Prime Number Magazine
is a publication of 
Press 53
PO Box 30314,
Winston-Salem NC 27130

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Issue 97, July – September  2016
Prime Number Magazine is a publication of Press 53, PO Box 30314, Winston-Salem, NC 27130

ARCHIVES

Ron MacLean

Followed by Q&A
I Could Fill a Biscuit Bowl


There is a party. At the party, there are cocktails. The occasion is a birthday, and I don’t like the birthday person as much as I feel I should. Talk pings off walls. Bodies cluster. It’s a big, open room and for the moment I stand alone, cocktail in hand. Transparent liquid, vaguely pink. Whoever got it for me called it El Diablo something. My friend Shelley says I tend toward pink cocktails. She says this like I might want to consider what it says about my manhood. Shelley is here now too, though not with me. She smirks at my drink from across the room. I think she’s on a date. Dangly earrings. Moon eyes.

The woman I came here with is friends with Anneke, the birthday person, and her man, Javier. I am, too, but I can never get enthusiastic about seeing them. I don’t know why. They’re nice. Interesting. Anneke is from Sweden, Javier from Mexico. They know how to sparkle in conversation, have a good time, etc. Right now, for instance, Javier is wearing red pants and dancing to salsa music. He dances with his whole body, uninhibited or seemingly so. But it’s not him I don’t like enough. It’s her.

*

Anneke the birthday Swede doesn't dance. She's a Virgo. Right now she's in a corner of the room paying a delivery guy for two bags of food. It's a milestone birthday and she wanted a party. The friend who’s hosting has this giant space. Few interior walls. Massive cement columns painted white support the ceiling.

The reason I don't like Anneke enough is not her embrace of an open relationship. After all, Javier’s part of that, too. I'm not supposed to know this, but the woman I came here with let it slip one night while rejecting my overtures. I’ve been outside of relationship for so long I can’t remember what it’s like to walk a room with that assurance inside.

On one wall of this room are enormous black-and-white photographs. Portraits blown-up until pixilated. The faces in them are beautiful: here’s one of that actor who emerged from rehab with goatee and gravitas. I avoid his gaze. We studied together, he and I. Actor’s Studio. Drinks. Drugs. No one thought he’d make it.

Five years ago, none of us would have come to this neighborhood. These buildings—blocks of them—stood abandoned forever.

Anneke takes the bags of food into what might be a kitchen. At any rate, she disappears behind a wall. She's not a bad person. She's a medical researcher working to cure a chronic lung disease in children. She likes ice creams that crunch.

I stroke my chin. (A strong chin. It’s been called sculpted.) I look for Shelley. I don’t think I’ve hit on her for a couple years now. I fight off the fear that the salsa will segue to Dixieland jazz.

What if I were the sort of person who knew why I didn't like someone enough? What I don’t know about me could fill a biscuit bowl.

Cement columns throb to the beat. The room abuzz with conversation; the occasional crumb lands, welcome, on my shoulder: I love basketball, but I can't watch the NBA anymore.

Shelley floats by.

I flick her dangly earring. Say, “Your nose is like the Tower of Lebanon overlooking Damascus.”

“You’re a child,” she says.

“It’s part of my charm,” I tell her. But she’s gone.

I have recently lost my context. The ground slips out from under me at odd and unpredictable moments.

* * *

I'm in a yard that is allegedly mine. A back yard, cyclone-fenced and city-sized, houses on each side. Tending the lawn with a goat I've adopted. The goat's name is Uncle Willy. Right now he’s eating the garbage tossed in the yard by people walking by. My stated reason for adopting him is that he keeps the lawn trim, but the truth of it is I like his company. I know what this says about me. The lawn is not large but I don’t know how not large. I'm no judge of open spaces.

*

Anneke the birthday Swede likes Dixieland jazz. She—or someone who knows her taste—has changed the music. A peppy clarinet insinuates itself throughout the room. Javier has stopped dancing, as have the others. A new round of drinks appears. A large bowl of biscuits, smaller bowls of gravy and honey now decorate an otherwise spartan table punctuated by bursts of severe vegetables. Hummus. I spot the woman I came with. She's in animated conversation with two men. One of them wears a black silk suit jacket that I own in a smaller size. The woman I came with is smiling. Laughing. Touching the elbow of the suit jacket. She’s always touching someone. She has the sexiest clavicle I’ve ever seen. I once had designs on her, but she operates in a realm above. 

Some days I’ve got four stomachs. I can’t even bring myself to go to auditions. A voice behind me: I make paintings. I cut them up and collage them, and then I pee on them. This is a person with a context.

My phone sings a song: a text message from my friend Dahlia who's somewhere south, caring for her failing father. A once-renowned geologist now in his nineties. He's been asleep on the toilet for four hours, she writes. He got sad about Mom and took too many pills. I can't move him.

I put the phone away. Feel my face flush. I see Dahlia, off-balance, arms under her father’s, pulling. The toll it takes on her to see him reduced, the inevitable end state. For decades, he hiked the Ozarks, mapping minerals. If I were there now, I could help hoist him, pour her a glass of wine, say something stupid to make her laugh. But she's 600 miles away (give or take). My cheeks burn. Laughter behind me. Tuck it in, I tell myself.

My eyes find those of the woman I came with. She’s touching someone’s face. She catches my gaze and moves her head behind that head ‘til our eyes don’t meet.

About the goat: He’s a story I tell at parties. I like to maintain an air of mystery. To spice up conversation. An escape from I do this, I make that. Blah blah blah. I choose not to map the distance between these two statements: I’m doing voiceovers until I get enough theater work; I do voiceovers. Sip of pink cocktail.

Shelley’s ear walks by, minus the guy.

“Date?” I ask.

“Just met,” she says.

I find a napkin and a corner to regroup.

I think about hounding Shelley into going home with me. Sexy or sick dog, I don’t care.

There’s almost no chance that will happen.

The Mexican Swedes have a kid named Jack who always seems to be away—camp, school, who knows. I've met him twice. He's twelve-ish. He plays soccer and doesn't say much. But that’s not the reason I don’t like Anneke enough.

The spirit of the night is mezcal. It’s that kind of party.

* * *

I am walking along a sunny, quiet sidewalk in the outskirts of the French Quarter in New Orleans. I've got my sunglasses on and I'm feeling good about myself, soaking in that sun and heading to meet my friend Oyster Rodriguez for a delicious late-afternoon beer when I become aware of something lurking behind me. A truck. Moving slow. Trolling for parking. But there's lots of spaces, and still it creeps along in my shadow. I turn left. So does the truck. White. Flatbed. Finally it rolls up alongside. There's a mobile billboard on the bed, and on the billboard are giant letters that say, "Of course there are miraculous events every day. But we are also mortal every day." In the lower right corner, a pint of European lager. The driver makes eye contact. I want to shout, What does this mean? And, why do you taunt me with your beer truths? Behind his shades he gives me this meaningful nod and a finger wave. Like we’re in on some secret together.

*

Anneke is not a bad person. Many people like Dixieland jazz.

A man approaches me as I lean against a white column. "I hear you have a pet goat," he says.

"Apocryphal," I bleat. I wonder how he knows. Music wraps itself around the columns. Licks them. The man doesn't notice.

Voices ping and pong. A sexy clavicle appears and disappears.

“You have that look,” the man says. His shirt has been professionally ironed. “Like someone we think we should recognize, but we shouldn’t.”

Flick. I flash my professional smile. If there’s blood, I don’t feel it. “What’s your position on mobile billboards?”

He nods. The shirt—a subtle teal stripe—doesn’t move. “Can I call you Frank?” he says. “It’s just easier.”

I take it in stride. In character. "Who are you?" I ask him.

"Host."

The woman I came with drinks gin. I smell it close by. Shards of conversation fly at us. A female voice: I hate South Beach. It's all boobs and G-strings. I duck to avoid them.

"Nice place," I offer. "Severe. Warehouse?"

He shakes his head. "Toilet paper factory."

I catch a glimpse of a familiar face carrying a glass. A waft of juniper. There’s an implicit agreement in going to a party with someone. That you will be each other’s ballast. That you will not, in any superficial sense, be left alone. I may yet give her the opportunity to take me home tonight. I haven’t spoken to her since she handed off her coat. As if that’s not enough, one of the portraits on the wall is her and her too-sexy clavicle. I eyeball my drink. This life is a puzzle.

"Is that how you made your money?" I ask the host.

I'm no prize. I get that. 

He considers whether to answer. "This and that," he says. I decide I like him. "Started a restaurant chain—BiscuitTown. My current partners and I have built a better septic tank."

A woman who is neither the birthday Swede nor Shelley nor the woman I came with, but who knows how to wear a black dress, flashes a smile (possibly in my direction) and disappears behind a wall. Her hair blunt cut. Somewhere there is a room with coats piled on a bed and the lingering smell of illicit activity. 

I have no interest in community theater. Dinner circuits in small resort towns. I am trained for better things.

The music—Memphis soul—reminds me of Dahlia. I picture her father, asleep on his toilet seat. I text: status? I text: should I have been a plumber?

Just once I'd like to leave a party with the woman I came with. I’m pretty sure she’s avoiding me.

* * *

I’m with Dahlia and her father in the living room of the ranch house he retired to. We’ve just come from his garden. He wanted to show off his peppers—hot ones—cherry, habanero. Tiny, intricate fruits with a potent impact. Had me pick some to take home. He can’t eat them anymore. Made sure I could before he offered them. He got winded, so we came in. Cleared places for ourselves to sit, positioned so we could see each other’s faces around stacks of magazines, files, clothing. He wears a tunic—white—not unlike a hospital gown. His breathing is an untuned clarinet. I’ve known him forever.

*

By the biscuits, Anneke chats with the host, an ease that makes my neck hairs sting. Javier swings by, asks me if I want to dance. I do. We take the floor and gyrate. I am—we are—in sync. We are legs and hips and fluid purpose. In no time a knot of others surrounds us. The woman in the black dress among them. And the guy who’d been talking about basketball. I want to touch her hair. Some nights everyone looks sexy to me. Well, almost everyone. We all need to believe this. Warmth in our bellies. Sustenance. We are shirts that belong in the room. That pinned to the toilet is someone else’s nightmare. There’s water in my eyes and I wonder if anyone will see. If I could convince them I haven’t been the same since Michael Jackson died.

It’s not that I love my work so much as it is having a craft to hone. A sense of effort rewarded. I have pride beyond my abilities.

I'm done dancing before Javier is. I make my way to the bar for another El Diablo Something and end up next to the basketball guy.

Shelley has left via a side door. When I say side door, I employ a euphemism.

"I appreciate what you were saying about the college game," I tell the guy. He's tall and has a wispy mustache. I suspect civil engineering.

He looks at me with the mustache. He’s not really dressed for a party (no collar), but who am I to say. I press on. “College. It’s all I have patience for.”

He nods. The mustache goes along for the ride. "You know how I judge a good game?" he says. He doesn't seem to mind my eavesdropping on his earlier conversation. "Rebounds."

"We are of one mind," I say. “Sympatico.” I add a conspiratorial lilt to my voice and wag two fingers back and forth between us. Behind us, the door buzzer buzzes.

His eyes squint a little. "Rebounding," he says, "is not about talent. You need to want the ball."

"Amen," I say. As if on cue, Michael Jackson sings from the house speakers—“Don’t Stop 'Til You Get Enough.”

I have expectations I can’t escape. I want to eat my own flesh. I want to shout, “Run!”

Anneke eats baby carrots from a small plate. Watches her man wow them on the dance floor. The reason I don’t like Anneke enough is not that she’s willingly ordinary. Well, maybe a little. She has no need to shine. The door buzzes again. I answer it.

Two guys stand there, burly types in forest-green polo shirts. "We're here to move the cat," one says. I let them in.


* * *

I'm in a car. It's a 1966 Ford Falcon, the first car I ever owned (ancient even when I owned it), and the car is rolling backward although it is in drive and my foot is on the accelerator. I'm not as frightened by this as I would expect. I'm puzzled. I can't figure out how or why this is happening. I'm noticing how differently the landscape (open field, hay rolls) passes by the window now than when the car is moving forward. The road, a country road, is long and straight, and I'm moving steady but not fast enough to cause panic, convinced that any second now the transmission will engage and the car will lurch forward. I know this field, though I can't place it. I have chased frisbees in it, tossed baseballs. Slept in it, walked it.

*

Do I want the ball? The woman who knows how to wear a black dress moves back toward the dance floor. She's definitely smiling, and it's definitely at me. Something in me deflates—all I want is to lay my head in her lap. I'm pretty sure that's not what she has in mind. Who needs another project?

The host stands beside me, holding a glass. “We brought biscuits to the northeast,” he says. “My partners identify market gaps. I fill them. This is the nature of partnership.”

Javier waves to me from across the room. Javier is a professor of journalism. His work on climate change has won awards.

He (host) nods at my empty glass. "I'll refill you. What are you drinking?"

I hand him the glass. "El Diablo Something."

He lingers, deciding whether to say something. Doesn’t. Then, eyes on my face, "Have you been crying?"

I consider the Michael Jackson line. Opt instead for, “Who trains to be a failed professional?”

“Almost everyone,” he says. It’s late enough his shirt is letting down its guard. We’re in an MJ mini-set. Billie Jean is not my lover. “The entire life points toward it. The trajectory obvious to everyone but the person involved.”

I’m not sure what’s going on here, but I blame the shirt. “I have recently recognized I’m a failed actor,” I say. “Futureless.” A faux pas. 

He gestures toward the table as he takes my glass to the bar. “Have a biscuit.”

On the wall behind Javier, a portrait: Dahlia’s father, on the toilet, in his blue denim hiking shirt, pixilated arms folded across his belly, once-elegant Russian face turned to the wall.

There are nights a punch knocks the starch off the blouse. Boom. Nothing you can do. On those nights it's good to have a Javier to dance with.

*

I need another project. But that’s not the sort of thing you can acknowledge, except a) to someone you know very well in an intimate moment or b) to a stranger at the end of a party with the cloak of banter firmly established. 

Another thing that is not a reason I don’t like Anneke enough: she is not too busy to listen.

There is almost no chance the host will actually bring me a drink.

Doot-doo-doot. Three musical notes. A message from Dahlia.

Everybody is off the toilet. I consider that a success. Am going to sleep.

Dahlia. I’ve considered becoming a woman in order to have a chance with her.

On the speakers, MJ segues into “Wanna Be Starting Something,” which makes me smile, and then Anneke appears beside me, which in that moment is exactly right. This song is one of the reasons I like Anneke, even if I don’t like her enough. MJ is a bond we share. When he died, she sent me a link to a YouTube clip, MJ at Neverland talking wistfully about saving lost boys while this song—this very song!—played in the background. Sweet and horrifying in equal measure. Now she’s smiling beside me as the floor fills around us. “Dance with me,” she says. “It’s my birthday.”

I kiss her cheek. Return the mischievous grin. Javier sees this from the dance floor and beckons. His joy irresistible.

Anneke pulls my arm and I follow. Michael sings at the height of his powers. Anneke and I dance as only self-conscious white people can. I weep and don’t try to hide it. The woman in the black dress seems amused by my gyrations, in a good way. I say in her ear, "MJ always makes me cry." She touches my forearm. A head in a sympathetic lap for an hour would not be a bad thing. Soon the song will be over, but for now, the whole party is on the dance floor, a hive of bodies pulsing in joyous rhythm. 

Across the room, the host circulates among his guests, distributing flaky, steaming goodness from a paper bag labeled BiscuitTown, offering grace to any who will receive it.


# # #

Ron MacLean’s short fiction has appeared in GQ, Narrative, Fiction International, Best Online Fiction, and elsewhere. He is the author of Headlong, winner of the 2013 Indie Book Award for Best Mystery, and two previous books: Blue Winnetka Skies, and Why the Long Face? He is a recipient of the Frederick Exley Award for Short Fiction and a multiple Pushcart Prize nominee. He teaches at Grub Street in Boston and wishes he was from Finland.


A note from Ron on "I Could Fill a Biscuit Bowl"
We all have that person in our life (don’t we? please say it’s not just me) who is perfectly nice, and our friends rave about them, but we just don’t like them as much as we feel we should. I was (am) fascinated by the idea of how we respond to that person, and what better way to engage that than a birthday party. Then, as it happens, to make the story worthwhile, I had to write into my own vulnerability.



Three questions from guest editors Liz Prato and Wendy J. Fox

What writers (living or not) would you invite to your literary dinner party? What would you serve?

Gertrude Stein, for sure. And Flannery O’Connor. I’d love to hear the two of them talk. And Italo Calvino and Jeanette Winterson. And Kelly Link and Robert Lopez. I’d serve chili and cornbread. I make a really good chili.

When you're writing and editing, what food or drink are you most likely to smear/spill on your pages?

Coffee, invariably. And if it’s mid-afternoon and I’m on the struggle bus, chocolate chip cookie crumbs and smears.

What time period & place do you wish you'd lived in?

Two words: Jet packs.