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Issue 73, July-September  2015
Prime Number Magazine is a publication of Press 53, PO Box 30314, Winston-Salem, NC 27130
Prime Decimals 73.2


Christopher James
The Beach: or How Jamie Burnt His Nutsack

Jason Peck
The Face of Hunger


Sara Jean Lane

Steven Ray Smith
by Sara Jean Lane
followed by Q&A

by Steven Ray Smith
followed by Q&A

Cut-off shorts, cowboy boots, pigtails, and halter top, 
age sixty, she had the sexed-up prance of a flirt who walked
into a rally tent circle one summer and never left.
So convincing was her proclamation of flesh-on-flesh satiety
that punks did not turn away even after the eureka 
it could yield no child-bearing, their virgin impulse to stare.

The second time she walked in for an interview, she did not bring a résumé.
To sell it she had to be it.
She became the ding they could not ignore.
The first interview, she’d naively misspoken, saying showroom tours
of dingers polished like horsed-up muscle cars 
would be like helping her youngest son decide between two pretty girls
or waitressing pancakes, easy, selling the irresistible things.
When the punk-boss thanked her “ma’am”
she understood this showroom did not sell dingers,
rather the promise a dinger will turn the buyer ne'er-do-well and youthful.

The second time she walked in for an interview and
her first day on the job and her second and so forth
she did what the dinger does — made them forget about mothers,
showed them go-go comes in all ages.

Steven Ray Smith's poetry has appeared in The Yale Review, Southwest Review, The Kenyon Review, Slice, Pembroke Magazine, Grain, Puerto del Sol and others. He is president of a culinary college and lives in Austin with his wife and children.


Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: The poem "Dinger" attempts to confront the authority of youth culture in America. The main character asserts her sexuality as a way of being included in a workforce run by younger adults, even as she suppresses sharing her broader life experience.

Available now: Prime Number Magazine, Editor Selections, Volumes 1, 2, 3 and 4Learn more...
The first time she camped out
she rewrote the game
so that one person did both
the hiding and the seeking,
and said that moons ago
was not a measure of time
but of distance. The second
time she decided
that the intervals on her sheet music
ought to measure both. She played school
with her stuffed frogs
and hid the attendance sheets
with her mother’s record albums.
Her father’s face filled more
of the windshield every time
he parked the truck, and she said
that he was gaining—not
weight, but others, like droplets
on a windowpane. In his world
people filed extensions
like they filed their nails, and coffee
cooled more quickly with each passing
midnight. Then—somewhere 
in this world I bet you
there’s a deaf man who hears
voices in his mind and thinks his name
is you. In her novel each week
has a pair of Tuesdays, and irony
is discussed in chemistry lab
and nutrition class.
She carried a purple flashlight
and declared that she saw the world
in a different shade. Her line
of vision would be clearer
if her eyelids weren’t in the way.

Sara Jean Lane is a musician and composer and currently attends Judson College, where she studies English, music, and mathematics. Her work has recently appeared in Otoliths and Blinders Journal.


Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: This is one of several poems focused on an unnamed "she" who interprets our world through the words we use to describe it. I do not know who she is, and I do not know if I ever will.

The Beach: or How Jamie Burnt His Nutsack
Christopher James
followed by Q&A

Maria, like all the girls, had yesterday painted herself with sun-block stars and moons. Her skin had browned as she played on the beach, leaving behind a galaxy. She took Jamie now, away from the beach and all of the parents, across the road, and into the wooded area the other side. “Come on. I want to show you something,” she said. She was fifteen, he was fourteen. He watched the stars ripple on her sun-kissed skin and felt like a space explorer.

It made him uncomfortable.

“Are you sure it’s okay to leave the beach?” he asked.

“We won’t go far. It’s just the other side of that mound.”

And on the other side of the mound, sure enough, she stopped. With her toe – she was barefoot – she pointed at a small plant, a spine-like tendril ribbed by scores of tiny eye-shaped leaves. “Look!” she said, and she stroked the plant with her foot. In response, the leaves pulled themselves together and the whole plant curled in upon itself. “Isn’t that awesome?”

Jamie found another tendril and copied Maria with the same results. “Why do you think it does it?” he asked.

“It’s happy. Like a purring cat.”

Jamie disagreed. “Hmm. I guess it’s protecting itself.”

Maria smiled, and stepped in close to Jamie, so her feet touched his. Slowly, maintaining eye contact, in complete control, she lifted her finger in the air and ran it down the center of his face, from his forehead, down his nose, over his lips, to his chin. Then she stepped back and laughed. “Come on,” she said again. “I want to show you something else.”

She disappeared into the woods. Jamie, reluctantly, followed. “I think we should go soon,” he shouted after her.

“It’s not far,” she shouted back . She was already scrambling up a bank, so steep she needed to use her hands as well as her feet. “It’s at the top of this hill.”

Jamie followed her, but more slowly, more carefully. He didn’t want to fall. He took his time testing exposed roots for hand and footholds, and stopped more than once to look down and imagine tumbling all the way to the bottom. It took him about ten minutes to climb to the top, which was an exposed bank of baked earth, high above everything else. Maria was already lying on the chocolate red ground, stripped to her bikini. 

“Long time no see!” she called. She waited for Jamie to lie down beside her, but he didn’t. He stayed standing. Looking at the view, which felt very far from everything.

“You can see everyone from here,” Maria told him, and after a while he could. The beach was not directly behind them, as he’d have thought, but some way over to the left. On their way here they must have turned around some without his realizing. His parents were lying on towels; his mum with a magazine on her face and his dad with a bottle of beer between his legs, the same pose they’d maintained every single day since arriving here. Maria’s parents were in the water, embracing. More than once they’d said this holiday felt like a second honeymoon, with added guests. The other kids and some of the other parents were playing football on the sea’s edge. They would be screaming and shouting, but Jamie couldn’t hear anything from here. “We can see them,” said Maria, “but they can’t see us.”

“I think we should go back,” said Jamie. “They’ll be worried.”

“They don’t look worried,” said Maria. It was true, they didn’t.

“I’m going,” Jamie said, and he started heading back. He knew Maria wouldn’t follow, and he didn’t care. Much. However, he had to turn around to make the descent down, and as he did he saw her taking off the top of her bikini. Revealing her naked breasts to the sun and the sky. Jamie, shocked, missed his toehold and slid a foot down the hill. Had he seen anything? He wasn’t sure, but her silhouette was burned into the back of his retinas. Sitting up, one leg bent, the other stretched, her hand in the air with the bikini top dangling from it, a hint of her breast maybe visible if he’d looked hard enough. Jesus. He clambered the rest of the way down the hill and back on to the beach as quickly as he dared, and took his place between his mum and his dad and tried to pretend everything was normal.

Hours passed, and Maria didn’t come back. Jamie kept returning to that image of her, half naked lying on the rocks. The sun painting over the constellations she’d left there the day before. And her stepping up to him too, stroking his face, her finger touching briefly on his lips. His body responded to the thoughts of her, and he went into the water so his parents wouldn’t suspect. Jamie, fourteen years old and never been with a girl. Never even been kissed. He’d told his friends he would probably kiss somebody on this holiday, but they’d laughed at him. You! Dude, just no. Just no.

Maria. He’d noticed her straight away, of course. The daughter of his parents’ friends. She was beautiful. And wild, he could tell that straight away. The first evening she’d disappeared from the table they all ate at for ten minutes, and came back smelling of cigarettes. The second day she’d commandeered Jamie, told him to stand in the water with his legs open for two hours so she could swim through them. The third day he hadn’t seen her at all, and was too shy to ask her parents if she was ok. She’d hung out with the girls instead, without telling him. And today, this. He kept looking to the hills, trying to see her on the exposed bank. She was invisible, but he knew that she could probably see him. See him looking.

In the water, like any fourteen-year-old boy, he started to touch himself, but the sound of a crashing wave scared him, convinced him someone would see what he was doing, so he stopped. He tried to think unsexy thoughts, but his mind kept returning to Maria, wearing nothing but flimsy bikini bottoms, stars all over her skin.

At lunchtime, someone asked if anyone had seen her. “I think I might know where she is,” said Jamie.

“Would you be a dear?” asked her mother. “Go fetch her. She needs to eat something.”

Jamie nodded, but her mother had already looked away, assuming he’d be a dear without needing to hear it from him. No one else, for that matter, was paying him much attention, and when he slipped away he doubted they even noticed him leave.

He was afraid he’d have forgotten the way, but he needn’t have worried. He stopped for a second behind the mound to tease the cowering plants, and admired the speed with which they hid themselves. Maybe there was something of a purring cat in them after all. 

He climbed up the hill in half the time it had taken him before, but when the trees stopped and the grass wisped away and it turned into chocolate brown dirt, he hesitated. How would she feel about him walking in on her? Would she call him a creep and tell him to bog off? Or … maybe … she might ask him to lie beside her and make constellations across her back. She might be shocked at first, and reach to cover herself with her arms, then she would see it was him, and her face would unfold into a smile and her arms would fall by her side. She might ask him to kiss her there, on the rocks, under the sun.

He almost gave up and ran away then, to pretend to her parents he couldn’t find her. But goshdarn it, Jamie Taylor, not today! Be the dude!

He flew up the last ten yards, and of course the rock was empty. She was gone. He walked into the middle, where she wasn’t, and she didn’t creep up behind him and put her hands over his eyes and say Guess who! For a second he was lost, confused, but then he looked out to the beach and saw her there, lunching with everybody else. He must have missed her going down while he was going up.

He watched them preparing to eat, and decided not to join them this time. Instead, he stripped off his t-shirt and stepped out of his trunks and lied down on the rock. Completely, completely free, to wait until she maybe came back.

Christopher James lives, works, rides unicorns, fights pirates, saves planets and writes in Jakarta, Indonesia. Other stories have been published online and in print with Tin House, McSweeney’s, The Times, Smokelong and other places.


Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece? 
A: This story began with the suntan stars and the shrinking plant, both of which suggested a character – Jamie – who would go on a journey and shrug off his shyness at the end, so everything that Jamie did felt kind of inevitable, to me. The character of Maria, on the other hand, was constantly surprising. To me, anyway. I enjoyed writing her a lot.

Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: I’m a member of Zoetrope, and have been lucky enough to receive advice from many great writers and editors who’ve gone on to wonderful things. One piece of advice which springs to mind, that helped me spot something missing in my own writing, came from Mark Budman, the editor of Vestal. He said that most good stories are a quest. Protagonists search for treasure, for love, for peace. And I guess if they’re lucky they find it.

Before Mark spelled that out to me, my stories were mostly things happening to people – the end. They still often are, unfortunately! But now I see it in so many of the best stories I read – in the first few lines or pages the writer tells me what the hero wants, and the rest of the story is the unfolding of either achieving that dream or not. It’s satisfying to be allowed on that adventure with them.

Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: I think everything by Roald Dahl, as a kid, inspired me to want to be a writer. Then 100 Years of Solitude nailed that in. More recently, I love Etgar Keret’s short, hilarious, profound stories – Guava is a favourite, and I tend to have a new favorite writer every few months. At the moment I’m in love with Amelia Gray, and am reading everything I can find by her.
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: Anywhere will do, so long as there’s coffee or whiskey nearby.

The Face of Hunger
by Jason Peck
followed by Q&A
My daughter sold hunger. That was her on the billboards, leaflets and pamphlets for every campaign to end childhood famine, her maudlin features laminated and glossy on the photo inserts, her black-and-white eyes pleading by roadsides, the stare straight to your gut. People cowered and wrote checks to the needy like petty thieves with a sudden conscience. The money was hers all along.

At seven, she was America’s best hunger model. The top of her game since Day One, when I took her to auditions after my layoff, the mortgage long past due. She showed a panel of agents what hungry children should look like, and beat out the girls who actually hadn’t eaten.

One judge said that she simultaneously represented humanity’s hope and despair, while another slipped us grocery money. Those eyes, she said, reflect the sadness of the world.

My meal ticket at last. I pulled her from school and we toured the Rust Belt in cars that got more expensive with time. We hit tourist spots on the way to jobs, ate pancakes at roadside diners. We counted cows through backwoods, dipped our hands in all of the Great Lakes. Father and daughter – I remember her happy then.

Offers came fast. Charities hired us and watched their numbers quadruple. Fan mail arrived from all corners of the country. She spotted a Deep South campaign that shattered records. Her television ad with United Way broke hearts in the Midwest. The Food Bank asked for assistance – pro bono. Think of the children, they pleaded.

But what about mine? I retorted. And I held until they paid.

Charities don’t want kids from war-torn Sierra Leone, with stick legs and bloated bellies, posture bent and desperate mouths breathing heavy. No way our children get the Third World look. We’re scared by eyes of the true hungry – hollow, cracked and red like blood through a broken mirror. My girl made them imagine their own children. They saw the face battered by a world on the underside of their own.

Soon, we retired from touring. I built a basement studio and charities came to us. We moved to the house I’d wanted with an outdoor pool, I wired TVs to every room. I bragged to friends I’d avoided during my unemployment. Good fortune was mine at last.

Despite everything, I watched her sadness grow. This confused me, for our Christmas presents grew in number, until I stacked them under the tree like pyramids. Nothing like that in our food stamp days, I reminded her. Instead she watched her own hunger ads, recited the grave tones of the voiceovers. She said she needed practice. Maybe if she were more affecting, more moving, then she’d raise enough to end hunger.

End it? I asked. Shit. Hunger’s been good to us.
She didn’t stop. I disconnected the TVs. She called the hungry girls from her shoots. I pulled the cords. One year she asked us to surrender our presents to poor children. I refused.

Her eyes grew more affecting, the photo shoots improved. Only one take, and board chiefs wept. She reached professionalism without effort – the poise of a seasoned pro. She no longer needed handicaps like the dirt smudge under her eye, like a pinch of product to make hair look unwashed.

She couldn’t lose a job if she wanted. But it ended, of course. Careers happen like that – winning streaks that inevitably expire.

Soon after graduating high school, she took our last touring car, unused since her modeling days, and left for good. Ten years gone. My consulting business flopped, and I lost the house after all. A magazine called once, wondering: What happened to the girl from a thousand billboards? But my daughter left no number. All I have are opportunities she’s squandered.

Hunger was just the beginning. This could have been her in this pamphlet, hawking the teenage pregnancy circuit. This TV spot – her as a high school dropout perhaps, the old hunger sadness instead conveyed as regret for a lost education. I could even see her playing the war widow – arms full of children, melancholy eyes turned toward the front door for a hopeless homecoming.

A single mother – she could work the hunger circuit again.

A shame she’s gone. The careers we could have had. 

Jason Peck’s fiction has either been published or is forthcoming in Smokelong Quarterly, Cheat River Review and Pretty Owl Poetry. He also serves on the editorial board for After Happy Hour Review, which recently celebrated its third issue.


Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece? 
A: I was shocked at how incomplete the initial drafts were. Out of all the stories I’ve ever written down for later, I was sure this one was ready to go with a few tweaks – I thought the focus was there. But things were missing; I needed more background, more resolution, more characters. I needed more and more while still keeping it shorter than 1,000 words. Finishing this story took way, way longer than I expected.”
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: Avoid the indirect. I used to be a newspaper reporter and had it drilled into me like boot camp. Of course, I broke this rule a few times in the above story, but keep it to a minimum. There’s no time for the passive voice.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Raymond Chandler, Alan Moore, Raymond Carver. Carver for me was the best, the last great American author. I hope I can live long enough to one day write a story that moves people as much as a story like “Errand” moves me.
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: The muse can be found anywhere. But to actually finish a piece and revise it – that takes concentration I can’t maintain in public. No matter where the first draft starts, I can guarantee you the last draft was written in my apartment in as much solitude as I could arrange.