Crack the Spine Literary magazine
Issue Ninety - seven
Issue Ninety-Seven January 8, 2014 Edited by Kerri Farrell Foley Collection copyright 2014 by Crack the Spine
Peter Obourn The Birds of Bristol Court
Stephanie Kaplan Cohen Letâ€™s Start Over
Edie Rylander Strange
Maryann Cudd Guthrie
Erin Castle The Hairy Fat Girlâ€™s Guide to Playing Pretend
Peter Obourn The Birds of Bristol Court FLORA The widow Florrine Smythe, who preferred to be called Flora, but not Flo, lived at 16 Bristol Court. Flora sat on the stool in front of her dressing table, feeling her bottom spill over just a little on the sides. Once she had finished her facial work, she would carefully squeeze herself into her foundation garment, which worked in a ruthless and primitive way by pushing a lot of her upward in a flattering way. The problem was that when she had it on, she could barely breathe and was forced to sit only on the edge of the furniture. Three hours was about all she could take. She knew that the proper solution was to lose fifteen pounds, and every time she put the damn thing on, she committed to do just that, but soon after she had it off, and mealtime or betweenmeal time arrived, her resolve melted in the face of temptation.
MILDRED The young widow, Mildred Forsythe, lived next door at 18 Bristol Court in a house that, at first glance, looked the same but, on closer examination, was just a little finer than Flora’s in every tasteful detail. Mildred, who was seldom called Millie, was seated in her
living room, trying to stay focused on a needlepoint pillow cover. Every few minutes, she walked to the front window, parted the drapes a fraction of an inch, and looked out onto the street. On her fifteenth trip, her vigil was rewarded. A car pulled into Flora’s driveway and disappeared as the garage door was raised and lowered to allow the car to slip into the vacant spot in Flora’s two-car garage. Mildred knew the car, having seen this performance many times before. It belonged to Lucia Fiorini, one of the kitchen staff at the country club, who was delivering another meal that Flora would heat up and pass off as her own, with much theatrical detail. Mildred told her friend Betty that Flora would have made the perfect television chef, if only she knew how to cook. Mildred now knew with certainty that right around six
o’clock she would see Harold Overmeyer emerge from his house, dressed for an evening at Flora’s. Harry would have been invited for 6:00 p.m. He would never be unfashionably early, but he would also not dare to be late. HARRY Harold Overmeyer, a widower, lived at 17 Bristol Court, almost directly across the street from Flora and Mildred, indifferent to the subtle differences between the widows’ houses. Harry was watching the Giants-Steelers game, which had gone into overtime. He looked at his watch. He was due at Flora’s in twenty minutes for cocktails, and he could not be late. He knew from experience he would not get his second drink if he were late. She would rush him right to dinner, thereby upsetting the flow of his entire evening. An evening with Flora required at least two manhattans. He felt so awkward around intelligent women. He wished Joan were there to steady him, which was
absurd: the only reason he was with this woman was because Joan was gone. He was going to miss the tense sudden-death ending. He still had to shower, shave, and dress. He amended the budgeted time for his toilet to ten minutes, down from fifteen. He wished he had listened more carefully to his son Jeffery, who had shown him how to record a program in progress. He looked at the remote, which had over fifty little buttons. He hesitated and then, afraid if he pushed the wrong button the whole system would selfdestruct, gave up, sighed, pushed “Off,” and headed for the shower. At 6:01 p.m., Harry, combing the few hairs left on his head as he walked, hurried across the street. He glanced up at Mildred’s front window but did not see her because, except for one eyeball, she was concealed behind closed drapery. DINNER Flora was stiffly perched on the edge of the sofa, trying to
breathe more or less naturally. Harry was deep in the wing chair, which must have been the favorite of her late husband, Charles, whose portraits at every stage of advancing age and weight were scattered around the house. “Shall we eat?” said Flora brightly. “Sure, Flora,” said Harry, smiling, “but let’s have just one more short one.” Flora left Harry to make the drinks while she went to the kitchen to pretend to put the finishing touches on the meal. She stirred and tasted, wondering how she could get Harry off the subject of his grandson Zeke. “A good kick in the pants—that’s what he needs,” Harry had said at least three times, and she knew the repetition would increase with the second manhattan. He never had more than two, and then a glass of wine or two. She could live with that. At the right level of alcohol, he was a delight, but it was a narrow band.
Harry joined her in the kitchen, handed her a fresh drink, and walked to the window. “Had a terrible drive today on that hole,” he said, pointing across the cart path to the golf course. “Sliced it over the rough; ended up somewhere over here, I think, in Mildred’s bushes. Out of bounds—a new four-dollar Titleist.” Flora, coming to his side, could not imagine a more boring subject than golf. “It doesn’t look that bad, do you think?” she said. “Can you imagine that thing could cause such a stink?” Harry looked out the window again. He couldn’t imagine what she was talking about. “I’m sorry, Flora, you lost me. What thing?” She pointed. “My bird feeder—right there.” There was Flora’s bird feeder, ten feet away, with a squirrel sitting on it, greedily spilling sunflower seeds.
Until the day before, he hadn’t even known it existed, even though he drove past it every day in his golf cart. No one could see it, except from Flora’s kitchen. “Charlie’s sister gave it to me. Usually, I forget to fill it, but now I’ll be damned if I’ll take it down. I won’t stand by and let that bitch Alice try to push her weight around. She thinks she’s queen of the condos.” The damn thing had nearly caused them to be late for their tee time. When he dropped by to pick up his golf buddy Simon Morgan, Simon’s wife Alice had made Harry sign a petition in support of her campaign to force the removal of Flora’s birdhouse. “I signed the petition to allow it to remain,” said Harry, which was true because, as it happened, later that same day Martha Birnbaum had arrived with a petition to allow the feeder to
stay. Martha loved to talk. Without hesitation, he signed it and encouraged her to move on to get more signatures. “You’re a doll,” said Flora. Flora went back to the stove for some more culinary stage business. He walked over and stood very close to her at the stove. He leaned against her, then glanced down at her slimmed, solidified hips and waist, puzzled by what was different about them. She rattled the cover on the empty saucepan prop she had placed on the stove top, then added a touch of pepper to the mysterious mixture of ingredients on the stove and, finally, fiddled with the controls, turning one up and then back down again. “There,” she said. “Just needed to kick it up a little.” Dinner went smoothly, although she never got Harry too far from the subject of his lazy 25-
year-old grandson. Then Harry insisted on helping her clean up. “You spent hours in the kitchen. It’s the least I could do,” he said. She appreciated the gesture, but she was dying to release her confined body from its straitjacket and snuggle onto the couch. Cleanup could wait until morning, and she was sick of Zeke. So she said she had a headache. Harry put his arm around her and held her close. “My fault,” he said. “I talk too much.” Ten minutes later, he left. As soon as the door closed behind Harry, she slipped her dress off, unhooked all the stays, unzipped all the zippers on her girdle/corset/bustier, stepped out of it and, almost naked, feeling giddy and almost weightless, danced a few steps around the room. She flopped into Charlie’s armchair, where Harry had sat. He wasn’t perfect, but she had a warm feeling about Harry. Tomorrow, she’d clean up the mess and go shopping for some equally powerful but more
comfortable underwear. Harry walked slowly home. He sat in the dark for a few minutes, then turned on the TV and tuned to a basketball game. He sighed, and although he had no interest in the game, there were too many thoughts in his head to sleep. He leaned back on the sofa and allowed the flickering light from the game to dance around the room. He couldn’t decide if she was shallow and superficial or charming and genuine. Somehow she seemed to understand him, know how to please him, make him comfortable. THE MAIL The mailboxes for 16, 17, and 18 Bristol Court are mounted together on a single post at the curb on the widows’ side of the street. The next morning, at 11:30 a.m., Harry walked across the street to check his mailbox. He saw Mildred emerge from her front door thirty seconds later, with her coat wrapped around her shoulders, but he did not notice the curtains in Flora’s front
window stir. Mildred walked toward the mailbox with her head down, watching her steps. He waited. “Hello, Mildred.” She looked up and smiled. “Oh,” she said, “Harry, I’m frightfully sorry. I guess I didn’t see you.” Harry went through his thin pile of mail. “Bills and junk. That’s all I get,” he said. Mildred, who didn’t seem to have any mail, said, “Did you and Simon Morgan play eighteen yesterday?” Harry nodded. “So he’s back from his business trip.” “Got in late—night before,” said Harry. “Barely made our tee time.” “That’s nice,” she said, smiling at him again, brushing a wisp of hair away from her face. “Well, have a nice day. I have to hurry— Monday lecture at the Prosser. I never miss it. So nice to see you, Harry.” “Yeah, it seems like we always meet at the mailbox,” he said. Harry, who did not wonder why Mildred seemed so interested in Simon, walked back across the
street, set the mail on the hall table, and then went into the den, turned the television on, and started flipping through the channels. He’d never been to a lecture in his life. After attending the art lecture, Mildred stopped at an antiques shop and then an independent bookstore that served espresso superior to Starbucks’. Back home she gardened in her tiny backyard, prepared a light crepes Véronique for herself, dined alone, cleaned up, then sat in her perfectly decorated and appointed living room and turned on the gas fireplace with the fake logs that burned but were never consumed. She read by the cone of light from the reading lamp next to her chair as darkness overtook the rest of the house. WHAT FLORA SAW Fretting about the bird-feeder meeting the next day, it was midnight when Flora turned out the lights and headed to her bedroom. As she glanced out at her bird feeder, out of the corner
of her eye she thought she saw a silhouette in the dim light from the security lights along the golfcart path. The figure stepped carefully into Mildred’s yard—a man. Before she could get to the phone and dial 911, he stepped on something and hopped in pain. At the same instant, Mildred’s back-porch light flashed on and off, the door opened, Mildred’s head appeared, and she more or less pulled the hopping intruder into her house. Flora lay in bed, the worries about the bird feeder replaced by a replay of the scene of Harry and Mildred chitchatting at the mailbox. Could it be Harry? THE MEETING Harry arrived at Flora’s dressed in coat and tie, in accordance with the club’s dress code. Flora looked different. She looked fabulous. He hadn’t realized she had a waist. Usually, she looked sort of lumpy. Then, last Sunday she had a new shape: better but strange, firm and round, sort of like an ice cream cone. Tonight
she had a red silk dress smoothly wrapped around her that showed she had a real figure. She pirouetted for him. “So, what do you think? I bought it at Nordstrom today.” He noticed her face was softer, with less harsh color. “They helped me with the makeup too. I think I lost the hang of it.” “You look—you look wonderful.” They set off in their finery in Flora’s electric cart down the cart path on the third fairway. The room was packed. Alice Morgan, who served on the condo board, was the instigator and leader of the campaign to remove the bird feeder. In accordance with Alice’s interpretation of the rules, the Royce Management Company had told Flora to remove it. Flora had appealed to the board. They ran into Simon at the door. “I’m surprised to see you here, Simon,” said Flora. “Oh, I wouldn’t miss this,” said Simon. “I’ve got a surprise for you, Harry.” He handed Harry a
golf ball. “That’s your mark, isn’t it?” “Thanks,” said Harry. “Where the hell did you find this?” Simon laughed. “I stepped on it in the dark,” said Simon as his wife rapped her gavel and called the meeting to order. Flora glanced at the ball as Harry slipped it in his jacket pocket. It said “Titleist.” Alice explained to the condo owners what they already knew, that they could do as they liked to the interior, but the outside of the houses and all the grounds, landscaping included, even everyone’s front yard and backyard, were maintained by a management company engaged by the condominium association. Flora leaned toward Harry and said in a loud whisper, “That’s interesting. What about Alice’s flower garden?” The anti-feeder speakers, of which there were many, seized on the concept of “precedent,” and all said the same thing in slightly different ways: that is, they had no problem with this
particular bird feeder, which was tasteful and even not unattractive, but it would set a precedent, implying that soon Bristol Court would be overwhelmed by ugly bird feeders. Harry slouched down in his chair wondering how it was possible for time to pass so slowly, when a late arrival caught his attention. She made a stir, because there were hardly any vacant chairs, and several men rose to offer her a seat. Simon Morgan removed his jacket from the empty chair next to him and she sat. Harry looked up and saw
that Alice Morgan, sitting at the head table, was glaring at the new arrival who had interrupted the meeting. As the woman sat, she turned toward Harry and smiled, but he had never seen her before. He’d thought by this time he had seen everyone on Bristol Court, especially the attractive women, of whom there were not many. She was wearing a plain black dress, what Harry called a “cocktail dress.” It was simple, with a round neck and long sleeves, but it clung to her slim figure in a fascinating way. Her lips had a hint of color. Her hair was sort of silver; pulled up, exposing her neck. Flora didn’t seem to be paying her any attention. She must have known her. Mona Finnigan pointed out that many birds had come to depend upon the feeder and would starve if it were removed. Martha Birnbaum, the leader of the Flora supporters and a sweet lady, took even longer to point out the number of species that
used this area as part of their migratory path, including several species Harry had never heard of, including one called a “tit,” which struck Harry as amusing. Finally, someone shouted, “You forgot the blue-footed booby, Martha!” and Martha, the sweet old lady, turned and hissed through clenched teeth, “Who said that?” Armond Zambini quoted from the United States Constitution and stated that things had come to a sorry state when a man could have the right to carry a handgun, when they could all shoot at each other, but were forbidden to feed the poor hungry birds. He had a deep booming voice, and his speech was simultaneously ridiculous and moving. Suddenly, the door to the meeting room was flung open,
and the condo association’s attorney rushed to the front of the room in a bustling flurry of paper. He apologized for being late, then announced that the motion under debate was out of order. The birdhouse was “explicitly” banned by the rules. The rules could be changed only by a two-thirds majority vote by petition at the annual meeting, which would take place in approximately eight months. The room erupted into mass confusion. Alice Morgan, sitting at the head table, turned quietly to the chairman, who nodded, struck his gavel, and the board filed out of the room. The meeting was over. It was now after six. “Well, that’s that,” said Flora. “Let’s go to dinner.”
As Flora and Harry stood, the beautiful stranger also stood, turned, and approached them. “Hello, Harry. Hello, Flora,” she said. “Hello, Mildred,” said Flora. Mildred, thought Harry— another Mildred? The woman gave Harry a strange look. “Don’t you recognize me? Do I look that bad?” It was Mildred—his neighbor Mildred. “I’m sorry,” he stammered. “The dress. You changed your hair.” “Yes, it is quite a dress, isn’t it?” said Flora. “Well, come along, Harry.” Harry didn’t budge. “I’m so sorry, Mildred. We’re staying at the club for dinner. Are you alone? Why don’t you join us?”
Suddenly, Harry felt himself being forcibly yanked toward the door. “I’m sure she has other plans,” said Flora. DINNER AT THE CLUB At the bar, Flora was greeted warmly by a few of her supporters. The opponents avoided her and would not meet her eye unless Flora spoke to them, which she made a concerted effort to do. Harry stopped in the men’s locker room, where all the talk was about Mildred. In the ladies’ lounge, Flora ran into her chief supporter, Martha Birnbaum. “So, what did you think of Mildred’s dress?” said Martha. Flora looked around to see who was in earshot. “Alice better watch out,” said Flora. “Alice Morgan?” “Trust me on this one, Martha,” said Flora, raising her eyebrows knowingly. They left the lounge together. “Uh-oh,” said Martha. “Here they come. See you later.” Martha left
hurriedly as Alice and Simon Morgan approached, arm in arm. Flora moved behind a potted palm, then stepped out in front of them. “Well, hello, Alice,” she said cheerfully. “Flora,” said Alice, “I’m so sorry about the last-minute lawyer thing. It took me totally and completely by surprise, as you can imagine.” She took Flora’s hand. “I really, personally, have no objection to the feeder, but I’m on the board, you know, and as a board member—” “Oh, give it a rest, Alice,” said Simon. “Actually, Alice,” said Flora, “to tell you the truth, I really don’t give a shit one way or the other. By the way,” she continued, “don’t you think Mildred looked stunning tonight? She is finally coming out of her shell. It’s been so hard for her since she lost Desmond.” Alice and Simon exchanged a quick glance, but not quick enough for Flora to miss the look of dread on Alice’s face. It was a moment Flora would cherish, worth a
thousand bird feeders. Flora drifted through the club dining room, bestowing a relaxed smile on friends and enemies alike, finally arriving at the corner table where Harry was waiting. He smiled. “You were gone so long, I was beginning to worry about you,” he said. He stood and held her chair for her. “I hope you are not too distressed, Flora, about the way things went at the meeting.” Flora, unrestrained by her new undergarment, turned gracefully and gave Harry a public and possessive kiss on the cheek. “Harry,” she said, “I don’t think I’ve felt so wonderful in years. I’m so glad you got your four-dollar Titleist back.” She turned to the young man in the starched white jacket standing next to the table. “Thomas, Mr. Overmeyer will have a Canadian Club manhattan, and I shall have the same—with two cherries.” She turned to Harry, reached across the table, and squeezed his hand, the glow of triumph on her face.
Stephanie Kaplan Cohen Let’s Start Over
I woke up this morning and saw only concrete and sidewalk outside my window. I knew I wasn’t dead because my eyes were open. Yes, only concrete and sidewalk. Who did this to my trees and flowers? I yelled, “Dan, Dan, where are you?” But he didn’t answer. Instead, a lady came to the door. “Good morning,” she said. “Never mind,” I answered. “There’s nothing good about it. Where’s my magnolia tree? Where’s my azalea bush?” “Right where they should be,” she answered. “At home. Do you know where you are?” I looked around. Sure enough, it wasn’t my bedroom, and it wasn’t my bed. I was in a giant baby crib with rails on each side. A calendar faced my bed. January, it read. “What’s the joke? It’s September.” “No, m’dear. It’s January, truly. You’ve had a long nap.” “Get me out of here,” I said. “I need to use the bathroom. Then we can start over, and you can explain everything to me.” The lady lowered one set of bars, and we walked to the bathroom. I was pretty shaky on my feet, but the lady remarked, “You’re doing great in
physical therapy, not even a walker. Just hold on to my arm.” Again, I felt perplexed. I’m a strong person. I work out twice a week, and I run the high school track. “I’m weak,” I said. I got into the bathroom, and I was startled by what I saw in the mirror. Who was that old lady with white hair? I turned to the woman. “Ooh, Lord, is that me? How did I get this way? What year is this?” “Two thousand and thirteen.” “What happened to the nineteen hundreds?” I said, trying not to scream. “I tell you what. Do what you need to do in here, and we can talk later. Do you want privacy?” “Of course,” I answered with a sharp tone I couldn’t seem to tame. “I’ll be right outside. Call me when you’re done, and I’ll help you out, and then we can have a nice long chat. The doctor will be along very soon.” She closed the door, and as I sat on the commode, I noticed a button on the wall. “Push for help.” My god, I’m in the hospital. What am I doing in the hospital? Where are my kids? Who’s taking care of them? Where’s Dan? What’s
happened to me? “Okay,” I yelled, and the woman came, offered her arm, and led me to a chair. “Here,” she said. It’s your comfortable chair. Do you remember it?” “Is this a game? Of course I don’t remember it. Did something happen to me last night? How long have I been here? This is a hospital, right?” “Yes, this is a hospital. You’re in St. Joseph’s. You’ve been here quite a while.” “Let’s start over. How long is quite a while?” The woman smiled. “Does my face look familiar to you?” I looked at her, hard. She was pleasant-looking enough, a middle-aged woman, brown hair pulled back into a pony tail, wearing a brown cotton jacket, slacks, and sneakers. “No, you don’t look familiar. What’s your name?” “Lucinda,” she answered. “What’s yours?” “I’m…I’m…” and I’ll be darned if I could answer. “Ask my husband, he knows me. Dan is my husband’s name, and where is he?” “He’ll be along shortly. He visits almost every day.” “What are you talking about? How long have I been here? I got a funny bad feeling. Where are my kids?”
“They’re at home, in their homes.” “Let’s start over,” I said. “I feel very tired. May I have something to eat now?” “You just had breakfast,” Lucinda said. “And you took a little nap after that.” “Oh, stop,” I said. “Let’s start over.” “Okay,” Lucinda said. “I’d like to bring Dr. Pugh in, and we can have a nice walk. Will you stay in that chair or do you want to go back to bed?” “I have a feeling I’ve had enough bed rest,” I answered. She left, and a few minutes later she came into the room with a man wearing a white coat. Over his breast pocket was a name that read Sidney Pugh, M.D. “Good morning,” he said. “Lucinda has told me you are a little confused.” “One of us is,” I said, and again, I heard my sharp voice. Dr. Pugh pulled up a chair. He took my hand. “Sarah,” he said. “You were in a bad accident. A cab hit your car head-on. You and your husband were rushed to Bellevue Hospital. Your husband recovered nicely, nothing more serious than a few broken bones, but you had a major trauma to your head. They operated to drain the fluid, but there seems to be damage to various parts of the
brain. After your recovery was assured, you were moved here. This is a rehabilitation facility. You’ve been getting a lot of therapy. Does any of this ring a bell?” “Indeed not,” I snorted. “The only bell that rang was when I looked in the mirror. I’m an old woman. Have I been asleep for thirty years?” Dr. Pugh laughed. “That would be a long nap. No, you have holes in your memory. We’ll work with you. For starters, let me tell you that you’ve been here since the end of September. And it really is January. You’ve made a lot of progress. It’s confusing to you, but it’s really a good sign to us that you woke up and talked this much, and asked questions. You really are on the road to recovery.” “So, how old am I? The last time I remember, I was fifty.” “Sarah, you looked in the mirror. How old do you think you are?” “I look like an old woman. Maybe a hundred?” Dr. Pugh laughed again. “No, you’re eighty
years old, and I may say you are eighty years feisty. Now, Lucinda will help you get dressed for therapy, and I’ll go down and tell them you are fully in the present. We’ll work with you to catch you up on the immediate past and a few years.” “I’m not sure I want to remember everything.” “Don’t worry. You have a psychiatrist and a physiatrist. I’m your neurologist. We’re all here for you.” “I’m not sure I want you to be here for me. I’m pretty sure I don’t want to be here at all. Call my husband, maybe the police. Get me clothes. I’m getting out of here, and I’m going home to take care of my children.” “Cut it out, Sarah. I told you that you’re doing well. This is the first morning you picked up your head to look in the mirror. This is the first morning you asked so many questions and talked so much. Now let’s have Lucinda get you ready for physical therapy.” “How did this happen to me? Oh, please, let’s start over.”
learned when we were young not to trust strangers. I
disagree. Only trust strangers. Strangers are the relief of an empty Strange pocket. Strangers are carte blanche. Strangers are crossroads where all the paths join together anyway, in the distance. That girl on the street just outside the subway’s throat, blonde hair like summer grass across her temple, she is someone I would trust. I would kneel at her feet like a martyr, open my heart to her ripped lip stockings and sing out my first breakup, or the last time I fell in love. The handlebarred man at the bar, eyes like re-soled shoes; I trust him implicitly. I would lean my head towards his greasy ears and whisper conspiratorially about why sex on a single mattress is so amazing, and where to find the best hamburgers. I would tell him that my father left me two days after I exited my mother and ask the man, “How could he have seen all my flaws that fast?” Strangers know none of my secrets. They can ’t use the things I feel against me. I can thrust my heart upon them like tipping silvered quarters into a juke box. Oh, the songs. The dancing.
I loved you more when you were a victim of my accidental circumstance. I approach those around me with a full heart, and only once I know them, and they pierce that heart, do I begin to leak that love around. It’s a fucking mess. You, formerly stranger, stopped my flow of safely exported secrets when you kissed my mouth mid-sentence. We both got love on our shoes and up and down my back where you laid me in the grass. You knew my favorite flower. You learned what frightens me at night, and all the while I dripped love like a leaking levy. My glance reveals barometric levels. At half-past empty you don’t understand because that isn’t how love is supposed to work. But by then I am in a crowd of people so faceless they are simply balloons on strings and my heart is inflating with all that weightlessness. I gorge myself on anonymous air. This was not your fault, my dear. Your knowledge had too nimble teeth.
Tonight you lift your face from your hands; a wet, alkaline mess. You look at me with eyes dark and open like a wailing mouth and say “We could have been so happy.” In that moment I love your sudden lack of understanding more than I had ever loved your body, or your mind. It becomes a dear thing, briefly pitied. A dead songbird of naivety. We are human. We never would have been so happy.
I talked about applying
for the bus driver job, Mom turned on the gas stove; I think just to hear the igniter click—the left back burner, the one that takes forever to light. Nothing was cooking. Who likes that shit? I almost pulled her hand away. Skinny, her body, you know—and her ideas. She mumbled, “Good, get the benefits. Get your teeth fixed.” I wanted to grab her head, like I did when I was little; I’d wrestle her down and press my hands tight, to sides of her face— just to look in. Her eyes are dark. I wanted to see the circle, that line, the difference between the pupil and the iris. She’d laugh and say, “Boy, you can’t have my eyes; they go the way they go.” Mom and Dad and my sister, Jenna and me, we lived on a good piece of property on Green Lake in upstate New York. The lake edge I’ve always liked: the grass, then the rocks, the water— not messy. Clear because it’s an old, deep glacier lake and the house behind me, liking it behind me, a shitty stucco ranch with missing
Maryann Cudd Guthrie shutters and broken railings so you never could hold onto anything. Jenna, twenty and me twenty five, we still lived in the house. That summer, before I actually got the bus driver job, I mowed lawns, hauled trash, sold the trout I caught, and thought mostly about walking into the lake and wanting to live under that clear water. I thought back to Boy Scout camp in the sixth grade, white water rafting and watching the blue green waves rise up and crash over me, wanting the raft to go over and feel that crazy, icy water. I kept trying to flip it. Don, our leader got so mad. He wrapped his arms around me until I stopped. “You do whatever there, boy,” my dad said later that night, after the stove thing and Mom talking about my rotten teeth. “But I’m still here and you’re in my house, remember?” He stood
in the doorway to the back bedrooms, blocking us—Jenna and Mom too from going anywhere but out the front door. Shirtless, his fingers clutching the top of the door frame, his armpits all pale and hairy. “They’re gonna make you tie that long hair back, too,” he smiled. It’s best to sneak past people because you just don’t know the yes or no of anyone. They might turn on you and I wouldn’t have to talk much or be with other adults, I would just drive and look out the windshield. Mr. Shakel told me I had the
job. I’d be driving mostly around Winston, one lake over. I put him on speaker and held the phone out facing the water. He giggled. He was my gym teacher in elementary school; the kind of guy who laughed at everything. I couldn’t answer him right away. I’d walked knee deep into the lake and was shivering too hard. I took bus driving instructions from Mr. Paytack in Russell. He trains all the bus drivers in Stockton County. I was taking lessons to drive kids to their lessons. I’m tall. All the time I was there, he kept telling me to stand
up straight. It went pretty good on the bus. They were little kids, noisy, but not real mean. What do you do with little kids? They talked. It was boring. They said I was quiet. What was there to say? I thought about walking into Winston Lake too. Every day, after dropping them off, I’d drive over to a nice beach—and almost walk in. I sat and smoked, mostly. It hurt, ripping the rubber band out of my hair. Jackie, an old girlfriend of mine, gave me a bunch of these special bands to hold my hair back. But I liked the basic rubber band. Ripping it out—I liked the sound. After a few weeks, after driving past a farm at the top of this steep hill, I would take it just a little too fast and we’d go up in the air for a second. The kids liked that crazy rush. Little kids laughing is a great good sound. But I couldn’t tell anyone about that. That’s how it went until the summer and school was out. I mowed lawns and hauled more trash. My back hurt. It hurt
whenever Dad was home from his job in Canada. Jenna got a waitressing job and baby sat the Carson twins in town. Then Mr. Shakel called in August; he needed me to drive the smaller bus, the bus with kids who had problems. That’s when I met Guthrie— the first little guy I picked up. His mother stood by the side of the road, rubbing his blonde hair and trying to hug him, I think, smashing his head into her big stomach. I opened the doors while she held on trying to give him a kiss. He flew up the stairs and sat about three seats back, didn’t take notice of me at all. Then Becky, this really big girl, way bigger than Guthrie, gets on and sits right next to him, squashing him against the window. He was a skinny kid in shorts with little, black cowboy boots, probably in third grade and she was maybe in sixth—she wore make-up even. And that’s how it went every day: skinny, non-talking kid gets squashed by big girl. They always sat together
and never changed seats. All the other kids, they were either talking or moaning or laughing. They didn’t like the hill. I made that mistake a few days later, rushing over it, all of us in the air. But after a few minutes they were crying. I pulled over in the next driveway to say stuff, kind stuff. And what came out, Jesus. I said things like, “Hush babies, I’m so sorry. Don’t cry.” Things my grandmother said. I ran up and down the bus, patting them, getting fresh tissues out from under the dashboard. I even tried to move Guthrie across the aisle to the empty seat. He rocked around, smacking his head. He kicked me in the knee and slid back next to Becky. She didn’t say a god damn thing. Her dark eyes stayed half shut—and she was sweaty, with her makeup melting down her face. I patted her forehead with a tissue. She grabbed my wrist and using my hand like a tool, rubbed the tissue over her cheeks. They were all calm by the time we got to school, thank God. I thought some kid would complain and I’d
be out of a job. But, nobody mentioned it. And then, pretty much every day, after I dropped the kids off at school, as soon as Guthrie could get to me, as soon as I was standing by the side of the bus— he’d run over and kick me in the right foot. Just in one spot and always the right one. I’d try to hold him back. But he’d always manage to get me. I’d laugh or get annoyed, wouldn’t matter. Then, after he kicked me, he’d run up this apple tree that was sort of near the bus and pick three little apples, always three and stuff them down his shirt. Sometimes the vice principal, Mr. Rantz, would have patience with him, sometimes not. Mr. Rantz would call him down, take his arm and hustle him into school. I watched Guthrie too as he went through the glass doors into school and every day he’d kick the big, metal water fountain, and Clive, this other bus driver, said that kicking it made the motor come on and then the water would be cooler. Driving back home, I thought Guthrie
knew all this and just wanted a cool drink. He knew what was going on. Then one bad rainy day I drove so slowly, that I took all the curves carefully. It’s all curvy and hilly around Winston Lake, and I looked back and everyone was calm and Guthrie was looking out the window, and that day, after we got to school, he didn’t run over and kick me. The only day he didn’t try. Then, later, while it was still pouring and I was driving my grandmother around in her car (which was so boring she even let me smoke) she thanked me for taking the curves slowly. She
never liked getting bounced around. She’s practically as tiny as Guthrie. And that was it: Guthrie got squashed less by Big Girl Becky if I didn’t whip around the curves. That night I talked at dinner. I never talk at dinner. We hardly ever have dinner together anyway. But Mom listened about Guthrie while she tapped her fork, waving it around for a bit at no one. So the next day, I drove slowly. It was a sunny day too, real bright and snappy; I call it snappy, cool air flying across the lake and everything. Well, we got to school and Guthrie jumped off the bus
and flew straight up the apple tree. Mr. Rantz was angry. He yelled at me to stop standing around and go up and get Guthrie down from the Goddamn tree. I hadn’t climbed a tree in a long time. I got a hold of Guthrie’s foot—but he pulled away because he wasn’t done picking those three apples. He’d only picked two. So I whispered to go ahead and pick the third. He did, then he stopped moving, and just as quick, reached up and picked a fourth one, spun around, climbed in real close and dropped it down my shirt. He didn’t look me in the eye or
anything. But all of a sudden, he pressed his sweaty little forehead to mine. I held my breath. He turned, jumped down and ran around Mr. Rantz, who couldn’t grab him, and headed right through the glass doors into school. I stayed in the tree. The view was great. I could see a lot more of the land on the other side of Winston Lake, which I hadn’t noticed before. I’d always been looking at the water. But now I noticed the farms and even a few people way over in the distance.
Erin Castle The Hairy Fat Girl’s Guide to Playing Pretend
Outside, the sun shone down from a cloudless blue sky. The sudden rush of heat made my limbs tingle and I shivered, as though chilled from cold. Our camp counselor made April, Carly, and me walk the short distance to the pool in silence, with our hands to ourselves. The excited chatter of every camper around us drowned out any contemplation of what we had done wrong. What had I done wrong anyway? It was April’s fault. The counselors made the three of us line up in the shade against the concrete wall outside the pool entrance. I watched the revolving metal door turn again and again as kids dragged their mothers inside and other Maxey Day Camp campers made their way into the pool. They would claim all the shady, grassy spots by being first to spread out their beach towels and bags, and they would leave only scorching concrete and pathetic dirt patches for us. As we waited, Carly played with her long, blonde hair, stacking it atop her head, letting it fall down across her slender shoulders, and then doing it all over again. Still clutching my towel tightly around my body, I touched my own hair with my fingertips. My mom insisted the haircut was stylish and cute, but I was never so sure. Kids teased me about my
“mushroom” haircut sometimes. Other times people mistook me for a boy. Once, I’d overheard my dad ask incredulously, “How could anyone look at those eyes and think ‘that’s a little boy’?” I don’t remember my mom’s reply, but I wondered how my eyes, an unspectacular hazel, could express something explicitly girlish. April wrapped her towel around her broad shoulders like a cape. She shifted her weight from one leg to another; her belly cast a shadow across her thighs. I examined my own protruding belly and straightened my back. My body was flabby, too. A boy in my class had called me fat this year. I hadn’t really understood what he meant until now. Carly was watching April’s rhythmic back and forth movement intently. Suddenly, her golden eyes darted from April’s restless feet to April’s round, sweaty face and she said firmly, “APRIL.” It was only her name, April, but it was also a command, and April froze. “Sorry.” April sounded a little defiant, but she had been scolded and she stayed still. They were the first words any of us had spoken since April got us in trouble. APRIL. Sorry. It was April’s fault.
Carly adjusted her towel, pulling it tightly around her curvy hips and tying it in a knot on one side. She could show off her tummy and promising new breasts this way. “Okay girls. Go on in.” Our counselor waved us through the door. Carly took her hands off her hips as she turned away from April and me. With her long, muscular body and slender waist she swayed a little with each step, her movements slow and deliberate, like a languid cat daring you to pet it. I followed closely behind Carly to make sure I was between her and April, and second in our line of three entering the pool. I did not want to be last. Though the summer had only begun, Carly had already established a flirtation with every eligible boy bachelor at camp. It was a triumph of her accelerated entry into womanhood. Where April and I were inept and undesirable, Carly was flourishing. For the last week, April and I had been constantly delivering messages to Carly from lackeys whose leaders hadn’t the courage to ask Carly “out” in person, but who desperately, sometimes pathetically, liked her. All this to say we were not doomed to sit on concrete or dirt patches today. Three grinning admirers had claimed a prime spot beneath a canopy of leafy branches and they had guarded enough space for all of us to move in. They vied for Carly’s attention, each one talking over the other.
April and I went straight for the diving board while Carly sat poolside near the shallow end with her feet in the water. As we waited in line for the board, I watched Carly’s admirers jump in around her and splash her playfully; one of them pulled her into the water when the lifeguards weren’t looking. “What are you gonna do?” April asked me as we neared the front of the line. “I guess dive.” “I’m going to pretend I’m reading the paper and fall into a pond.” She smiled conspiratorially. “Okay.” It was a game we had played for the last six summers. Each of us would take turns walking down the board with our hands outstretched and arms wide, fists clenched around an invisible newspaper, distracted by nonexistent headlines. At the last moment, we would feign the realization that we were falling into a pond, just like Wiley Coyote did when he walked right off a cliff. Reading newspapers and falling into ponds must have occupied us for hundreds of hours. I watched April’s execution of the game, but it wasn’t the game it had been in the summers before. Now the game felt boring and juvenile. I dove in and swam past April, who was climbing the ladder out of the pool. I swam to the other end where I found Carly, still surrounded by boys. They were holding their noses while they performed somersaults, handstands, and back flips in the water; after each stunt they would look expectantly at Carly, seeking validation. I started performing stunts,
too, only I didn’t have to hold my nose. When April joined us, she insisted Carly and I watch her somersault. She plugged her nose and plunged headfirst, disappearing into the blue water. As she tucked her knees, her backside expanded, sticking out of the water for a split second. Carly turned her head away and raised her arm, guarding against April’s splash. I stayed focused on April’s body as she rolled over in the water. At the moment her rear-end flew up in the air, I saw coarse, pitchblack hairs, tiny and curly, escaping the boundaries of her swimsuit; I saw patches of the same hair growing sporadically between her upper thighs. This could not be right. I reached for Carly’s arm as April completed the full circle and emerged from the water. “Did you see?” I whispered. Carly shook her head ‘no.’ “Do that again,” I commanded April. “Why?” April asked, wiping water away from her eyes. “Because it was cool looking.” I said. April shrugged and prepared to do it again. “Look,” I urged Carly. This time, Carly saw the pubic hair as April’s bottom surfaced and her legs spread. We made April somersault again, again, and again until we were satisfied, and then we decided to get out of the pool and buy snacks. I dug around in my gym bag for the five dollar bill my mom had given me that morning. Most moms gave their kids a dollar or two. I don’t think mine
realized the value of a dollar at a pool snack bar in 1995. Carly and April added their two combined dollars to my five and we bought nachos, sour punch straws, pixie sticks, a snickers bar, a pickle, and a large coke. We spread out on our towels. Our picnic was barely underway when the boys who had claimed this property clamored all around us, dripping pool water, reaching for nachos, begging Carly for a bite of pickle or a sip of coke, opening our package of sour punch straws and sprinkling sugar and salt across our towels. I had taken the quiet, solitary summers before for granted. April seemed perturbed, but didn’t say anything, and Carly liked the boys around – there was no mistaking that. To extricate them would have been to lose her. I, like April, pretended not to mind. In summers before, we had walked around Maxey Park’s lake, ignoring the presence of our counselors and other campers, pretending to be runaway orphans; we had been inspired by orphan Annie. We had rewritten the lyrics to Elton John’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” as “Can You Smell the Cows Tonight?”—a ballad about the stench of manure which flew in on the winds of West Texas summers; we had sung it at the top of our lungs for the Maxey Day Camp Talent Show; we had won. Another summer, we crouched around a tree at the Maxey Park playground and dug up mounds of black dirt to create hovels for squirrel families to live in. We reluctantly left the squirrel neighborhood development to play capture-the-flag, refusing to be
on separate teams for the war game. We deserted capture-the-flag for a game of alligator-infestedplayground, where the only object of our game was not to step on the gravel beneath the playground equipment. Our summers had been imaginary, playing pretend. I couldn’t recognize this new summer as reminiscent of any of the summers that had come before. Those little girls were history. And the summers that had so loyally entertained them were fading memories. I glanced over at Carly. She was lying down on her back, propped up with one elbow; she was squeezing the pickle with her other hand and drinking the juice. She held the pickle out to me. I leaned toward her and took a bite. I turned to April, who was devouring the remaining nachos. She chewed like a rabbit: quick and with her two front teeth. I noticed her legs were crisscrossed, but the fat of her thighs protected her unsightly hair from view. I looked down into my own lap. My thighs did the same, but they weren’t as large as April’s. My stomach didn’t swallow my lower body when I sat down like hers did either. My face didn’t sweat at the smallest ray of sunshine, or the subtlest semblance of warmth, like hers did. My eyes wandered down her arms and legs, she was covered in a thick mass of dark hairs. Similar hairs lined her upper lip, too. When we decided to get back into the pool, Carly linked arms with April and me and said we needed to
talk. We huddled. Carly whispered the story of April’s pubic hair. Not the part about forcing her to show us ten times, but the part about our having seen it. The part where it was freakish and April might want to do something to hide it the next time we had a pool day. Every part of April was immediately still, like a camera shot of our summer had zoomed out, but she was the focal point; the world around her blurred. Carly was speaking, then I was speaking; kids were screaming and splashing; counselors were yelling and lifeguards were blowing their whistles; moms were readjusting their chairs to bask in an optimal amount of sun; April was statuesque, and her face was the stoniest part of all. She said nothing, but went back to her towel, sat down, and stared at the ground. “April,” Carly said softly. “Sorry. We were only trying to help.” She would not move. “Come swim with us,” I said. “We’ll play the newspaper game.” “Just leave me alone,” she said quietly. “April,” Carly said, “Come on.” Fiercer this time, April repeated, “Leave. Me. Alone.” She curled up on her damp towel and made herself as small as she could, which was not very small at all. To survive the rest of the pool day and the next few years of adolescence, April did something that Carly and I had inadvertently inspired her to do. She pretended she was invisible.
Erin Castle Erin Castle received her M.A. in English from Texas Tech University. She still resides in Lubbock, TX, where she teaches English and Creative Writing at Lubbock High, reads submissions for Iron Horse Literary Review, and performs in community theatre productions. Her work has most recently appeared in Apt Magazine and 5x5. Stephanie Kaplan Cohen Stephanie Kaplan Cohen’s poetry has appeared repeatedly in The New York Times, and has appeared or is forthcoming in 96 Inc., Aura/Literary Arts Review, Confluence, CQ (California Quarterly), Crack the Spine, Folly, Hawai’i Pacific Review, Iconoclast, Pearl, Poet’s Page, Ship of Fools, Sierra Nevada College Review, Slant, Spillway, and Talking River Review. Her prose has appeared or is forthcoming in Amherst Review, Artful Mind, Art Times, Belletrist Review, Binnacle, The Chrysalis Reader, Contraband, descant, Double-Entendre, Forge, Fuel, Grasslands Review, Hardboiled, The Homestead Review, Iconoclast, Jewish Women’s Literary Annual, The Legendary, The Long Beach Independent, Lynx Eye, Minotaur, North Dakota Quarterly, Orange Willow Review, Pedestal Magazine, Reader’s Break, Real (RE Arts & Letters), Reed Magazine, Riversedge, The Scarsdale Inquirer, Slow Trains, The Smashing Icons Anthology, Sulphur River Literary Review, The Westchester Review, and Westview. Her work has also appeared in the anthologies "Lessons in Love: Gifts From Our Grandmothers" (Crown, 2000) and "Split Verse: Poems To Heal The Heart" (Midmarch, 2000). She is the author of a memoir "IN MY MOTHER’S HOUSE," published by Woodley Books and a poetry book "ADDITIONS AND SUBTRACTIONS," published by Plain View Press. Stephanie’s work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She writes a column “Ask Stephanie” for the Alzheimer’s Association Quarterly in Westchester and Putnam, New York. Stephanie is also an editor of The Westchester Review. She has done many public and private fiction and poetry readings, and her work has been read on NPR.
Maryann Cudd Maryann received a BA in economics from Wells College and an MSSW from Columbia University’s School of Social Work. She worked for many years as a marriage counselor/family therapist. When she retired from practice, her focus shifted to her first love, a writing career. When she's not writing or learning about the craft of writing, she enjoys being out of doors, skiing, and acrylic painting. Maryann attended the Squaw Valley Community of Writers Conference (2009 and 2011) and the Arizona State Writers Conference (2006 and 2007). Her work has appeared in The Puritan and SNReview. Peter Obourn Peter's work is forthcoming or has appeared in Bombay Gin, CQ (California Quarterly),descant, Forge, Gastronomica, Inkwell, Kestrel, The Legendary, Limestone, The Madison Review, New Orleans Review, North Atlantic Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Oyez Review, PANK, Quiddity Literary Journal, Red Wheelbarrow Literary Magazine, SNReview, Spillway, Stickman Review, Switchback, Viral Cat, Wild Violet, The Write Room, and The Blueline Anthology 2004. Peter's short story, “Morgan the Plumber,” which appeared inNorth Dakota Quarterly, has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Edie Rylander Edie Rylander writes mostly fiction from her tiny attic room in SE Portland. She is an editor of the new literary press, The Gravity of the Thing, and volunteer facilitates writing workshops through Write Around Portland. Her work has recently appeared in Thick Jam.
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Published on Jan 8, 2014