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19
Issue 19, April-June 2012
Prime Number Magazine is a publication of Press 53, PO Box 30314, Winston-Salem, NC 27130
Prime Decimals 19.3


Flash Fiction

Brian Bahouth
Ambrosia

Nancy Hightower
Come to the Table

Ross McMeekin
Fog
Ambrosia
by Brian Bahouth
followed by Q&A

Poetry

Mark DeCarteret
Another Line About Death

Marcia Meier
The Feather in the Cellar

Another Line About Death
by Mark DeCarteret
followed by Q&A

The Feather in the Cellar
by Marcia Meier
followed by Q&A

In the clapboard house, the cellar
the laundry and shelves of canned goods
where once my mother wept, soft as a feather

Alone upon her tiny chair of wood
her face a sadness I could not touch
the laundry and shelves of canned goods

So solitary, the chair she clutched
tears washed her cheeks, stained her cotton blouse
her face a sadness I could not touch

I stood upon the stair in the house
What could I do? I could be good
tears washed her cheeks, stained her cotton blouse

Hidden, so small, a child who couldn’t
fix it, watching her among the dirty clothes
What could I do? I could be good

I knew no words to utter
in the clapboard house, the cellar
sitting among the dirty clothes, the clutter
where once my mother wept, soft as a feather





Marcia Meier has been a professional writer her entire career, but only began to write poetry seriously about five years ago. She has since had several poems published, and spent a semester studying poetry last year for her MFA. She says: "I used to consider myself strictly a free-verse poet, but discovered, much to my surprise, that I love writing in form."

Q&A

Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: “The Feather in the Cellar,” a terzanelle, came out of a series of exercises in style I did for my master’s degree program last fall. The series focuses on events that happened in the cellar of my childhood home, including this first time I saw my mother cry.


Brian Bahouth is a longtime public radio reporter, on-air host and short story writer. He has been adapting his fiction to audio since 1999, and from his studio in Reno, NV, he continues to study how crafted sounds, musical elements and spoken words combine to create meaning.  Brian also edits and produces My Audio Universe—a literary magazine of sound.

Q&A

Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: When humans interact with bears, the incidents are defining moments for both species, and so it is in “Ambrosia,” a bear story from the Lake Tahoe basin.  

Come to the Table
by Nancy Hightower
followed by Q&A

We learn to live underground, in whatever tunnels can be etched out. My father and I are at Mesa Verde, the Green Table. The tour guide, whose badge tells us in big printed letters that her name is AMY, explains how the Anasazi disappeared mysteriously in 1300. This baffles archaeologists, as well as my father, who want answers—signs of a massacre or famine or migration. Amy continues to rattle off astonishing facts none of us will remember while Dad mumbles something about me needing to find a place to stay for Christmas. No matter, I say. I’ll probably be too busy skiing to want to come home. This is a lie. I loathe skiing—the heights, the cold, the possibility of falling.

My father’s grimace relaxes into a half-hearted smile. Poor thing. Now is not the time to tell him, trapped here in this tourist minefield of ancient ruins, that he’s already lost me. Mesa Verde boasts of 600,000 visitors a year. Come in the summer, and those statistics will be wearing straw hats and flip flops, Hawaiian shirts with Slurpee stains. They believe in car camping, showers, real bathrooms with toilet paper. They are delighted to find the rugged west so photogenically preserved and roped off. Some pant heavily as they walk up trails and stone steps, smelling sweet and sour as perfume mixes with sweat. Dad is slightly out of breath, his bald head turning too pink. I imagine Susan’s face turning a similar shade when she yells at him for forgetting sunscreen, that he never thinks straight when he’s with me. 

The remnants of kivas at Arches, Chaco Canyon, Hovenweep are nothing compared to the one we are visiting, Cliff Palace. Two hundred and seventeen rooms in twenty-three kivas: the New York of Anasazi cities. I wonder if the disappeared are still here, gathered and waiting for wandering souls. No matter. My knees creak as I begin to climb down one of the ladders. The kiva is deep and kept in shadow—ancient air conditioning. Look up and smile. I stare into sunlight, make out a black form holding a camera and remember the myth that looking straight into an eclipse will cause blindness. A flash of light and then a furious kind of blinking to make the bright dots go away. Dad reappears. Magic. Beside him a small shadow seems to shimmy away into the light. I rub my eyes to get rid of residual stars and doppelgangers. Damn that flash. 

Come on, there’s more to see, Dad says and goes through another low arch. The remains of the rooms and towers look like broken stairs, seem to twist up like an Escher painting, leading into dark corridors. The signs say not to touch or climb, leave no sign we were there. Dad beckons to a man standing nearby to take a picture of us with the dwellings in the background, his hand waving me to come over. Muscles tense as he puts his arm around me, and now my mouth stretches into acceptable grin even as I think about that shadow. Had the flash recorded what I had wanted? Another burst of light. I detect movement in one of the doorways, a young woman. Her dress is all wrong—made of cotton and fitted so loosely it must be cinched by what can only be a belt made of hair. The necklace that dangles at her breast is made from stones rather than beads. A moment of enlightenment. Since when did they hire actors? I ask, pointing. It’s too hot, Dad says, shaking his head, and I turn to see only the threshold cut in half by shadow and sun. We often see what we want instead of what’s really there, but still I move away from his arm, ready to follow her. Dad tugs at my elbow, didn’t you want to go to the gift shop? 

We are met with a rush of icy air as the door opens, and I head over to the gift books and leather journals. When I was working at the lodge a few months back, my father mailed me a partial of his diary—fifty pages badly photocopied and stapled together, coffee stain on the title page. Just so you understand all this was never about you, the post-it on top had said. On page twelve he devotes a paragraph to the affair he had while I was at boarding school. Susan kicked my father out of the bed, so he slept in my room for two weeks. Once invited back, he still used my pillow until Susan screamed at him to leave me out of their bedroom. Always, I am behind their minds, a soft thing to rest their weary heads on and smother all their hurts with.

Dad comes over with a handful of postcards to buy, and points at the arrowheads sitting next to the books. I collected those when I was your age, but forgot to bring them with me to college. Dumbest mistake I ever made since they got thrown out in the move which reminds me—can you stay with a roommate over Spring Break too because I’m not sure it would be good to come home just yet but let’s not think about that now since it’s your eighteenth birthday and you get to decide where to go for dinner tonight. He babbles something about writing a letter a week as we retrace our steps through the kivas once more on the way to the car. Once past the first ladder, I see another shadow by the doorway. Two, actually. I slow my steps. The smaller one beckons me to enter the murky room, where I can see nothing past their shadows. Even their faces are blurred—I only see the indentations of eyes, the slight curve of a nose. The smaller one is wearing a stone necklace that gleams in the darkness. My father has walked on ahead, still talking as if I was by his side. But this is Mesa Verde, a dry land full of ravaged souls, shape-shifters who understand home is what you make it. Their bodies part slightly as the taller one turns to go, and this time, I follow them into the dark. 




Nancy Hightower’s fiction has appeared in Bourbon Penn, Word Riot, Prick of the Spindle, and Up the Staircase Quarterly. She is the art columnist for Weird Fiction Review and teaches the rhetorics of the grotesque and fantastic at the University of Colorado.


Q&A

Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: I went to a college near the Four Corners area, so the myths of the Anasazi and the spirituality of the desert really inspired a sense of place in the story. 


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Nonfiction

Diana Geffner-Ventura
Stature Quo

Soon I’ll have even less light
and less ways to put it having 
slept off the advances of the moon 
and sung my heart blue again 

slipping out just past dawn
from my plaster of Paris tomb
moth-costumed and addled
having looked at everything 

God looked except for the hallway 
in Hell where those who merely
played at evil simmered and paced
searched in vain for their breath,

and now am ready to remove
the spider sacs from my typewriter– 
cotton-throated thought-balloons
caught between timelines and up-   

holding yet another of these oddities–
how while one has grown older, evolved 
lots more of what was once us has  
not only been stolen, re-sentenced,
 
but lost on the white of the page, 
and yet what does this change… so there 
once was one word and then more of them? 
Other worlds that were fine seen as flat.




Mark DeCarteret’s work has appeared in the anthologies American Poetry: The Next Generation (Carnegie Mellon Press), Thus Spake the Corpse:  An Exquisite Corpse Reader 1988-1998 (Black Sparrow Press) and Under the Legislature of Stars: 62 New Hampshire Poets (Oyster River Press) which he also co-edited.  His fifth book Flap (Finishing Line Press) was released last year.     

Q&A

Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: Stylus-eyes and then prods this most ironically treated of threads (thinnest ropes?) out through Bishop’s “black scrolls on the light” and then into some footage of Baudelaire’s Paris before a short stopover with his spirit-father Poe and those filmiest of eyes and then all of it tied up into this tidiest of knots (nooses?).   

Fog
by Ross McMeekin
followed by Q&A

Babies have a fear of falling even when they’re in the womb, said Gustavo. He sat on the stern of the twelve-foot Zodiac. One hand held the handlebar throttle of a four-stroke Honda, the other a can of Rainier. 

Bullshit, said Jacoby. How could they even prove that? He sipped on his and shifted his weight to the port side pontoon. 

They paced along the no-wake zone of Shilshole marina, through the smell of saltwater and exhaust, passing rows of sailboats and cruisers on one side and a slag-pile jetty on the other. It was nine a.m.

Moro reflex, said Gustavo. It’s when their hands fly into the air, like they’re startled, like when people go down a waterslide or something. Babies do this in the womb, at eight months. No shit. Consuela got up from her chair one day last week and she felt the baby freaking out inside of her. Then it happened again a few hours later. She called the nurse and that’s what she told her. Moro reflex.

Huh.

Yeah. Nurse said they think it’s the only unlearned fear response humans have.

Gustavo steered the Zodiac around the jetty and revved the engine. Outside, water the color of shale made jagged little disorganized peaks, big enough to clump against the bottom of the boat but little else. Beyond, a fog bank hid the Olympic Mountains and half of Bainbridge Island. Containers, Cruisers, and Trawlers littered the Sound. 

Consuela told her dad about it, said Gustavo. He used it in his sermon last Sunday, as proof of intelligent design.

How? It could just as easily be proof of a lot of other stuff.

Something in the Bible about God knitting babies together in their mother’s wombs. He did a good job.

Were you convinced?

Of the fact that he’s a good preacher.

Makes it sound nice, huh? 

But then there’s the hell stuff.

Right. The real purpose of the Moro reflex. Jacoby lifted up his beer to toast. 

C’mon.

They cruised around Meadow Point toward Carkeek. Beyond, fog obscured the rest of Bainbridge Island and a quarter of the straight with watercolor blots of gray. 

Know what’s weird? Sometimes I’m jealous of Consuela’s dad being convinced and all, said Gustavo. That’s a pretty big thing to have figured out.

I don’t trust it.

Yeah. I hear that. Once in college I thought I was. Convinced, I mean. Well, maybe I was. Anyways, I held on for a while but I couldn’t ignore the fact that I wasn’t anymore, no matter how much I wanted to be.

Jacoby finished his beer. Do you think Consuela’s dad is really convinced? I mean really? I think about those people sitting on their couch or something at two in the morning watching infomercials and wonder how convinced they are then.

When nothing is at stake.

Right. Or everything.

Jacoby opened up the tackle box at his feet and began fingering through flashers and lures. Purple, he said. Dark day, dark colors.

Grab me a blue.

Fog covered half of the bay. A small green-and-white passenger train appeared around the point at Carkeek then clacked by the large Cape Cod-style homes lining the shoreline.

I know Consuela has her doubts, said Gustavo, but she doesn’t have the heart to say it, at least to her dad. I don’t know. To answer your question, the old man might be convinced. But there’s that thing where if you lie to yourself enough, you eventually believe it. Carve a path through your brain for the thoughts to travel.

But the doubt is still somewhere in there. He just never visits it.

Sure. I guess. Maybe. I mean, I don’t really know how this shit works.

The fog arrived, interrupting their vision, settling on their hands and faces and pearling on their coats. Foghorn blasts erupted out in the bay—the ships doing their duty to let everyone know their location and build. 

Gustavo slowed the outboard to trolling speed. They unclicked the stops on their reels and let the weight spin the line out through the spools and pull it down into the water. They could barely see beyond the ends of their poles.

I’ll do the honors, said Jacoby, pulling out an air horn.

I don’t know, man. Do you think it matters? said Gustavo.

Probably not. We’re pretty close to shore.

No. The whole Consuela and her father thing.

The god shit? 

I’m serious.

Jacoby pressed down on the air horn and let out a full two-second blast. That’s what I think. 

Gustavo shook his head.

Jacoby set down the horn. You’re all serious, he said. Wow. 

The long, sustained chord of a train whistle echoed through the fog. 

The thing is, it’s tough to ignore when the people around you are talking about it like it’s a done deal. Good people, said Gustavo.

Some of them.

Sure. But this baby girl, I wonder if we should baptize her or something. I’m sure Consuela and her dad think it’s a no brainer.

Baptize her?

I’m serious.

You feel like you should?

I know, I know. It’s weird. But I just want to be sure. For her.

Right. Moro reflex. Jacoby shrugged.

You’re such a cynic. I mean what do you think, really?

You missed your calling with the church.

C’mon.

Fine. Here’s my answer. I don’t know. Maybe. That’s the answer, right? Can it be anything else?

I don’t know.

That’s why I hate thinking about it, said Jacoby. The question is a fucking sinkhole. What if I had a heart attack and died right here—where would I go? I had some guy ask me that outside of the Seahawks game.

What did you tell him?

Hopefully wherever you’re not.

Gustavo leaned over and picked up his backpack and rustled around for something. He peeled out another beer and wiped his nose on his sleeve.

Are you crying? asked Jacoby.

Gustavo cleared his throat and spit off the port side. 

Did I say something?

Gustavo didn’t answer, kept looking over the side.

They fished for a couple of minutes.

Gustavo coughed. It’s just that’s the thing, he said. What if I end up somewhere and Consuela and the baby are somewhere else. I know—it sounds stupid. But that’s it.

Hey, I’m sorry man—

Don’t. It’s fine. It’s just how it is now.

The fog lasted twenty minutes. They jigged their lines and circled the shoreline. The whole time, all around them, intermittent horn blasts called out through the fog—ships making certain everyone knew they were still there.




Ross McMeekin’s stories have appeared recently or are forthcoming in Dark Sky Magazine, FRiGG, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Necessary Fiction, Connotation, and other fine journals. He is the assistant fiction editor at Hunger Mountain, lives in Seattle, and blogs at www.rossmcmeekin.com.


Q&A

Q: What can you tell us about this story?
A: I gathered the key bits of information that drive the metaphors in this story from a Coast Guard Auxiliary class and a study on infant brain development.

Stature Quo
by Diana Geffner-Ventura
followed by Q&A
“Is Amos taller than me now, or are we still the same?” my eleven-year-old son, Julian, asked reflectively, as we lay awake in the darkness after the dust of the day had settled. Amos was our eight-year-old family friend.   

Julian thought for another beat. “Daisy is as tall as me now,” he continued, referring to our neighbor’s dainty nine-year-old daughter. “I hate my life,” he lamented. “It’s no fair. Everybody’s getting taller than me.”

Our son is, as my husband David and I often remind him, a big kid inside. He is boisterous, confident, and tenacious, no wilting flower. He is, in fact, not unlike a Rottweiler that sinks his teeth into our collective beings with unfaltering resolve, stalking us throughout the house, from room to room, in dogged pursuit of his latest must-haves: an I-Phone, a new Wii game, a hypo-allergenic puppy.

Almost daily, I find myself looking at short men, even seeking them out. One I know is the other parent in this house, but the others, strangers, are the men I look for to see how they have measured up as modest-sized men in their own lives. What have they achieved? Do they look relatively successful? Busy, involved, needed? Are they married? I look for a wedding band. Do they have kids? A man on the subway one recent morning had a young daughter hanging from his elbow, while his middle school-aged son, almost his height, gazed sullenly past him into the thick of the densely packed train.

Seven years ago at age four, Julian underwent a series of blood testing, including growth hormone stimulation, which revealed he was not deficient. Growth hormone injections were, therefore, not an option we wished to consider, first because we were concerned about hormone imbalance and the potential long-term effects, but also because the additional growth for kids who are not deficient would be negligible—one to three inches, if that, we were told. Furthermore, without this deficiency, shots would not be covered by insurance: without the medical necessity, the injections would be considered almost cosmetic, and would cost as much as $25,000 per year. 

Julian has also had several bone age analyses, wherein the left wrist is X-rayed to indicate how closely the wrist bones are fused together. There is a textbook standard for every age. So if the bone age of a six-year-old child is, say, that of a four-year-old, it would be two years delayed, as was the case with Julian a couple of years ago. It means that when most of his peers are finished growing at sixteen, for example, he will finish growing at eighteen. Pretty good news. If, on the other hand, a child’s bone age is the same as his chronological age, it means that he is right on target. This is fine for kids who are at least of average height on the growth chart. But if a child who stops growing at sixteen is significantly shorter than his peers, then that will be that—probably no catching up.

The most recent bone age tests reveal that Julian is about two years behind, which was indicated when we began this investigation seven years ago. He continues to follow his own curve, and he is growing, but not as much as a young child should, which is about two inches per year. But it’s appropriate to have this testing done as often as every six months, since the results show up differently from test to test. Meanwhile, the recent blood tests reveal that again, everything is normal, which is reassuring.  

Our endocrinologist says that when considering the heights of my husband and me, 5’6” and 5’4” respectively, Julian’s family height at maturity should be 5’7½”. At this rate, however, it’s not clear if he’ll make it that far. Idiopathic short stature is what they call it. But both David and I each have a tall parent, and tall siblings. Surely, our doctor can squeeze out a prediction of another few inches with this information, can’t she? What’s the mystery? What’s going on with those other inches? Clearly, nothing much is happening at all.

And then there’s that inevitable question of self-esteem. How do children of short stature really feel about themselves? How do they fare among their peers? Does a child ever feel inferior because of his height or lack of it? Why not consider the toll this affliction can take on a child’s strong sense of self? Could it be that good mental health is merely cosmetic? According to studies, our doctor said, there is no indication that a person’s height has anything to do with his or her self-esteem. Indeed, as we have seen in Julian, apart from the occasional spark of indignation, this is surely the case.

I think of Chicago’s mayor and former White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, successful at 5’7”. I run the occasional search on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) when a short actor pops into my head. Al Pacino, Tom Cruise and Ben Stiller are 5’7”. Dustin Hoffman: 5’5 ½.” Richard Dreyfuss: 5’5½”. Michael J. Fox: 5’4". Dudley Moore was only 5’2½”. Danny DeVito is only 5’. Even that extra half inch would have helped. But he did find his match in wife Rhea Perlman, another short actor who, after all these years, has loved him for all his diminutive might. Even though, according to IMDB, she has one-and-a-half inches on him.

And I think of my very own statistically short husband, who, among all the other, taller men I had known, had stuck out of the crowd. This man, who one evening, more than twenty years ago, walked into the packed jazz club where I served cocktails, pulled up a chair at the piano bar and confidently, without fanfare, ordered a beer. He continued his visits to the club, usually with the same, taller friend, on the many weekends that followed. I would occasionally forget to charge him for his drink, and ultimately, would hand him my phone number scrawled on a napkin. Looking back, I wonder what it was in this man that attracted me so. Was it his warm smile and the twinkle in his eyes? Was it his affable charm? The many interests we discovered we had in common? The way I always felt at ease—in fact, relieved—the moment he walked through the bar door?  It could have been any or all of those things. It certainly wasn’t his height, though, that’s for sure, which seems to have worked for me anyway.

To people whom we might meet on a bus, in a store, in our elevator, Julian has been lying about his age, downward. At first, it didn’t occur to me that he was covering his chronological butt.  However, I soon realized his need to save face. To avert that sinking feeling of helplessness he had so often felt after answering a friendly stranger’s innocuous question, ‘How old are you, seven?”  The typical reaction of astonishment he’d been receiving had taught Julian there had to be a better response than the truth.

Lately, though, it seems Julian’s been cutting himself a little slack. We popped into a diner a couple of weeks ago for an afterschool snack. The waitress came around with the usual water, place settings.  She smiled at Julian, who eyed me suspiciously: he knew what was coming.

“Hi sweetie…and how old are you?” she asked.

Julian’s furtive grin took hold.  “Eight,” he replied, snickering.

I joined him in laughter, impossible to resist.

The waitress was entertained, but a bit puzzled. “What’s so funny?  Why are you laughing?” she asked, trying to get in on the joke.

“Well,” I began, tentatively.  “Julian is really…”  I hesitated, looking to him for a sign of approval to give him up. Clearly, we were busted.

“Nine!”  Julian answered, the two of us still laughing. “I’m nine.”  

Having been caught in a web, he had managed to get closer to the truth while still holding his self-preserving ground. The laughter died, but the joke lingered. The waitress got it, the little bit that we gave her. I was relieved for my son. 

The next sizeable challenge in all of this will be middle school. A new sixth grader fresh from the minor leagues, Julian will undoubtedly spend the next three years quietly gauging how his growth, compared to that of his peers, is progressing. Maybe he will be the class mascot; or perhaps, he’ll have that unexpected growth spurt, and finally relinquish his long held status as the shortest kid in the grade. Whichever way it turns, we know this kid well. He will play on his sports teams, sing in the chorus forever in the front row at one end or another, voice his opinions loud and clear.

We continue our follow-up appointments every six months. As of now, the jury is still out. We’ll just have to sit and wait, and take the occasional X-ray. Make sure Julian gets enough sleep and eats well. And make sure that he, like every other kid, finds something that makes him feel successful, something he’s great at, his short-term calling. With luck, everything else that follows in his life will be up for grabs, yet entirely within his reach.




Diana Geffner-Ventura has been a writer for most her adult life, but this is her first published work. She is currently working on a collection of essays about managing life and family with cancer in the house. Formerly a theatrical producer, Diana is now a real estate broker in New York City. She lives in Manhattan with her husband David, sons Max and Julian, and dog Pablo.

Q&A:

Q: What was your inspiration for this essay?
A: Here I have this kid who holds his own better than any kid I've ever known, even with friends and family (and strangers) always inquiring after his growth, knowing full well we were already on the case. When he finally expressed his frustration that night, I just thought, damn it, this kid is really bugged, and what an opening line for an essay that would be. The rest explains it all.

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Click on the arrow to listen to "Ambrosia"