Crack the Spine Literary magazine
Crack the Spine Literary magazine Issue Eighty-Eight November 6, 2013 Edited by Kerri Farrell Foley Collection copyright 2013 by Crack the Spine
we will always
select madness over
Jon Sindell My Peace Sarah Lilius Taxidermy Victory George Matak The House Party Girl Elizabeth Rose To Love a Forest Fire Dennis Must Wartime Stockings Eunice Tiptree A Different Kind of Blue Barbara Tramonte I Live in Ernest Simon Rogghe Fired Up For Grad School
Jon Sindell My Peace “Hey, Johnny.” It was my father, the best man I know. The wisest man, too. Guys at work call him Buddha for his bald little head and this little smile that says he knows something that no one else knows. I’m not wise like him and I hardly ever smile, `cause it feels like something slimy’s crawling across my face when I do, `cause I’m thirteen and weird in a teenage sort of way—too skinny and tall, with a shaky voice and a dumb overbite, and the girls laugh at me, and there’s rich poser kids and a moron who pushes me in the hall. Dad always listens nice and quiet when I complain, then he snaps the top off a beer can and says, “SNAFU, Johnny. Situation normal—dot dot dot.” No cursing for Dad. He’s a wise man, a wizard. No matter what happens—more yelling by mom, more crap from his boss—he takes it in stride, with a little Buddha smile like he’s millions of miles away and at peace with the world. I was in the doorway of The Sanctuary, and he waved me over to the worktable. “Did you ever wonder what true peace is like, son?” I gave him that slimy grin to make him happy, but I couldn’t look straight into his eyes—they’re too bright and intense, full of super cosmic intelligence or something. Dad doesn’t mind. He never tells me, Look me in the eye! like a teacher I know. So he just said, “Let’s talk, John,” with a friendly voice and a twinkly smile like the dads in the movies, those old black and whites. He’s my own movie dad. And he knows real life, not the bookworm crap they feed you in school. I smiled full out. Only my dad makes my smile feel good. The Sanctuary is our garage, and Dad loves it. He’s got a little fridge full of beers for him and soda for me that he keeps locked, he keeps everything locked `cause he’s such a great dad—first–aid, safe driving, all that. He’s got a bench and a barbell—he’s small, but you can see how pumped he is in the arms and chest when he wears a tee shirt—and he’s got a work table where he fixes broken lamps and stuff while listening to football or sports talk or politics. Once we rented Hunchback Of Notre Dame, the black–and–white one, and when we went to the garage to get away from the drama in the house he said “Sanctuary!” in The Hunchback’s weird voice. It’s been The Sanctuary ever since. “Thirteen’s a special age, Johnny. You’re becoming a man.”
I felt my smile go slimy `cause I knew he was lying. “Do you know what happens when a Jewish boy turns thirteen? It’s a rite of passage, and they call him a man. Did you know that?” “It’s called a bar something.” The only Jewish person I knew was my math teacher, and he made me feel dumb with this look on his face that was supposed to be friendly, but really he was laughing at you. “But John,” he said, pointing at his head, “they don’t know.” He winked at me like he had a great secret to tell from ancient times or the edge of space. Then he put his hand under my chin and lifted it up so that I had to look him in the eyes. His smile got bigger, and I smiled back just like him. “Do you ever wonder about absolute peace?” he said. It sounded like church talk, except we never go. “Do you ever wonder about absolute quiet?” I didn’t understand, but his smile was so nice that I kept looking at him. “You’ve heard the expression peace and quiet, right, son?” I nodded. Dad has this way of pulling me along when we talk. He absolutely should have been a teacher. He’s ten times smarter than the real teachers. “Remember how peaceful it was in the woods last summer?” I nodded. Last summer we went camping, just us two, and sat by the river just listening to the water for hours, not talking at all. I’m not exaggerating. We did not talk for hours. “You can have that same kind of peace right here in the city. You can have the quiet that brings the peace.” He reached into his pocket for his big key ring that had about fifteen keys and found the one that unlocked the drawer beneath the worktable. I thought maybe he was hiding a bottle of Jack Daniels in there and would let me have a sip, a rite of passage like a Jewish kid having wine at his bar thing. Or maybe he’d initiate me into smoking grass with his medical marijuana, or maybe he had some Buddhist prayer beads or something. “Son,” he said. “Put your hand out, palm up. And close your eyes.” I did what he said. “Now feel that, son.” It felt so good, so cool in my hand. So heavy and smooth. Dad closed my hand around the grip, which had a nice pebbly feel, and slipped my finger through the trigger guard and set it on the trigger. “You can open `em now.” He was holding my hand in both of his hands with the barrel of the gun pointed at the floor. The gun wasn’t loaded, but he told me in a very serious way to never point a gun at a living person even if you’re sure it’s unloaded.
“Now Johnny,” he said. “Did you ever feel total command? Did you ever have the feeling of making the entire world stand still, like it’s at your command?” It was a silly question, so I ignored it. But like I said, he should’ve been a teacher, because he’s always a step ahead of my thinking, always pulling me along until I realize that I know stuff that I didn’t know that I knew `til he shows me. “John, think. Did you ever feel like you’re—”—he stopped and gave me this epic wise man look that went deep inside of me, and lowered his voice like a movie trailer guy—“master of the universe?” “Yeah!” I said. My favorite game. “And that part where you finally corner Dreyghon, and he puts down his weapon and gets on his knees and begs you not to kill him? And you put your gun right to his head and just ... listen?” “Yeah,” I said. “You know that feeling you get? Of absolute peace?” “Yeah,” I said. I played that part over and over just to see Dreyghon shut his big fat ugly fish face for once. Dad mussed up my hair. It was funny that he had to reach up to do it. “Imagination is the key to finding peace, to escaping the aggravation of the world. Did you know they did studies that if you imagine a thing, you feel the thing? And the thing becomes real in your mind, the way your neurons fire and everything?” I nodded, more with excitement than understanding. “They’ve done studies on these Buddhist swamis that astral project—you know, leave their bodies, transport themselves across a river or something. They put electrodes on their brains, and you can see their bodies still sitting there, but their brain waves are going crazy, like they’re really flying. Or they make themselves feel fire or ice even if there isn’t any. Like hypnotism, sort of. See what I mean?” “Yeah,” I said. “Great! So that’s what we’re doing. Now listen, Johnny. I want you to picture someone who chaps your hide, like that smart ass math teacher, or some stuck up chick, or that SOB bully. Okay?” We have a dart board against a wall in The Sanctuary. Dad pulled a picture of a black shadow of a human head from the gun drawer, a silhouette, and pinned it to the dart board. “Alright now. Who’s your target?” I smiled up at him like I couldn’t believe I could do this. He read my mind and nodded that I could, and I started thinking of people, but there were so many to choose from that I couldn’t decide. “Well,” he said, `cause he really can read my mind, “there was that big mouth animal rights activist who stuck that flyer in our face when we were trying to enjoy our ribs in peace.” Yeah, she was a jerk.
”Or those gun control nuts who go on TV every time some fool goes off and gives us all a bad name. You’ll settle on someone. Just meditate on it.” So I closed my eyes with the gun in both hands and the barrel pointed at the floor with Dad’s hand on my hands, and meditated with the biggest smile ever. Then I opened my eyes and lifted the gun to the dart board. “Got someone in mind? Excellent. Now I want you to imagine them chapping your hide with their stupid words, like that math teacher or those rich snots, or that punk shoving you in the hall. It’s all good.” “I got it,” I said. “Alright,” he said. “Now just lift the piece up nice and steady and press it to their forehead.” I pressed the gun to the math teacher’s head. “Now listen,” Dad said. I listened. “What do you hear?” “Nothing,” I answered. “He like, totally stopped talking.” “Darn right,” said Dad. “It’s just quiet,” I said. He smiled as if I was super bright. He took the gun from me and locked it in the gun drawer. I don’t have the key, and Dad won’t get me my own piece until I’m eighteen— but I visit The Sanctuary with Dad whenever someone chaps me, and I find my peace there.
Jon Sindell’s short fiction has appeared in Hobart, Word Riot, Zouch, New South, Many Mountains Moving, Prick Of The Spindle, Switchback, and elsewhere. He curates the Rolling Writers reading series in San Francisco and earns his bread as a full-time personal humanities tutor, having left the practice of law behind. A human, he strives to live humanely. His novel, "The Mighty Roman," is a journey to the manly heart of baseball darkness.
Sarah Lilius Taxidermy James River State Park Visitor’s Center, Summer 2013 We start out happy. My 8-month-old finds his needs filled and just smiles and laughs like a baby fool drunk on love. The innocence is in him fueling his sounds, his full eyes. Then we grow. We find tiny injustices and wane a bit. It’s the way looking a stuffed black bear in the eyes can give you nightmares. You’re not allowed to touch an animal long dead but you want to. Posed in death to stand tall. As tall as any man would fear. But I’m sorry bear, you’ll not get the best of me.
My 5 year old has his needs filled and wants more. Understanding begins to fill his eyes. He sees the bear and refuses to linger. Refuses to look that bear solid in the eye. He poses in front of the deer. Nothing we need to fear in her subtle pose. Sweetness cannot follow fear unless you let it. We settle into patterns like a circle. Find the black bear inside us, and the doe in our hearts.
Sarah Lilius currently lives in Arlington, VA. She graduated from Augustana College in Rock Island, IL. Some of her publication credits include Denver Quarterly, Heartlands, Court Green, Marlboro Review, BlazeVOX, and Bluestem. She also co-authored the chapbook "Here, Hunger" (NeoPepper Press) with fellow poet Erin M. Bertram.
Victor George Matak The House Party Girl I first saw her riveting on the dance floor. I had been reading Bullet Park that night and I was brimming, sexually, at all moments and I don’t know what it was that I intimated, but it must have been coarse and atavistic because we were hoisting our bodies every which way and jagging around as if we were in some kind of carnival circus troupe. Our bodies not our own but our bodies simple puppets with a mind that slackened and tugged and ineffable emotions that didn’t matter one bit. For it was dark and the night young, and all our lives we have been told to experience such moments and not to question them. Carnality had ruled the dilapidated house and spurred a kind of need that you could place once you were inside: a fleshy wanting. Every which way you looked there would be couples branched out and the cool groping of another September night manifested easily despite the shattered chairs and blaring techno music and the smoking mist that tethered around the house. Imitating the facial expressions of others, I had done so as to not reveal that my testosterone was jacking up inside of me like a roaring, indiscriminate bull. My horns were my hands and they gorged into her body’s curvature and I broke her in, bending her back near to the floor so that she would know that I was man, and she woman. It was my intention that we should relive some ancient style, of those Neanderthals who killed and ate and loved without it being love, for such a word did not yet exist and nor did the understanding that this word – love – was meant to be the end of all things. It was freeing, this woman because her name was unknown, an ephemeral ghost that would inhabit my world this night and vanish that next day. The day that would come after, and the difference of peoples who would be born and die in this tumultuous and swinging life and all the knowing that comes with the peaking sunlight and the advent of newness, the time not yet felt. But that was tomorrow and I felt something wild inside of me which buried all that learned calmness, the pedantry of books and school and professors and questions – antiquated questions of whether we are to learn or live or do both or if we are even able to do both – and stifled was the misanthropy of being hung over and jaded and wanting only to return to the night before so that I might learn all over again. Forget that. I was thinking too much. “Do you go to this frat?” she asked. “No. I hate frats. I feel like a prostitute every time I come here.” “Right?!”
“What’s your name?” “Rose.” “Is that your real name?” “Yes.” “Shit.” “It’s okay, darling. Everyone asks me that.” Forget that. I was talking too much. I took down her number in my cell phone and made my way outside. Sitting on the curb was my friend Daniel, trying to convince two Italian exchange students to head back to my place. “Tim, come say hi to Alexandra and Mariah. They keep telling me how they want to get out of here and go back to your place. They’re super aggressive, these two.” I lived only ten minutes away by foot. “Good luck,” I said. I shuffled down the curb and into two women whose names I have now forgotten. We shared the bottle of gin I had hidden in my shoe and discussed literature and politics and how useless our degrees would be in the job market. Then came Rose. “It’s gross, all the sweat,” said she as I kissed her neck. Then came my friend, Frank, all tawny-looking and dry-mouthed and I knew he was stoned. “You don’t mind if I borrow him for a second. I know he’s the absolute greatest guy in the world but I’ve got to talk to him.” “I don’t mind.” As I returned, she was already leaving. I gripped her waste, ferociously. That pretty face of hers all soft and I kissed her lips – a dry kiss. She sighed. I sighed. I smiled and I know she did as well. “So, yeah, I’m that way,” said I in that uncertain way. I could not be sure that she would come home with me and I did not care even if she were to. All that mattered was what had happened and, perhaps, that I should see her again. “I’ll see you darling.”
Walking off, I had already lost her face. But, it was the dream of that face and, in that dream, there was nothing but the ambiguity of a young girl that I had met at a house party – like so many others – and what differed this time was that I had to see her again. Like blight or reward I did not know. I just knew, god damn inexplicably so. I have always been told to find this feeling and, now, I had it. Even if I had known it before what did that matter? When has it ever mattered? I had done it and I was shook with disbelief. But her name was Rose and she was the first Rose I had ever met. I tasted she and she tasted I and that was reason enough.
Victor George Matak is a fourth year undergraduate student at the University of Toronto. Pursuing a History Specialist degree, he was born and raised in Vancouver. He has had works published by The Gap Tooth Madness, Miracle e-zine, HILT Magazine, Poet’s Digest Magazine, The Artistic Muse, The Steel Chisel, The Dead Beats, UndergroundBooks, The Kitchen Poet, Nostrovia! and DeadSnakes.
Elizabeth Rose To Love a Forest Fire His name was Tobias Berry. He was twenty-five years old, home for only a week. He was on leave from the Air Force, through which he was based in the hothouse of Texas. I lived in Colorado, where he and I had attended high school together centuries ago. We were sitting on my back porch, trying to get my twenty-dollar single hose hookah to start. The early September rains had forced the paint of the deck to chip and warp upwards, like soft, tiny daggers beneath our feet. Thick, wild bushes of weedy flowers wound tight over the bannister, swamp monsters peeking out from the underneath. The glaring white light of the motion sensor bulbs pushed out into the untended back yard, forcing the shadows to overcompensate in the corners of the trees and fences that it couldn’t yet reach. I huddled up in my chair, drawing my legs to my chest, curling the tip of my sandals over the seat of my chair. My chin rested uneasily on my knees. I had to constantly shift from cheek to cheek. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get a good enough look at Toby. He had attached himself to the hose with concern; his thick, overgrown eyebrows drawn together like an underline for his narrow, rectangle forehead. He hadn’t changed much since last I’d seen him. I had been underage then. He had brought me a large bottle of Jameson, grinning like a child smuggling candy to his grounded little sister. That night had been the first time I had seen him with his hair shaved so close. Back in high school, when we were still together, his hair had been shaggy, shoulder length and thick. On the back porch of my first college house, it looked like black-pepper sandpaper stretched tight over his scalp. I used to run my hands through his hair for hours as he fell asleep. Now, I was too afraid that it would scrape my palms right off. I had grown old enough that I could finally buy my own alcohol, and Toby wasn’t someone that I could touch anymore. “Seriously, Becky, you sure this thing works?” Toby said, throwing the hose down on the table. Irritated, he scratched violently at the center of his chest. “Worked fine last weekend,” I said. I took the hose myself and sucked on it. Bits of burnt shisha blew into my mouth, making me choke with the taste of charred strawberry and mint flakes. Toby lit a
Newport for himself and leaned back, stretching his long legs out until they touched the outer leg of my chair. I unhooked the hose and shook it, vigorously. Toby scratched his chest. “Man, have I got some stories to tell you,” he said in between drags, “You wouldn’t believe the stuff that happens on base.” “You know I hate stories,” I winced. “But I’ve really seen some things this time, Beck. Not just on base, but in deploying too. I gotta tell you these stories sometime, don’t I?” “We’ll have time. Later. You just got in town, Toby.” “Might not have time. I’ve seen friends have accidents down in Texas, others never come back from shippin’ out,” Toby began. He ran his palm over his sandpaper scalp, scratched his chest. He wore two thick rings on his left hand, on the pointer and middle finger; another plain band around his thumb. The silver shone and clicked as he ripped at himself. He’d always tended to overornament himself. I missed the earrings that used to hang in his ears- and industrial bar and two pointfour gauges- but they had gone away with his hair. The earrings had left two wrinkled holes in the lobes of his ears, like healing bullet holes in his flesh. “That’s not anything new,” I replied, staring at his rings, “Friends die all the time.” My sophomore year of high school, a senior had killed herself. Downed a bottle of pills. Toby and I hadn’t known her personally, but we had plenty of people who had in our circle of friends. Removed as we were, we had felt the weight of grief most earnestly then. Since that day, we’d lost more than that- a grandfather, a carful of drunk peers at our rival school; a close cousin. The more the years passed, the more we lost. It no longer mattered how it happened. Toby looked at me with one eyebrow comically raised. “Aren’t you a little young to be thinkin’ so morbidly?” he said. “Aren’t you?” I leaned forward and hooked the hose back into the hookah’s grommet, now convinced that it was wholly free of filth. I hadn’t packed the bowl full enough, and needed to press the Insta-lite coal down into the perforated foil to make it pull. Replacing the small tongs on their holder, I sat back in my chair and sucked in on the hose. “I want to tell someone my life story,” Toby said. He flicked the spent ashes of his second cigarette into the homemade ashtray of an abandoned clay pot bottom. “You will. Someday,” I said.
“My life could be a screen play. I’ve seen so much shit,” he continued, “Aren’t you studying to do that kind of stuff?” “Acting, Berry-baby,” I clarified, feeling his old nickname trip off of my tongue as if on accident, “I’m an actor, not a writer.” “Doesn’t matter if it’s written well,” Toby said. He lit a third cigarette. Tobias smoked like most people drank water, filling his lungs deeply, to the point of drowning. He’d always said it helped him think clearly. I don’t think Tobias ever thought very clearly. His mind was built into too many loops and dead-end gateways for there to be any semblance of ‘clear’, as much as those things could be clear. “I don’t write at all, that’s the thing,” I said. The intensity with which he sucked on his cigarette was beginning to terrify me. “Oh, come on, Beck,” he insisted, though the lazy drawl of his tone betrayed a kind of defeat. “You wouldn’t even have to change a word. Just write it down for me. I’ll tell you my story.” “I won’t do it,” I said. I breathed in the hookah, finally burning through. The milky smoke, sweet and permeating, kissed the back of my throat and expelled back out into the growing night. For a moment, Tobias’ face blurred behind the mask of thick white smoke, as if hidden behind a cloud. I thought it funny for a moment to imagine him dissipating into the hookah smoke. But what if I was the one disappearing? The smoke had come from me, after all. Could I erase myself? Like this? “You want some, Toby?” I asked, waving the hose through the cloud, chasing it out of the sky. Tobias shook his head, waving his cigarette. It was seconds away from being burned to the filter, but he brandished it as an excuse, as if not even lit. “Don’t make me take it all on my own,” I said, “I’ll have such a bad headache in the morning.” “Drink more water, then,” Toby returned. I could see his face again, but it was turned away from me. With his free hand he picked at his empty earring holes; scratched at his chest. “You’re gonna give yourself a rash if you keep it up,” I said. “Already got one,” Toby said. He put the cigarette out on the clay pot bottom. “You need some aloe or something? One of my housemates might…” “No point, Beck. It’s gonna keep itching.” “Why? You got a bug bite or a scar there?” “Allergy. Can’t stand nickel, remember?”
“Sterling silver, you always asked for it. Yeah.” Tobias pulled at the chain around his neck, holding out a set of dog-tags. Against the brilliant shine of his large rings, the metal of the tags was flat and dull. He handed me the tags- stamped TOBIAS BERRYand lifted up his gray Air Force t-shirt. In the middle of his chest, at that point in the sternum that dipped in towards the heart, a blush of raised, red skin blossomed in an uneven oval. “Seriously, Toby? That looks nasty,” I chuckled nervously, “Can’t you get some medical thing, get a new set made in silver?” “They let you put them in your pocket, sometimes let you hang them outside your shirt,” Toby said. “Means nothin’ when you still got yours inside your shirt. Why don’t we go tomorrow, Berry-baby, and get some new ones made before you ship on back to base?” Tobias shook his head. He held his hand out, dropping his shirt back down, and motioned for me to give his dog-tags back. I hesitated. There was a look inside Tobias’ brown eyes that I had only seen once before: the night of my junior prom when he’d driven drunk all the way to my front porch, in his beat up Cherokee. We locked eyes for only a second before I drove off with my date. His eyes on my back porch, five years later, were just as empty. I gave him back the dog-tags, anyways. “I’ll keep the nickel ones, if it’s all the same to you,” he said. “I can’t say that it is,” I said, “Why keep torturing yourself with some dumb necklace you’re allergic to?” “It’s punishment,” Tobias said. His fingers twitched as if he wanted to itch his chest again, now that the necklace had been replaced. He resisted, however, letting his knuckles wriggle in his lap. His rings clicked against each other restlessly. I took the hose back up again, resigned to the fact that Tobias was not going to share with me. The smoke was pulling sweet and sure, more mint than strawberry. I’d always enjoyed the slight burn of mint over any other taste. Punishment, indeed. “My mother was never around when I was a kid. My older sister was a miracle. I was a mistake. She left for good some thirteen years back, my mom did. I didn’t hear from her until I enlisted. Only wanted to know if I was really going to give up a cushy desk job for a gun. Like I was ever going to get a cushy desk job.” “What are you doing?” I asked. I blew the smoke off to one side. It floated up towards the trees.
“I’m telling you my life story, Beck. I told you I would.” I shook my head, pulled from the hookah again. “I know you well enough without it,” I said. “You think so?” Tobias didn’t sound the least bit convinced. “You love country swing, but can’t jitterbug to save your life. Either way, you’re an old fart in a boy’s body. You never got in to Pokemon as a kid. Your favorite thing to have for lunch is a chicken quesadilla baked in a Panini press. You believe you’re Catholic, but you never go to church. You lost a bet and tattooed your big sister’s name on your right ankle. You lost your favorite necklace at a football game back in high school because I ripped it off and threw it on the field when I found out you’d been tryin’ coke the week before. Do I need to go on?” “Is that all I am?” Tobias asked. He wasn’t looking at me, or even in my direction. Instead, he looked down at his fingers, at the rising and falling of them against his lean and fleshy thighs. “What else should you be?” I laughed, “It’s not like I could love you more than I do. You’re still here, aren’t you? We’re still friends.” Tobias didn’t answer, though he smiled widely for the first time that night. His smile had always seemed too primal to me. Whiter than possible, with canines sharp as those of winter foxes, it was impossible to not feel a thrill of fear run down my spine when Tobias smiled. I loved him, that was not a lie, but it was such a love that one held for a wildfire. Beautiful, rejuvenating, natural, and dangerous. You didn’t love a wildfire up close. Tobias smiled at me and sighed. He knew me well enough to know how I’d respond. Maybe he’d been hoping I’d changed. He made no move to leave, though. Just shifted his tapping to his half-empty carton of Newports. “Did you bring your guitar?” I asked, “You should play a couple songs.” “I broke it last time I came home,” Tobias shrugged, “It came out of tune and I got a little impatient.” “A little?” “It’s not that big of a deal. It was a hand-me-down from my mother. It was going to go bad soon enough.” “What did I say about the whole story-telling thing?” “Sorry, Beck. I love you too, you know.” “I do.”
We sat in an empty silence, too unsure of what to bring to its nothingness. I hesitated to even reach for the hookah hose as I noticed that his long, beautiful fingers had also stilled. Minutes of night passed, escaping by nearly unremarked, flying towards the slivered moon. “Hear the lonesome whippoorwill, he sounds too blue to fly. The midnight train is whining low, I’m so lonesome, I could cry.” Tobias’ voice was a clear tenor, though months, maybe years, of non-use had forced cracks into his tone that made me cringe unwillingly. He’d only ever sung for me late at night, though usually we’d been circled ‘round a popping campfire, surrounded by a drunk, jostling crowd of friends. He’d always sung such old, sad songs. I tried to remember the last time I’d ever heard Tobias sing alone. I decided that I had never heard him sing solo, and rested my chin down on my knees. “I’ve never seen a night so long, when time goes crawling by. The moon just went behind a cloud, to hide its face and cry.” Tobias continued to sing, no longer smiling, folding his hands peacefully over his chest. He leaned far back in his chair. I’d never really realized how thin his voice was until the sound of it was the only thing filling the night’s silence. Suddenly, all I knew what Tobias’ voice, and simultaneously knew that it was not enough. I sang out myself, unsure of the notes, staring at Tobias’ lips in order to form the words. I knew the song, but it had been long enough since I last heard it that the words had to fight, to tumble into being, quick and clumsily. The words and notes came all the same, a short act of joyful desperation inside an early September night. I do not remember how long we sang that night, forging an unbridgeable gap between ourselves with our straining chords. At one point, I do remember hearing the slam of a housemate’s door from within, signaling that we were warbling too loud. Altogether too late. Tobias smiled sheepishly, the corners of his mouth barely lifting, hiding his teeth. It was almost a loving smile. “I should head back,” he said, “I promised Nicole and Derek that I’d go to breakfast with them tomorrow morning, and it’s a long drive back to my parents’ house.” “You sure?” I asked, purely out of habit, “We have three different couches you could sleep on here, if you want.” Tobias shook his head. I was relieved. “I’ll see you on Saturday, then? You still going to have that going away party?”
“I fly out early Sunday morning, I don’t really know. I’ll let you know if we manage to throw anything together though, alright?” “I’ll be there, Berry-baby. You just call.” Tobias never called. That night, the quick hug and kiss I gave him before watching him drive off towards the interstate in his beat up Cherokee would be our last point of contact. He’s been back home twice since then, or so my friends have told me. They ask me if I’ve seen him lately, and I just smile. I’ve never really felt the need to see him since. Maybe some day, I’ll miss him again. Until then, he doesn’t belong to me. His name was Tobias Berry, and I never really knew who he was.
Elizabeth Rose is a twenty-something Colorado native writing under an alias. Her debut novel, 'Till the Last Petal Falls, was published through Mockingbird Lane Press in February of 2013. She has also had two other short stories, 'Wanakufa' and 'He Who Wrestles With God' separately published in 2013, both concerned with how to deal with crisis' of faith.
Dennis Must Wartime Stockings Killing the ignition, Mother would steer our car over to the side of the country road. “See, James?” On the horizon of a vast meadow of rye grass, I’d watch her trace the outlines of a sea-green suspension bridge that arched mythically from the coastal mainland to touch down on Green Island. We’d sit there staring at the image, a man-made rainbow of sorts. In fact it didn’t exist at all, only when she would call forth its presence. I was a child then but wondered if I had been alone, would the bridge truly appear? “Isn’t it magnificent?” she’d ask. I’d nod, having decided never to inquire when we would cross. Besides, we only saw the bridge during a two-week period over my boyhood summers. One thousand miles inland in our small Pennsylvania mill town, it was never referenced by her and existed only in my recall. In those moments, as she evoked the sylphlike structure with her index finger on the car’s windshield, I sensed that she was sharing a confidence with me. One she had never divulged to anyone else, even my father. It was yet another reason why I preferred believing the bridge was nonexistent. To traverse it to Green Island would have betrayed its mystery. *** Those late sunny afternoons journeying to that roadside vantage spot, sitting alongside as she accompanied a song on the car radio, I felt as if we were engaged in something furtive, perhaps even a bit sinful. It was wartime, when gas was rationed and nylon or silk hosiery was unavailable. Stepping out of her morning bath on those vacation days, she’d sit on the edge of the bed in a pink camisole. My father would be on the cottage porch reading the newspaper. I’d watch her take a bottle of light brown liquid off the vanity, unscrew its cap to which was attached a tiny sponge, and proceed to paint first her left leg, then her right, stopping at the garter line on her upper thighs. Finicky about streaking, she’d inquire, “From where you sit, James, does it look real?”
So it was quite plausible for me to associate the mythical span with her painted legs, a coupling that pricked my imagination. Above the garter line her legs were alabaster white. His sitting outside smoking and reading provoked no such romance. Upon returning to the cottage, we’d be greeted by his perfunctory inquiry, “What’s for dinner, Rose?” *** One afternoon an abrupt torrential downpour made it seem as if there was no road ahead. The rain came down in such massive sheets that I could not imagine how she knew to steer. When we finally arrived at the cottage, we both ran for cover onto the porch. I vividly recall how soaking wet our clothes were but caught her staring agape at her legs, blotched in marbled rivulets of alabaster and brown…and visualized our mythical bridge vanishing likewise, streaks of sea-green drizzling the indigo inlet. She began laughing uninhibitedly as Father’s figure loomed befogged on the other side of the screen door. Was this the recall that he’d revisit over winter as the smoke from the mills hung densely over our town like smog? I wondered. The downpour dissolving her ersatz stockings? Her sex puddling across the splintered elm floorboards? And would there still be a garter ring of leg paint on her milk-white thighs? *** The second most prominent childhood memory I have of her was that day I sat alongside as she drove our 1936 flag-blue sedan down a narrow country road on the outskirts of our town. It was midafternoon in August, and she was accompanying Jo Stafford singing “Haunted Heart” on the car radio. Purple liatris were abundant at the roadside as we moved under a canopy of aged oak and maple trees. There were no outbuildings in view, and I remember questioning if these occasions she and I shared with no other purpose than to “take a drive out into the country”—her expression—would cease when I entered fifth grade that September. In the middle of the song, our car suddenly died. I glanced at Mother, still gripping the steering wheel, looking bemused as we drifted to a halt. And we sat there in complete silence, miles from home, staring vacantly ahead. Minutes seemed to go by as if she were trying to collect her thoughts, the song’s lyrics cut unexpectedly short. “What happened?” I asked. “I don’t know.” “Did our car die?”
“For now I guess.” A half smile. “What will we do?” Her hands now resting limp on a dress patterned with tiny cornflowers, she shook her head. Too young to share in her anxiety, and feeling secure in her presence, I turned my attention to the broad expanse of meadow beyond the trees bordering the roadside. It was in that lost-in-reverie moment— abruptly pierced by grating metal and my mother’s high-pitched cry—when I was projected forward like a stuffed porcelain-headed doll, hurtling face-first into the car’s windshield. Dazed, I saw steam erupting from a vehicle behind us and a man in a green hat staring as if in shock back at me. She, who had also collided with the windshield, screamed, “You’re bleeding!” It being wartime, with so many neighbors’ sons and fathers dying or grievously wounded overseas, a surge of kinship rushed through me. I stifled wanting to cry as if I were a man sitting alongside my distraught mother. Blood from the long gash in my forehead dripped onto her leg as she attended to the wound with the hem of her sea-green dress. I became momentarily amused how her wartime nylons began to weep in my behalf. *** It has been nearly seven decades since that August afternoon, yet that collision surfaces when I attempt to remember her. Our shared gazing at the mythical bridge invariably shadows that recall. As if they join to confide in me something about her. Perhaps her way of permitting me to understand what I was unable to early on. And given that she and I were once especially close, it perplexes me that I soon began distancing myself from her and began to seek my father’s attention, yearning to join him when he left the house alone after supper without announcing where he was headed or when he’d return. His nocturnal excursions in our aging Dodge sedan were what caught my fancy and frankly engaged it until I left home as a young adult. We spoke together weekly, even a day before he died. Yet when I recall our times together, no particular one jumps forward…unlike hers. *** Still as my body ages, I see his knotted hands. When I shave, the ironic grin staring back isn’t mine. And at night when disquiet sets in, I summon his presence to laugh it off.
Yet the conjoined memories reside unrequited in my psyche, suggesting there is yet a third which I refuse to acknowledge. Why would she gesture to the sea-green bridge that we never crossed? And why so utterly bemused when our car died as if we had been dropped to a place with no beginning or end? Her wartime-legs, the neighbor’s son dying in Normandy, the women embracing in our kitchen, having lost their will to prepare dinner for the men soon to return from the mills. *** In autumn my father and I would attend a traveling carnival in a cornfield outside town. Each featured a bustling midway and off in the shadows a large tent from which high-pitched laughter erupted and only grown men were permitted entry. I’d often accompany him on Saturdays to a tavern where he and his cronies bandied the feats of local athletes and the atrocities in Japan and Germany, interlarded with ribald yarns of women, a few I recognized from our church. It was an especially carefree time for me. Yet why had I forsaken the halcyon moments once savored in her presence? *** A child can imagine anything. I believe she grasped this. The evenings I recall my father shadowing her up the stairs into their bedroom, when the door was about to close behind them…I felt she wasn’t there. That rainy day with his figure eclipsed by the cottage’s screen door, I saw her enter as a stranger to the woman who had stopped by the roadside, sharing with me her secret…as if to say, “That’s where I wish to go, James. Maybe one day we will cross it together.” And when our car died that late afternoon on the country road, her half smile confirmed that longing. *** I had begun to feel self-conscious sitting alongside her, gazing at a chimerical bridge to nowhere after several summers…but conflicted that I was unable to say: It isn’t there, Mama. The war is all over. Mrs. Rose has gotten over the loss of Stanley. Butter is no longer rationed. And Meyer’s Department Store downtown has genuine nylons in your size. What I was too young to comprehend is how forbidding Green Island had become for her. Nor did I grasp how she would vacate her body in my father’s amorous embrace. And like so many other tasks in life, at times she would catch my eye as if to inquire: I don’t get it, James. Do you?
*** The recall that should be foremost in my mind is not. Perchance because I intuited early on that the narrative of a child and mother dreaming of a sea-green bridge to Green Island comprised an opaque chapter—one she would never turn to in my presence. Except I knew it was there. Why, Mama, won’t you turn to the last chapter? It’s that memory of the day I returned home one July at dusk and saw its pages on the kitchen table. Our vacations had long since ceased. The car wasn’t in the driveway, and the cellar door hung ajar. I called out for her. Normally she would be preparing dinner or standing at the ironing board pressing his white shirts. No answer. But the open book on the Formica table told me what to expect. My father wasn’t able to see it, nor could Stanley’s mother. It lay open to the chapter void of illustrations. No mythical bridge. No sedan collided by an aging pickup with a man in a forest green hat…his mouth agape and fish-eyed. The pages, a dull gray and blank. Its illustration resided at the bottom of the cellar stairs. Go to the landing behind the cellar door, James, and peer down. *** She sat dressed in a bra and a beige half-slip, no shoes or wartime stockings, on a metal stool with her head resting on a cast-iron burner used for summer canning. Its gas jets wide open and the cellar filling up with the noxious odor of onions. Capturing the fumes was a tent-like covering she had sewn to protect a new wringer washing machine delivered a week earlier. The burgundy cozy, patterned with sunflowers, now concealed her head and bare shoulders. She’s crossed to Green Island, I thought. Keening, angry that she had left without me, I lifted her body into my arms and carried her up the cellar stairs into our living room to lay her on the sofa. So who is over there now, Mama? I cried. Do I hear you calling me to come over? For chrissake, answer! But of course she didn’t. My father would save me from that fate…and she, partner to their conspiracy. The dark chapter was hers alone. I only was privy to its halcyon pages.
As if somehow I should have understood. Dennis Must is the author of two short story collections: "OH, DON'T ASK WHY," Red Hen Press, Pasadena, CA (2007), and "BANJO GREASE," Creative Arts Book Company, Berkeley, CA (2000), plus forthcoming novels: "THE WORLD'S SMALLEST BIBLE," Red Hen Press, spring 2014, and "HUSH NOW, DON'T EXPLAIN," Coffeetown Press, Seattle, WA. His plays have been performed Off Off Broadway and his fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary reviews. He resides with his wife in Salem, Massachusetts.
Eunice Tiptree A Different Kind of Blue “Men don’t wear lavender.” She is talking about my clothes.
I was wearing lavender? Christ, I’d thought it was blue, some kind of innocent shade of blue. “And men don’t wear capris with the draw string on the outside,” she pointed out, “or a fitted Tshirt, and that’s clearly a woman’s hat.” The she who is speaking is my therapist. But she’s not trying to cure me of cross-dressing. Indeed, she’s looking pleased for me, saying, “This is a big step for you. First you have to get comfortable wearing the clothes, and then you can make other people comfortable with it, even though they see the face of a man.” You see, she’s a gender specialist, and nothing like what I expected when I made that call to her office, my voice shaking even though I found myself talking to an answering machine, telling it I was calling about the “gender thing” she deals with. That was two months ago, but this is the first time I’ve come to her office dressed in woman’s clothes. These things don’t have pockets, I say. I had to buy a purse. You’re costing me money, I complain, but I think she approves of the white leather purse; it must go with lavender. She writes down something about it in her notebook. She tells me she likes my sandals. I say they make my feet feel sweaty. She suggests another style of woman’s shoe, one with which I can wear socks. I listen, but I’m not going to spend any more damn money on shoes. Imelda Marcos didn’t own enough shoes to make me feel comfortable with this. It is even harder to accept because wasn’t one of those who always knew I was a girl. No, growing up, I just knew something was wrong. No, I never was one of those who felt like a woman trapped in a man’s body. I was too busy trying to be a man. No, when I figured it out in my early twenties...a sudden epiphany that my secret fantasies revolved around me being the woman. When I finally figured that out...well, I decided that couldn’t be me; it was an aberration I shut in a dark corner of my mind. Where of course it refused to stay, beginning a life-long internal war. Who said a house divided cannot stand? I’ve written a “want list” that I read to the therapist. I want to live a real life, which means an authentic life, which only seems possible as a woman. I want to live within myself – so that I can journey without. I want to let go. “You seem to be saying that you want to discard the truths you’ve been handed and discover your own.”
It’s about identity, not sex. I took decades to understand that. Like most people, I confused the two. Was I gay? – but wasn’t I attracted to women? Was I a pervert? I fervently hoped not, but at the very least I was a freak. That’s how I felt, a freak. I’m not even sure what I mean when I divide the waters into male and female. But I know it where I see it, or more often hear it. When women converse in a group, for example, they tend to be cooperative and supportive, a search for connection. When men talk, it’s often a competition, at the least a debate, with loudness employed for emphasis. I used to workout at the Y and would wear earplugs when going in the men’s locker room, the conversations in there resembling Marine drill sergeants barking at each other. I think of it as two clusters of traits, which yes, are shared, but men tend to one side of the chart and women to the other. I’m trying to chart a course home from a side foreign to my inner spirit. I tell the therapist of the first support group meeting I’d attended the weekend before, the first time I’ve ever met a transsexual. There they were: a dozen of them in various stages of transition. Some of them dressed like men, none of them quite looking like a woman. And now I was one of them. I tell her of one woman who came in late, sat down next to me. Observing her out of the corner of my eye, she appeared all woman, in every movement and gesture from the way she sat down, straightening her summer dress to the way she crossed her legs. Only later, looking her directly in the face, could I see the distinctive male features, the heavy brow ridge, the length of upper lip, the jaw line. But I tell you, she was a woman. “Now you’re getting it – the major change comes on the inside not the outside.” And I’m sitting there, thinking I’m just starting a long journey, that I’m in for God knows what. And sitting there, it’s all hitting me, hitting me hard. Men don’t wear lavender; I wear lavender.
Eunice Tiptree has had poetry, fiction, and nonfiction published as both a man and a woman. This is her second essay in Crack the Spine, the first was included in their Summer 2013 Anthology and is a Best of the Net 2013 nominee. Before transitioning to female in 2010-11, she was a journalist, writing on the space program for a dozen years. She has two degrees in journalism from Ohio University and a masters in creative writing with distinction from Lancaster University, England. She lives in Ohio.
Barbara Tramonte I Live in Ernest First, a moveable feast Lost in Paris Olives, goujon, crusty bread. Then the manuscript Terse, filled with meaning Sentences taut like lariat tails Leave people behind with trace marks on a fence. I live in Ernest. Rifle to my head or heart Good stiff drink and morning air. I live in alleys on mountaintops and ski with the vigor of a body double. Oysters slide down a welcome throat Flowers smell fleeting Time is short and sweet as a whiff in an orangerie. I live tapping code from a cave Alive
Here Waiting. I live in Ernest.
Barbara Tramonte is a professor at SUNY Empire State College school for graduate studies. She has had many poems published in literary magazines.
Simon Rogghe Fired Up for Grad School Two weeks after the fact, everybody in the French program had seen it coming. “The guy was weird,” his classmate from linguistics said. “I knew it from day one. He didn’t even touch the chocolate éclairs at the welcome reception.” “I think one could call him marginal, in a sense,” offered a comparative literature student who shared the graduate lounge with him. “… more like l’Étranger than Quasimodo.” “Who? Oh, Paul. Paul…” The department chair scratched his balding head and walked back in the opposite direction, his stack of folders tightly pressed against his chest. “He was a nice guy. Really, very nice,” said the pretty medievalist, dreamily looking out the window as she muttered something about unicorns. “Tragic, isn’t it?” mused his mentor, nestled on her office couch, holding a cup of tea and running her fingers through her dark curls. “I should have known. Such an affinity with Baudelaire.” “His paper was impertinent and visceral,” said the Renaissance specialist, shooting a stern look from underneath his reading glasses. “He kept belaboring his point, with total disregard for scholarly consensus.” “It’s a real shame,” the secretary shook her head. “He was so good about his deadlines.” *** th Monday morning April 30 , Paul’s alarm buzzed through his head. He got up, walked to the bathroom, brushed his teeth and wondered if he should dye his hair a different shade of purple. His boyfriend texted him a picture of a smiley face shaved on his butt cheek from the night before. Paul made oatmeal and walked out the door. On the bus, he read some Sartre and downloaded an app to check astrology. Saturn was approaching Mars and Uranus had entered Aries. “Perfect timing, lots of fire,” he thought. Someone from gender studies got on and sat down next to him, mouth glued in an eternal grin, head twitching like a rodent. Paul put his arm over his book and watched his classmate’s gaze trying to slip between the front cover and his thigh, looking for a hiding place, his body shaking.
“What are you reading?” he finally blurted out. “Sartre,” said Paul. “Sartre is great!” the other guy exclaimed. Paul continued reading. His classmate broke out in hives and began to scratch his red, swollen neck. “How are you liking it so far?” he stammered. “I hate it.” “Oh.” The grin disappeared, but only for a microsecond. “Oh. Yes, Sartre’s really great!” he came back with doubled enthusiasm. “What class are you reading him for?” “No class.” “Oh.” Sweat wafted from his armpits. “I heard Karl Oppenheimer does a lot of work on existentialism.” “Oh.” *** At ten, Paul walked into the graduate student lounge. It smelled of stale peas and crushed ambitions. Everyone sat silently behind a laptop. Only the pretty medievalist gave him a smile as she looked up from watering the cactus. One of the students whispered a question to another student: “Is it ‘je ne sais quoi’ or ‘je ne sais quoi’?” The other student gravely shook his head. Paul poured hot water in a cup, grabbed a tea bag from his locker and walked out toward the creek that ran through campus. He sat down on the grass, tore up his notes and watched the crayfish scavenge on the bottom. He opened Baudelaire and let his mind swim in those crystal vowels, languid colors and crisp metaphors. He traveled up a spiral staircase of bright light into the clouds, soared over cities, pressed his lips against azure and dipped his hand in the horizon. He started writing. It was a poem. The letters flowed like orange rays, his words filled up the sunrise. The rippling water gave the melody, the branches shaped it through their shadow. His body tingled. His breath flowed. *** The clock bell beat eleven. Paul picked up his bag and walked to seminar. A pale apparition closed in on him. It was the ghost-like linguist from his seminar.
“How are you?” asked the ghost. “Fine. You?” Paul answered. “Did you read the Derrida for today?” “No,” said Paul. “I was up until two last night, reading. I still don’t understand.” Its face turned long and hollow, its eyes faint. “Oh.” “I’m excited for this seminar.” Its voice contained a hint of pain, as if a razor blade had found that one remaining sore spot. Paul held the door. The ghost walked in and sat across from him at the round table. *** At ten past eleven entered the professor. Thirteen students held her in an awe-struck gaze. On cue, they started taking notes, their tongues stuck out in concentration, their antsy hands moving across the paper, afraid that the she might catch them leaving out a precious word. Paul didn’t take notes. He stared at the professor, arms crossed, watching the wrinkled corners of her mouth as she enunciated abstract concepts. Her beady eyes glistened behind small glasses, her head craned forward, fixing him. She looked like a hyena. “So you want to be a poet? Hahahahaha!” her witch-like cackle rattled through his brain. “No jobs for poets. No jobs for poets.” Paul covered his ears. That hateful phrase kept humming. Acid cropped up in his mouth. He saw a figure in the corner: a man, more fleshy than the ghost. His two black eyes burned. His white beard shone against his suit. A knife was stuck inside his stomach, his shirt covered in blood. With heavy steps, the man approached. “Victor Hugo.” Paul was awestruck. “They butcher me,” he gurgled. “Act now! Or you will do it too.” “I can’t,” said Paul. “I need to write this paper.” “Save yourself! They are already dead.” “Where will I go? What will I do?” “The sky is blue out there,” the poet’s voice persuaded. “There are no jobs for poets.” “It doesn’t matter!”
Paul stooped and grabbed his leather bag. He slammed it on the table, took out three pieces: click, click, click. All thirteen faces turned to him. Nobody moved. The room was silent. The first head between the crosshairs of his automatic rifle was the professor’s. The blackboard turned bright red. Her head exploded. “Good shot!” Hugo yelled out. Next was the guy who never said hello when he would cross him in the hallway. A round of bullets pierced his throat. “Keep going!” cried the poet. He aimed his rifle at the prissy girl who never smiled. He pulled the trigger. The idiot who always stammered, the French guy with the heavy accent, the rodent and the ghost – each one he blasted out the window. Seminar was finished. The bell tolled noon.
Simon Rogghe grew up in Belgium, but found a home in the Bay Area where he writes poetry and fiction with the help of his spirit animal (a Siberian tiger) and a sacred prostitute who frequents his dreams and saves him from the drudgery of grad school. When not working on his PhD in French literature, he also translates French surrealists as well as contemporary fiction. His work has appeared in 3:AM Magazine, Gone Lawn and other journals.
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