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Issue 61, October-December  2014
Prime Number Magazine is a publication of Press 53, PO Box 30314, Winston-Salem, NC 27130
Prime Decimals 61.3


Fiction

Jason Shults
The Bluffs




Poetry

Grace Curtis
Vladimir and Estragon

Tendai Mwanaka
White Girl, Black Boy

Vladimir and Estragon
by Grace Curtis
Followed by Q&A
White Girl, Black Boy
Tendai Mwanaka
​Followed by Q&A

The human skin is now the only existing surface
That has survived a history of cut and paste manifest destiny
The dermis has become an interlocutor of presenting, as a surface
It both jails, skyrockets the contours of the landscape and flesh

I imagine, imagining my imaginations
What if white is not?
Really white!
A smudgy pinkish colour?

The black boy thinks: If I was really black, I might not really be seen
Because I could hide things in my own blackness and if she were really white
When she is being white, white as family tree white 
She wouldn’t see me, for she would only be the wind
Light stripes of wind, pinned around my corporeal clothes
 Like cold tasting light, itself in the mouth of itself

The white girl thinks: It is a black skin muddled, annihilated of its truth 
No more his own skin; crythematous-patches, necrotic tissues-indurated 
Skin boiling in its blackness 
The black thing always, wanting, needling…
Getting in the way, 
Even now

Like the deadly white of the sky
She inherited the whiteness
The sugar coating whiteness
It is whiteness
As witness

She thinks, and you can’t deny her that: This is the fire injected by history into my veins. 
A white horned hunger to live, as long as bacteria 
In this whiteness 
Whiteness as white-coloured white?

The two, the white girl and the black boy, are talking of the cloudy of ice-cold that is always hovering on either side of this harness, the weave is the skin, which attempts to harness a centrality of spirit, and the rituals each of the two enacts to cipher it out in their relationship.
But, I will do an Alice walker here
And I imagine, with Walker, the psychic liberation of black if it understands
Black is not really black
I imagine, still with Walker, the exhilarating feeling of white if it could walk (doing a Walker with me) away from the caged feeling
Of its body, in its own skins




Tendai R. Mwanaka is a multidisciplinary artist from Chitungwiza, Zimbabwe. His work touches on literary discplines (non-fictions, poetry, plays, fictions), music and sound art, visual art (photography, drawings, paintings, video), mixed genres and mixed discplines etc... Keys in the River, a novel, came out from Savant Books, 2012; Zimbabwe: The Blame Game, a book of creative non-fictions, came out from Langaa RPCIG, 2013. Forthcoming books; Zimbabwe: The Urgency of Now (creative non-fictions) from Langaa RPCIG, A Dark Energy (full-length novel) from Aignos Publishing. Work has been published in over 300 journals, anthologies and magazines in over 27 countries.

Q&A

Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: This is an experimental poem that mixes genres like prose (essay and a bit fiction), and poetry, and it is written from the different viewpoints of at least three people. Exploring how skin-deep is our perception of our differences (White, Black, Colored, Asian etc.) and how we have used these colors to create barriers between ourselves. It is inspired by these few words by Alice Walker, “Imagine the psychic liberation of white people if they understood that probably no one on the planet is genetically ‘white.’” 

Available now: Prime Number Magazine, Editor Selections, Volumes 1, 2, 3, and 4Learn more...
Short Essay

James Claffey
Aging--A Meditation

Maureen Traverse
Two Short Essays

​The day is bathed in the uneasy light 
of irreverence. It's like this each day—
the day dressing in a form 

it's been given; or, rather, 
falling into it without thought,
as if it were a calling. I want 

to call upon a bird 
to fill in the empty spaces. 
I want this to be about wingspan 

and instinct, about how a bird finds
shelter in the green leaves of a lilac
bush. How it waits. Have you ever noticed

how things wait? How 
a cat skulks at the perimeter, 
moving nothing. Even when no leaf

lifts, he waits. An experiment, 
that began years ago, observes 
coal tar pitch fall, one drop 

at a time, once every decade. 
The cat waits, the day buttons 
itself into whatever cloak 

it's handed, the bird holds
its breath in the thicket. Coal tar
pitch gathers into a tear, and waits.




Grace Curtis’s book, The Shape of a Box, is available from Dos Madres Press. Her chapbook, The Surly Bonds of Earth, was selected by Stephen Dunn as the 2010 winner of the Lettre Sauvage chapbook contest. Her prose and poetry can be found in such journals as The Chaffin Journal, Sou’wester, Red River Review, The Baltimore Review, Waccamaw Literary Journal, and Scythe. She works for The Antioch Review. Grace blogs about poetry at  www.N2Poetry.com. Her website is www.gracecurtispoetry.com

Q&A

Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: I had to cut a lilac bush down, feeling bad about it because I knew small birds sought refuge there from predators. Fortunately, by winter, it had grown back enough to, once again, be a good waiting place. 

Aging--A Meditation
James Claffey
Followed by Q&A


Barometer 

Before I leave the house in the mornings my mother taps the antique barometer with her nicotine-stained index finger. The needle wavers and then settles halfway between “Change” and “Fair.” I dip my fingers in the wooden Holy Water font and make the sign of the cross. She kisses me on the forehead with her bristly lips and I stride down the path towards the still-wreathed in mist Dublin Mountains. I am nine and the walk to school is fifteen minutes door-to-door. The remnants of a hedgehog sit next to the storm drain by the telephone pole. 

Cats 

Stray cats, whose chorus makes enough of a racket to raise the dead, populate the lanes behind our house. In the darkness I can see their silhouettes on the back wall, sultry creatures steeped in witchcraft and bad luck. The neighbor across the road throws stones at the cats, all the while puffing on his cigarette. Every so often he scores a hit and cries out, “Chalk one up for the good guys!” 

Eye-drops 

Nightly, my mother puts three drops in each eye to keep the dryness at bay. Her kitchen cupboard houses eight kinds of medication, instructions printed in small type on the narrow white labels. I’m not sure how she keeps all of the doses and times straight, but when I ask her if she’s making sure to take her pills, she says, “Of course, do you think I’m daft?” 

On the phone the other day, she asked me five times whether I was happy to be back teaching in the classroom. I hadn’t the heart to tell her it had been almost a year since I returned to the high school. “Your brother is leaving for America tomorrow,” she told me five times, also.  

When my father was sick, she took charge of making sure he took his medication and when the hospital said they’d have a nurse stop in to change the bandages on his leg, she told them not to bother, that she’d take care of him just fine. He’s been dead fourteen years now and the shoe is on the other foot; only he’s not there to tie the laces. 

Dripping Shower 

When I visit her over spring break, I check her bathroom to make sure she’s using the shower. Daddy Long-Legs webs are the prominent feature in the shower stall, the walls and floor dry as the Californian landscape I’ve recently escaped. Indignant when challenged, she says, “I take a bath a few days a week.” Who am I to argue? Instead, I mosey into her bathroom when she falls asleep in front of the television set. The face cloth is damp and the towels dry. Best I can figure is she’s dabbing herself with the cloth and leaving it at that.  

At night I lay sleepless, jetlagged, listening to the sounds of the house. Outside, nightjars sing and flit from branch-to-branch of the bare trees. Worry is my name, the second son of the woman asleep on the other side of the landing; her snoring, a symphony. I hum to its tune until I fall asleep sometime before dawn. 

Lamp 

The bulb-holder is brass and not securely attached to the lamp. If you time it just wrong you can feel the hum of electricity running down to the wall socket. When I was a small boy I placed a wet hand on a light switch and was thrown across the room. I cried and blamed my brother for hitting me, but my mother said he’d been nowhere near me.  

Potatoes & Chicken 

The spuds in her downstairs bathroom have sprouted limbs. Lumpy potato monsters crawl across the tiled floor, blind and lost. On top of the gas furnace next to the fridge, a Tupperware of raw chicken sits like one of my students’ unfortunate science experiments. The stench is mighty, and Jesus knows when the breasts were set out to thaw.  

Magpies 

I sing the song as I walk down to the shops to buy the newspaper. “One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl…” If you see a singleton magpie it’s best to spit on the ground so you’re not dogged by bad luck. The magpies are sheened birds with glinting eyes. Their industry is remarkable and I spend a long time outside the newsagent’s shop watching them go about their business. “Dirty creatures,” my mother calls them. They remind me of undertakers, with their black & white plumage and officious way of bustling about.  

River 

The Liffey rushes through the town and beneath the narrow bridge, the water slate-gray and foamy. A heron wades deliberately in the narrows, its slender legs more suited to a child’s construction set than their actual purpose. Out the window of a pub I watch the bird stalk some small creature for its prey. Time does the same thing to my mother; the patient waiting, the unrushed watching as she slowly forgets to take care of herself. Eventually, the heron pierces a mouse with its long, slender beak, the chase over. It feasts. So, too, my mother will succumb when in a moment of stumbling forgetfulness she might miss a step at the top of the stairs, or take too many pills, too many times. Watchful, I am unable to rescue the mouse from the final strike, and unless something is done soon, I’ll be unable to warn my own mother of the waiting predator. 

Photographs 

In plastic bags of indeterminate vintage are snapshot envelopes containing thousands of photos going back to the early days of the last century. Dead relatives stare defiant into the lens of an old Kodak Brownie; like the one my mother used use when we were kids. Housed in a brown leather case, the lens extended on a black accordion-style contraption and she would say, “Watch the Birdie!” Some years back I wrote her and asked if she’d catalog the photos as best she could, but the task must have seemed overwhelming and on my last visit the negatives and snapshots were untouched.  

Cigarette Burns 

She’s smoked for over seventy years, religiously, a devout follower of nicotine. Her fingers are stained the yellowish-ochre color of the most committed disciple. Our house growing up stank of cigarette smoke, our clothes, too, and the car. Ashtrays dotted the landscape of our house, small graveyards of butts, a peculiarly dissonant form of potpourri. Somehow, she doesn’t smoke in bed. Small mercies. Burn the house down. We worry, nonetheless. Her chair, a broken-down armchair that’s been in the sitting room for twenty or more years, is spotted, like a leopard’s hide, with the burns of dropped cigarettes from when she’s nodded off in front of the television. The same chair is in the corner of her room in the nursing home. Has to go outside to smoke there, down two floors and out into the cold. At least she’s exercising. 

Uncertainty 

A box of love letters and cards sent from old girlfriends, a small, silver Celtic knot ring, business cards, and journals. I left these things behind when I abandoned Ireland for the west coast of the United States. I thought I asked my youngest brother to mind them for me, but someplace between flight and his moving house, the box disappeared. My mother is like that box of belongings; her memories and verbal tics soon to fade from memory as the outer shells of her stacked-doll self fall away and reveal a lonely emptiness at the core. Sometimes, I wonder if a stranger in a dump stumbled across all those letters sent to me by now middle-aged women? I don’t know who my mother is any more, her withdrawal shattering my certainty, my self-knowledge of who I am and from whence I came. 

Re-arrival 

The great horned owls came back just the other night. Missing for months, these light-boned creatures flew into the thick branches of the MacArthur avocado trees and reignited their cross-orchard conversations. In the light of the super moon I saw one’s shadow cross the meshed window, a soul in movement, perhaps a message from another place. Late, the hooting quieted, there’s a sudden energy and a frantic thrashing in the dead leaves beneath the tree. Half awake, my fast-beating chest stills only when the talons pierce my skin. 



Writer James Claffey hails from County Westmeath, Ireland, and lives on an avocado ranch in Carpinteria, CA. He is fiction editor at Literary Orphans, and the author of the short fiction collection, Blood a Cold Blue. His work is forthcoming in the W.W. Norton Anthology, Flash Fiction International.

Q&A

Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece? 
A: Discovered the final paragraph I had originally included made no sense at all to the overall flow of the piece. I was disappointed, since I thought it was great when I wrote it! On revision, it clearly didn’t work.

Two Short Essays
Maureen Traverse
Followed by Q&A

Transgression 

Why are we drawn to heights, so eager to look down the tunnel of a heady spin? As kids we opened the attic windows, tied string to our toys and hurled them at the driveway, or else bombed the car with wet cotton balls. Just like that seventh grade boy who dropped my sister’s baby doll from the upper deck onto the gym floor, its soft tumbling limbs and yarn hair disrupting a scrum of basketball players who squinted up at us, baffled. 

I say this because today in the stairwell, I can’t help myself. I stop at the fourth floor, lean over the carved bannister and spit. It’s something about the ornate curl of hard marble, the winding up, the vertical layers of spoke and step, the inevitable mirage of movement—I must make myself clear. I’m having none of it. 

Because at the clinic, when the doctor lays out our odds, I am the cartoon character hanging in midair before he falls. Why should I have stood there while that boy dangled a doll by her foot, hoping he would let it happen? 

Gravity is a force best tested. We must remind ourselves again and again. The safety that keeps us pinned will bring us down.


Outside the Wythe Hotel 

Three things happened that night. I got exuberantly drunk at a rooftop bar. Mistaking us for interlopers, a girl shouted at us on the street. L. called to say she was dying. 

The chronology is fuzzy, as you’d expect. I can see across the intersection, one of a crew of slumping hipsters, a white girl with dreadlocks, screaming. I can see my own feet in the watery glow from shop windows, the burn of neon. I can see the rustic chic of the wood-walled elevator, the clean bends and squares of sofa and table, how all of it pales against the glittering skyline. 

It is mere coincidence in the truest sense, the coinciding of these events, as meaningful as three pennies drawn from a purse. I will confuse correlation with causation, claim I drank because I’d found out, but let’s be fair. I would have anyway. 

We laughed at the girl howling, “Get out of my neighborhood!” We laughed because she was so young and didn’t she know through how many hands that neighborhood had already passed? We laughed because she mistook us for someone else. We didn’t live in Williamsburg. We were just looking for a drink. 

I walked with the phone pressed to my ear, the footfalls of my dress shoes crisp on the cement. L. told me the scan showed spots on her brain, a side effect of the chemo to treat her other cancer, something she must have known was possible. But when your choices are cancer or cancer. 

A bar on a rooftop seems a foolish idea, too easy to lose your senses, the whorl of light and music, the precarious pinpoint. I held my breath, my drink tighter, the wall when I looked down, the drop always enough to terrify me. Too easy. 

I can’t remember what L. said anymore. If it had been me, I would have said, this isn’t my life

When I laughed because the girl was drunk, because there was no crime, it was foolish, a bar on a steeple. Somehow neighborhoods are stolen, yet we don't own a place, our senses, even our lives.



Maureen Traverse earned an MFA from Ohio State University. Her flash fiction has appeared online in elimae and Staccato Fiction, and in the print anthology Flash 101: Surviving the Fiction Apocalypse. She is currently at work on a novel.

Q&A

Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: I had the privilege of studying with Erin McGraw, whose work is a stunning model for how to write characters who are as endearing as they are frustrating. Her dialogue is also dazzling. Pretty much every time I sit down to write, I’m longing to do what Alice Munro does with time and perception. I was twenty-two when I read Nell Freudenberger’s first book, Lucky Girls, and I remember feeling convinced I’d figured out how I wanted to write—with delicate grace on the complicated emotional lives of people who, for one reason or another, find themselves outsiders.

The Bluffs
Jason Shults
Followed by Q&A
Kenny Rasnick, owner of Piney Ridge Video Emporium, is a pudgy little fellow, orange-haired and milk-skinned, not the most agile creature on God’s green earth, but he has managed, with some effort, to flop one leg over the handrail of Dog Leg Bridge. A hundred and twenty feet below Dog Leg Bridge runs the white-capped, rock-infested water of the Big Piney River. Kenny, with one leg over the railing and the other leg kind of hopping, or jouncing, in order to maintain his balance, doesn’t want to look down, so he looks up instead, at the blue sky and the combed-wool clouds, and he thinks about a documentary he watched a few years back, a film about people jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge. He thinks about how beautiful it was, the bridge and San Francisco, with the gray fog and the gray water and sometimes the blue sky and the blue water, and always the stillness of it, filmed from a great distance, and those tiny little black dots or specks—bodies—falling occasionally from the bridge, falling, drifting, to the water below. But what he remembers most about the documentary is the fact that the people who survived the jump, the people who were interviewed after they were pulled from the water, almost every one of them, to a person, said that they had changed their mind on the way down, and that the insurmountable problems which had driven them to perform such a desperate act really didn’t—they had concluded during freefall—really didn’t amount to a hill of beans. Which is all well and good, thinks Kenny, jouncing on the bridge with his one available leg, but I’m definitely not like that. I will not change my mind, even on the way down. My mind is well and good made up. I am a determined being performing a necessary act.  

***


It’s 10 o’clock in the morning, and Gloria Perlmutter, youngest daughter of Ed and Phyllis Perlmutter, walks along the eastern bank of the Big Piney River. She intends to make it to the high bluffs, the ones near Dog Leg Bridge, by noon. Noon would be a good time to do it, Gloria thinks. Sundown would be better, but that would mean she’d be stuck out there in the middle of nowhere just as it was getting dark. And sunrise would be good too, but the same problem with the dark, but in the morning. So noon it is. In her pocket is a letter from a boy she dated in high school, a boy named Stuart, but whom everyone called “Bertie,” who went off to college last year. The letter is not the recent letter in which Bertie wrote to Gloria to tell her he was maybe possibly interested in seeing other girls (meaning, of course, that he had already been fucking some bimbo from his English Lit class at State), but instead in her pocket was the letter Bertie had written when he was still just a boy, four years ago, a letter declaring his eternal love for Gloria, in which he used phrases like “soulmate” and “star-crossed,” the sorts of phrases she now finds to be silly, of course, but which still hold for her the piquancy—yes, piquancy—of young and true and very first love. If and when she reaches the high bluffs, she intends to tear the letter into tiny pieces and scatter it to the wind, which will enable her at last, at long last, to forget the awful boy forever so that she can become the emotionally mature and independent human being she wishes to become, and to forget the piquancy—no, the naïveté—of young love.

***

Pastor Daniels has prayed on this for a good long time now, and has come to the conclusion that he, himself, is, in fact, a good person.

***

Marietta Miller, of 253 E. Elm Street (the house with the picket fence) washes the breakfast dishes while looking out the window at the cocker spaniel tied up in the backyard. A smarter person than Marietta might make a metaphorical connection between herself and the dog, who, for the first month after arriving at the Miller household had strained incessantly against the chain which held her, but who now, a year and a half later, has given up the struggle entirely. Marietta has been rinsing the same ceramic mug (“World’s #1 Wife/Happy Anniversary Darling”) for three and a half minutes, not thinking about the dog but thinking instead about what she found in the garage in the box marked “Spare Engine Parts” which was buried in a corner under three old tires her husband had removed from the Pontiac at least two years ago. In the box were not Spare Engine Parts but pornographic magazines, twenty-four of them, which did not really surprise Marietta much at first—men were like that, after all—but on closer inspection did in fact surprise her when the magazines turned out to be more disturbing than she had first imagined. Each photograph in the magazines depicted one woman and two men, in varying states of undress. In each photo the woman and one of the men wore wedding rings, while the extra man did not. Her brief investigation of the magazines included reading selected stories that accompanied the photographs. From the photos and the stories, she learned all she needed to know. Her discovery had taken place only two days earlier, and now Marietta stares out the window at the cocker spaniel, her shock and grief and disgust having abated for just a moment, and she allows herself to thumb through an invisible list of men she knows, men not her husband, wondering who among them might be a potential extra man, and she thinks of Kenny Rasnick, the nice man who owns the video store, and she thinks about the moment they shared only last week, when she had visited the store, and Kenny, reaching past her to pluck a video box from a shelf, had accidentally (was it accidental?) brushed his milky white, orange-haired forearm against her breast. Marietta allows herself to follow this thought, thinking about Kenny, about how Kenny might look, about how Kenny might move, smile, be, in her bedroom, peeling himself out of his blue jeans and nice white dress shirt, looking up at her, moving toward her, how tender he would be, how gentle, what a peace-filled man he was, so kind, so generous, how Kenny would touch her cheek and her neck and—Marietta has another thought, a quick thought, a horrible thought, about her husband, and the bluffs of Big Piney, where she and he sometimes go on picnics, and how high the bluffs are, and how long the fall would be, but of course, she thinks, I could never do such a thing.

***

Frank Dunn, 27, has his feet up on the desk, elbows on the arms of the office chair, fingers laced over his paisley necktie. The small insurance office at the corner of Jefferson and Pine is quiet, as it often is. The windows are open. A breeze blows through. Frank Dunn is alone in the office, as he often is. His eyes are closed. He is deep within his own imagination. He’s imagining what it might have been like, how his life might otherwise have gone, if he hadn’t listened to his parents, back when he’d gone off to college. He’s thinking how it might have been if, instead of getting a degree in Business Management as they’d insisted he do, he had instead gotten a degree in Film Studies; how it might have been if he hadn’t come back to Piney Ridge to take care of his aging mother. In the back of his mind is a rhythm, the rhythm of the words of a poem he once read. He can’t recall them, the words, but his back-mind remembers something about a statue, and the soft, declarative nature of the phrasing. He’d be in L.A. right now, most likely, is what his front-mind is thinking, selling one of the screenplays that right this very moment sit in the bottom drawer of this very desk. The quiet insistence of the rhythm. The statue. He could still do it, of course. Move to L.A. Of course. It’s never too late.

***

Jerry Falsmith, second string lineman on the Piney Ridge High School football team, walks along Jefferson Avenue. He would be kicking stones as he went, if he thought nobody would see him. That’s what he wants to do, run crazily, arms akimbo, whooping, kicking stones. Jerry Falsmith is happy to be alive today because of what happened last night at Kim Neefeld’s party. Last night, Bill Haney, first string lineman on the Piney Ridge High School football team, beat the shit out of Jerry. Which is reason enough for Jerry to be happy—simply being alive today, after the thorough trouncing he took—but more importantly than that, what makes Jerry not only want to run crazily, but also makes him want to whoop, is what happened after Bill Haney beat the shit out of him. After Bill Haney had gotten done, after he’d beaten Jerry into a bloody pulp, Bill Haney had started crying. They were alone in the alley behind Kim Neefeld’s house, and Bill was straddling Jerry. Jerry was flat on his back and Bill was sitting on his chest. What happened then was strange. Bill Haney had started crying, and bent his head down next to Jerry’s head and said something about love and something about regret, and then he turned and kissed Jerry on the mouth, which surprised the hell out of Jerry, and probably surprised the hell out of Bill Haney too. Jerry wanted at first to scream from the pain of the pressure on his busted lip, but mostly what he wanted was for the kiss to keep going. Which it had done, for a good long time. Bill left the party soon thereafter, and Jerry left too, alone. Jerry walked the streets all night, and watched the sun come up, and now, maybe 10 o’clock in the morning, he is overcome with something, something without words, probably, and wants to run crazily, wants to fling his arms akimbo, wants to whoop. He laughs to himself, thinking what it might be like, him and Bill running off somewhere, living a whole life together, and then he thinks another thought, something along the lines of, well, what if word got out, what if word about last night got out, and what if he, Jerry, spun it in a certain way, left out the part about kissing Bill back. Oh how the other kids would ridicule Bill Haney, what beasts they would be, what revenge that would be for all the times Bill Haney had threatened Jerry and hurt and bullied him, even though Jerry had always tried his very best to avoid Bill altogether, tried not to steal glances at him in the locker room, tried like hell not to brush against him in doorways. Jerry, now, walking steadily down the sidewalk, weighs the values of both love and revenge, knows that love is the more important, is all-important, and he decides once and for all that, even if he and Bill don’t end up together, he’ll never, ever betray Bill’s confidence, that shared moment, that gift.

***

Toby Ainsworth, 7 years old, lies face-down on his bed, wiping his tears against the clean white sheets. Toby cannot go outside today because he has been relegated by his parents to remain indoors, grounded for trying to light the tail of the Miller’s cocker spaniel on fire. In an emotional turnabout unusual for a boy of his age, Toby is contrite about the attempted act, and vows that he will never again harm a living creature. 


***

The streets of Piney Ridge are mostly empty, except around Chub’s Diner, where the men gather on Saturday mornings to eat fried eggs and icing-drizzled doughnuts, and to talk about farm equipment and the upcoming mayor’s race and whether or not the current war in the Middle East is a good thing or a bad thing. Homeless Henrietta, age and origin unknown, sits on the sidewalk just outside the diner, right by the door. She’s been sitting there every day for about three months. No one has had the heart to tell her to leave. She’s not really hurting anyone and besides, she is Piney Ridge’s only homeless person, the only homeless person they’ve ever had, and there’s something about having a homeless person that validates them as being a real city, something about it that makes them citizens of the world. Homeless Henrietta doesn’t speak besides to say “Thank You,” but she would in fact sing all day, every day, if she didn’t think people would think she was crazy. It’s okay, she knows, to be homeless, but it’s not okay to be crazy. The song she would sing is the song that’s been stuck in her head for the past few years, ever since that thing happened. After that thing happened, the song showed up and hasn’t gone away since. The song is a simple one, one that everybody knows, “Row, row, row your boat,” and maybe that’s what she’s been trying to do ever since that thing happened, she’s been trying to row her boat as gently as she possibly can. As Ed Perlmutter walks past her into the diner on that Saturday morning, he drops a quarter in the old hat she keeps there, a big wide-brimmed straw hat she found in a garbage can in Akron several months ago. When she hears the little thump of the quarter hitting the hat, Henrietta feels a little better, thinks she might just make something of her life after all, thinks that the song might be leaving, abating, quieting, that she’s most definitely on the road to recovering what little dignity she might have left.

***

Bill Haney awakens in the alleyway behind Chub’s Diner just as the sun begins to rise. He makes his way up the old logging road by 9 a.m. The logging road follows the river, rises to the bluffs, falls again on the other side to hug the river more closely again. But Bill stays at the top, on the bluffs, sitting on the stone ledge, with the water flowing fast, a hundred and twenty feet below. His feet dangle off the side. He swings them a little, out and back, and sits there and thinks about the time he felt up Gloria Perlmutter in the toolshed behind her house. He thinks about the time Pastor Daniels sat too close to him at Bible Camp a few years ago. He thinks, of course, about last night, and the fight and the kiss and just generally he thinks about Jerry Falsmith. It’s all good, Bill thinks. Everything is good. He looks over to Dog Leg Bridge, just a little way downriver, and he sees some guy, looks like that guy from the video store, standing on the bridge. Or, not standing, but sort of balancing, with one leg thrown over the railing. It’s obvious what the guy’s doing, and it’s a shame the guy had to pick today of all days. It might look weird, finding them both down there at the same time. 

***

It’s nearly 10:15 a.m, and Gloria Perlmutter, love letter in hand, reaches the crest of the old logging road that runs beside the river. This is it. This is the top. And over there, at the bluff’s edge, where she had intended to tear Bertie’s lover letter to shreds, is Bill Haney, standing alone, looking toward the bridge. Despite, or perhaps because of, her penchant for anything romantic, Gloria reaches the correct conclusion about Bill, sees what he’s intending to do, though the reasons are unclear. Reasons are silly things, anyway. Everybody’s got them. She stuffs the letter into the pocket of her sweater, approaches Bill from the side so that she doesn’t frighten him. 

“Hey, Bill,” she says. 

Bill turns, sees her. He seems a little dazed, a little distant, blue eyes milky, face pink. He says, “Hey.” 

“Kind of a nice day,” Gloria says. 

“Sure,” Bill says. 

Bill looks at the bridge again. Gloria turns her gaze back to the road, where she sees something, someone, a lone head appearing over the crest of the logging road. Isn’t that Marietta Miller, in a flowery summer dress? Gloria waves to her. Mrs. Miller doesn’t wave back. She keeps walking toward them. 

And behind Mrs. Miller is that boy, little Toby Ainsworth, walking in that way he has, swinging his shoulders, determinedly. A dozen yards behind Toby is Frank Dunn, the insurance guy, and behind Frank is Pastor Daniels. And that homeless woman who sits outside the diner every day. She’s wearing her straw hat, looking ridiculous and beautiful. And lastly, Jerry Falsmith, his face bruised, streaked with dried blood, but walking steadily. 

All of them, one by one, rising from the depths of the town, making their way slowly to the bluffs. 




Jason Shults's work has appeared or is upcoming in The Carolina Quarterly, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, Cutthroat, decomP, and SmokeLong Quarterly. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. More of his work can be seen at jasonshults.com.


Q&A

Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece? 
A: What surprised me most, I think, is that the story quickly became an exercise in discretion. Since the story is about the lies we tell ourselves, I wanted to try to implement this idea somehow in the style. What could be left to the reader’s imagination? What ideas would be more powerful and resonant if they weren't made explicit? I'm still not sure about any of this, but writing this story certainly made me think about "negative space" in narrative more than I have before.

Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: The best piece of advice I got: "Work hard. The business of writing takes work." I got that piece of advice from a dozen different teachers over a dozen years, and never listened to any of them. A couple of years ago, I did actually start trying: writing, revising, submitting. A lot. Turns out, those teachers were all correct. Writing, and the business of writing, takes more work and persistence than my younger self thought possible.

Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Some random picks, in order of the age I read them (child, teen, adult):
Watership Down, for what Richard Adams does with words, the play of language, and the idea that entire worlds, wars, histories, might be taking place ... right, you know ... over there, if we could just see them. A Separate Peace, by John Knowles, mostly for the jouncing of that damned tree limb; the ambiguity of it; the struggle to understand one's own motivations. The Bell, by Iris Murdoch, for everything about it. Pure genius. 

Q:Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?  
A: I enjoy the café and the cave both. The café is fine for initial ideas, sketches, stealing character traits from random passersby, staring out the window, thinking about your own past and wondering where it all went wrong. But once the piece is ready to be drafted, I shuffle off to the cave, which is really just my bedroom. There's a heavy old walnut desk in there that provides solidity beneath my hands when I'm doing the heavy construction.