Prime Number Magazine
is a publication of
PO Box 30314,
Winston-Salem NC 27130
Issue 43, October-December 2013
Prime Number Magazine is a publication of Press 53, PO Box 30314, Winston-Salem, NC 27130
Prime Decimals 43.2
The Energy of Girls
by Parul Kapur Hinzen
followed by Q&A
by Claudette Cohen
followed by Q&A
followed by Q&A
On a day that feels like thanks for nothing
I’m unexpectedly grateful for the shadowy
Woman in the darkened theater walking
Down the incline—one hand full of popcorn,
One full of giant cup—peering side to side.
Adjusted to the dark, I ignore the trailers
Loaded with explosions, chases, guns
To watch her, suspense building, pulling
For her to find who she’s looking for.
When she knows she’s gone too far she starts
Back up the slope, scanning, pausing,
Until finally she picks up speed and enters
The row I’m in, nothing between us but empty seats.
Soon she is lowering herself into the seat beside me
Whispering God, I thought I’d never find you.
And, like her, for an instant I believe she has.
Eric Nelson’s books include The Twins (2009), winner of the Split Oak Press Chapbook Award; Terrestrials (2004, Texas Review Press), winner of the X.J. Kennedy Poetry Award; and The Interpretation of Waking Life (1991, U. of Arkansas Press), winner of the Arkansas Poetry Award. His poems have appeared in Poetry, The Southern Review, The Oxford American, The Sun, and many other journals and anthologies. He teaches in the Writing and Linguistics Department at Georgia Southern University.
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: The difficult part about writing this poem was (1) recognizing that the experience was both a gift and a poem, which took years, and (2) getting the right words in the right order, which took months.
Their eyes were hollow. Their work was simultaneous interpretation, listening in one language and translating into another, the language they were born to, their native tongues. Through my plastic earpiece in conference rooms, I heard snatches of their voices as I turned the dial in my console, searching for English: some sharp and distressed, rambling drunkenly; others blowing words out in nervous wisps, cautiously pausing as the speaker thundered on. The translations from Arabic to English were spirals without stop, sentences climbing into space.
From the press officers’ table, I condensed speeches into the flat text of English news releases. I worked on short-term contracts, having given up on a novel set in India, my birthplace, a place I no longer knew well enough to describe.
Even in Manila, around the world from UN headquarters in New York, the interpreters exhausted themselves speaking. French to Russian; English to Chinese; Arabic to English to Spanish. As government representatives debated the protection of the seas at a special conference, cobalt waves mounted outside the convention center windows. The interpreters sat behind glass walls, too, paired in booths, one speaking into the microphone, illuminated in her box; her partner waiting in darkness, tongue silenced.
Thrown together in a strange city, a small group of us collected for dinner. In a van white as a sail, we turned away from Manila Bay, speculating on connections and origins: sugar in Hindi shukkar, in French sucre, in Spanish azucar, in German zucker; thank you in German danke, in Hindi dhanyavad. At a Lebanese fast food counter in a deserted mall, the Syrian interpreter ordered tabbouleh and grape leaves for the group, the food served to us on Styrofoam plates. He’d been eager to bring us here because the woman who owned the restaurant, a Lebanese, had told him on the phone that it was set in “an open area.” He’d pictured a garden and moon, he told us sheepishly; I had imagined plaintive Arabic music. No one anticipated a food court a level below the boutiques in a Manila shopping mall. “I don’t speak Arabic, no, no.” The Lebanese woman laughed as she set down our bottles of soda, embarrassed by the interpreter’s question. She’d been born in the Philippines.
The square-jawed Syrian, a mournful man who’d once been a poet, recalled serving as the Emir of Kuwait’s personal interpreter during the Gulf War. Trying to reconcile incongruent grammars, to bridge the lack of sympathies between English and Arabic, had felt like an emotional assault on him. He’d been aware, too, of television cameras recording his every utterance. Arabic interpreters were permitted to act as two-way simultaneous interpreters, speaking in both English and Arabic, since there were so few of them. After switching between the languages for twelve hours straight, the Syrian found himself waking up with a shock as he navigated slow traffic out of New York City toward home, the evening sun hanging over the river. He slept, too, as he spoke. Sometimes he worked in a state of shallow sleep in his booth, he said, depleted by words.
A doughy-faced white Colombian, a Spanish interpreter, whose German father had helped bring civil aviation to the jungle, giggled and shook her curls. She’d never fallen asleep while talking.
Just wait, the Syrian warned her, it would happen to her one day. The tongue would take over without her consent, words forming themselves beyond her control.
Arabic was a sentimental language, he went on in his troubled way, graced with poetic phrases of praise and courtesy that had no equivalence in English. Those flourishing preambles he struggled to give meaning to, I could easily ignore in English as fluff, grateful for some slow time during the Arabic speeches to number the pages in my writing pad, to write the speaker’s name and his country in parentheses. A pause, before I began the work of concentrating intently to catch the sentences I needed for my story. I had started learning English early, in my English-medium school in Delhi, Hindi being the language of home. I was seven when my parents decided to leave India, severing my mother tongue. The interpreters, sipping their colas and lighting their cigarettes, lived in the continuous present of their first languages, swirling in childhood words. I listened to what was said as if in retrospect, trying to decide which words would matter in hindsight, changing every is I heard to was, as if the moment I lived in had already passed.
Parul Kapur Hinzen is a writer and journalist with an MFA from Columbia University. Her first novel, Inside the Mirror, was a semi-finalist for the 2013 Horatio Nelson Fiction Prize. Her articles and reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal Europe, Newsday, Esquire and ARTnews. She has published fiction in Frank, Wascana Review, Sugar Mule and other journals. Currently she writes about books for ArtsATL, Atlanta’s leading online arts review.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: In the early 1990s, as a journalist with the United Nations, I got to know a group of simultaneous interpreters at a conference in the Caribbean. It seemed none of us was fully at home anywhere in the world, so we felt an instant camaraderie.
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The Flying Ladies
Plumed, backward-creeping bullet,
your entire back the addled brow of St. Peter on the cross,
one thought, one glance, one quick dance for the sand,
and then a shoveling.
Sudden have I seen
how your afterdeath shell
holds dawn upside-down—
how the Milky Way vaulting over a washing sea
comes back under the pregnant sun
as arabesques of iridescence
capering in that brittle chitinous cave
lined medievally with hair
coarse as the beard of an Irishman.
That my soul could ever leave imprinted on its makeshift house—
picked and passed up even by the pipers—
that much beauty haphazardly grinning at the sky
makes me crave to be the light playing inside you
and the hollow where you once were.
Claudette Cohen is the winner of the 2013 Doris Betts Fiction Prize. Her work has appeared in Cream City, Lyric Poetry, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Squaw Valley, and Owen Wister Reviews, storySouth, Pirene's Fountain, Fireweed, Southern Anthology, and Main Street Rag, among others. An alumna of Agnes Scott, UWYO, and UNCW, she taught writing at the University of Utah, the University of Wyoming, and Cape Fear Community College. Her newest work will appear in NCLR and Phantom Manners: Contemporary Southern Gothic Fiction by Women, U of SC Press.
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: For so long I thought the remnants of the lowly and ubiquitous mole crab that litter Carolina beaches the last thing of interest on a combing. Then one day I picked one up and really looked. The worlds of color inside stunned me. I learned to walk and talk on the beach, and this discovery made me see how easy it is to be blind to the marvels in the mundane.
followed by Q&A
At first we think she is a he in drag—late fifties, large chest, thick legs, bouffant hairdo, heavy makeup. During the concert intermission, she walks past our seats awkwardly in high heels, pointing at the floor and mumbling. “She’s lost something,” I say to my daughter, who dutifully writes in the small striped notebook she carries everywhere. “I don’t think she can see clearly.”
“How do you spell contact?” my daughter whispers, her 20/20s focused on her depiction of the event. Slowly, the orchestra begins again to take their seats. My daughter’s letters are careful, large. Like a polite child, she stares only at what she’s writing.
When I blink and pause too long, she erases her scenario. There is little left on the nub of her pencil. Pink flecks dot her skirt. She brushes them to the floor. By this time, those at the end of our row are standing, looking between seats and along the aisle. The woman with the bouffant is saying in a definitely high-pitched feminine voice, “Yes, I think it was around here,” an usher has come out with a flashlight to shine across the burgundy carpet, and the violins are starting to tune up.
“A diamond,” my daughter explains, and begins a new story. The week before we searched our house endlessly for my lost stone, trying to catch the gleam with her Girl Scout flashlight. Together, while listening to Peter and the Wolf, we emptied the vacuum cleaner, sifting through dirt, dust, chewed up rubber bands and tissues. We swept the bathroom floor. We crawled on hands and knees, feeling for something other than toothpaste lids and Q-Tips. At the end, the gold setting on my finger stayed empty, lost without its symbol. My daughter wrote three pages in her notebook and drew a picture. Now, she flips back to check the spelling of diamond and how many minutes I cried. The oboists, warming up, accompany her movements.
I stand to join the others in their search—of what I don’t know. My daughter continues scribbling her new narrative, adding, I imagine, the details she loves: the reflection of light on chandeliers, the slight creak of theatre seats, the growing murmur of patron voices. Strangers gathered like this, one by one, the summer we lost my daughter at the beach. Within those eternal fifteen minutes, a teenager began searching on her bike, a mother with twins called the police on her cell phone, an elderly couple collecting shells rushed off to get their car. My daughter, at six and just starting to write, was a mile down the sand, examining jelly fish, describing, in her own makeshift spelling, their dangerous invisible skin. For weeks after, I had trouble breathing.
Now the conductor re-appears, bows to the audience. Obediently, the usher vanishes; the other women in my row apologetically sit down. For a second before the music resumes, it is just the bouffant woman and I, shifting hesitantly on our tired feet, waiting as long as possible. We are lost together, she and I, hoping the other will point the correct direction. Except for the conductor, we stand alone in the darkening auditorium. The baton is high in the air, the haunting note of a single flute upon us as I finally slump down next to my daughter. Abandoned, the woman turns to me, opens her bright-lipsticked mouth in a sorrowful smile, and exposes the gap. Her left bicuspid is missing, the same one my daughter placed under her pillow the night before. While the rest of the Wind section joins in, my daughter tears out her notebook page, begins again.
Director of Creative Writing and Professor of English at Lock Haven University, Marjorie Maddox has published Local News from Someplace Else (Wipf & Stock 2013); Weeknights At The Cathedral (WordTech 2006); Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation (2004 Yellowglen Prize); Perpendicular As I (1994 Sandstone Book Award); When The Wood Clacks Out Your Name: Baseball Poems (2001 Redgreene Press Chapbook Winner); five chapbooks, and over 400 poems, stories, and essays in journals and anthologies. She is co-editor of Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania (Penn State Press, 2005) and has two children’s books: A Crossing of Zebras: Animal Packs in Poetry and Rules of the Game: Baseball Poems. “Lost” is part of her circulating prose collection What She Was Saying, finalist for several national competitions. For more information, please see her website.
Q & A
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: What surprised me the most is being surprised—once again—at how writing gathers together so many parts of our lives, so many overlapping experiences with similar themes. And yet, that’s what writing helps us do: discover connections both within ourselves and, in turn, to others.
by Laurie Stone
followed by Q&A
My brother was the catcher, and we were having sex. I was waiting to be scared. In our act, he would swing upside down from the bar, hanging by his knees, his arms extended, and I would fly into his chalky grip. We would sway together while I shimmied up his body for our extension tricks. Sometimes he became hard and called me goddess. I laughed and called him punk. He was wearing his hair in a Mohawk in those days. We were 7 and 9 the first time we explored, 13 and 15 the first time we went inside each other’s bodies. Now we were 20 and 22, and each time the circus moved to another city I wondered if I should take off. As soon as we were separated, I wanted to return. At the kitchen table, eating buckwheat pancakes with raisins, he said, “I don’t see other women.” I said, “You are just lazy,” feeling the nauseating dizziness of trapeze. Other kids noticed the odd way we split off. Jed was always lingering nearby. We would hear soft laughter behind us when we left a room. It was almost romantic. Whatever people thought they knew, they didn’t know. At the table, I licked a dab of mayonnaise off his nose, left from making tuna sandwiches. He was bare-chested in tights, and I studied the shadowy contours of his belly and ass. His legs were pillars. We had the same coppery hair, the same broad hands. I said, “No one will measure up, but some day we will have to leave home.” He took my braid in his mouth and bit down. I still feel the tug at the back of my neck. When I close my eyes, I see him on a bench before an unglamorous stretch of river, his hair flying, his face quizzical and refusing to suffer. Each morning when I wake up, I wonder if this is the day the fear will start.
The Energy of Girls
Emma and I were in a shabby part of town with vacant lots and overgrown yards, and I wondered if something would happen as we loped beside Tom, who was slow-witted and 21. We were 13, and it was dark, but I wasn’t afraid. My parents were doctors. When they hugged me, they scanned for disease, so I was used to a low-level atmosphere of alarm. After a few blocks, Tom led us into a lot with tall weeds, then along a path to a clearing with stones that smelled of fire. We sat on sandy ground, light raying off Emma’s bleached white hair and fading into the trees. We ate chips from the store where Tom worked the register. He cupped his face in his hands, looking at us, and Emma touched his soft hair and long body. I touched him, too. My fingernails were dirty. His legs were firm. He said, “Nice.” I closed my eyes. It was quiet except for our breathing. When I opened my eyes, Tom was stretched out on the ground, slipping down his pants. I looked at the stars and weeds and wondered if this was how my life was going to go. Emma had lived in New York, and I wondered why she had chosen me to be her friend. The thing Tom lacked was also something he had, and the thing Emma and I had was also something we lacked, and so in this way we were a good fit. Tom’s penis stood up. I didn’t have a brother. I thought that when I was dying I wouldn’t remember where I had traveled or the work I had done but who I had touched.
Laurie Stone has written several books of fiction and nonfiction. Her short work has appeared in such publications as Open City, Anderbo, Joyland, Nanofiction, The Los Angeles Review, New Letters, Ms., nthWord, TriQuarterly, The Literary Review, Threepenny Review, Exquisite Corpse, Memorious, St Petersburg Review and Four Way Review. She is working on The Love of Strangers, Micro, Flash, and Short Fiction by Laurie Stone.
Q: What was your inspiration for this story?
A: Susan Nordmark was writing daily flash fictions during July 2013 and posting them on Facebook as well as prompt words she culled from songs. These were plucked from Frank Zappa's song “Electric Aunt Jemima:” goddess, buckwheat, punk, raisin, mayonnaise. I gave it a shot. I was in London, and I took to walking daily in Regents Park and watching classes at a trapeze school. I had also been watching “Game of Thrones,” hence the brother-sister incest.
I’ve got no way of knowing if my grandmother noticed the hood ornament. She must have. I would have. It would have looked so out of place next to everything else.
That car was almost twenty years old then. Its running boards were long out of style, and drug their rusty undersides against all those steep and rocky hills. On its nose, there was the company’s long-used Mayflower medallion—Plymouth, Mayflower, makes sense—but sailing above it was a masthead from a ship, a figurehead of some kind of goddess—a mermaid, but with wings instead of arms, making the leap from swimming to flying. I’ve seen pictures. It’s regarded as one of the most finely crafted hood ornaments America ever made, at least among people who collect and care about things like that. It’s safe to assume my grandmother didn’t see it as a collectable, but she must have noticed it, must have seen something of herself in it when she was feeling one of those ways she felt.
She was called Annie then. Daddy Ralph had married her and moved her away from the life of big families and the farms they worked, moved her out to the Number 3 mining camp in Marvel. Their company house had three rooms and not much else. The first two boys had been born there, and especially after the whole inside got filled up with the hollering young’uns, Annie sometimes felt like she was being squeezed up against the heart pine walls. Outside, another six houses stood in a crooked line along the yellow rocks and scrub pine of the ridge. Just behind them, a shaft vented the mine’s exhaust, hot and dank, the single steady exhalation from hundreds of men working underground. If I’d been her, waiting on my husband to come back from a graveyard shift while I was waiting on the next explosion or the next or the next collapse or the next man getting mangled in a piece of misused or misplaced or mis-maintained equipment, I’d have lain awake, coldly comforted that right out there in the yard, so close you could walk through it, some of that breath was his.
She could look across to the next ridge and see the dinky line—the small train that carried the coal from the mine so it could be loaded on the big train. Wouldn’t much of nothing grow in them dusty yellow rocks, so anything she’d tried to plant either died or came out all dwarfed and misshapen and infertile. Them tomatoes never would make. Though they weren’t even halfway across the county, her family’s gardens would have felt lifetimes away. Here it seemed like everything and everybody was dirty all the time. Just living took most of the effort anybody could summon. They’d had to dig out a place for their own driveway when Daddy Ralph bought that ’33 Plymouth from Annie’s brother Willie.
She would have walked past that winged mermaid every time she got in the car to drive to the dances they sometimes held around here or over in Pea Ridge or Blocton, or once in a while clear over to Montevallo. Ralph and Annie were known for knowing what they were doing when they set out after a good time. On the dance floors, they’d part crowds of lead-footed miners and their weary looking wives who watched proud, jealous, bewildered, the supple turns of Ralph and Annie’s foxtrot, the effortless curves of the one receiving the other, these hard-laboring poor folks who’d been so like everyone else in the room until just now, when across that polished floor they glided smooth as wings, easy as water.
On the drive home, she would have watched the Plymouth’s masthead from the back, through the passenger side of the windshield, a bit blurry this time in the darkness, after the drink. The sculpted goddess that had led them here always led them home again, back to where the body hurt and the spirit did too and everything and every young’un stayed dirty no matter how often you cleaned it and the walls were all much, much too close for anybody’s dancing.
She would have walked past them bare, un-sagging chrome tits every time she left the camp while Daddy Ralph was underground, every time she skidded down these hills with the boys bouncing around loose in the back seat, every time she’d head toward the county line for a case of Schlitz or a bottle of bonded, or just drive back in them hollers for shine by the jar or shine by the jug.
Daddy Ralph sometimes blamed himself for getting her started. He’d slouch home to their company shack after a day or a night or one of each in that hole in the ground. He’d say, “I’m gonna have me a drink.” He’d say “Come on and have one with me.”
They kept up their dancing as long as they were able. Less and less as they got older. They stopped altogether after Annie got lead poisoning from bad moonshine and turned a sight meaner than she had been. Mama didn’t come along until after the days in the camp, after they’d scrapped the old Plymouth, after Annie got heavy with the crying and the hollering and over and over again with the “you don’t love mes.” Even Mama remembers a few times as a teenager, standing in that recurring circle of awe and applause, watching her own troubled mother, knowing at least at that moment, in spite of every demon she could turn into at home, that if there was a goddess in the room, it was her.
It’s such an intricately detailed figurehead for a mid-priced sedan. It’s since been called the little mermaid, or the flying lady. With her back arched to its extreme, she sails breasts first out of a curling nest of art deco waves, propelled by her mermaid’s tail. She has no arms, and in their place are proportionate wings, bent straight back in the dramatic moment of sailing from sea to sky. She casts her head upwards, presents her strong-yet-serene face, gloriously, fearlessly toward the sky, toward us. The sinew of her throat stretches taught from the fine jaw toward the elegant, insistently feminine bones that lead outward to the shoulders. The long tresses of her hair tumble down in curls styled to match the waves from which she is breaking free. But had her wings been arms instead, cast back at that sharp angle, she would have looked like the opposite of flying. Her contours and cables would look like resistance; her arching would look like aching, like she was being tortured, restrained.
Jason Tucker lived most of his life so far in Alabama, but now is an expatriate in the upper Midwest, following teaching jobs wherever they lead. He received an MFA in nonfiction from Ohio State University and currently teaches writing at the University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire, where he lives with his wife and partner in writing and teaching, Amy Monticello. His essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Southeast Review, River Teeth, Cream City Review, The Common, Waccamaw, and Sweet.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: I was surprised by the hood ornament. I knew the elements of my grandmother’s life I wanted the piece to explore, but I didn’t have a structure or symbolic image. I watched an old home movie of my grandfather talking about their days in the mining camp. When he mentioned the car they’d had, I following the unpromising curiosity to photos of the hood ornament, which became the symbol I was able to fill with all these things I’ve been told about my grandmother from that time. The structure grew out of that process of making that symbol not then, but now, looking back into a historical point before I was born. As I say, it could be that nobody noticed the hood ornament but me. The facts are as accurate as I could make them, but the meanings of those facts are always made in the present. We interpret old facts through the hopes and fears and needs of our own present. That is how all histories are made.
The Flying Ladies
followed by Q&A