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Issue 43, October-December  2013
Prime Number Magazine is a publication of Press 53, PO Box 30314, Winston-Salem, NC 27130
Prime Decimals 43.5

Flash Fiction

Katie Cortese
Italian Classes at Tony's Leaning 
Tower of Pizza

Noha Al-Badry
Counter Synchronicity

Italian Classes at Tony's Leaning Tower of Pizza
by Katie Cortese
followed by Q&A


Emari DiGiorgio
Short Answer

Susanna Lang

Short Answer
by Emari DiGiorgio
followed by Q&A
Susanna Lang
followed by Q&A

My father, who studied these things, would say
that we become more so as we grow older.  
I don’t know if he invented the phrase or borrowed it 
from one of the books he read and handed on to me 
before I was ready; but more so became a word
in our family, a way to explain my mother
shifting the vase half a centimeter to its predetermined 
place on the end table, or our friend whose skin
after the heart attack lets the light through.  
We collected words, like child of God 
which means the way Sister Ann pulled Rene downstairs 
by his ear, reminding herself and everyone in earshot of where
we all come from and how to love what fights against us. 
Or heron, which means so much more than the blue-grey 
shadow that flies over the canal we insist on calling
a river, means afternoons on real rivers up north and Sundays 
at the natural history museum, the living bird’s crooked neck 
and long beak so like the artist’s rendering of what flew 
above this place in the beginning. It’s enough to make you believe 
in a Garden of Eden, if you can imagine an Eden
that grows and changes, perennials coming in more thickly, 
roses a deeper hue than they were before, but the beds
still marked. And now a previously unknown species of tailorbird
is discovered in a suburban tree, vibrating 
with its own song, new cap on its head, new name 
in the books. We still need a word for the primate 
that loosens up its shoulders like a slingshot, ready to throw
what will one day be called a fastball, my father 
sitting in the stands with my brother, one face reminiscent 
of the other, both cheering for the pitcher and his evolving arm.

Susanna Lang’s newest collection of poems, Tracing the Lines, was published in 2013 by the Brick Road Poetry Press. Her first collection, Even Now, was published in 2008 by The Backwaters Press, followed by a chapbook, Two by Two (Finishing Line Press, 2011). Her poems have appeared journals including Little Star, New Letters, The Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, The Green Mountains Review, The Baltimore Review, Kalliope, and Jubilat. She lives in Chicago, and teaches in the Chicago Public Schools.


Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: There are many sources for this poem—it’s what Ellen Bass has called a “long-armed poem” which tries to make a cohesive, meaningful whole out of many disparate parts. For one thing, the anecdotes in the poem are all true, and my father is much on my mind these days as he is old and ailing. In addition, I am fascinated with change over time, whether it’s the study of evolution or the study of linguistics, and the New York Times feeds my fascination with articles about new species or new evidence about how primates evolved into the strange creatures we are.  

At the restaurant, Rico rolls the r’s in ricotta and ravioli, and in bed he trills his tongue over my nipples in exactly the same way. His tongue is a cat purring. His tongue is the tiniest outboard motor on the smallest Venetian motorboat.

Thursdays, seven of us sit elbow to elbow and hang on his words. Jenny’s an opera singer who wants to know what the hell she’s singing about. George waits tables at Tony’s. He’s required to attend, but you can tell by the yawns that give him a flip-top head he could care less about pronouncing “bruschetta” with a hard “k” in the middle. Josalyn and Salvi have a college course to pass and Mario is an old man who just wants someone to talk to.

Now though, in bed, Rico presses his cheek to my stomach and circles my bellybutton with a knuckle. Each rotation trips a thunder crack of pleasure in the deep, dark center of me. 

“Tell me again,” he says, in his Calabrese mountain accent. The class thinks he comes from Florence, but I know that’s just where he went to school. 

Ho detto giá,” I say, because it’s true, I have already told him many times.

I think he’s afraid once I’m fluent, I will leave him with his white napkin tucked below his sloping chin. Gone before the antipasto arrives. Arrivaderci, mi amore

This is why he never speaks to me in Italian.

He rolls to his back now. I am used to these frequent breaks for conversation. “Sex is like a fine meal,” he said when I stayed after class the first time. “It should have many courses.”

“It’s just a country,” he says now and he could be talking about sex or the land of his birth. When I leave his house today, he will launder the sheets and remake the bed to keep his wife from smelling my perfume. In this country, I have my own unfaithful husband. In this country, my parents are buried in adjoining plots. 

In Italy, I could rent a car at the airport in Rome and take the A3 south to Magisano. Google says it’s a seven-hour drive. People with my last name still live there. It’s a small village, even now. There may be black and white photos in yellowing albums and stories about my parents I’ve never heard. There will be roads they walked with bare feet so the dust plumed in clouds around their ankles.

I invite him to come along for an adventure. To be my authentic Italian guide. “Pui venire con mi,” I say, knowing we have less than an hour before his wife’s train gets in. She allows him his flings, but hates confronting the evidence. 

“I’ve been there already,” he says, parting my legs and kneeling between them. The hair on his head is black as ink, but he’s gray on his chest and elsewhere. He dyes his pompadour not for me or his wife, but for some other piece of evidence he keeps on retainer for the day I leave. 

I tell him in his native language that I’ll send him a postcard, stumbling on the last word until finally it comes, cartolina rolling like a prayer off my tongue. 

When I get to the village where my parents were born, it will all feel familiar. The tickle of road dirt in my nose, the still shapes of donkeys resting in the fields at midday. Rows of mudbrick houses climbing up the mountainside with laundry strung between. 

“Oh Rico,” I say. “Sí, Rico.” 

, Laura, ,” he says, trilling my “r” as his fingers close viciously on my hips. 

When I arrive in Magisano, the men playing at checkers will lift up their heads; the women, large and soft, arms floured white to the elbow, will make me a place at their tables. They will wave their arms in welcome and laugh in Italian and know I am my mother’s daughter before I even say her name.

Katie Cortese holds an MFA from Arizona State University and a PhD from Florida State. Her work has recently appeared in Carve, Gulf Coast, Third Coast, Crab Orchard Review, Word Riot, and Monkeybicycle, among other journals. She teaches in the creative writing program at Texas Tech University, where she also serves as the fiction editor for Iron Horse Literary Review.


Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: I’ve been trying to learn Italian on and off for almost a decade now, partly to touch base with my family origins and partly to facilitate the writing of a historical novel that starts in Italy. So far, mastery of that gorgeous tongue (or even functional competence) eludes me, but I wanted to write a character whose absorption of the language lifted her bodily, transporting her to a foreign place that felt like nothing other than home.

Available now: Prime Number Magazine, Editor Selections, Volumes 1, 2 and 3Learn more...
Flash Nonfiction

Jessica Barksdale
Skin Changer

Ira Sukrungruang
Summer Days, 1983

“…would you want to be yourself only, unduplicatable, doomed to be lost?”
—Mark Doty’s “A Display of Mackerel”

I told God no.
At least I think I did.
There was a storm.
Not an end-of-the-world 
joist-ripping, amphibian-flying storm,
but the rain was loud and I could hardly see
past the dash. To tell the truth
I don’t know if it was before or after 
lights on the bridge, a squad car.
I wasn’t driving that fast. I didn’t even think 
You’re gonna kill yourself tonight.

Come on, you know you’ve thought it too, 
and if you don’t want to die, or even if you do
and are just a bit squeamish about it, you ease off
on the turns, tap the brakes, make sure they’re there. 
I was glad really: no angel song, no harp, no golden stair. 
Just guessing it was God, that voice in my head, 
maybe the same one that would’ve warned
Slow down, sweetheart.

And the blue books were passed down the rows.
Short answer. Directions. I rummaged for a pen. 
What would Kierkegaard say? Something about 
a leap of faith? A woman issued me a temporary 
ID card and left two quarters on my desk.

I’ve never been myself only.
Wore my mother’s eyes my whole life.
Imagine the self disassembled on the factory floor.
Earlobes, elbows, furrowed brows, sighs 
the same length, weight, frequency sorted
stacked in the corresponding row.
What sharp instruments to strip 
the sense of loss we might share.

Tough work cutting a body from a car, 
especially when the car has melded with a bridge.
Traffic stops. The water, the barge beneath the bridge
proceed. Proceed, the officer waves. You go.
Slow, looking, think rubber-necking. The leap 
of faith less difficult now, though you’ll forget
the color of the car, what you’re wearing,
how many bodies attend the one body trapped
wrapped round the steering column.

Emari DiGiorgio makes a mean arugula quesadilla and has split-boarded the Tasman Glacier. She is Associate Professor of Writing at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey and a NJ State Poet-in-the-School. She was named a Distinguished Teaching Artist by the NJ State Council on the Arts for 2012 and received the Governor’s Award in Arts Education. Her poetry manuscript The Things a Body Might Become is a four-time finalist for the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award, and recent poems have appeared in, The Baltimore Review, Conte, DIAGRAM, and Poetry International.


Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: I am most interested in the leap itself: what it takes to go beyond thinking something to actually believing and living that belief. 

Skin Changer
Jessica Barksdale
followed by Q&A

Even though it’s the early 80’s, the apartment complex reminds her of the 70’s, which haven’t yet disappeared, some disco still in the sleeves, the tight, pegged jeans, the glitter in the late-night, drunken college hairdos. Remnants in the music, the politicians, the fast food. As she lies on the battered lounge chair, she squints at the concrete that surrounds the hole-in-the-ground pool. Sunlight strikes the water, a wavering of painted aqua against the metal safety signs. Her arm dangles, her fingers stroke the tiny decorative rocks nestled in the concrete and the seconds-from-splintering strip of wood between the pavement sections. She’s sweating, her back stuck to the rough plastic slats pressed into her shoulders, back, ass, thighs. 

In half-circles near the fence surrounding the pool area, some once hopeful landscaper planted palm trees that were later ignored, growing wide and fat, fronds turned toward the sun, sad little date or rotten coconut or horrible banana things popping off them like ticks. 

She’s studied all morning, and now it’s afternoon. She’s jittery from many mugs of strong generic tea and not enough food. She’s scared and lonely and alone, a bad combination, so she smokes five of her precious Virginia Slims cigarettes and eyes the slice of the space between her thighs, visible but not big enough.

She used to think that leaving her boyfriend John was the answer to happiness, just as two years earlier, she used to think escaping her mother’s house was the key. Just as long ago when she was a child, she dreamed of running away. Around that same time, she’d known for a fact that if her father left or died from some swift illness or was killed in a tragic car accident everything would be fine. Then he did die from stomach cancer, and nothing was fine. 

You’d think she would have learned.

She closes her eyes, takes a deep drag, exhales, and coughs. In the seventies, she’d known she was a failure, stuck in an unhappy household, doomed to her father’s severe disapproval. She was vaguely popular, vaguely pretty, prone to plumpness, susceptible to ascetic diets and near eating disorders. She was almost below average in all the ways she could be below average. But none of this was new. All of that had been constant and, she thought, irrevocable. When his disapproval disappeared along with his body and face and tobacco smoke, she was only a failure and stuck in an unhappy household. When she left and moved in with John and got a job at an insurance company as a file clerk, soon promoted to the claims department, she was only in an unhappy household, John and she too young to do much besides smoke pot and fight. Now that she is a freshman in college and getting all A’s and alone in her one-bedroom apartment in the cheap seventies complex, she’s only unhappy.

At what point will the combination be right? she wonders. With her eyes closed, she imagines she could be sitting at any pool. The one where she learned how to swim as a child. The one from her future, where things will be current and stylish. Or even a different pool from right here in town, where the friends she doesn’t yet have will live, where she’s invited over to swim and laugh, these pleasant, smart people all smoking from her not-as-precious-anymore pack of Virginia Slims.

Who does she have to leave to get that?

The wind blows, the scruffy fronds rattle like bones. The central California heat pulses off the bad concrete in waves. The terrible fruit falls around her chair. Yellow jackets hover. Sweat slips down her sides. No one has ever fit. No family has comforted her like some perfect piece of clothing or warm blanket or a hot bath. No person has held her the way she wants to be held, for as long as she needs and not a second more. Nothing has been right, and she knows that nothing ever will. How can it? What’s left to do? Who else can she meet and then disappoint? She needs to find that one last skin to shed, the last maneuver, the last way to drop all that she’s carried and leave it behind like a tattered cloak, a bad hat, a dress no one, not even she, ever wanted.

Jessica Barksdale is the author of twelve traditionally published novels, including Her Daughter’s Eyes and When You Believe. Her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in Salt Hill Journal, The Coachella Review, Carve Magazine, Mason’s Road, and So to Speak. She is a professor of English at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California and teaches online novel writing for UCLA Extension. You can read more at


Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece? 
A: Mostly I was surprised about what I remembered from a time over thirty years ago. Everything seemed so hard and so ugly at the time, and the good news things got better. But it was seeing that struggle in the words that surprised me, as I mostly don’t think of that interstitial time much—after leaving something and before something else happened.

In terms of revising, I wanted to keep most of the images sensory—the heat, the textures of the pool setting. I wanted bodily as well as mental discomfort.

Counter Synchronicity
by Noha Al-Badry
followed by Q&A


This is not a death. This is not an elegy. This is not an obituary. This is not a tragedy. This is not grieving. This is not a choir of weeping while an organ ominously drones in the background. This is a history of what didn't happen, like a child dreamed but never conceived. This is not even despair. This is the space between everywhere and nowhere; the distance between heaven and hell or the silence after creation and before civilization. 


You are everything in as many names as possible. I follow a trail of ghosts—address to address abandoned by time. Always five steps behind and a decade too late. I spend eons lost or trapped in fantasies of reversal. I ride my bike backwards. I purge what I eat, but it's not the same. An action can be undone, but it's consequences always persist like how a body remains even after life is snatched from it. Like how an antonym does not negate but is rather like a parallel line pointing in the opposite direction. I stumble upon a thousand souvenirs of you, but never you. I see pieces of you everywhere: your voice in someone else's mouth, your expressions on someone else's face, someone else shrugging the way you did, a man with a cigarette holding his glass of whiskey like an impersonation of you, but never you. I am learning every dimension of futility and I wonder what I made up, if you're made up, if I'm made up. My eyes close like shutters: creaking even in sleep—infected with you.


What happens first, the tide rising or the tide falling? Does leaving imply a return? If a door is left shut and stripped of its knob, does it remain a door at all?


The wolves only howl because they can never reach the moon. Do we choose to covet only what we know we cannot have?

Noha Al-Badry. Born in Cairo, Egypt as the Soviet Union crumbled. Likes mythology, idioms, proverbs, common sayings, cautionary tales, grandmother recipes and the scent of Cairo's basil flowers. The virtually unknown zone where prose, philosophy and outrageous fantasy all intersect to reflect the world is what inspires me to write. Was previously published in Otoliths and FailBetter.


Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: Was inspired by the fickle nature of time and how often emotion and state of mind become the factors which shape our experience of time's passing.


He was Thai, not the strange, pale Chicago Catholic boys I pal-ed with. Then, I had no Thai friends. Because of this, my parents loved him, thought he would be a good influence on me, that his presence would halt America spreading in my veins. It did not matter that was years older, a high schooler who lacked high school friends. What mattered was how he took flight, bike like an appendage. How he and bike spun and twirled, how he and bike traversed the world on one wheel. How I was in awe, the on-looking second grader, the boy watching his first Thai friend, Thai magician, Thai god.


This is what happened: we lay in suburban grass, staring at the sky, the contrails of a plane landing at the airport a few miles away. He said, Easy life. He whistled. Easy everything. Words slipped out like my neighbor’s sprinkler, vowels lingered longer from his lips. Easy, he said and bumped against my shoulder. Meanwhile, clouds took animal shapes, ants tickled the underside of my arm.


This is what happened: he stayed the night once, and we unrolled the fold-out couch and lay underneath it—our cave—past bedtime; he was Thai after all and Thais were allowed leniency. My parents succumbed to sleep hours ago, the house dark except for Johnny Carson on TV, his white hair, his white suit, his white teeth, like a lighthouse.


This is what happened: he pulled down his pants. Johnny Carson swung an imaginary golf club. Ed McMahon’s guttural laugh.


This is what happened: he grabbed it tight in his hands and tapped my shoulder. 
And this: he pointed at my pajama bottoms. 
And this: Let me see yours
And this: I slid my shorts down to my ankles. 
And this: his hushed laughter, laik, small in Thai. 


Years later, when I was in high school, I would see him at a Chicago party, beer in hand, beautiful white girl on his arm. How I envied him again, envied the ease of which he stood and talked to everyone at the party. How he seemed a sun that planets revolved around. How this woman, lips like peppers, touched and traced his cheeks with a red fingernail. 
When he saw me, his eyes widened, his smile widened, his sinewy arms widened to embrace me. He said I had grown. Yai, big. Asked if I remembered that summer, those days of bike and sky. You look good, he said. A man.


I tell my wife the story. We are in bed, the southern Illinois sun filtering through the laced curtains, our dogs lying in patches of light. She tells me it’s not normal, but it didn’t feel wrong then nor does it now, only a memory without anchor. She says I have stored this memory in a dusty corner of my brain. 
Perhaps, this is what we do, sometimes, to endure. Perhaps, we wish these moments away like an eyelash, like dandelion fuzz. 
When he comes back, it is without sentiment, a dropped rock in water, ripples and ripples, spreading and spreading. What remains is a drawing left too long in the rain, the faint lines of chalk, a world empty of grace and color. 

Ira Sukrungruang is the author of Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy and In Thailand It Is Night. His newest book, Southside Buddhist, is forthcoming in summer 2014. He is the co-founder of Sweet: A Literary Confection and teaches at University of South Florida and the low-residency MFA program in City University Hong Kong. For more about him, visit his website:


Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece? 
A: This essay began as a poem. So that was the biggest surprise. To discover it wasn’t a poem. It wasn’t a poem because it was straying from poetic language and movement, and the more I wrote, the more I wanted to go beyond the moment, to dig deeper at the memory of that summer night under the foldout couch, to interrogate memory and also why this particular memory sticks to the bones, why, at times, we aren’t able to understand why we remember things; we just do. The questions that kept coming up were narrative questions, character questions. Not language questions. Not poetry craft questions. Not structural questions, though structure does play a large role in this piece. I still wanted to keep the poetic impulses in this essay. The halting pauses. The repetition. The concentration on image before breaking form and allowing expositional content to take over. The moment I decided to write it as an essay I allowed the language of discovery to take over, instead of the language of sensation. Sometimes the best revision is about shifting the lens of genre to find the true intent of the piece.  

Summer Days, 1983
Ira Sukrungruang
followed by Q&A