sanctimonious. There’s no sense of righteousness. No ego! It’s almost as if you’re apathetic. Self-contained. Your own little universe with your own laws of physics. It's incredible! Really incredible! You’re unique! Original! I guess you sit there, questioning the system, don’t you?’ ‘A bit—’ ‘A bit! Brilliant! We don’t get many like you, Zach! You’re a once-in-a-generation type!’ Christiansen smiled so broadly that his face seemed to have no room for all his teeth. ‘What's that mean for me?’ ‘Guess.’ Zach didn’t trust himself to say it. ‘Go on. You can do it.’ ‘Conclusion?’ Christiansen’s smile faded.
Harry and Reyes ‘We have a problem, Harry,’ Reyes said. ‘What?’ Harry said.
‘You have no contributory assets to society.’ ‘What? No, that’s not true!’ ‘Isn’t it? Tell me what you have to offer. Convince me. You have thirty seconds.’ Reyes rose from her chair. She towered over Harry. Harry wondered how she would look if she didn’t wear her hair so stringently. He visualized her in a club wearing a tight dress that showcased her figure and accentuated her breasts, her hair bouncing loose as she tore up the dance floor, the fantasy of every man. She might’ve been beautiful if she let herself be. She was definitely desirable. Except here. Here, she was ice. Here she was frostbite. ‘Go,’ she said. ‘Thirty seconds?’ ‘Twenty-nine.’ ‘You can’t do this!’ ‘Twenty-seven.’ ‘No! This isn’t fair! Stop it! Stop it!’ ‘You’re wasting my time, Harry.’ ‘Please!’ ‘Twenty-three seconds.’ Harry jumped to his feet. ‘No!’ ‘Sit down!’ Harry glowered at her. Reyes took one step forward. She was taller than him, and Harry imagined she hit the gym, if not pursued some form of martial training. Somebody like her, she would’ve loved the power. He sat down. Reyes smiled at him. Now he could see she was beautiful. ‘You come in here, Harry, ripping off your friend’s dream, your friend’s speech, disdainful of the Testing, thinking this is all a joke. You don’t bluff. You don’t lie. You don’t even operate on instinct. No, you’re a different beast. You just are. I bet you don’t understand yourself.’ ‘I’m a teenager. What do I know about myself?’ ‘Everybody knows something.’ Harry flashed the sort of grin he might’ve used on his friends. ‘Not … me?’ Reyes was unmoved. ‘Not good enough.’ ‘Something will come to me.’ ‘No, it won’t. I’m sorry.’ Reyes fingers danced across her Quire.
The last thing Harry knew was the fatal shock which coursed from the chair into his body as the chair descended into the floor.
Charlene and Morales Charlene brushed the tears away from her face with the cuff of her sleeve. It was undignified – unladylike, her mother might say – but it didn’t matter. Nothing did now. She took Morales’s outstretched hand and he hoisted her to her feet. She smoothed out her clothes, avoiding Morales’s eyes. He reached out, placed two fingers under her chin, lifted her face, and held her gaze. ‘It's all right, Charlene,’ he said. ‘Not that you've admitted your true intentions to yourself, the future awaits you.’ ‘What …?’ ‘Before you can reach your potential, you have to face the truth behind your choices. You’ve done that. Now,’ Morales smiled, and put a hand on her shoulder, ‘nothing can stop you.’ Sniffling, Charlene couldn’t help smiling back at him.
Amy and Brooks ‘Vocations are always evolving,’ Brooks said. ‘Some grow outdated, others obsolete. Certainly, there are constants – medical practitioners, lawyers, politicians. But even these change in nature. There’s one, however, which has always remained the same. They call it the world’s oldest profession.’ He leaned forward, his hand moving to her thigh. ‘Now wait a minute!’ Amy said. She leaped for the door. It was locked. She spun, backing into a corner. Brooks remained frozen. Amy lifted her hands, as if she could box him should he try any further advance. ‘Good,’ he said. ‘Get through the indignation. The denial. But you need to face facts. You have limited motivation and zero aspiration. Your tests suggest an uninhibited, if not licentious personality. Homemaker!’ He snorted. ‘That’s what you pretended you wanted to be. But there’s always some inkling of truth in affectation. You’re willing to sell yourself.’ ‘Homemaker is not … not … not a prostitute!’ ‘No. But you don’t really want to be a homemaker, do you, Amy? What did you think? Find a nice partner, marry them, and live off their industry? What does that cost you but affection? But sex?’
‘No!’ Brooks leaned back in his chair. Amy could see the bulge in his crotch. He made no effort to hide it. She closed her hands over her face and sank to the floor. There were no tears, though. No selfrecriminations. There was nothing but uncertainty. She heard Brooks stand and walk across to her, and peeked through her fingers. His bulging crotch was directly at eye-level. She lifted her eyes, saw him looking down at her, a smarmy grin on his face. ‘You’ll go through every effort to deny this to yourself, but ultimately you’ll accept the truth,’ he said. ‘Ultimately, we all have to make a future for ourselves.’
Amy and Charlene Charlene met Amy on a bench outside the Directory building. Other seventeen-year-olds came, and more left through the course of the day. But there was no sign of Zach or Harry. Charlene went back inside and enquired of reception after the two, but was told they’d already gone home. ‘They were meant to wait for us,’ Charlene said. ‘This is so typical of Harry!’ They caught a bus and got off at the stop just down the road from Zach’s. A police car was in his drive. Charlene and Amy approached slowly. On the front doorstep, police officers were talking to Zach’s parents, who were sobbing. Neighbours had gathered out front to watch. ‘What happened?’ Amy asked one of them. ‘Zach and a friend were catching a taxi back from Testing,’ the neighbour said. ‘There was an accident. They’re both dead.’
Reyes Reyes sat in front of the fire at home, hair down, feet up on the coffee table, a glass of wine in hand. It had been an exhausting day given Harry’s conclusion. But it had needed to be done. There was no telling how he’d develop. Psychologists had speculated such profiles could become spree or serial killers, if not worse. It was better to be safe than sorry. She took her Quire from where it sat on the coffee table, activated it, and flicked through her library, vacillating between the classics, her literary collection, and a range of popular fiction writers from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. But nothing appealed to her. She’d read it all. She wanted something new, but everything written nowadays was tripe. There were no new greats. Only mediocrities.
Reyes reflected that the world had become too pragmatic and clinical, suffocating any great prospective talents before they ever fully developed. People simply didn't think in that expansive, if not unruly fashion which must have been typical of history's greatest authors. She selected Moby Dick. It would have to do. Again.
Zach A blank Quire faced Zach. It might as well as have been a black hole. It sucked in Zach’s every thought. He closed his eyes, searching for a wellspring of ideas, but nothing. He probed for the instinct that had served him through Testing, however unreliably. But nothing there either. Not even a spark. He opened his eyes. The blank Quire. Following Testing, they’d whisked him away in a closed bus to a remote chateau full of closed rooms and told him his future was to write – or at least to try to. ‘Testing’s only difficulty has been identifying creativity,’ Christiansen had told him. ‘You may notice that the Arts suffer. Some think the world has changed, and thus it’s changed people. I disagree to an extent. We’ve always had artists who could exist in squalor, in oppressive conditions. I think it’s just that we’re still struggling to identify key indicators.’ Zach didn’t understand what all that meant. All he understood was the blank Quire, the threat if he didn’t inevitably produce he’d be concluded, and that he didn’t have a single creative thought in his head. If only Harry was here! Harry was full of it, but, boy, could he tell a story …!
Les Zigomanis is a freelance writer/editor based in Melbourne, Australia. He’s had stories and articles published in various print, digital, and online journals, and blogs (most of the time) at his website http://www.leszig.com/. In his spare time, he’s working on another novel which will be … the one (hopefully, anyway).
Kristin LaFollette Hard Candy
A hybrid of love and something else I can’t quite grasp. A lemon drop feeling, coated away. Sucked sugar-dry in a mixing of amylase— the tongue left jagged from the crevices. To be fearless, to be truly inspired is a scarf around the neck. Winter permeates the bones… but the fabric gives the throat a stronger shield against the frost.
Kristin LaFollette has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English literature with a minor in creative writing and a Master of Arts degree in English with a concentration in creative writing. She enjoys writing poetry, flash fiction, and works of narrative collage. Kristin currently teaches English composition at Indiana University South Bend and lives in Mishawaka, Indiana, with her husband, Justin.
Domenic Scopa Eating Madame Bovary Aromas from the lav seep through the sliding door that wobbles in its frame. Closed windows, sweat trickles down my forehead. Tracks groan, preparing to confess their crimes. I listen, seated in a fiberglass booth as the compartment lurches from side to side, crawling to Brezinka. Pyotr pencils “Zytnia” into my journal, a honey vodka I have yet to try. As he writes, he holds the journal upright to conceal his lips, but his eyes, restless, trace something on the page. Seated beside me is a woman in her fifties wearing a white sundress and oversized sunglasses. They look as if they are going to fall off her head, which cranes forward from the weight of the camera that hangs around her neck. A thick brown strap secures it. Her lipstick reminds me of the shade my Jewish tutor Wore while teaching me Russian, puckering her lips to Accent the syllables as she leaned over the café table, perfume flooding my nostrils with vanilla and passion fruit. It was great to learn the language, but it was better to have her as a teacher. She had a husband.
I think, as my passenger car grinds along, whether her grandparents would recognize the sound. The train eases to a stop. When I look through the window behind Pyotr, I notice a brick wall at the train station spray painted with a red sun cross, and “get out” tattooed in English. Pyotr looks up, but doesn’t notice I am glaring, his hair, golden in the sunshine, retriever-like. He offers to shake my hand, but I feel the urge to strike him. I wish he were a Nazi. I exit the train, only a tourist.
Domenic Scopa is a philosophy student at Suffolk University. He has been published in several online and print journals and has worked with poets such as: David Ferry, Fred Marchant, and George Kalogeris. Domenic intends to finish his senior year and apply for graduate school with the intention of attaining an MFA in creative writing.
Allyson Whipple Mitzvah Alarm at seven. Opening his eyes, Jake wishes that Hannah there, her body filling up the empty side of the bed, her half-awake smile greeting him. But she's rarely around in the mornings; there are only so many excuses she can give her husband for not coming home at night, and she ran out of good ideas last week. They'll have to hold out for a while. Wishing won't get him to work on time, so he rolls out of bed, cursing the morning chill, and sits down in front of the computer. Not much email came in during his six hours of sleep, not even a message from her. Disappointment settles over the chill in his bones; he's used to getting goodnight emails, or insomniatic ramblings that she sends at four a.m. Getting up, Jake braves the chill briefly to get the newspaper. Opening it at the kitchen table, his eyes first fall on the local headlines: “Local woman killed in I-35 wreck.” He flattens the paper on the table; only his eyes move, over and over, reading the text. Hannah's name; a drunk driver; she'd been out late; the impact had sent her car through a guardrail; funeral information at the bottom. Finally, the clock turns to 8:00, and he's late to work. At 8:05, his cell phone rings, but he doesn't answer. He needs to call in sick. They won't let him take bereavement leave for a dead lover; nobody knows he's been seeing someone for nearly two years. He agreed to her terms of utmost discretion, and so he attended parties without a date, and saved holiday observances for the weekend after, when she could get away. He could have taken other women out, found someone to share holidays with – Hannah had made it clear that he wasn't required to be faithful. But as long as Hannah was in his life, he couldn't imagine sharing his time with anyone else. And even though they'd never spoken of it, he'd always planned on her finding the courage to leave her husband. Someday. But now Hannah is dead, and he needs to call in sick, because he can't tell anyone that the dead married woman on the news was his lover. Making his way to his phone, he looks at the missed call: his supervisor. With his heart sinking further and further, he calls back. “Jake, where are you?” “Sorry, Dave. I'm sick. I should have called sooner, I know, but I couldn't -” “Jesus, Jake, you sound terrible. Go back to bed.”
“Th-thank you.” He doesn't hang up the phone, just sets it on the table, and, following his supervisor's orders, goes back to bed, curls up under the now-cold blankets, stares into the empty space beside him. When he can't fall asleep, when he can't lose himself in dreams of her, he goes back to the computer, reads every email she ever sent him. Time disappears as he loses himself in her words, obsesses over two years of correspondence and memories. When he's done, there are still hours left in the day, so he starts again from the beginning. Finally, fatigue sets in. The alarm clock rouses him at the usual time. The first thought that enters Jake's mind is that he needs to go to her funeral, meaning that he needs to call in sick again. His supervisor's number goes straight to voicemail. “Dave, this is Jake Donaldson. I'm sorry, but I'm still not well. I'll keep you updated.” He still has a few hours to kill, but he can't go back to bed; if he does, he might sleep all the way until tomorrow again, missing the entire thing. Meandering into the kitchen, he realizes he hasn't eaten in nearly 36 hours, but his stomach churns as the thought of ingesting anything. Jake fumbles his way to the shower, cuts himself shaving. He's careless about his clothes: the tie doesn't match the jacket, the shirt is rumpled. He drives to the synagogue, seat belt unbuckled, only half-conscious of what he's doing, realizing that in this state, he could easily cause a wreck himself. But he arrives intact, drags his feet up the stairs, enters the synagogue in a daze, looks toward the casket. It's closed. Looking around for an empty seat, he can't help but notice sidelong glances from strangers, and he wonders why he merits notice, paranoid that they suspect him somehow. Taking a seat in the back, Jake reminds himself that this is where he belongs, that as one of Hannah's secrets, his place is in the periphery. He feels a tap on his shoulder and turns to see and older woman extending her hand, a yarmulke and hairpin in her upturned palm. “Here you go. We keep spares for guests who don't have their own.” She gives him a sad smile and turns away. He clumsily affixes it to his head, fingers fumbling with the pin as he tries to keep the yarmulke stable. The congregation rises as the rabbi stands, and Hebrew words wash through Jake's ears. Only vaguely listening to the unfamiliar language, he looks around the room at the rest of the mourners. Her husband and relatives, he notices, have torn clothing – he feels better about his dishevelment, seeing these mourners in even worse disarray.
Jake's mind floats back to the last time they were together, the last time he saw Hannah alive, not quite a week ago. He loses himself in the memory of her body, the pulse of heart and cunt, flesh alive and writhing. She'd showed up in the door, nothing underneath her coat. He'd opened the black wool and buried his face between her breasts, smelled the perfume she always dripped there. All pretense of clothing was abandoned by the front door, and she bounded upstairs, bounced on the mattress. He remembers the sting of Hannah's fingernails in his shoulders, her teeth in his neck, the shrieks each time she came. Le petit mort. He killed her so many times that night. He's brought back to the present by the congregation standing up, moving around. Jake has been so lost in his own thoughts that he missed not just the prayer, but the entire eulogy. Like an adolescent ashamed of his uncontrollable body, he holds his hand low, hoping nobody notices the erection. The rabbi switches back to Hebrew, the congregation joining in. He turns his thoughts to his final memory of Hannah. They'd overslept after that last night together, he'd forgotten to turn on his alarm clock in infatuated exhaustion. Rushing around, he hadn't thought to make her breakfast, even something as simple as pouring a bowl of cereal. He felt bad about it later, and consoled himself with the prospect of inviting her over for a quickie on his lunch hour sometime next week. But now that wouldn't be happening. At least he'd remembered to tell Hannah he loved her as he hurried out the door. As the prayer concludes, he fumbles an Amen with the rest of the congregation. The mourners rise, and the family makes their way out of the synagogue. Once they are gone, the rest of the congregation shuffles out. Jake briefly considers going home, leaving Hannah's family in peace. But he can't bear the thought of missing her burial. He'll stay in the back again. Getting into his car, he follows the funeral procession to the cemetery, then stands at the fringes of the crowd, watches as the pallbearers stop and the crowd begins to pray. He tries to listen this time, to latch on to familiar sounds, but the only one he recognizes is Adonai. The procession stops for the prayer six more times, and by the end, he finds himself able to utter a few sounds that mean nothing to him. He watches, numb, as the rabbi says a blessing. When he sees her husband pick up the shovel, his heart drops. As the first clump of dirt hit the coffin, his eyes overflow, and the pain of her absence hits him full-force. The rest of Hannah's family shares the shovel, throws dirt over her coffin. The other mourners take their turn, and while Jake knows he should hide in the crowd, keep his head down, the urge to help bury his dead lover is overpowering. Making his way towards the grave, he takes the shovel from the stranger in front of him. His hands shake, sending crumbs of dirt down to the grass. Poised over the grave, he takes one last look at the coffin, barely visible at this point, tries to imagine a a
version of her in it. Not Hannah the car accident victim, body so broken he's grateful for the closed casket. But Hannah his lover, sleeping in his bed. Aware of the line behind him, Jake shakes himself out of the reverie, slides the dirt into the grave, keeps his composure long enough to hand the shovel to the next mourner. Once his back is turned, he starts choking on his tears. He desperately wishes he knew someone here, so that he might lean on them for support as his knees threaten to buckle. But he's alone, and has to maintain his composure as much as possible, as the rest of the mourners, as if moving on instinct, start to form two lines. He shuffles along, trying to blend in with the mass, trying to look like he belongs. As the family moves between these two lines, the crowd begins to murmur a final prayer. He mouths along, tired of looking like a gentile. He knows he shouldn't go to sit shiva. He's gotten through the funeral and the burial as an interloper, and nobody would appreciate learning how he knew Hannah. But he can't stomach the thought of going back to his empty apartment, where her toothbrush still sits on the sink. And he can't call a friend, cry with someone, because he still needs to keep her secret â€“ this is how he honors the dead. Needing companionship, he pulls out into the street and turns toward the place where he is not wanted or welcome. Jake arrives at Hannah's home, which he's only been to once before, when her husband was away on a corporate retreat. They'd had an entire weekend together, fucked in every room in the house. He'd have to remember to not let his eyes linger on the table, the couch, the counter, any of the places they'd fucked. In his daze, he nearly passes by a cluster of people gathered near the door, but stops when he realizes they are washing their hands from a ceramic pitcher. When in Rome. He waits until the group disperses, then rinses off, enters the house. Nobody pays much attention to his arrival; the room is nearly silent; nobody speaks above a whisper. The next thing that catches his attention is a card table laid out with casserole dishes, bowls of fruit, trays of pastries, the contents in various states of demolition. His thoughtlessness hits him. Not only is he an intruder in this space, in this time of mourning, not only has he helped Hannah sin over and over, but he has not thought to bring any food to her grieving family. His stomach grumbles; finally, his body is ready to eat, but he can't bring himself to approach the spread. He has already taken so much from them. Nobody approaches him, so he wanders to an empty end of a couch, tries not to think of the time he spent kneeling in front of it, licking the warmth between her legs. Instead, he focuses on a candle burning on the coffee table, wedding photos
on the mantle, a framed document written in Hebrew, all the evidence of a life lived mostly without him. A few minutes later, another visitor joins him. “Such a tragedy,” he murmurs. “I can't believe that she's gone.” Jack trembles slightly, afraid that the truth might come out. “Me neither.” “What was she even doing out so late?” “Maybe she was working overtime and was on her way home?” “No, she was on I-35, remember? That's on the other side of town.” “I guess we'll never know.” “Poor Simon is just as confused as anyone else. Says they were sitting at home, watching TV, and suddenly she just got up, said there was something important she needed to do, and that she'd be back in an hour. And then -” “Excuse me.” Jake stands up, barely able to breathe, guilt pressing down on his throat. Out on the porch, he struggles for air, fights against a wave of nausea rolling up through his body. His knees refuse to support him anymore, and he flops down on one of the wicker chairs. The door opens and closes behind him. Someone holds a glass of water over his shoulder. Jake turns his head and sees Hannah's husband. “You looked so distressed when you tore out of the living room. I thought you might need something to drink.” Jake takes the glass, gulps half of it down. “Thank you.” The husband sits down. “I don't think we've met. Simon Leventhal.” “Jake Donaldson.” They shake hands, both grips limp from fatigue and grief. Simon sits in the chair next to him. “How did you know my wife?” The truth is innocent enough, but Jake can barely utter it. “We're – well, we were – part of the same entrepreneurial networking group. We'd meet once a month for lunch and socializing. Hannah and I hit it off, became pretty good friends.” “So I gathered. You're quite bereaved for someone who saw her once a month.” Sweat begins to bead on Jake's palms and the back of the neck. “Like I said, we became friends. Talked a lot. Shared clients. She was a wonderful woman.” “Yes, she was. Amazing how death highlights the positive, how you forgive so many things.” “Forgive?”
“Well, nobody is perfect, after all. But today, I forgive her for spending her last two years having an affair.” “An – an affair?” “Yes. You weren't aware that she was being unfaithful?” Jake isn't sure he can lie to a man in mourning, not after all these other sins he's committed against Simon. On the other hand, he's not sure he can make this horrible day even worse by telling the truth. “I – I was aware, but I never saw fit to judge.” “No?” Tremors make their way into his hands, and Jake is grateful for the chair as he fishes for an answer; if he were standing, he probably would have collapsed by now. “No. I'm not much of a religious man, but I've always liked such things were none of my business. Let God take care of that.” “You wouldn't judge a woman who broke her husband's heart?” “It's not like I'm a saint,” Jake replies, trying to keep his voice level. “I doubt I'm in any position to condemn anybody.” “Not even yourself.” It's the lack of a question mark in Simon's voice that makes Jake realize he's in trouble. “I – I suppose I could be a little more self-aware. After all, nobody's perfect.” He feels the sweat starting to spread across his shirt, hopes the moisture doesn't soak through his jacket. “No, nobody is. I wasn't exactly the best husband. Perhaps that's what turned Hannah's eye toward another man.” “Maybe – maybe it had nothing to do with you.” “How could it not have been about our relationship?” “Maybe she loved you and this – this affair was just about sex.” “She didn't love me, not enough; if she had, she wouldn't have broken my heart so readily.” “She didn't leave you.” Jake's voice is nearly a whisper has he reminds Simon that Hannah always chose her husband when the sun came up in the morning. “But she did, now, didn't she?” “Death and divorce are hardly the same thing.” “She was on her way to see him.” The tremors stop as Jake realizes Simon hasn't implicated him. “How do you know?,” he asks, no longer afraid.
“Some things don't require proof. When your spouse cheats, you know, even if they cover all their tracks. You might be in denial about it, but deep down, you're painfully aware of what's going on. And when they run off to meet their lover, you know, even if they have the most plausible excuse in the world.” “Why didn't you stop her, then?” Jake snaps. “Why didn't you confront her? If you'd forced her to break it off, she'd still be alive.” “It wasn't my job to police her. Why didn't you decide to leave? If you'd ended things a long time ago, she'd be here right now.” The tremors are back, stronger than before, and Jake feels the sweat stains start to emerge on his jacket. Caught, he doesn't try to absolve himself, doesn't try to run, just follows his instinct to fight. “I'm not the only one who's guilty here; you said that yourself. Hannah could have walked away at any time, but she just kept coming back to me.” “You're not seriously blaming Hannah for her own death.” “She made the choice to go out.” “What makes you think you have any right to be at this house?” “Imagine if you loved someone, and they died, you couldn't tell anyone, couldn't get support from anyone.” “I don't have much sympathy for your troubles.” “At least you have family and friends here for you.” “But you had her heart.” “No, I didn't.” “What, because she never found the courage to leave me?” The words come to Jake without thought: “No. Because she was coming over to my place to break things off between us.” His breath catches in his throat as he finishes, as he realizes it's the only explanation that makes sense. Hannah had told Simon she'd be back; she'd never promised to leave him, to run away with Jake and start over. Jake tries to reassure himself that he's wrong, but while he can envision a dozen other reasons why she'd been out that late, he keeps coming back to the one that hurts the worst. Simon pauses for a moment, as though he can't believe what he's just heard. “She was?” “She'd, well, she'd been feeling guilty. She'd been wanting to have one of those serious talks. And she give me the reason, but when you're about to get your heart broken, you see it coming from a mile away. You can pretend all you want that the outcome will be different, but it's always obvious. I kept
putting it off, of course; I couldn't imagine life without her. She was going to leave me, and she didn't want to wait any longer. She was killed on the way to do the right thing.â€? They both fall apart again, their composure, their anger, their posturing washed away by fresh tears. Jake remembers something Hannah taught him on one of the occasions he'd asked her about Judaism: the importance of good deeds. Seeing Simon crying in front of him, he wonders whether or not he should have said anything. But telling the truth, or at least the most likely version of it, has to count for something. Giving Simon this story doesn't begin to make up for what he has done, but it's all he can offer.
Allyson Whipple is the director of the Austin Feminist Poetry Festival. Her chapbook, "We're Smaller Than We Think We Are," was published by Finishing Line Press in May. When not writing, Allyson works in education and practices Kung Fu.
Edward J. Rielly Reimaging
Why not today at the grocery store buy a large can of coffee drink night and day until the can is empty just the tin place it on the floor beside the rocker wait for an old man thin, distinguished, his moustache speckled gray and white his sweater warm enough despite a hole an elbow he tore with too much bending and watch him sit and rock sit and rock and spit tobacco juice with sometimes a dribble into the large coffee can, sunshine through an open door, my long dead grandfatherâ€™s image to restore?
Edward J. Rielly teaches in the English Department at Saint Joseph's College of Maine. His most recent books are "To Sadie at 18 Months and Other Poems" (Moon Pie Press), "Legends of American Indian Resistance" (ABC-CLIO), and "The Sister Fidelma Mysteries: Essays on the Historical Novels of Peter Tremayne" (McFarland).
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