Prime Number Magazine
is a publication of
PO Box 30314,
Winston-Salem NC 27130
Issue 17, January-March 2012
Prime Number Magazine is a publication of Press 53, PO Box 30314, Winston-Salem, NC 27130
Prime Decimals 17.3
Oceanside Lists First Love, Then Tympani
by Carla Pierce
followed by Q&A
Cleaning Out the Car What Did Not Happen Out West
Cleaning Out the Car
by James Keegan
followed by Q&A
When the police cruiser came to rest before the red Subaru wagon
(as I now imagine it, seated here behind the wheel) where you had backed it
into the tall marsh grass (some is still sheafed, brown and dry,
above the exhaust pipe from when the cop gunned the rear wheels free),
you were already gone, lying not too far off (not to inconvenience
anyone overmuch), the gun somewhere near or still held (I don’t know
how that works). Here is the gray empty case, a box of rounds, stowed
neatly beneath the seat. I’m here to empty out the residue
of you, looking for that clue to what I didn’t do for you.
No, I don’t suppose I really buy that either. I know people
had stopped you before, mostly by mistake, by requiring you enough
in a moment for you to make another stab at it, a forced smile and “Glad to.”
Here in the passenger seat is the green knapsack that was the last I saw of you,
dodging out the door after we’d talked the last time, saying all the daily nothings
people say, neither one of us believing there was something we could do.
I don’t open it because I know what’s there: all the useless medications
and the day before’s mail from AmeriHealth canceling coverage.
I open the doors and pop the hatch to make a clean sweep of it all,
dividing piles like done laundry into plastic bags. A rifle,
seven knives of various sizes, eight road flares, a tent, twelve shirts
of different styles and warmths, nine pairs of running shoes and hiking boots,
packages of (I have to laugh) survival rations, toilet paper rolls
sealed tight in Ziploc bags, aspirin, keys, empty CD cases, three compasses
and a tape still in the deck on Buddhism, stopped at a discussion of one Zen koan,
one unanswerable question the master tasks the student to answer every day:
“When you can do nothing,” the voice like dry grass asks me, “what can you do?”
I wonder as I pop the tape if that was the last question caroming in your skull
before the bullet fired it back at me staring out from behind the wheel
at the nothing I have managed to do here today, at the nothing you are,
at the nothing you or I could do. I wonder if you answered your koan.
I wonder what I would say to the master if he asked me again,
“When you can do nothing, what can you do?” I toss the tape into a bag,
and check under the seats for anything I missed, the hatch clicks shut
and I say out loud, “Like the sound of one hand clapping.” I lock all doors and leave
the keys for the Subaru guy who’s coming later to wipe it clean for auction.
James Keegan has published poems in Southern Poetry Review and Poet Lore, and his chapbook Of Fathers and Sons. He is an associate professor of English at The University of Delaware (Georgetown). He is also an actor and has been a member of the resident acting troupe of The American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia. He lives in Milton, Delaware, with his wife, the writer Anne Colwell.
Q: What was the inspiration for this poem?
A: “Cleaning Out the Car” is a poem based on an actual task that a friend asked me to perform following the suicide of her boyfriend, one of my best friends. He took his life after a long battle with mental illness—severe depression and panic attacks. Ironically, he was (among his various pursuits) a survivalist, as well as an outdoorsman and a spiritual searcher, and the contents of his vehicle seemed to me to speak to and of these various facets of his personality and his humanity. Also, of course, it is impossible to be the friend of someone who decides to take his life without being left with questions regarding what more one might have done. The poem arises not least out of that questioning.
What Did Not Happen Out West
by Christina Rau
followed by Q&A
In a different time zone,
clocks move differently,
less steadily; they get you
all fuzzy on the situation—
or maybe that’s the gin that
gets you all fuzzy about
the situation with the clocks,
the situation with the shuttle
bus between the hotel and
the bar and the cabs that stop
in between and the cab drivers
that yell at you when you don’t
answer their questions, but
it’s not because you’re not
listening; it’s because they have
an accent and it got cold out
and all you can think to do is
shiver, let your teeth chatter,
and think of how great it will be
when the shower beats down
and creates a sauna for two
in the cramped bathroom
that has thin walls that don’t
keep in the sounds of whispers
over the phone or whimpering
in the corners or in closets.
In the mountains,
reception goes out more
often than not, or at least
that’s a good excuse for not
calling, for ending the call
mid-conversation, for not
answering the messages
that may or may not have
gone through in a timely fashion.
The dirt is cleaner there,
expecting company up into
the high trees, where the soil
actually lives instead of
simply existing. It likes
to be tread on. It likes
when two people laugh on it.
It likes when they hike up and
down and zig and zag through
the switchbacks and sagebrush,
or perhaps that isn’t sagebrush,
perhaps it’s just weeds, unless
sagebrush is a weed, in which case,
maybe it’s all sagebrush and cacti,
small cacti, small trees, small
mountainside flora that grows
between cracks in the rock,
in the crags, if that’s the right
technical term, and it seems that it
The desert is dry. The city is wet.
The air remains balanced between.
Two breaths are hotter than one
in a shared room, in a shared bed,
in a shared memory
created out of old movies
seen late at night in half-sleep;
they, too, get you fuzzy,
like the clocks and the gin,
like the crags and the brush,
like the mountains and dusklight
and like the plane ride back home.
Christina M. Rau is the founder and director of Poets In Nassau, a reading circuit on Long Island, New York. She teaches English at Nassau Community College, where she also serves as editor of Nassau Review. When she’s not writing or teaching, she’s watching bad reality TV, of which she is only somewhat ashamed.
Q: What was the inspiration for this poem?
A: While inspiring, one particular trip out to the West remains haunting, looming in the background of an otherwise wonderfully happy life. These words are meant to put to rest the aftermath that has lingered.
Driving fast down Highway 8. Same car, different life. Same road, different people. Her cell phone rang, and she lifted it close to her ear. "What?"
"I've been waiting an hour already. Where are you?"
"I'm rethinking this whole thing."
Her husband sighed. "Today's the day you get over your past. People do get over things." She knew what he'd say next, and he did. "You have to do this for the kids."
"Five minutes," she said, hanging up. Her foot pushed down on the gas pedal. A red truck was behind her. A blue Toyota at her side. Streaming by, out the window: a shopping mall, a green golf course, a multiplex theater, a Lexus lot. A police car appeared in her rearview mirror, flashing its lights, humiliating her to the edge of the asphalt. "Damn."
"Oh, my God! Mom!" cried her daughter Sheilah from the back of the car. "We’re getting pulled over!"
"It’s a police car!" yelled her son Jackson. "What’s wrong?"
"I was driving too fast," she said, feeling her shoulders drop and her head loll back. She waited for the ticket.
The cop was all right angle and no smile. "Ninety miles per hour," he said. His back was to the sun, yet he was squinting. "Someone should just throw the book at you, lady, driving like that with kids in the car. Do you know how many kids die like that every year?" He grimaced at the children with his small white teeth, and turned to her. "Driver’s license, please."
What an asshole, talking like that in front of her kids.
She turned to Jackson and explained, "I wasn’t going ninety. Those radar guns are always wrong." And to eleven-year-old Sheilah: "Sometimes you have to submit to an authority that you know is full of shit." She handed the officer her paperwork without establishing eye contact.
Her children were quiet as she merged back onto the highway. What were they thinking? What should she say? How would a good mother handle this? She smelled sea air approaching and rolled up her window. The ocean was not romantic anymore. Salt and decay, petroleum slicks festering beneath a hot sun.
The sun, the ocean, motherhood, the freeway. Why did it all happen? What purpose did the cop fulfill? What was his fucking cosmic job? To remind her of what? The car could crash. The kids could die. The sun could wane. The universe could snap. She could wake up in a hospital room again, not remembering the accident that had happened the night before.
She had made it. Gary had not.
She felt like she was brushing her hand through a web, driving through fog.
"Don’t feel bad," Sheilah said.
She smiled. Thank God for her children. "I’m sorry I was going so fast," she said. "I shouldn’t take chances."
"And you said a cuss word," said Jackson. He grinned toothlessly. "But I won’t tell Dad."
"Thanks, you two."
Did people get over things, really? Their past loves? Their aching sadness? Accidents? On the beach, would she see a remnant of leather from Gary's wallet, or bleached threads from his Levis somewhere in the sand? Her heart beat loudly in her ears. Would she feel an overwhelming urge to drown and join him?
Her kids wouldn't mind making one more stop. One more stop before they reached the beach. She pulled into the parking lot of some random bar, one with a nautical theme, with fishermen's nets hanging above the door and various invertebrate skeletons nailed to the weathered wood siding. “I have to use the restroom,” she said. “I can’t hold it anymore. You guys just stay here for one minute."
"Why here?" asked Sheilah suspiciously, looking out the window.
"Because I'm human. I really have to go."
"I'll go in with you," Sheilah said, unclicking her seatbelt.
"No, stay here with your brother."
"We'll both go. Mom, this place is bad."
"Just wait in the damn car! I don't need a chaperone!"
Jackson began to cry. "Mom? Where are we?"
"We're at Barnacle Bill's or whatever. Fisherman Fred's. Gilligan's Island." It's a bar. When you're thirty you'll understand.
She slammed the car door shut and spoke to her kids through the windows. "C'mon you guys. Nothing bad will happen."
Inside, a bearded bartender looked up from his iPhone and glanced at her darkly. "It's ten o’clock," he said.
She laughed, looking around. "Yes it is. Can I get a single Stoli straight up, quick?"
The bartender closed his eyes as if this very situation was the one part of the job he hated. "If you say so." He wore a green hoodie. There were silver rings on his fingers, and a small octopus tattooed on the underside of his wrist.
She hadn't had a drink in years. Now, she held the glass up in front of her and smiled. "You? Me?"
"Don't be talking to your drink, lady," the bartender said. "That's not good."
"Did I just talk to my drink?" She laughed. "No, I didn't really."
She tipped her head back, felt the vodka burn down her throat. Instantly she felt warmed, calmed from within. "One more," she said, tapping her finger on the edge of the glass. "Actually, a double, and that will do the trick."
The bartender pressed his lips together. He refilled her glass and added a second shot glass to the lineup. He picked up his phone. "How about I call you a taxi?"
She knocked back one drink, then the next. Instantly she wanted five more. Ten. The whole bottle. A familiar numbness spread through her, to her fingertips. Her thoughts softened. "Yeah, a taxi. Would you? My kids are out in the car." How long had they been there? How much time had gone by? Another minute and they'd come walking in. "Actually, my kids are waiting. And my husband. He's waiting for me at the beach. Never thought I'd go back there. Did I just say that? Am I talking to my drink again?" She fished her wallet out of her purse and left a twenty on the counter. The bartender looked at her, his face resting in his hand. The octopus tattoo on his wrist was old and faded. Why had he chosen that one, years ago? Why not a shark or a barracuda?
"Never mind the taxi," she said, feeling just a little wobbly. She wanted to get back on the road. Get the day over with. Superimpose the new life over the old one, though she doubted that would ever be possible. There was no way she'd let her kids near the waves. She kept picturing them playing in the water one minute, then suddenly gone, pulled backwards and under, out to sea, taken away. People you love vanish just like that.
Carla Pierce has an MFA in Fiction Writing from San Diego State University. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Fiction International, Redivider Journal, Metazen, Boston Literary Magazine, and Eclectic Flash. She is currently finishing up a novel. You can visit her at carlapierce.com.
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: It started with the line, "Same car, different life. Same road, different people," and the characters kind of took it from there.
by Arthur Powers
followed by Q&A
I’ve always made lists. Even when Therese was alive.
“Sometimes,” I told her once, “if I do something that’s not on my list, I write it down just so I can cross it out.”
“I do too,” she laughed. “Isn’t it fun!”
Curly gray hair, gray-green eyes, smiling up at me. Alive.
Lists were less serious then. Therese kept me in order. “George, you have a doctor’s appointment tomorrow. Remember to pick up your prescription. Did you take your heart pill?—don’t want you popping off on me.”
But she was the one who popped off. Suddenly. No warning.
I often lost my lists back then. It didn’t matter much, because she kept track of things, reminded me. But now I never lose them. Maybe because I have to have them. Maybe because my life has fewer disruptions.
Because, though she kept my life in order, she also disrupted it. She’d walk into my home office and say “Let’s hike around Shelly Lake,” or “I called Fran and we’re meeting them at Irregardless in half an hour,” or “Here’s your jacket, George—you’re taking me to the art museum.” Always, always I would think—I don’t want to do this, this isn’t something I planned to do today. Then, after about five seconds, I’d haul myself out of my chair and go with her. And, almost always, I’d be glad later that I did. Almost all those times made me feel more alive. Some were fun, some memorable.
There is an art to lists. One has to know what to put down. To be specific enough, but not too specific.
Big tasks, for instance, can be broken down into sub-tasks. That really helps. It makes them more manageable. For instance—“Buy Christmas presents” may be too broad. My list last Christmas read:
•Buy Christmas presents oPaul & Angie oMiriam oMadison oTimmy oTherese •Wrap Christmas presents (P&A, Mir, Mad, Tim, Therese 1 2 3 4) •Mail Christmas presents (P&A, Mir, Mad, Tim)
And so on. Of course one can get ridiculous. “Wrap Christmas presents” could be broken down to a dozen discrete tasks (measure wrapping paper, cut wrapping paper, take Scotch tape out of drawer, etc.), but that would be silly.
Fran left a message on the voice mail, asking me over to dinner tomorrow. I’ll have to call her back. I’ll put it on my list.
I never know what to say to her and John. We sit there in their welcoming, attractive living room, or—later—around their mahogany dinner table, and I find myself wanting to talk, to be communicative, but searching for things to say.
Therese never had that problem. I remember one Saturday morning saying to her, “If there weren’t people around, you’d talk to the trees.” That afternoon, we went to Shelly Lake and the first thing out of the car, starting down the path, she goes up to a tree, and says,
“Good afternoon, Mr. Pine. I trust all is well with you, and with all the little Pines. You’re right to wave your arms—it is a beautiful afternoon. Do you know what George said to me this morning—why you’ll hardly believe it…”
Two couples heading up the path paused, looking at a petite, curly headed, sixty-year-old woman gracefully motioning with her arms, deep in conversation with a tree. They smiled, moving slowly by.
“Therese,” I said.
“Just a minute, George. I’m talking with Mr. Pine.”
“I believe that’s a spruce,” I said.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, Mr. Spruce. I’m just terrible with names…”
I called Fran. I timed the call so that they’d probably be out, so that I could leave a voice message. I thanked her and told her that I wouldn’t be able to make it tomorrow. She won’t believe me probably—that I couldn’t make it. But she’ll accept the excuse for the time being.
That was the last thing on my list. My list today was:
•Write birthday card and check for Timmy •Pick up heart pills •Mail birthday card •Pick up half & half, peanut butter, fruit. •Call Fran & John
I’ve done all that. There’s nothing left.
I could put on my list to find a book to read. To read the book. But there’s nothing I feel like reading.
I could put on my list to call Miriam. But Miriam would want to talk, to tell me about Madison, to ask about Paul and Angie and Timmy. I don’t feel like talking.
I could put on my list
•Breathe in •Breathe out
But that would be ridiculous.
Did I put that on the list? It’s there—just below “Call Fran & John.” Did I write it down? It may be my handwriting.
When we were in graduate school—the first year we were married—I read a book by a guy who had lived through the Holocaust. I don’t remember his name now, but the book was famous at the time. I think it was called Man’s Search for Meaning. I think the guy’s name was Frankl. Yes, I think that’s it.
Anyhow, he was a psychologist, and he told the story of a widower who came to him sad and angry and blaming God because his wife had died and left him alone. Frankl asked him if he felt lonely and abandoned, and he said he did. Then Frankl asked him if he realized that, if he had died first, his wife would be here, alone, feeling lonely and abandoned. The man had never thought of that. He squared his shoulders and went off feeling proud, feeling that he was bearing a burden to protect his wife.
I think about that story a lot.
The phone is ringing. I should go pick it up, but don’t really feel like it. The machine will take a message.
Of course that’s a pretty big item for a single entry. I could break it up a bit—
•Get sick •Plan funeral •Check will •Check insurance •Put papers together
But that seems a lot of work. Too many details. Too long a list.
Of course I cou
Arthur Powers lives in Raleigh NC with his wife, daughter, and granddaughter. He received a Fellowship in Fiction from the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, three annual awards for short fiction from the Catholic Press Association, and 2nd place in the 2008 Tom Howard Fiction Contest. Two of his short stories have been nominated for the 2011 Pushcart Prize. In addition to Prime Number, his writing has appeared in America, Christianity & Literature, Dappled Things, Heartlands Today, Hiram Poetry Review, Kansas Quarterly, Papyrus, Rattapallax, Roanoke Review, South Carolina Review, Southern Poetry Review, Texas Quarterly, Windhover, Worcester Review, and many others.
Q: What was the Inspiration for this piece?
A: Several months ago, a North Carolina literary magazine put out a call for stories based on lists. I saw it and thought: Who would want to write a story based on lists? But the thought lodged in my mind and secretly grew. One morning (long after the NC magazine’s deadline has passed) I woke up with this story crying out in my mind to be born.
First Love, Then Tympani
by Russell Bittner
followed by Q&A
True confession: I absolutely adore the music of Beethoven, Shostakovich, Bartok, Mahler, Orff, Holst, Martinu, Penderecki, Nielsen, Hovhaness, Christopher Rouse, Peter Sculthorpe, Iannis Xenakis, Per Nørgård and—above all—Elgar. Sir Edward William, to be precise. Sure, I know about “Pomp and Circumstance.” Who doesn’t? After all, we hear it at least once every three years when we all march pompously and circumstantially down the aisle to snatch a diploma out of some poor schmuck of a principal’s hand.
That’s a rather impressive list for such a young lady, you may be thinking. Second true confession: I know only some of the music of those composers—namely, the compositions calling for tympani. In Elgar’s case, the “Enigma Variations.”
Third and last confession: my dad’s a tympanist. He, of course, writes ‘timpanist’ with an ‘i.’ But I’m his daughter—and am egregiously independent. I think ‘tympho’ with a ‘y’ whenever my friends ask me why and what my dad does for a living. Till now, nobody’s ever asked me how I spell it.
That’s a joke, by the way. My father’s only daughter—she being I—writes ‘tympanist’ with a ‘y.’ Okay? Pretty dumb, I guess.
Anyways, I’ve just celebrated my sixteenth birthday. And how did I celebrate? Your traditional slumber party or some old ‘Sweet Sixteen?’ Uh-uh. Right!
No, I went out to dinner with daddy-o. Not out for just any dinner, mind you, but out for a bit o’ fancy. To a French restaurant. Midtown—which, in late spring, is frankly more fancifully French than American. However, I rather think most of the folks hanging out in midtown are just French-Canadians—which is okay. I like Canadians. They could teach us a thing or two about manners, modesty and moose. Or is it ‘meese?’ I dunno.
Dinner was early because—second surprise—my father was playing that night at Lincoln Center, where he works pretty much year-round when he’s not touring with the NY Phil. And whaddya s’pose the Philharmonic was playing? Well, Elgar’s “Enigma Variations,” to be sure. Dad—doncha know—had bought me a seat directly in front of the orchestra, in the rear of which he, egregiously, stood.
Anyways, over dinner—during which he and our kindly French waiter had both allowed me my first glass of wine while Dad explained to him that he, Dad, was also a waiter—we made small-talk. Until, that is, he dropped the bomb. “We know about you and Eli,” he said. “And it’s okay,” he quickly added. “Your mother and I—well, we waited, of course, until we were a few years older, when we, uh—.”
I quickly glanced down at my watch. “Dad, it’s time to go! You don’t wanna be late!”
And no, of course he didn’t. One thing you’ve got to understand about my dad: he can’t be late—or early, for that matter. He’s a tympanist.
As I sat for the next thirty minutes listening to Sir Edward William’s “Enigma Variations,” I couldn’t help but think about what Dad had said to me just before we’d rushed out of the restaurant. And so, I watched him wait—and wait and wait. Until, when he finally had his epiphany with the kettledrums, I watched as he appeared to lift up—slowly at first, then faster … faster, faster, then to absolutely soar out of the auditorium, up through this post-winter, deliriously bleu midtown Manhattan sky, out into a private orbit of such precision, I could only bow my head in thanks for this man, my father, this tympanist with a ‘y,’ who from here on out would necessarily have to play second fiddle in my life—
—to just ahead of Elgar, by the way.
And yes, I must confess, my Playbill now took a splitter-splatter of tears just as the roof of our brownstone had taken a disinterested splitter-splatter of raindrops the first time Eli and I had—.
Russell Bittner recently re-located to Ellicott City, Maryland, from Brooklyn, New York, via one long winter-from-hell at Donner Summit, California. His work has been widely published in print and on the WorldWideWeb. His first novel, Trompe-l’œil, which is now represented by the Netherlands-based Vilain-Innovations Literary Agency, appeared via Amazon-Kindle this past March 2011, and again in April of the same year at Smashwords. He believes, with Hobbes, that “life is short, brutish and nasty.” He also believes, with Donne, however, that art is long; and that no man is one, entire of itself—either an island or a work of art.
Q: What was the inspiration/genesis for this story?
A: The “inspiration” for this Flash was last year’s (2011) NPR-sponsored writing contest called ‘Three-Minute Fiction,’ the rules for which were: (1) no longer than 600 words (the version published here contains a few additional words); (2) someone has to tell a joke; and (3) someone has to cry. Needless to say, the piece didn’t win; it didn’t even place.
The “genesis” of it, however was and is—to me at least—of somewhat greater interest. I knew (because her brother had secretly revealed it to me) that my daughter had “given up the prize”—as we of an older generation might’ve once conceived it—to her then-boyfriend the day after she turned sixteen. She didn’t, and still doesn’t, know that I know—and won’t find out until her eighteenth birthday this coming June. Shortly before that, however, she’ll learn the results of her college applications. She’s already batting 3 for 3, but her hold-out—something we discuss, if at all, only sub rosa because she’s understandably quite skeptical about her chances—is Julliard. (She’s a dancer, but also a virtual straight-A student, at the LaGuardia School of Performing Arts in NYC.)
One of the earliest short stories I wrote many years ago, “In the Animal Kingdom,” was very much about her older brother. It was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Per Contra, but didn’t win. I thought it was about time I wrote a story about and for my daughter. “First Love, Then Tympani” is that story.
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