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Issue 41, July-September 2013
Prime Number Magazine is a publication of Press 53, PO Box 30314, Winston-Salem, NC 27130
Prime Decimals 41.3

Flash Fiction

Stephanie Austin
Vertical Stripes

Michelle Elvy

Vertical Stripes
by Stephanie Austin
followed by Q&A


Karen Craigo
Gravity in Photographs

Joy Ladin
Letter to Failure

Gravity in Photographs
by Karen Craigo
followed by Q&A
Letter to Failure
Joy Ladin
followed by Q&A

You seem to be everywhere, in and between the lines
death writes in a fine secretarial hand, 
memories matted like leaves, half-erased dates, excuses I’ve made, 
ready to tell me – no one else will – 

how little I’ve managed to be. I circle your blank
like a butterfly circling a plate,
waiting for you to be impressed with my presentation 
of a woman in pain, really suffering 

the staples of vanished longing
affixing her to the windowpane.  
This narrowing body is a stage.  
You and I should write a play.

My character could get punched a few times, 
provoke some laughter, learn the price
of having a body, personality, time
to read ends into endings.

I keep waiting for you, my illegible co-author, to explain life’s takeaway.  
But you explain nothing. You make clocks, 
argue politics, wander libraries 
of romances you neither stopped nor started, 

conclusions you didn’t reach, tragedies and comedies 
you enjoy without regret
because they give a shape to life
life will never have.  

Joy Ladin, Gottesman Professor of English at Yeshiva University, has published six books of poetry, including 2012’s The Definition of Joy, Forward Fives award winner Coming to Life, and Lambda Literary Award finalist Transmigration. Her memoir, Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, was a 2012 National Jewish Book Award finalist. Her work has appeared in many periodicals, including American Poetry Review, Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Southwest Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and North American Review, and has been recognized with a Fulbright Scholarship.


Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: This poem is part of a series of letters written to various terms (and one or two people) that are important to me. But though the terms to which these poems are addressed are charged with personal meaning, the words of this and the other poems are drawn from a very impersonal source: they were all found in a catalog of rare books. It was fascinating and a bit sad to see how readily the physical vocabulary of used books voiced my vision of life.

In early spring, I move my things into the house David built with his ex-wife. My dishes go away in the custom cabinets I know she helped design. This end table I’d planned to refinish but then didn’t goes next to a dark green couch I remember him telling me came from one of their furniture buying missions in southern Arizona. The couch is a shade of green you only see under the water. Standing in her house, knowing she’s the one who put in the ceramic light plates, makes me admit to myself she had good taste.  

When David and I first met, he’d told me about the house. When they were married, they bought a plan, chose all the colors, decided to make their kitchen white and gray, then upgraded to all stainless steel appliances. The front and back yards are filled with barrel cacti, creosote, desert willows, lantana, and chocolate flowers. He said she’d tried roses but lost patience and replaced them with more drought-tolerant bushes. 

David told me how they spent two years building the place, then she walked away, and now every Saturday he’s out there sweating his ass off trimming back the landscape. The house and the yard feel hopeful, like new life. My ex and I were lifelong renters. David had the unmovable foundation, so it made more sense for him to absorb me into it.  

Do you ever think she’ll come back after the house? I asked in the beginning. 

David shook his head. She’s somewhere in Colorado finding herself.  

In the master bedroom, David has placed a single rose on my side of his bed. The frame is made of natural wood. It’s simple and elegant and complements the muted colors in the bedroom. 

Our bed, he says. 

Bet you never thought you’d say that again, I say. 

David sighs. Relationships end, he says. You’ve had relationships too and those are over now. 

I don’t still live inside my relationship, I say. 

Neither do I, he replies. It’s not like every time I look at this house, I see her. I don’t even like to think about her. 

I’m insecure, I say and smile. 

I know, he says and kisses my forehead.  

I’m insecure but that’s how the world is built. This is why we have wars. This is why credit cards exist. 

He’s cleared a portion of the closet for me, which I fill quickly. While I unpack, he reminds me of what I already know.  

The ex-wife was a struggle. She had problems. Her dead father. Her uncompromising mother. Her broken pieces. Her unwillingness to consider children. The cruise they went on the summer before they divorced. She couldn’t sleep in their cabin. The small space was too constricting. He’d find her on deck in the moonlight, crying. He asked her what was wrong and could he help. Instead of answering, she looked down at her sleeve, pulled a piece of stray hair and let it go into the ocean.   

I love you, David says to me. 

The remainder of my things must go in the spare room down the hall for now. Miscellaneous boxes and items litter the room. A broken chair he wants to fix, a box of Halloween costumes.  

The closet is spotted with women’s clothing. The most obvious, a summer dress, hangs near the front. The spaghetti straps look stretched on the hanger. The hem likely hit just above her knees, which offered a suggestion and nothing more. The vertical stripes, green and brown, were out of season, but the fabric was light; the style came from warmth. The dress looked fitted, like it hugged her body, like he hugged her body, like how he liked to hug her body. 

David says he’s forgotten all about this crap back here. Trying to be helpful, I say I’m happy to shove it all in a box and take it away. As a matter of fact, tomorrow is a good day to go to Goodwill.  

David laughs. Then he closes the closet door and asks if I’m ready for dinner. He’ll turn the grill on.  

Through the blinds, I see the sunlight slowly pulling back. I quietly open the closet door to look at the dress again. Peeking in, just enough to see and not touch it, just enough to stare at it in bad light, memorize the way it hangs, follow the vertical lines so I can use them to shred myself later.

Stephanie Austin’s short stories have appeared in The Fiddlehead, the South Dakota Review, Washington Square Review, Necessary Fiction, and fwriction: review, among others. Her creative nonfiction has appeared at Used Furniture Review. Read more at


Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: When you’re young, and you date, you have to confront someone’s old college relationship or some snapshots from senior prom. When you grow up, and you find yourself dating again, you realize people bring with them an entire life they’ve lived with someone else. 

Available now: Prime Number Magazine, Editor Selections, Volume 1 and 2Learn more...
Flash Nonfiction

Christine Hennessey

Melissa Matthewson
Richard Nixon drops from the sky
in a photograph by Philippe Halsman,
who caught him just above the Oval Office floor.
Nixon’s hands, clasped at his thighs,
brace him for the moment of impact.
Halsman believed people were most natural
at the moment of the leap—fully focused
on gravity and its limits. We all trust
we can break away briefly but that the planet
will draw us back. Nixon, Oppenheimer,
Marilyn Monroe—all expected to be accepted
upon their return. Not even God
promises that. What comfort, to know
there is nothing we can do—wage a war,
build a bomb—to make the ground
relinquish its welcome.

Karen Craigo teaches English to international students at Drury University in Springfield, Missouri. Her work has appeared in the journals Poetry, Indiana Review, Prairie Schooner, Puerto del Sol, The MacGuffin, and others. Her chapbook, Stone for an Eye, is part of the Wick Poetry Series.


Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: I wrote this poem after seeing a wonderful photography exhibit featuring the work of Philippe Halsman at the Toledo Museum of Art. It’s the job of an artist to offer another way of seeing, and Halsman’s portraits of such enduring figures as Marilyn Monroe, Salvador Dalí, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Richard Nixon accomplish that beautifully. I thought the work merited an attempt at a poem.

Christine Hennessey
followed by Q&A

Hours after we’ve gone to bed I wake to the scent of smoke rising from your skin, can see your ash-flecked hair gleaming in the moonlight that lies across our bed. The tree was too close to the house, cast long shadows across the lawn, killed the grass. And now the tree is gone and there is a hole in the ground, surrounded by dark dirt and the fluff of wood shavings where you ground down the stump into nothing while I dragged pieces away—branches, limbs, trunk—and placed them in the fire. 

You sigh and roll away from me, and I remember a moment from earlier in the week, when we were out to dinner and you asked me to marry you and I said yes, of course, yes. This was before the tree, before the fire, before the smoke that trailed into the fading light, a plume of gray against dusty blue, the stars just beginning to peek through the trees we did not cut down. I reach for you, place a hand on your chest, feel your heart beat steady, beat slow. I miss the tree already and I hate the hole in the ground, but I understand that it was necessary if we wanted anything else to grow. 

In sleep, you raise your hand and place it over mine. The scent of smoke is fading now, but if I lift my head and look out the window I can see the embers near the earth, still smoldering. I said yes because you do what needs to be done, the hard work that no one else wants to face. I bury my face in your shoulder, breath the last traces of fire, and sleep.  

Christine Hennessey lives in coastal North Carolina, where she is a teaching assistant and MFA candidate at the UNC Wilmington. She shares her home with two giant dogs, eight chickens, one beehive, and her husband. She’s at work on her first novel and tweets via @thenewchrissy


Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece? 

A: I wanted to write a practical love poem, which is in itself surprising, since I’m not a poet. I decided to focus the piece on the tree my husband cut down, which caused a lot of strife with our landlady, which made me resent my husband—very romantic, I know. Writing this piece made me realize that what annoyed me about my husband (chopping down trees without asking permission, because he knew the landlady would say no) was actually what I respect most about him—his ability to do the right thing, without caring what others think. I set out to write a love poem, and was surprised to find that writing the piece made me fall more in love. 

by Michelle Elvy
followed by Q&A

Do you remember, brother, when we were kids, how you laughed at my crush on Bill? How you mocked the S.W.A.K. I wrote when he went to boarding school, the x I added after my name?

My crush lasted till he sent a photo: arms flung around a roommate’s shoulders, huge Rebel flag on the wall. You said, Don't hold it against him, but I did. 

You’re too political, you said, with your Malcolm X posters and DC rallies. I laugh at that now, ’cause who’s fighting the fight? Who turned patriot overnight?

We sat on your porch, singing The Fourth of July with Exene and John. You lit a Camel. I grinned, recalling when I begged one off you and gagged and you said, Smoking’s not pretty.

-Do you have to go?
-But you’re gonna go? 

I sign every letter to you with an x. 

I looked up your camp, marked it: x. I couldn’t say the name, just wanted to see it on my globe, halfway round the world from here.

I wrote a desert story called “Homecoming.” It was no good so I cut it right out of my system, control-x.

Phone call from Mom. Merry fucking Xmas. The screams spilled over the linoleum and took my voice. I’ve not spoken since.

Your letter arrived today. It’s in my pocket, unopened.

-Promise you’ll write?
-Cross my heart, hope to die.

I stare at the letter, mouth dry with sand and sorrow.

On your porch, a step you never fixed. Your letter burns my pocket. If I open it, your voice will drift into the forever night. 

I marvel at your tiny neat print, the black x written after your name. 

I sit, smoke a cigarette alone.

A manuscript editor and writer who grew up on the shores of the Chesapeake and meandered by sail to New Zealand’s Bay of Islands, Michelle Elvy edits at Flash Frontier: An Adventure in Short Fiction and Blue Five Notebook. She can also be found regularly at Awkword Paper Cut and Fictionaut’s Editor’s Eye series. Her poetry, short stories, flash, and creative non-fiction have appeared in numerous literary journals and travel magazines. She is currently completing a collection of very short stories set across the historical landscape of Aotearoa New Zealand. More at


Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: Very short fiction is about intersections—direct and implied. In this story I wanted to note the intersection between war and home in a quiet way: ten short chapters, playing with the symbol x, viewing it differently each time, examining the weight of it. Add to that LA punk, and this is where I ended up.

​Let me start with the ballroom floor and the hills outside. The carpet was embellished in a swirl of maroon feathers, nylon fabric that sucked the life right out of my shoes. Large windows lined one side of the room, all of the sprawl and span of southern California visible from this tier and plateau of scrub where the restaurant perched, the silver mined out of these hills long ago. Nothing left except the coyotes wondering where to hide. 

I stood with the other girls, though I didn’t eye or swoon the boys like they did. I looked out the window instead—to the sky glowing in amber gold, to the city twinkling below brown hills, to the smog settling over roofs. I looked out to the poppies and blue eyes shaking on the hill, to anywhere but the lace and satin and groove, pushing the misery down, forcing the smile, begrudging the mother who put me here. 

I was an awkward thing of a girl—a tall and substantial impossibility, incongruent in the perfect geometry of adolescent girls. My dress: a polyester navy blue “sailor” bag, loosely hung over my hips like a tent, pleats at the knee, fabric tucked at the armpit, the sweat just beginning to form over layers of fat squeezed from my stockings. I wore flats too narrow for my wide feet, flats that pinched my sweaty toes like sardines drenched in oil and tin can. My braces gleamed under the chandeliers.

Across from us, the boys scratched their pimples, shifted their balls in restricted suits that required a tailor’s trained eye and seam. All of the doting mothers watched us in their plastic chairs and hairspray. I slumped, tried to hide under my dress, and hoped a boy would choose me. And too, I wore a gigantic pad between my legs pulled earlier from the package my mother purchased at the neighborhood grocery store, the discarded blood of my unfertilized eggs filling the cotton while I waited to dance. The dance that would never come.

The history of such cotillion is this: a patterned dance from France—a way to flirt and petticoat around the floor with changing music and shifting partners, all of it social fabrication, all of it foolish courtesy to an eleven-year-old girl. I didn’t wear petticoats and France was across an ocean—who was I to master the curtsy, waltz, and strut? 

Stevie Wonder came on the speakers then to croon, “Don’t you worry about a thing, no no.” And the Martines, our instructors, shimmied across the carpet, swinging their frosted and permed heads, repeating, “One, two, cha cha cha. One, two, cha cha cha.” 

I remember the hills most, their golden dryscape of grass. I remember thinking the coyotes must be close. 

Melissa Matthewson holds degrees from the University of California Santa Cruz and University of Montana. She is currently pursuing an MFA at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her essays and poetry have appeared, or are forthcoming in Marco Polo Arts Magazine, Literary Mama, Hothouse, and Camas among other publications. She lives in the Applegate Valley of southwestern Oregon.


Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece? 

A: I really like writing very short essays—the attention to detail required when you sharpen your focus on one moment in time, the process of capturing glimpses of memory with conscious deliberation of image, word choice, sentence structure. In writing this, I was surprised by the clarity of details and images that came flooding back to me upon remembrance—the physical and social discomfort of the situation, the hills outside the restaurant, the landscape and geography, the terror and the ability to reflect on those moments of excruciating pain in order to unearth a little bit of beauty and mystery twenty-five years later. 

Melissa Matthewson
followed by Q&A