“Routine” – Grayson Cameron

“I’m afraid we’re becoming routine,” she says.

She is looking at him from the doorway to the bathroom. She just finished brushing her teeth and now she is looking at him.

He’s sitting on the bed with a pillow behind his neck, reading the newspaper from this morning. He didn’t read the paper over breakfast like he normally does because the damn guys who deliver it on his block just drive by and hurl them out the window like maniacs. The thing must have landed close but then rolled down the driveway like a log. When he got up this morning and went outside he could barely find it at first. Plus it was raining. The paper was sitting by the road in the rain and anyways he just didn’t get to it.

The article he is reading now has the latest reports from a conflict several thousand miles away from his bedroom, as she walks with bare feet toward the foot of the bed. He doesn’t stop reading to look at her.

“Monkey,” she says. “Don’t you think we’re becoming routine?”

“Course not, Peacock,” he says. “Where’d you find an idea like that? In the bathroom sink?”

He does not put down the newspaper to look at her.

“Seriously,” she says. “I haven’t seen my friends in forever.”

“Neither have I.”

She says, “But do you even want to?”

And he goes on reading, but not to displease her. She knows he listens just fine while he reads.

“There’s the difference,” she says.

The reprieve he is finding while he reads some of the gruesome details in the article makes him feel exhilarated and sick. He tries to imagine being there, the small town from the article. The article says the town was hit by a 24-hour air strike. He wondered about that. He wondered if the silence was worse than the shelling, like that feeling he gets during storms when he can’t help but count the seconds after a strike of lightning until the thunder reaches through. Apparently the town has little do with the conflict. Wrong place at the wrong time, sort of thing. Twenty-four hours, that’s all yesterday and all through the night. Yesterday he had breakfast and then he went to the grocery store. He made dinner. During dinner he drank beer and then he waited for her to come over after work. That’s about all he did yesterday while somewhere else the bombs dropped and dropped.

Of course he’s never even heard a bomb before, not in real life. He sure hates thunderstorms, though. It’s been that way since he was a kid. Never seems to get over it. Maybe some things you just don’t get over, he thinks. He’s wondering if she would understand all that if he says something about it. It isn’t accustom that they talk about the war. Her father is a pacifist and she has no interest in any of that anyway.

*

She says, “They’ve stopped inviting us out, you know.”

He is just finishing the first page. When he is done he licks his fingers and flips through the paper for the article’s continuation. He’s thinking, A6, A6, A6… She asks him if they are a fun couple. Then she mentions Patrick’s birthday. She says they weren’t invited to the party, you know.

“Sure we were,” he says. “You don’t see A6 lying anywhere do you? Dammit. Anyways Pat called me.”

“And?” She says.

“Oh, you don’t wanna go to any party of his and you know it,” he says. “You know it and I know it. Hell, if Patrick had to be friends with himself, he’d know it to.”

She stretches her arms toward the ceiling fan and her stomach fills with air. You know it. The words are practically still in the room. Then she lets it all go. Her body deflates and she lands on the bed next to him. He crosses his knees to avoid impact.

“Stop messing with me,” she says. “I’m scared.”

Her voice is muffled by the duvet.

“Scared how, Peacock?”

“All these questions about us,” she says. “I’m scared it’s part of the routine not to ask them.”

“But you’re the Queen of questions,” he says.

“Not these questions.”

He finds page A6. He folds the paper over itself then snaps it backward to find a suitable crease. He keeps reading.

“Fire away,” he tells her. “You know I like it when you get all flustered. You do that thing with your breathing.”

“What thing?”

“Oh you know it,” he says. “I mean I’ve told you before.”

She tells him to tell her again about her breathing, so that’s what he does.

“I mean you start breathing more audibly, from your nose right before you speak,” he says. “Makes your nose flare out a bit, and your eyebrows too– they reach up to your forehead like it was your own breathing that floated them up there. Your whole head is like a damn balloon and your stare gets so intense like you’ve just witnessed the most severe of all injustices. Real dramatic stuff, I tell you.”

She turns her face away from the bed.

“Stop messing with me,” she says.

He keeps reading.

Then he says, “It’s so cute I hate it.”

*

“Anyways,” she says. “Do you like that we don’t go out anymore? Are we too lazy when we’re together? My mom thinks we ought to be more proactive.”

“Your mom is a yoga teacher,” he reminds her. He hasn’t looked away from the article.

“Isn’t she right though?” She says. “And how come your mom doesn’t even like me? Monkey?”

“Because of Christmas,” he says. “You know why.”

She tells him not to scare her like that.

He says, “I told you not to worry about it. It’s more a reflection on me, anyway.”

Then she says, “Well I wish she would like me.”

So he says, “Me too.”

*

She turns over to lay on her back and stretch her legs. Her legs stick up straight from the top of his newspaper. Stiff, bare legs. He sees them rise in his periphery. She grabs at her toes.

“What did you think about the first time you saw me?” She says.

“What’s that?” he says.

“Oh, forget it.”

*

“The first time I saw you I imagined how you’d look in a summer dress, floral patterned,” he says. “That’s what I think whenever I see you.”

What he really wanted to say was that that’s what he thinks whenever he sees any pretty girl. He realizes that for his whole life he’s been falling for visions of girls wearing summer dresses.

“A dress with flowers on it?” She says. “I don’t own a dress like that.”

“Well I know that now,” he says. “But how could I know that then? You asked me, anyways. Yeah, I thought about you dancing in a summer dress. Isn’t that something?”

He thinks about it some more. The first time he saw her was at a friend’s house. There was a sort of party going on, and she was sitting at a piano all alone in the living room, a beautiful parlor piano, but she wasn’t playing it. She was using the top of the piano as a table to pour two shots of tequila. She was trying so damn hard not to spill that she had her tongue out and that look on her face like little kids have when trying to color inside the lines. She said she was “eyeballing it.” He thought it was about the cutest thing he’d seen all night and so he asked her if she’d like something to chase with. She looked at him a second or two, then rifled the tequila into her mouth, straight. Really, she did. Then she offered him the other shot. Things sort of went from there, he guesses.

“I also thought about what you looked like when you brushed your teeth,” he says. “After we got to talking, I mean I imagined it while you were talking, what you looked like when you were by yourself getting ready for bed.”

“In my PJ’s?” She says.

“That’s right,” he says. “In your PJ’s and with your hair in a little bun on the top of your head. Looking right in the mirror wearing a college t-shirt or something.”

She laughs.

“Have you ever lied to me,” she says. “Huh, Monkey Man?”

He tells her he’d have to think about it.

“Are you going to stop reading that stupid book and look at me?” She growls.

“Soon as I’m done.”

Then she says, “I think we have too much sex.”

And he puts the newspaper on his lap.

*

“Well I doubt that’s a problem,” he says.

“My mom thinks so.”

“I thought she was all about free love, that sort of thing?” He says. “She’s not your dad, you know. I would have thought she would find it healthy or something. Why are you talking to her about our sex life anyway? You shouldn’t do that, you know.”

“And why’s that?”

“It’s not fair,” he says. “Ganging up on someone without all the facts.”

“Oh yeah?” She says. He can feel her smiling at him. It’s practically there on his skin and maybe it itches.

“Goddamn conflict of interest,” he says. “That’s what that is.”

“Anyways, that’s not the point,” she says. “I’m worried we’re routine because I make it

too easy for you.”

“Maybe we cut back on the sex?” She says. “At least I can make it harder for you, like I used to.”

“You’re serious,” he says.

He folds the newspaper and puts it aside, on her pillow. Then he looks at her until she looks away. She buries half of her face in the sheets, leaving one of her blue eyes poking up at him. She sees him, and he can see that she sees him and that she is serious. This is a proposal she has considered for some time, he realizes, probably while she brushed her teeth. Now she has said it and now the sheets are an ocean between them. That one eye has become a small, distant glacier, and the pupil a shipwrecked dingy lodged deep inside.

He is more of a poetic thinker than she knows. And he has an imagination, too. For example, he knows her face so well in this position that sometimes, more than once, he actually liked to fantasize about their relationship occupying its own separate, horizontal world. That’s some imagination. Maybe she was right about the sex.

“Peacock,” he says.

No movement.

“Camille.”

She plunges her whole face into the bedsheet sea.

“This whole thing is a wash, anyhow,” he says. He wants to light a cigarette, but he doesn’t smoke. Never has. She has, but not him. So he stretches instead. He puts his palms flat against the mattress and pushes his chest toward the ceiling. There’s a wet spot by the ceiling fan and he’s not sure he’s noticed it before. He comes back down to earth and readjusts the pillow behind him. He feels it crush against his spine. One thing at a time.

“Do you know what I mean when I say it’s all a wash?” he says.

“Harvey,” she says. “I haven’t the faintest idea.”

He watches her lay there for some time, hiding her face from the rest of the world. He could get out of bed if it wasn’t such a hassle this time of night. He thinks about going outside. It’s not raining anymore. He thinks how the nighttime would feel on his skin. If he bothers his way out of bed he probably won’t do much of anything, he thinks, just take a walk down the street and see if he can warm to the temperature. He wishes his girlfriend would raise her head already, just to see if he is gone.

“How about dinner tomorrow,” he says. “Before Patrick’s party.”

He’s looking out the window like something is coming.

“I thought you told them we couldn’t make it?” She says.

“Oh I’ll just make something up,” he says. “He won’t care anyways, he’ll go bananas. We’re practically celebrities now we’re so hard to reach. Don’t you see how that works, Peacock?”

“And dinner?” She says.

“Wherever you want.”

“Be a man and decide.”

He hates it when she asks for proof that he listens to her. What he hates even more is that he always seems to know the answer. She’ll get what she wants, but he’ll make her wait for it.

*

“How about the Five Spot?” he says. “Jazz Night.”

Her blue eyes resurface.

“You’re serious?” She says.

“Would I lie?”

She flies across the bed, right into his chest. She is so fast that it scares him. Inside their commotion the newspaper falls from the bed. She kisses him many times.

“God I’m so excited!” She says. “I think I’ll plan something to wear.”

She kisses him once more then hops from the bed and goes for the bathroom. He watches her skinny, pale thighs as she walks.

“Wear something you haven’t worn for a while,” he says. “Something that isn’t routine.”

“Routine,” she says. “Routine, routine, rou-tine…what a willy-nilly thing to say.”

She is shaking her head. He can see her face in the mirror.

She says, “You ever say something over and over, ‘till it sounds like a made up word?”

“I guess they’re all made up anyways,” she says. “Huh, Harvey?”

*

She’s putting some sort of lotion on her face now. It’s pale green with coarse beads in it that scratch against her the skin on her cheeks. He can practically smell it from the bed. It smells so good he hates it.

“To hell with routine,” he calls to her.

She raises her head and cocks her neck to catch him in the mirror. Her face is pale green and her eyes glow blue beyond the reach of the light on the nightstand beside him. In the soft light her hair looks nearly black. She looks like a monster. She smiles and blows a kiss. The skin on her face is soft underneath all that lotion. She says she loves him very much and then she closes the door for the last time.

Soon he reaches for the newspaper on the floor. The mattress squeaks, then squeaks again when he is back in his place. From behind the door he can hear her start to hum a tune. He finds his place on the page and tries to keep reading, but he pegs her song on the very first note out of her very soft lips. It is distracting. It is so cute he hates it. Someday he will do something.

Something will happen.

But for now he reads on to see how the war is going. He does all that he can to trust the good guys will win soon.

© 2016 Grayson Cameron

“Ivan” – Rex Brooke

There is a way to figure this out, he thought, boldly.

Ivan Ivanovich sets down his morning glass of vodka and sharpens his pencil with a kitchen knife. He looks out his window to the wide and wrinkled Volta. A brisk Spring wind is crawling across the oil slicked water. Rivulets of water trickle across the meadow. To the east, the sun glints off the snow capped Ural Mountains. He licks the tip of the pencil and lowers it against the crisp white sheet of paper.

He needed the proper symbols. Once he had them, the problem could be attacked with a more precise vocabulary which would reveal the solution.

The only thing Ivan loved better than vodka was mathematics, for he loved mathematics with a passion which would only befit a genius. Unfortunately, Ivan was no genius, and so his love dispelled itself, like pissing in the Volta, as they say.

As a youth he had spent many a happy summer day fishing in the Volta. He had known every eddy and sandbar for 15 miles. The Nikita days. Sturgeon the size of dogs. But that was much further south. Where people with a civilized culture lived. Here, at Lysva, you were lucky if you could pull dead wood from the river.

In the seven years he had lived there, Ivan had pulled a lot of dead wood from the river. It was one of the few things which weren’t taxed. He would lay it out on the banks like corpses to dry for the winter. Unfortunately, by the time it had reached Ivan’s shore, the river had leached the wood of most of its life giving fire.   But he had found early on that if the flame gets hot enough, even dead wood will burn.

Damn Petrovich. Damn the arrogance of these young people. Damn his fences. And damn his bull. She might die down there. And then what would be left?

He begins to write, and you can hear the pencil scratching across the paper.

There are two ways of solving problem, he begins, in a hierarchical manner, moving down from the general to the precise until the problem is pinned, much like a hunter spearing a salmon from a school. This is the spear method.

The alternative is the net method–starting with a lot of possible answers and tossing back the chum. It’s not unlike sculpture, where you carve away everything which is not necessary.

Now if we look at answers as being fish in the sea of the universe, we have the obvious advantages and disadvantages of both methods. Is there a one to one correspondence between answers and problems? Of course not. This is the disadvantage of the spear method. The advantage is that you have only one fish to deal with.

Ivan stops. He is hungry. Pickled herring, a chunk of hard bread, and an onion for lunch. And another glass of vodka. His problem is this:

Early last October he had led his cow down the stairs into the basement for the winter. He had purchased the cow with the last of his savings, naming her Mynka, for reasons of his own past. Now it is Spring, the grass is thickening in the meadows, but she has grown so large that he can not get her back up the stairs. He hadn’t known she was pregnant until it was too late. She was too young to be bred. One of Constantine Petrovich’s bulls must have broken through the fence and settled her. And when confronted, that bastard Petrovich claimed that Mynka had enticed his bull, and added that it takes two to make a fence, and finally, not to worry, that he wouldn’t charge a stud fee.

So there she was, as wide as she was long. Ivan could wait for her to give birth, but she wasn’t due until June, and by then most of the Spring pasture will have been eaten by the damn sheep from Constantine Petrovitch’s farm.

“This is what they call free enterprise,” Ivan mumbles. “The right to loot.”

If he couldn’t get her out, he’d have to purchase extra hay and grain. He couldn’t purchase shoelaces on his pension, let alone a season of food for a cow and calf. How he had dreamed of living in the country, free to earn his own living, free from the choking bureaucracy of his government job as a cartographer, redrawing boundaries every time the Kremlin decided to annex some poorly defended territory. Waiting thirty years for this. How foolish he had been. His whole life coming to this.

Ivan finishes his lunch and follows with a brace of vodka. He leans back in his chair and concludes: In the end, all we have left is the illusion of truth.” he writes. “All we have are models of reality. Never the thing itself.”

He tries a different approach. A different analogy. Assume that the cow is a light which requires energy in order to function. The greatest impediment to the energy flow is the stairs; now a resistance of much greater capacity than his available current. It is true that in the world of quantum probability, some current would actually tunnel through any impassable resistance, and reappear, miraculously, on the other side, like frogs after a rain, but certainly not enough current to light a stairwell. Besides, even if it tunneled through improbability, he never trusted something which couldn’t be comprehended with common sense. But obviously, the resistance had to be eliminated.

Ivan studies the door frame. He takes measurements. He makes a few scale drawings. They are very good drawings. He looks from the drawing to the basement door. His dakka was built in a time when houses were constructed to last for generations. A single beam, running to a corner post, which also supported his roof, marks the top of the door frame. The beam is a full 8 meters long and a good 1/2 meter thick. It was hewn from a single tree and probably weighs close to 1000 kilograms. To move either side of the door frame would mean the collapse of his house. Ivan puts his pencil down and rubs his eyes. He tugs at his white beard, combing through the tangles with his arthritic fingers. He climbs to his feet, opens the door to his cellar, and looks down at his cow. She looks back at him, shifting her weight from side to side to ease the weight of her unborn calf. She bellows softly, and shits, plop, plop, plop—a sound like sparrows hitting the windshield of a 12 row combine.

Ivan returns to his drawings, and with his knuckle sized pencil, figures the geometry.  A brace here, at this angle, another here to take the lateral thrust of that load. His design is fragmented by, of course, the limited amount of bracing material–the last of dead wood he had been using to heat his home. But surely a good Spring flood up river would bring more. A block and tackle, attached here, would give him the necessary mechanical advantage for the hoist. The vertical load transferred to this floor member, which seemed sound enough. Seems. It should hold the load. Ivan gets back up, and jumps up and down on the floor boards. Breathing hard, he sits back down. There is no give, but there are always risks.

He knows he does not have a block and tackle, but how hard can that be to make? Two rotational cylinders in a pair of bore holes. Maybe he could get a few of those spools from the abandoned nuclear plant. And a lot of thick rope.

He taps his pencil on the table. It is not a bad table, sitting squarely under the one window. It bears the inscription, “The meek will inherit the Earth.”  He had made it the first summer they had moved to Lyvsa, before that first terrible winter, and the death of his beloved wife, when he was still guided by the impracticality of hope.

As honorable as his intentions might have been, the table bears witness to his having never used a saw in his life. He was a map maker. Not a carpenter. But God will be his witness that he has always done his best. Most of the time. Even though he doesn’t believe in God. Or at least not in a God that pays attention.

He carefully tapes the corners of the drawings to the table, and stands back. He stretches, and does a partial deep knee bend, and sits back down.

It is just past dusk when he wakes in his chair. Above him, in the dark, shards of quick silver flash and for a split second, fish are schooling in the corners. He turns on the overhead light and they are gone. He examines his drawings. A thumb-sized moth attacks the light bulb. Its shadow flits across the table.

His plan is a good one, only lacking in a few necessary materials. If he can make that block and tackle, and if the floor boards can support the load, he should be able to free Mynka with only a small reliance on luck.   He checks his plan by following the flow of gravity across the switches, where it is redirected, split, and finally recombined as it arrives at the source of the force itself. The Earth. He goes to the basement door again, pulls it open, and looks down the steps at Mynka, who is chewing on the straw, her one bad eye facing him, the color of dirty snow.

“And if there are no fish,” he tells her, “We will eat meat.”

“Moo,” she replies.

© 2016 Rex Brooke

“What to Wear” – Scott Pinkerton

Stumble, fall, scraped knees
ripped pants
mended
needle, thread
finger prick
blood
stitched pants, scarred pants
unique, storied
character, soul
weathered
limited engagement
noticed
frowned upon
pathset, baggage
comfortable
memories
Stumble, fall, scraped knees
ripped pants
disposed
shopping trip
pull tags
sterile
new pants, unblemished
fresh start, clean slate
empty canvas
fresh pressed
pants for any occasion
common
expected, accepted
unchained, storyless
confident
dreams

© 2016 Scott Pinkerton