Page 1

Crack the Spine

Issue eighty-six

Literary magazine


Crack the Spine Literary magazine Issue Eighty-Six October 23, 2013 Edited by Kerri Farrell Foley Collection copyright 2013 by Crack the Spine


“Given

the choice, we

will always select madness over

method�


Contents

Christopher Allen The Bee Seth Pevey In Waxahachie Ed Ahern The Busted Watch Kevin McCoy Kansas in the Corner Run of the Mill Hallucinations Natassja Traylor Act Natural Janelle Ward Milk Dud Andy Cochran Tiny Comets Benjamin Thomas Kings and Queens


Christopher Allen The Bee The Father The note’s folded in half under an electric bill on the kitchen table. It could be just another one of Katherine's scraps. Shopping lists, obscure reminders—lanterns, I hate my F, get dog food (we don't have a dog)—all scribbled on the pages of expensive travel mags. This one, barely legible in navy blue over the right half of a navy blue pagoda, says IMPORTANT!! Girls’ Night!! Don't forget to pick up Jayson from soccer!!!! I swat a bee with the note and slide it back under the unopened electricity bill. The bee alights on the window sill and sits there like it’s chosen a peaceful death. The Mother My biggest dream? Beijing I write in the ironically tiny gap Cosmopolitan has left for me. My biggest disappointment? I write a fat enigmatic F because I can always say I meant figure or face or, if I'm feeling near-honest, friendships. Why don’t I just write FAMILY in enormous red letters, drain my savings and disappear? Jayson’s holding out his spoon for more Count Chocula. I’ll never be done feeding him. When I’m 80 and he’s 68, he’ll still be holding out that spoon. At twelve, he’ll never be older than four. Sometimes he wants the whole box, and sometimes I just let him eat it. Sometimes his teachers call and leave messages on my voicemail: ‘Mrs. Webb, if you get this message, come pick up Jayson. He's climbing the walls. We’re afraid of him.’ I don't answer the phone on these days. 'Beijing,' I say and show Jayson the brochure. 'You know where that is, Honeybee?' And Jayson says, 'Out there?' 'That's right, BeeBee,' I say. 'Out there where Mommy never gets to go.' I hold up my hands like I’m peeking through prison bars. Jayson laughs, and I wish I knew whether he got the joke. I tear off half a brochure page with the least writing and write in big blue letters IMPORTANT!! Girls’ Night!! Don't forget to pick up Jayson from soccer!!!! Tyler is still sleeping because, in his own words, ‘It's not my fucking turn to feed the Bee.’


The Father After work. Nachos and margaritas until we puke. The note is pinned to my cubicle right on my poster of Pamela Anderson—right on the money, like I’m blind if I don’t see it, right? And why shouldn’t I see it? It’s not like the guys wrote the note blue on blue, then folded and buried it under my files, right? Katherine never wanted me to see the note to pick up Jayson in the first place. So now we pull out the big guns. Watch my moves. They don’t teach this stuff in couples counselling. I’m gonna force the blowout argument, the one where we scream at each other about who’s sabotaging this family more until one of us raises a hand. We’ll both threaten to call child services, blame each other for Jayson’s disability, and then have sex. The Mother Tyler's toast is stiff and cold when I tiptoe into the bedroom to shake him—but not hard enough to wake him. If he oversleeps one more time, he'll lose his job and maybe this house, which will give me an excuse to divorce him. I’ll deem him a loser: an irresponsible 34-year-old kid. I’ll leave him loudly, throw the prison doors open, fly to Beijing the same day and find a job working in an American steak restaurant teaching grinning Chinese people how to eat with a knife and fork. My arc toward freedom will be that easy. I'll dye my hair blond to be exotic and I’ll speak Chinese with an affected nasal accent like they expect from exotic Americans. And at night—I don't know—I'll do whatever the fuck I want, won’t I? The Bee I’m playing soccer on the soccer field. The Mother says a soccer field is “an unimaginable expanse,” but it is also like a playpen with its lines and grown-ups watching. It’s framed with lines like an electric fence, like prison bars. The Father says I’m crap at soccer, which is true, but I can buzz behind the other boys and two girls like they have honey, which is the best thing in the world. If the ball hits my foot, I have to kick it to someone wearing the same color as me, which is blue today. Coach Tim has told me this exactly four times but keeps saying he’s said it a million times, which isn’t possible. Blue is darker than yellow. A lot darker. I kick the ball when I trip on it and the mothers and fathers on the outside of the prison playpen bars scream Get up, Jayson! Coach Tim hollers Blue Jayson Blue!—which counts as one more time, not two.


The Father's name is Tyler Webb and The Mother's name is Katherine Webb. If they're late picking me up again, I should alert people because there are mean men out there where Mommy never gets to go. I don’t like to alert people. Their cars smell funny, like cat dodo or chicken soup or hair. I like walking home because I like the cold air on my cheeks and I like being a bee finding home, like there’s something inside me that just knows. I live at 1123 Elk Trail—not circle or bend or ridge, which are all near by but I don't live on any of these— and I can walk to 1123 Elk Trail from here because I know what the signs mean. I know that Elk has three letters and Trail has more, and I know where The Mother keeps the spare key. And I know if The Father and The Mother aren’t there when I get home, I have to sit quietly in the kitchen and wait.

Christopher Allen is the author of "Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire)", an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Allen's award-winning fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Indiana Review, SmokeLong Quarterly's Best of the First Ten Years anthology, Prime Number Magazine, A-Minor Magazine, Blue Fifth Review and Pure Slush, among many others. A finalist at Glimmer Train in 2011, Allen has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize twice. He is the managing editor of the daily litzine Metazen and lives in Germany.


Seth Pevey In Waxahachie Who would know the secrets of the world? They once tried near Waxahachie. Disappointed towns ring the insolubly vacant site, the vast empty acres of it. It would have been a place of science, of light, a place to scribe the recipe of the universe. The men of science would order bacon and eggs without fail and called it the Superconducting Supercollider. We just call it the “Desertron”— something about atoms. For years every hoe and dozer in the county was rented, to go with the government fleets of them, to dig out rectangles of dry Texas earth like graves. They then lay down a track, a tunnel I mean; a man ordered black coffee and said the atoms would one day race through it until they smacked into each other like freight trains of a size beneath man’s reckoning. No one seemed to know what would happen when they met, but they all loved the cheesecake. For reasons why they stopped, why they never did finish, we heard many different stories and didn’t hear some too, likely enough. The Russians, and our great fear, were by then both flailing. Effortlessly bested, there was no need to out super-collide the Ruskies, not any more. The many limbs of their country were being severed one by one, like a man caught in a great bear trap that has to mutilate himself to escape. I heard it said too that the money went to the new space station instead. The man who liked peppers on his hash brown said it would rain down answers, light from above on our upturned, dirty faces. Anyway, there was a recession; that is what I think it was, business was slow just from the bottom to the top. They left it how it was and were gone: a sad thing to look at like a halfeaten steak. Folks were pretty disappointed. Me too. Those scientists were always hungry. Sometimes I drive out there nights after locking up. The tunnels yawn open into the sky. Kids use them to make-out with each other and get stoned, turning out secrets of their own. The prairie has started to grow up again in the empty space, taking back what the state wiped clean. Sometimes I drive out and think about things in their colliding, about atoms and the pieces unseen which have us all wound up in their mystery. Other times, I don’t think about anything at all.


Seth Pevey is a Louisiana native living in South Korea where he teaches English at a National university. He is the editor of a local English magazine for expats called the Gwangju News and hosts a weekly segment on the local English Radio, where he reviews films. He has short fiction published in NOLAfugees and The Kudzu Review.


Ed Ahern The Busted Watch We’d spent our years together in guy-talk banalities, beneath which I think both Pete and I knew that it would end badly. The awareness of the ending started with a phone call. “No George,” I said.”I haven’t talked to Pete in at least three weeks, so I don’t know what he’s up to.” “Look Mike, I’ve tried calling and e-mailing him for over a week with no response. His voice mail is full. Something’s wrong. I’m trapped into appointments until next week and can’t get up there. He’s your friend. Could you go up and check on him?” “I squirmed for a few seconds. “Well, hell. All right, George, walk over and drop off the keys. I’ll try to get hold of Pete and if I can’t reach him I’ll make the run up tomorrow.” I hung up and called Pete’s number. The message box regurgitated on me. I fired off an e-mail that disappeared into the ether. George dropped off the key to what had been his childhood home. The next morning I waited until the morning traffic congestion dwindled down. I had four hours to weave my way around trucks from southern Connecticut to Fall River, Massachusetts. Lots of time to think.Pete Harding and I had been get-drunk-together buddies, which meant we didn’t have to believe each other, just back stop fantasies. We were unattached Caucasians living in Japan. Our limited Japanese made it hard to say anything significant to our neighbors, and we’d defaulted into closeness. After three years we both bailed out and took corporate jobs stateside. Once I’d dried out and Pete hadn’t we saw each other less frequently. Pete’s fabrications had grated a lot more without the lubrication of booze. Over the next ten years Pete spiraled down through increasingly menial jobs and spent what little money he had. “They’re throw away jobs, Mike,” he’d said. “But once I get something decent the first thing I’m going to do is take my Rolex out of the safe deposit box and get it fixed.” He’d sold or pawned everything else of value. The watch was the only thing left he could brag about. And even that was suspect. I’d never actually seen it. When Pete had been threatened with eviction from his two room apartment I’d arranged for Pete to take care of George’s vacant family home in Fall River. I hadn’t been there since I’d helped Pete move in.


Pete’s car was in the driveway. I rang and knocked at the front door but there was no answer. The mail box overflowed with letters and circulars. I unlocked the front door, but it was bolted from the inside. I walked through the snow covered yard to the back door. The key worked. The smell ballooned out and pushed me back, a wave of throat rasping decay. I held my breath and stuck my head into the kitchen. It was full of flies, alive and dead. Even without breathing, the sweet/sour cloy oozed into my nostrils. I slammed the door shut and dialed 911. A long five minutes later the squad car pulled up, followed by an ambulance and a fire truck. I wondered what the firemen would do. I explained to the cops who I was and what I’d done. One of the cops took the keys and reopened the back door. He backed away a lot faster than I had, but had the experience to leave the door open so the concentrated rot could dissipate. He turned to the other cop. “Jesus, I hate these.” Then he called over the EMTs.” You’ll need respirators and suits.” Four of them suited up and went in. A gust of wind reminded me how cold the day was, maybe five degrees below freezing. I went back to my car, put on my winter coat, and called George. “George, hi. Listen, I think Pete might have died in the house.” “Are you sure it’s not just the refrigerator that’s crapped out?” “No, Pete’s car is here, and the smell is awful, something’s dead in there. I called the cops. They’re in the house now. That’s all I know, but I’ll call you back once they come back out.” The EMTs came out first and starting getting out of their hazmat suits. I gave one of them a questioning look. “Mr. Marteau, there’s a body on the sofa in the TV room. Been dead a long time. There’s maggots and flies all over and decomposition fluids have seeped through the sofa and into the carpet.” The two cops came back out, pulled off their respirators but left the overalls on. The cop I’d talked to, Royce Burrows, called the medical examiner’s office. We organized coffee from a nearby diner while we waited. When the guy from the ME’s office showed up he and the two cops dressed up and walked into the house. The Medical examiner and first cop came out empty handed. The second cop came out carrying a body bag in one hand without leaning over from the weight. Once they’d stripped out of their suits I went over to Burrows. “Is it Pete?”


“Dunno. The body’s badly decomposed. The remains go to the ME’s office for identification and a cause of death, although determining that will be tough. The heat in the house had been set high, around 75, which accelerated things. I turned the thermostat down to 60. “We have all your contact information, Mr. Marteau.. Is there a next of kin?” “Sort of. He has a bitter ex-wife in Oregon, and a sister he hasn’t talked to in eight or nine years.” “We’ll need their information. Once we’ve authorized entry the owner can go in and clean up. Whoever goes in there should get respirators and hazmat suits.” The second cop relocked the door and put warning tape on it. The vehicles cleared out of the yard and I was left alone in the snow. I called George. “George, listen, they found a body in the TV room. Yeah, pretty sure it’s Pete. The cops and Medical Examiner have been and gone. The place is locked up again and we can’t get in until they give their okay. Do you have insurance for this? The cop said that the place would have to be stripped and decontaminated.” “Mike, is the house all right?” “No, listen, shit, I don’t know. The heat’s still on, so there shouldn’t be a problem with the pipes. Nothing else I can do here, so I’m coming back.” Fewer trucks clogged the road on the way back, but I missed them, they would have kept me busy maneuvering. Random thoughts fired off. How much Pete aggravated me. How I hated his constant lying about important people he knew and the important things he’d done. How I could be doing more for him. It was only when I wondered about the cause of his death that I realized I’d been thinking of Pete in the present tense. I remembered the last fishing camp we stayed at. It was as close as I ever came to bracing Pete about his lies and as Pete ever got to being honest with me. The dead dark of Canadian forest swallowed the dim cabin lighting just outside the windows. We were both drunk. “And after I came back from Japan I picked up an MBA while I was working out of Hartford.” “Bullshit Pete. I think you got an MBA just like I think you really met Henry Kissinger. Tell me the truth, for Christ’s sake.” Pete stared at me, eyes bleared. “What do you know? You don’t know what it’s like to be completely broke, to have nothing, to be able to do nothing. You’ve got a wife, a job, money.” We‘d stood on the threshold of his purgatory, me looking in and him looking out, but went back into hiding, talking about the next day’s fishing.


I had to stop in at George’s place before I went home. He’d grown up in the Fall River house that now was uninhabitable. He deserved a face to face apology from me for recommending Pete as a lodger. “What the hell happened, Mike? Pete sounded drunk a couple times when I called. Was he an alcoholic?” “Could be. He hadn’t had anything good happen to him in a long time. His wife divorced him within a month of his losing his best job. He had gout and terrible eyesight, and was at least seventy pounds overweight. He’d lost his last job as a jitney driver about a month ago.” “He was broke? He always paid me.” “Flat. The only times Pete went out to eat was when I took him. He talked about a safe deposit box that had an expensive watch in it but I never saw it. Probably just another of his lies. Look George, I want to help you with this. Pete was my friend and not yours. I recommended him to you. We’ll take care of things once the cops let us in.” The next day I dug up Pete’s wife’s telephone number and the name and location of Pete’s sister. I called officer Burrows and the ME’s office in Boston and passed along the information. The ME’s office called back a few days later. “Mr. Marteau, this is Jennifer Carson of the Medical Examiner’s office in Boston.” “Yes?” “I’ve contacted Mr. Harding’s former wife and sister. Unfortunately neither one wishes to become involved with the disposition of Mr. Harding’s remains. His sister was, um, quite firm that she would decline to have anything to do with his affairs. This means we have no next of kin to work through.” “I’m not surprised. They hadn’t spoken in years.” “Mr. Marteau, we need someone to assume responsibility for Mr. Harding’s burial once identification is confirmed.” “But I’m not his executor…” “I understand Mr. Marteau, and it would be impossible for you to act as administrator of his affairs, since you reside out of state.” “Pete had no money. Doesn’t the state just bury him?” “The state may provide burial assistance, but we need a person to take responsibility for his burial. You don’t have to be related to Mr. Harding to do this.” “Oh. Ah, there’s no one else I know of, so I guess I’m it.”


“Thank you Mr. Marteau , I’ll e-mail you the forms. Based on our initial examination I believe the police will let you have entry to the house shortly. One thing though…” “Yes?” “We haven’t been able to identify the body yet, because of its deteriorated condition. His dentures were missing. It would expedite matters if you could locate the dentures and forward them to us.” “How does that help identify him?” “We match the contours of the dentures to the bone structure of his jaw.” “Dentures. Jesus. All right I guess.” I called Burrows and got his okay to go into the house. George and I drove to Home Depot. They had hazmat suits but no respirators, so we had to settle for masks with filters. The next day we drove up from Connecticut to Fall River. I anticipated the stench, which made it worse. The mask and filters kept the flies from our faces, but did little to keep out the odor. Thousands of dead flies littered the floor and furniture. The latest generation of living flies was listless. There was nothing left for them to feed on. Soiled clothes and food remnants were strewed about the rooms. The garbage disposal in the kitchen was clogged with clam shells. We opened up doors and windows to the winter air. The smell was worst in the TV room where Pete had died. An empty scotch bottle lay next to the couch, which was soaked in body fluids and retained the shape of his body. Pete had died while lying on his side. I held my breath three times to enter and reenter the room and shove open the windows. On my way out on the third trip I noticed Pete’s car keys and wallet neatly placed on a yellow legal pad with some numbers written on it. I scooped them up as I left. George started gathering family items while I bagged up Pete’s personal effects from the bedroom and a desk in the living room. Pete had organized nothing. Bills, diplomas, photos were all jumbled into drawers. I scooped handfuls of material from the drawers and threw them into a trash bag. I noticed two little envelopes for deposit box keys in the bottom of one drawer. There really was a safe deposit box. I loaded another trash bag with four weeks of mail from the front porch. I found the dentures tossed loose into a drawer in the bathroom and added them to the trash bag. George was ominously silent, but compulsively reacted to the violation of his family kitchen. He spent two hours cleaning rotten food from the refrigerator and sink, and fly infested boxes from the cabinets. When we walked out just before dark the kitchen was the only room in the house that looked remotely habitable.


George blew up on the drive back to Connecticut. “How could he treat my house like that! Not his dying, the way he was living. Rooms filthy, food left to rot on the stove. The bathtub was filled with dirty underwear!” “I know. And I recommended him. But God help me, he was my friend, George. He was a broke drunk with no job, and bad health problems. The last time I saw him he could barely walk. His sister and ex wife hated him. Maybe he just gave up.” But George deserved to be let in a little more. “As his life got worse he compensated by fabricating stories about what he’d accomplished and who he knew. It got so I didn’t believe anything he told me. I liked him in spite of it all, by osmosis maybe, or because of who he once was. And God help me I still like him, for all that he did to you and the money he borrowed from me that I’ll never see again.” After I dropped George off I was too tense to vegetate. I spent the evening going through Pete’s effects. He’d jettisoned most of the records of his life. There was only one picture of his parents, two of his ex-wife., and none of his sister. There was no will or instructions on what he wanted done after his death. He had a few dollars in a savings account, and one dollar bill in his wallet. He owed about $30,000 to credit unions, banks, doctors and hospitals. He was the most improved student in the third grade of St. Margaret’s school. He graduated with an MBA from a well known business school. One for you, Pete, you did tell the truth sometimes. There was a severance letter from his last company advising that he was being fired from his minimum wage job because, for the third time, he had hit a parked car with his service truck. I realized that Pete must have concealed the loss of sight in his right eye. A yellow legal pad had handwritten numbers listing his income and expenses for the coming month. Without his check from the livery company he was below water by $350. I called a recommended undertaker in Fall River the next day. He was nicer than he had to be, given that Pete would be buried with $1200 in state assistance in an unmarked pauper’s grave. The death certificate arrived a week later in the mail. The cause of death was listed as heart failure, which I assumed was their wild assed guess. After I’d talked again to the undertaker I called Camille, Pete’s sister. “Camille, I appreciate your talking with me. I know you and Pete weren’t close.” “He was dead to me a long time before he died. I don’t want anything to do with him, alive or dead. Just send me a copy of the death certificate.” “Pete could be hard to put up with.”


Camille’s voice broke. “He was a thief and an ingrate. I took care of our dad and mom when they got sick and died and he never helped out, never sent money or came to visit. And then after they were dead he went to the house and took stuff. How can you be his friend?” “I sometimes ask myself that, Camille. When we were drinking buddies we were okay with each other. Later on he was, I don’t know, part of me that wasn’t surviving, that needed protection.” Pete’s ex wife Rose was also scarred over. “Mike, I never told you, but Pete lost his job in Hartford because of his drinking. And he got worse. Pete was nice around you, but he was abusive when he drank. Even after we got divorced he would get drunk, call me and make threats. I can send you a little money to help with the burial but leave me out of it.” “Do you want me to send his papers? There isn’t much.” “No, don’t. There’s nothing I want. Mike, for what it’s worth, Pete seemed to be happiest when you and he were fishing together. It was like he could take some time out from a bad life.” I scraped together some money from Pete’s acquaintances and another $300 of my own and got him buried. I mailed copies of the death certificate to the creditors, telling them that Pete had died broke and not to contact me. Three of them tried to reach me anyway. I told the car loan company where to collect the car and keys. And that left just the safe deposit box. Carol Groves was in charge of the safe deposit boxes at the bank. “Mr. Marteau,, Mr. Harding was the only signatory with access to the box. Although you have the keys you’re not the administrator of his estate, so you have no access. If, as you say he has a sister she can petition for access to the box.” “She wants nothing to do with his affairs. What happens once the rent isn’t paid on the box?” “We open it and turn the contents over to the state.” “I’ll call you back.” I called Rose first. “Listen, Pete apparently has a safe deposit box. The only thing that’s maybe in it is a busted watch. I can’t get into it, and from out in Oregon I don’t know that you can or want to get involved, but I wanted to tell you about it.” “Safe Deposit Box?” “Yeah. I’ve got the keys but only Pete could have used them. His sister could spend some money and get the right to open the box, but I don’t think she wants to go anywhere near it.” “Pete had money our first few years together, but after all he’s been through I can’t believe there’s anything left. Do what you need to do, Mike.” Camille didn’t hesitate. “Nothing, I want nothing to do with him Mike. Least of all going through the legal expense and aggravation of trying to get into a bank box.”


“I don’t know what’s in there Camille, maybe his will, maybe an old Rolex, maybe nothing. If you’re sure I’ll just turn the keys back in to the bank.” “Do it.” Camille hesitated. “You’ve were a good friend to him Mike. Too good. He always thought he was better than me, smarter, better educated. Look at him now.” “Yeah.” I called Carol Groves back at the bank. “Carol, I’m going to send you a letter with the keys and a copy of the death certificate. A favor to ask though.” “As I said, Mr. Marteau, you have no access to the box.” “I understand, but we should know what was in the box, just to settle things. Could you give me a call back and let me know?” “I guess so.” George and I spent three days stripping his family home of its furnishings, most of which were consigned to a dumpster. We bricked up the experience, and never mention how and where Pete died. It took two more months for Carol Groves to call back. “Mr. Marteau?” “Yes?” “Carol Groves from the bank. We opened the box. The only thing in the box was a watch.” “No will?” “No. the watch apparently is an18kt solid gold Rolex. It’ll get turned over to the state.” I smiled. Busted Pete and his busted Rolex were both being taken care of by the state. Better care than maybe I’d been able to give him. I waited a year, but no one contacted me, so I burnt his photos and papers. I couldn’t bring myself to just throw them out. I keep his wallet in the center drawer of my desk, where I see it fairly often. I left the lone dollar bill inside it. A leather keepsake from a good friend with no grave stone.

Ed Ahern resumed writing after forty odd years in foreign intelligence and international sales. He has his original wife, but advises that after forty five years they are both out of warranty. Ed has had thirty six stories accepted thus far.


Kevin McCoy Kansas in the Corner look at old kansas in the corner everyone laughs they always do stared into the sun for too long went blind went crazy went way too fast on icy roads and drinks to dowse a burning mistake he says i remember the black and white days back in goodland the spencer girls in tight cotton dresses walking back from church in the sweet heat of summer shutters slapping the old henderson house most nights i could hear them before you were born the sky was sepia

you’re hearing ghosts - old kansas in the corner he sits slouching with a bible and a bell the old man knocks one back and spins faster in the world of whiskey he says –


i dug the earth for fifty years i’m a fifth generation to plow these fields but the crop is thin these days the red plains yawn under the new sun like beasts yoked for labor


Kevin McCoy Run of the Mill Hallucinations (Rimbaud Said That) For Rimbaud hell is French and boring For me it is the flies dancing tight circles Above the dishes waiting Broken fan buzzing Dog scratching Light bulb bursting dark

Kevin McCoy lives and works in Colorado and is currently working on a new collection of poems.


Natassja Traylor Act Natural I. Home again. I throw my duck-yellow rain coat over the pile of clothes and scarves on the stairs. I watch a pool of brown water ooze from under my rain boots as I place them next to the roll of electrical tape, cobwebs, hairclips, and yellowed junk mail in the corner that my family hasn’t noticed in half a year. My teacher gave me a note today for mom or dad, but if it’s good or bad I don’t know because Mrs. Teri’s handwriting is too cursive for me to read--that’s a third grader thing--so I keep it safe in my backpack. On the first step I tense my legs and prepare to pounce upward as usual. I look up quickly to chart a path through the obstacles that live on the stairs--lint roller, hand vacuum, mail bundles, dogs and so much hair--but I don’t pounce. Instead my head bobs backwards like a chicken’s head would if it were walking in reverse (they can’t, but if they could), and I jerk my foot back by the other on the tile where the world is steady again. At the top of the stairs I do not see the thick white trim that outlines the kitchen doorway, or the mauve paint screaming off the wall; all that exists at the top of the stairs is what I know from hearsay to be a penis. I turn away. I turn back slowly and gaze up the stairs. I feel guilty and squirmy about it but the image of it is stuck in my mind like the dab of rubber cement I dripped on the living room carpet. That painting was not there when I left for school. The penis is painted in shades of blue, from dark, so dark it is nearly black, to light, so light it is nearly white, with gold eyes like a smoldering midday sun. I feel the heat of him peering down at me from the wall. I hold my ground at the bottom stair. The blue that glazes his cheekbones makes me wonder if it’s not a real man up there. The smooth downward curve of the penis, a half-frown, hovers above and I can’t take my eyes from it. I imagine a thick rope arching from his blue body, a rope that someone glued to his belly--or maybe an anchor hanging from the side of a ship before the sailors lower it to the waves. Maybe it’s more like a rubber shovel. I turn away again. “Oh hi, sweetie I didn’t hear you come home,” my mom says from the top of the stairs. My head is turned away but I can feel her peering down at me, the man peering from behind her shoulder.


“Hi Mom.” My voice is slow, syrupy, and the sound takes time coming out. My nerves are rigid and my hands quiver. I wonder if she knows I saw it. I know that the time between seeming normal and seeming odd is closing, so I force my face towards her, and him. I try to look only at my mother’s face. I try to act natural. II. A few years later I stand in the Seattle Art Museum with my uncle and hover between the pop art gallery and a room of David-esque statues. The lighting is dim and the gallery walls are dark, but the white marble statues are naked specters, stark under individual spotlights. I look at my uncle and my palms grow sweaty. I am thinking of an interior decorating show I saw on television a few months ago. The host wears a tight black turtleneck and moves like a dancer through the kitchen he designed. He unveils the final product to his client by exclaiming “isn’t it fabulous?” and twirls his outstretched arms in invitation. “That guy is so gay,” I say to my mom. “Your uncle is gay, did you know that?” she replies. I did not know. Many “uncles” entered and left my childhood, but I never gave them much thought. My uncles were my uncles, and that was that. Like the painted penis, a subject which was so natural for my parents that they did not account for the perspective of a child, the presence of my uncle’s boyfriends at Thanksgivings, Christmases, barbeques, and birthday dinners felt natural to my family--as natural as the clutter my parents kept around the house, so familiar, so close that it was never noticed, it never came up--and when the truth did come up about my uncle, I realized that nothing I knew was wholly solid. I’d left home and found myself in the Marianas Trench, a far somewhere I knew little about except for the few second-hand impressions I’d picked up. The truths I thought I knew could be unwound with a soft touch. I had to wonder what acting natural meant for me. III. My uncle and I enter the statue gallery. The blue-white hue of the marble beckons. We gawk openly at the forms in front of us and I’m in awe of the age of the carved stone, the intricacy of it, but I’m distracted. I’m hyper aware of my uncle’s presence as we weave the gallery. He walks closely and occasionally drapes his arm over my shoulder as we read the plaques, as if we could stand there all day until the statues began to move. It seemed as if nothing had changed, and as far as my uncle knew,


nothing had; but I, standing there with him and the statues, knew that I was not entirely the same person as the one who did not know my uncle is gay. We walk the gallery, get lunch at the museum restaurant, and he drops me off at home. The truth is that we invent and reinvent ourselves, we act natural.

Natassja Traylor lives in Bellingham, Washington where she is finishing her B.A. in creative writing and interning with local non-profit organizations. She lives with two silly birds who keep her shoulders warm when she writes. She hikes, bird watches, plays board games, and reads as many books as life allows.


Janelle Ward Milk Dud The milk dud rolled across the floor. Its origin was unclear. There was no doubt, however, that it had been separated from its original packaging and fellow milk duds. Its surface was pristine, uneven but shiny, though even a ravenous teenager would surely turn up her nose at its drab, milk chocolaty coloring. And its edibility was tainted now that it had made the intimate acquaintance of the floor of metro train 51, direction Amsterdam Central Station. No one in a right mind would touch it. Not me, not the Russian-speaking couple sitting across from me, not the middle-aged woman with her face partly hidden by a scarf. We all watched its progress, though, and pondered the transformation from delicious to disgusting so easily determined by time and place. The train came to a stop. Amsterdam Amstel. The milk dud was slammed cruelly into the front end of the train car, bouncing back. An overhead voice announced a transfer option: Overstappen op tram 12. The doors opened. The Russian speaking couple disembarked. A group of students got on. The milk dud was out of their reach, resting under the seat in front of me. The students sat down. Several were nondescript. Two males were dark haired with curious eyes. A female dominated the group’s attention. The train lurched forward. The milk dud sprang into action, rolling toward the group of students. I felt myself leaning in the direction of its travel, the forces of the train’s acceleration having a similar but much less dramatic effect on my positioning. Though a personal investment in its survival was not reasonable, I found myself holding my breath, hoping that no one would stomp on it and halt its journey. I didn’t have to worry. The students were much too consumed with their own conversation. The blonde girl’s voice rose above the others, her eyes wide, arms waving. Some of them nodded. Others just stared. The conversation dipped down again. One of the dark haired males was quick to reassure her. The train slowed again. I knew that deceleration would send the milk dud in my direction. The driver really hit the brakes this time, and the milk dud crashed into my foot before I had the chance to react. I gasped – quietly, as my interest in this object was potentially beyond normal parameters. The milk dud had already rolled away, bouncing against one seat leg then the other, a helpless victim of the forces of nature, unable to control its direction or speed.


Janelle Ward is a Minnesota native and has spent the last 12 years in the Netherlands, evolving from carnivorous student to vegetarian mama. Her day job is in political communication. She’s published a bunch of academic stuff but is most passionate about fiction writing. Her work has appeared in The Molotov Cocktail, Litro, and Pure Slush.


Andy Cochran Tiny Comets “I wish…” she said as the crowd jostled them out of the theater and into the snow. He took her mittened hand. She let him hold it. All these people, and she let him hold it. “You know what they say about possibilities and parallel universes,” he said. “In some other universe we’re—” “We’re here.” The snow fell like tiny comets—in streaks, pelting everything. Hair. Coat shoulders. Her face. Her lashes. The pavement. Parking meters. Hurtling cars. Everyone hurrying around them and onward. “Yes,” he said. “We are.” Hand in hand they walked, she with head bowed to the snowflakes that struck and struck and struck, he gazing up into the vast black from which they fell.

Andy Cochran's fiction has appeared in Saw Palm, Toasted Cheese, Foliate Oak, and is forthcoming from Hamilton Stone Review. He teaches at UW-Stout and holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida. He's currently going toe to toe with his YA novel "Clutch."


Benjamin Thomas Kings & Queens A penny saved is a penny earned. And a penny lost is a lesson learned. Never raise with a deuce-seven. There’s a reason it’s regarded as one of the worst hands to play, let alone bluff on. But there was something in her eye, something that said try me. Try her I did. Three of us were in when the cards flopped: deuce, seven, queen. My heart smacked my rib caged. I swallowed and prayed she didn't hear the rock of saliva plummet to my stomach. "What's your name sweetie?" Her eyes barely moved, but as my own browns caught her blues a coy smile crept across her face. "Autumn." Gorgeous. "Gorgeous." Her fingers tapped the table, but I wasn't in the same room. I threw in my chips and offered her a wink. Her hand hovered above her stack. She contemplated. Her chips clanked with those already in the pot. The cowboy next to me threw his cards face down. The dealer swept them up as he sipped his beer, content with simply watching us wage war. Next card comes up a six. She smiles. Is she fishing for a straight? A combination of numbers in her hand that could possibly align if the river chooses to let it? She sets down a stack in the center, half of her total pile. I call. The river's another lovely lady. Queens and sevens prove not to be a bad hand in this game. Hell of a way to come when dealt deuce-seven as your start. She puts in another stack leaving only half-a-dozen chips left. She's bluffing. Her straight draw ran out and now she's up the creek. My mouth waters with the anticipation. "Back up north," I say as I push enough to the center to force her all in. She stares at me with her lips parted ever so slightly. She's caught. She's vested and she's caught. "I used to love them autumn winds." She looks at her cards again. Undoubtedly praying they would miraculously change. They won't. I've tried. We've all tried. She exhales deep and picks up the last of her chips. The dealer calls us and we flip. I reach for the pile and stop dead as four queens stare back at me with the same piercing eyes her expressionless face has. I barely hear her voice as she whispers, "and let the winds of change begin to blow."


Benjamin Thomas writes from New England where he unequally balances time between concerts, hiking, and quoting seemingly random movies. Working towards an MFA from Albertus Magnus College, his writing has appeared in various e-zines and anthologies.


Visit www.crackthespine.com to review our submission guidelines or to subscribe

Crack the Spine - Issue 86  

Literary Magazine

Crack the Spine - Issue 86  

Literary Magazine

Advertisement