The He and the She of It

(Experts from the novelette of the same name, now available as an e-book on Vagabondage Press)

by Barry Spacks

SEVERAL TIMES I played rough with Andrew, but this was the worst.

“Take off that robe,” I insisted, clenching my eyes.

“What?”

Movie-level talk takes over in a crisis. “You heard what I said.”

“I’m to remove my robe?’

“You got it, Buster.”

“Exactly what did you have in mind?”

At those words, Gloria let out a snort of laughter, struggling to  shrug on her peasant skirt while I wrestled the ridiculous robe from Andrew’s concave-chested, ribby body. Below he wore only blue briefs. The style’s now called “Speedo.” Within Andrew’s Speedo came a rumbling, a bulging. “Off with the shorts,” I commanded. I wasn’t about to make this happen with my own hands. “Do it, Andrew!” I bulked up at my most threatening. I’ve sometimes been compared, in my hairiness and menace, to a bear, and, truth is, I wasn’t much of an admirable guy back then, not the sort of person I’d enjoy running into today. We’re involved here, Reader, with a shameless confession masquerading as a piece of fiction.

[…]

I’d been besotted with Gloria Zissic since the year before, but lo, anyone could see that she already felt libidinally drawn toward A.N.’s Nottingham accent as smoothened by his Cantab years. She literally veered toward the boy physically there between us against the office  wall in the middle wooden chair. Gloria liked to say her ambition was to be Emma Bovary without the arsenic. She projected a force — perverse, maddening, opinionated — by which I couldn’t fail to be mesmerized. I’d yearned from childhood with all the lust within me to avoid the bourgeois fate of an overfed timidity, so rebels like Gloria, dead set against convention, couldn’t help but leave me enthralled. Did I love her? Isn’t obsession just as good? I held to her with an attitude of heart-crushing awe.  I always loved the risk of being with a Crazy Girl…

[…]

The sex at that early stage in my involvement with Gloria was, to put it exactingly, water-buffalo.

“Whoa!” she said when we concluded for the first time in her wonderful bed and fell apart. “Whoa,” the very exclamation she was to blurt after first hearing Andrew’s poems the following September…

(To purchase and download the rest of this 49 page e-novelette for $1.99, click here)

* * *

Barry Spacks is the First Poet Laureate of Santa Barbara, California. The author of nine poetry collections (most extensive: SPACKS STREET: NEW & SELECTED POEMS,) with poems in 18 anthologies, he is the winner of The Commonwealth Club of California’s Poetry Medal, the Cherry Grove Collections Prize and St. Botolph’s Arts Award. A man of many hats, he is also a singer-songwriter, actor and Literature professor, plus the Senior Vajrayana (Tibetan Buddhism) student of H.E. Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche. For more details, and to follow his blog, Poetry Matters, go to www.barryspacks.net

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Brother Rhino

by John Carr Walker

I knocked over the barbecue and ruined it, the party, and the summer. The propane tank rolled off its cradle and lay on its side, like the exposed belly of a rare rhino, hissing an ominous death note. Burger patties and hot dogs and the blackened grill lay scattered, smoking from the lawn. My father’s employees gathered around to look at what I’d done, and Father screwed down the propane valve so we didn’t all explode. He looked at me and didn’t say anything, as if there were no words to sum up my mistake.

“If we were a briquettes family,” my mother said, kneeling with a plastic sack to pick up the meat before the dog did, “you’d have burned down the house.”

She was trying to speak jovially.

“I was playing blind man’s bluff,” I explained.

“By yourself?” Father said. “Who plays that by themselves?”

Our backyard was crowded with a few grandparent-types, many more aunt- and uncle-types who brought their children, little cousin-types who looked up at me from the lip of our pool, waiting for an explanation. I’d been bumping into people. Twice I’d almost stepped off into the water. I didn’t understand it myself, why no one was joining in.

Father was wagging his gray head. Hands hipped, feet apart, his legs scissors. Once upon a time my big brother and I would try to race between his legs before they closed, trapping us. Now I thought that if I tried, and he trapped me, he’d want to slice me in two.

“I don’t know what we’ll do for food,” he said. His employees were looking to him for answers. He took questions seriously. He gritted his teeth and tried not to cry.

“I’ll whip something up,” said Mother, going inside with the heavy bag of ruined lunch. “Sandwiches, or I’ll call for pizza. Crisis averted,” she told my father.

She closed the door behind her, the sunlight silver on the glass. The old dog came over and sniffed her trail before dropping himself on the concrete stoop. I had to step over him to get inside. He’d been mostly my brother’s dog. He missed my brother more than he would have missed me, I think. I bet my father and his employees sighed with relief when I left.

My mother stood before the sink, tap running. The garbage was slumped like a dead thing on the linoleum. She didn’t turn around to see who had followed her in, she just kept holding onto the edge of the counter with both hands. I passed through the kitchen. I stopped in my father’s den.

The gun cabinet was empty now. The light inside was off. It used to hold a hunting rifle, spotlighted. He’d take it out and polish the stock, disassemble and clean the chamber even though he hadn’t fired it since the last cleaning, explaining muzzle velocity to my brother and me, kick, other terms we didn’t understand but loved. I used to dream of hunting the rare white rhino with it. My father didn’t think it could bring down something so huge as a rhinoceros, not of any color. I wasn’t so sure I trusted him anymore. I knew one shot from that rifle could knock me backwards into the wall. One bullet could tear through skin and bone, releasing a hiss of blood. My brother had proved him wrong.

My mother turned on the light. She crossed the room to me, drying her hands on an apron she’d just put on. “Why do you always want to come in here? Like you just can’t help it.”

“Sorry I messed up.”

“Only a barbecue,” she said, kneeling to my level. “It didn’t hurt you any? You’re not burned?”

I told her I was fine, but she was already pushing my face into the dense, sun-smelling darkness of her hair. In there I could forget about all the accidents I’d caused. I could pretend my father would plan another barbecue before summer was out. I could close my eyes and see my brother—he rode past on the back of a white rhino, looking down at me. The rhino’s steps shook the ground. A distance away he stopped and turned. He started to charge.

***

John Carr Walker grew up on a raisin farm in California’s San Joaquin Valley and now lives in Saint Helens, Oregon, where there’s not a vineyard for miles. His writing has appeared in StringTown, Slow Trains, Prick of the Spindle, The Writer’s Dojo, Eclectica, and elsewhere. He’s the editor and founder of the literary magazine TRACHODON, which Newpages.com says “might help keep the institution of literary magazines alive.”

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The Babysitter

by Alexis Nelson

Picture me at fourteen: a small, blonde girl with chubby cheeks and braces and skin that isn’t the best, but also isn’t the worst. I am The Babysitter. I am not especially good at my job. I don’t have the endless patience for children’s games that other girls my age seem to possess. I can’t intuit the baby’s wants when he cries. I let the girl stay up late watching videos until she falls asleep. Sometimes I let her pick the videos, and sometimes I don’t. I have no patience for Barney. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White—all those fairytales in which the princess always gets her prince—these we watch again and again.

Nonetheless, the father pays me extremely well. He is especially generous on Wednesday nights, when he and the mother return from their “appointment” looking weary and tense. The mother’s face is pinched, her movements jerky and quick, like a frightened rabbit. She bolts upstairs to check on the children while the father walks me home. Unlike the mother, he is heavy and slow—more like a moose that’s been drugged. At my door, he slides an extra twenty into my fist as a tip. Ed is his name. The mother is Susan. Ed’s eyes are red-rimmed; he could use a shave. Even as I thank him, I begin to think of all the things I might buy.

I do love the children, in a way. The girl, Hannah, is spoiled and bossy. She owns more clothes and shoes than I do, though she is only four; all of them are pink. When she doesn’t get her way, she screams. But she has big green eyes and a glossy brown bob and chubby pink cheeks, like a doll. And the baby, Zachary, is mellow and sweet. He sits slumped on the black leather couch, smiling and burbling, at peace with the world.

I never have a boy over after the children go to sleep, but I would like to. Late at night, I flip through the channels, hoping to catch a sex scene. One channel comes in fuzzy, but through the Technicolor snow I can trace the outlines of bodies, of men and women moving together. Beneath the whirring static, I can hear them moan. I watch this channel on mute, with my hand on the clicker, just in case the parents come home early from their appointment.

What does sex have to do with love? What do fairytales have to do with real life? And where do Ed and Susan go on Wednesday nights? I would like to know the answers to these questions, and to so many others I have barely begun to form.

One night, I am rocking Zack in his room, trying to get him to go back to sleep, when I have a peculiar urge. I rest the baby in my lap as I pull my shirt off over my head. The lights in the nursery are off, but pearly moonlight streams in through the window. I lean Zachary’s little head against my bare chest and stare down at him and at me in wonder. He rests, his dark hair silky-soft against my skin, his smell like sweetened milk. I am a woman, I think. I could have a baby of my own right now, if I wanted to. I would hold it close, like this, feed it out of my own body.

But what if I am no better at being a mother than I am at being a babysitter? What if my children bore me as these other people’s children often do? Will some big secret be revealed to me, once I have a baby of my own? Will I suddenly become better, stronger, wiser, less afraid? Or will all my shortcomings and failures be not just my burden to bear, but also my children’s?

Zachary has fallen asleep. I lay him down in his crib and then quickly put my shirt back on. I feel moved by the sight of him, lying there so peacefully, his tiny hands bunched up into tiny fists. But I also feel bewildered by myself—which is how I feel most of the time, these days. Worse, I have no reason to believe this feeling of bewilderment will ever go away. Which it won’t, not entirely.

Before I finish high school, Ed and Susan and Hannah and Zachary move away. I am no longer The Babysitter. I go to college. I fall in love, get my heart broken, fall in love again. Eventually, I become engaged. My future husband and I talk dreamily of our future babies. I don’t think about Hannah or Zach or their parents. Why would I?

Then one day, my mother calls and says that she has seen Ed at the grocery store. She tells me that Zachary—you remember, she says, the baby—didn’t develop right, that he turned out to have “problems.” And then she says that the mother, Susan—this you won’t believe—has hung herself.

Hung herself, she repeats, can you imagine?

Can I? I think of all the things I felt back then but didn’t understand. I think of Ed smoking a cigarette on his front porch, staring up at the stars as he waited for me to get my coat on so he could walk me home. I think of Susan’s nervous movements and frightened eyes, her wiry brown legs sticking out of her nylon jogging shorts as she ran the children around and around the old neighborhood in their bright yellow buggy. And I think of little Zach—to whom I am, if anything, merely a flicker now—leaning against my bare, adolescent chest, as the moon shone and his sister slept and his parents, somewhere, tried to find a way to make it through this life together.

After that conversation with my mother, I dreamed of Ed. In the dream, he looked at me silently with large, doleful eyes. Then he handed me his baby to take care of.  Only after he’d disappeared, I saw that it was not a baby at all, but a fish. It was grey and slippery with a flat, unblinking stare. It squirmed and flopped and struggled to breathe, as you’d expect. And I just tried to hold it tenderly, this being from another world, though I knew I was not fit to care for it.

* * *

Alexis Nelson was born and raised in San Francisco, later lived in Hungary and France, and now resides in Portland, Oregon. Among other odd jobs, she teaches creative writing classes at Portland State University and co-writes an educational soap opera for English language learners worldwide. Her work has appeared in various publications including Tin HouseThe Iowa Review, and Manoa. She is currently toiling over her first book, a memoir.

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Check-out at the Super Saver Center

by Melissa DeLorenzo

It starts with a gnawing hunger you can’t do anything about.

Bonnie works at the Super Saver Center. It’s a bit of a ride from home, but she doesn’t mind. It gives her time to think. In her old car, all alone, the tires on the road, talk radio turned low, a whisper. The heater only works sometimes and it never had any A/C to begin with, but there’s no money for a new car. She likes to think she’d keep it even if there were. They have a long history.

Bonnie has a face like the bones are right beneath the skin. As though she is too busy to eat, or does not matter enough to nourish herself.

(You can’t satisfy it no matter what you try.)

On her cigarette breaks – although they don’t call them that anymore – she drinks the weak coffee they make in the break-room. Cheap and watery, a burnt tinge on the back of the tongue. They use the dented cans of coffee that can’t go on the shelves. There is powdered cream and packets of sugar to go in it. But everyone gripes. If they had nothing, they’d complain. If they had everything they’d find something wrong with that, too. But not Bonnie; she thinks it’s ok. It could be less.

People wouldn’t necessarily guess, but Bonnie likes to read. She reads a lot. Everything in the library practically. Novels. She eats them up. In books, it’s either a lot better than you got or a lot worse. Either way, it makes her feel good for a little while.

What people usually say about her is Bonnie is so nice. Bonnie knows they think she is harmless in a safe and bland way. The way you might think of a person who has no consequence or whose movements do not make ripples.

Running a cash register takes more imagination than it may seem. Stand in one place all day, except for a couple of short breaks, and you had better come up with some ways to keep your mind right. Bonnie likes to think of connections between customer’s purchases. She thinks of a theme, maybe a cookout, and then looks all day for all the things she would get if it were her cookout. A lawn chair, a bottle of ketchup, hamburger rolls. The usual stuff. But then something surprises her – a thing or two she would not have thought of herself. A little mesh tent that gets placed over a plate, colorful paper lanterns hung from a string of lights. A candle that shoos away bugs. By the end of a day sometimes, she can almost pretend she is having a cookout.

She can imagine that bright little flame.

Bonnie does not wear a watch. The clock is unfriendly when you run a register. Bonnie counts twenty-five customers before she seeks out the clock that hangs on the wall in the customer service booth. Twenty-five customers means an hour and a half. It’s best when she gets a few elderly customers who take their time. They always have change to count out, even if it’s ninety-eight cents. Or, even better, argue. This eats up a large chunk of time, especially when Bonnie has to call over the front-end supervisor.

Bonnie witnesses the small meannesses people use to quell, to dampen their own internal fires. Bonnie thinks that no one could say it works, but they still will keep on trying it, out of habit or stubborn persistence.

They will keep on.

For this reason, Bonnie has learned to keep close to herself. She is there, but deeply, beyond the gloss of her eyes, the gray of the surface of her skin, past the crackle of her words in the fathoms there is the place where voice originates. She reveals enough and places the real words behind the small insignificant words. Behind her slow ugly smile.

The one she hides behind her hand or tucks into her neck.

You have to have a good memory to be a cashier. The boys on the floor don’t always tag all the items. They don’t have those scanner things yet at the Super Saver Center. Bonnie can’t imagine them ever getting them – this is strictly an old-fashioned operation. So, she must remember how much everything costs or she’ll be calling for price-checks half the day, which, although a good time-killer, is not worth it since it makes everyone involved mad. Bonnie is glad for her good memory which not all the other girls have. They turn to Bonnie all the time How much is this? How much is that?

They sell just about everything at the Super Saver Center. It’s all cheap stuff. It is the kind of stuff that Bonnie, and the others who work there, too, can afford themselves. When a new item comes down a cashier’s belt, something especially good, a cute pair of shoes or a knick-knack for the kitchen, they call out to each other.

“Look at these pants! Only seven ninety-nine!” one of them calls out.

Bonnie notices the customer whose pants these are as she stands there, helpless, smiling as much as she can.

Bonnie would never do this.

When the other cashiers put themselves on display like this, Bonnie smiles and nods her head, just enough. It’s not that she doesn’t like the girls. They’re fine and good company. Bonnie doesn’t like to call attention to herself. Because she knows that’s part of it for the other girls. She wonders why they need that. And at the same time she knows. It’s just a hunger.

Everyone is starved for something.

But she wouldn’t tell them that.

They wouldn’t believe her.

There is truth you can’t escape or say any other way and expect it still to be truth.

* * *

Melissa Corliss DeLorenzo is a writer, reader, yogini (when she can squeeze it in), mom, homeschooler, part-time Office Manager and the writer of The Writer’s Life blog for Her Circle Ezine. She loves to cook, read and take long walks with her kids. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature from the University of Massachusetts and a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. Currently she works at a web development company (because part-time Office Manager buys more groceries than Struggling Writer). She is at work on two novels and a short story collection. Melissa lives in North Central Massachusetts with her husband and three kids.

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Poem for Edwin

by Rachel E. Greer

Ed, you never told me.
At the center of my life is a secret.
Nothing follows the simple story.
The categories are empty and discarded,
caught in the tree branches lining the creek.

His death is a trapdoor opening.
A new place to put your pain in.

He disappeared in the dead of winter, but green was already everywhere.
The world is born
with the erasure of the things we think we need.

In a dream
you are saying that the dripping walls and crumbling roof are fine.
It is me who doesn’t understand.
I have to get used to this.
In fact I have to learn to love it.

Ed, you used to sing to me:

When we have found the place just right,
we will be in the valley of love and delight. 

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Early Spring

by Rachel E. Greer

Along the highway

Above the orange cones and the patchwork of concrete piles

At the edge of the forest

Hawks are circling.

My body, my limits

my collection of sentience

is the form of a dark hawk

winding like a searchlight over the black woods

about to wake up.

* * *

Rachel E. Greer writes fiction for teenagers and adults, nonfiction for everybody, and poetry for herself (or maybe a friend if you ask nicely). She grew up in Texas, came of age in New York City and Portland, Oregon, and is now at home in Brooklyn. Her short stories appear in the Brooklyn Rail and Rough Copy, among others. She has worked restoring and rebuilding antique lamps, successfully managing offices, making puppets and designing lights, and most recently is getting her Master’s in Archives and Public History at NYU.

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Ghost Story

by Joanna Rose

The ceiling fixture is a chandelier of four square glass shades. The switch at the wall has two small round buttons with mother-of-pearl faces. On is the top button. Off the bottom. On. Off.

There is gray wallpaper with feathers, the feathers painted on, she runs her fingertips over the wallpaper and she can feel them.

The room is empty, and the house is empty. The late summer afternoon outside is full of falling down though, the cottonwood trees along the creek the only things doing anything except her, in the house, turning the light on and off.

There is blood and heartbeat, synapses firing and probably some dark business going on deeper in her body but other than that nothing. No memory. No anger. She thinks,

I could give a shit.

It is a little spark of humor that dies quickly.

If she takes a step there would be no sound.

Her brother said to just wait.

Be patient. Be a patient.

The day is the color of patience, the sky white and the grass is brown and, out by the road, heat waves hang in the air as if to catch the falling down of the cottonwoods.

She wears faded blue jeans and a white shirt that is also faded. The seams are thin and the buttons have yellowed. One button has been replaced and that button is whiter than the rest. That button catches at the corner of her eye. The sleeves and cuffs are so soft they will not stay rolled up but keep falling down, below her fingertips, and she patiently folds them up to her elbows. It gives her something to do while she waits. It keeps her from flying off.

White fades to soft.

The day fades to sharp. The sun moves lower in the white sky.

When the car turns up the road, her body feels it first. Gravel pops under the tires, the car going slow, a flicker of annoyance there and gone, like noticing that one button is brighter.

The car stops. The engine quits. A cloud of pink dust drifts past the window.

He doesn’t believe in ghosts. He is on his own in the world of money and inheritances with strings attached.

The car door squeaks open and is slammed gently shut. Only he can slam a door gently, and only he is afraid of such delicate situations as having to ask would she please stop wearing their father’s clothes, and would she please sign this or that, and was she still taking those lovely little orange pills.

No, no and no.

He carries a bottle of dark liquor in one hand.

He can’t see her. He is the kind of person who watches the ground as he walks, even on a city sidewalk he will watch his steps. When he finally does look up he stumbles, over nothing, and then he looks back with an accusatory glance.

If he believed in ghosts, the ghosts wouldn’t let those little bumps lie in wait that way.

Some people make things hard on themselves.

The bourbon will be sweet and expensive. Once he brought her Jack Daniels Black Label and a sweating cold bottle of Coke. He got the furniture that time. Once he brought her Maker’s Mark with red sealing wax dripping down the bottle. There went her share of the life insurance. Once he brought a thermos jug of hot bourbon coffee, sweet and lovely and really really foolish of her, caffeine and whisky and sugar and a lot of each. She kissed him on his rough cheek and he left with their great-grandfather’s gold pocket watch.

She has since learned about tea, chamomile and mint, or licorice, or valerian. She likes to hold onto it, the hot cup between her hands like a small personal sun, the scented steam a small personal ghost. When the tea grows cool, she sets the cup aside.

When she speaks, it is in clear single syllables with properly defined edges.

When she walks, she watches the world as she passes through, and the ground beneath her feet behaves itself.

He stops at the doorway and looks in. The low sun shines through the caramel colored bourbon in the bottle, onto the white paint of the doorframe. He steps in, and the small caramel colored moment of light whispers to the doorsill, and he stumbles into the hall.

She waits in the doorway of the kitchen and doesn’t breathe, because as long as she doesn’t breath she is invisible and even though this trick is only good for about thirty seconds it gets him every time.

When she finally takes that first deep breath, he stumbles again.

He begins to speak, she can tell, because he is moving his lips, and he is probably speaking to her, since as far as he knows she is the only one here.

A cricket starts up outside and his moving lips fall into sync with it, so she pays careful attention because the world will tell you what you need to know if you are attentive.

He walks past her, and outside a robin lets loose a brilliant tremolo and then the cricket is silenced.

They think she is crazy, which may in fact be true, but she is not stupid. She rolls her sleeves up to her elbows. He sets the bourbon on the counter. She turns on the flame under the tea kettle. He eyes the white shirt, glowing now in the twilight, loose and wide like wings.

****

 

Joanna Rose is the author of the novel Little Miss Strange, and has recently completed a second novel and started a third. There is an essay collection about writing with kids, and a collection of short stories with no real plots, alas. Her work has been in ZYZZYVA, FourAndTwenty, High Desert Journal, Bellingham Review, Story Magazine, Artisan Journal of Craft, Marco Polo Quarterly, Windfall and Northern Lights. She shows up in The Oregonian as a regular book reviewer and as a contributor to the Poet’s Corner. She and her teaching partner Stevan Allred host the weekly Pinewood Table critique group, and they have weekend workshops too, but they are techno-feebs, and you have to go to Pinewood Table’s FB page to find out about them.

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