Monthly Archives: April 2015

Spelling

 

By Roland Leach

 

Dear Mr Maroney, you probably don’t remember me, unless through my absences. At a recent reunion we decided to form a group to talk out our schooldays. Teachers that were a distinct influence. Marked our way through life.

Your name came up first – quite vehemently in fact – especially when we recalled how you lined us around the wall for spelling. A bit like being on the other side of the firing squad. You using words like bullets. Answers quick and unfaltering, or else to the back of the line. At the end of the lesson the last five boys were strapped. Laurie O’Neill – the red head you called Blue – still can’t line up in queues unless there are five people behind him. He’s had a life of being abused or shoved to the back. Mick Taylor never had a stuttering problem till he couldn’t get out sustenance right before the bell. The perfect student who got strapped. You told him it would keep him on his toes. Den Rand hates his kids asking him how to spell a word. You kept the strap on the desk or sometimes in your back pocket. It looked like a small black tail and with your wrinkled face gave us one of your nicknames, monkey Maroney. Chris Hill still has an unnatural aversion to the lesser apes and some of the smaller tailed primates. But it was the threat of your special strap, Jumbo, you called it, speaking affectionately of it as if it was your cat or dog. The way you soaked it in oil once a month to give it flex or polished it with boot polish to keep its shine. It was hidden in a back cupboard that you kept locked. We could only remember you using it once (on Phil Ray – typical) but the fear of it kept us wary. Sam Locke had to sit next to it at the back of the room. We were seated from one at the front to forty-eight at the back dependent on our tests. His analyst attributes most of his neuroses to the palpable presence of Jumbo – alive and breathing, oiled like a body-builder in the darkness of the cupboard. You took most of our meeting, you and your spelling line and the oiled Jumbo. Steve Gatt reminded us how you would trick us into learning our lists by asking the compound word in the list or the word that rhymes with. He said you had little effect on him and had come along for the alcohol but he did say that he remembers you when he hears the compound-word that double-rhymes with pass and role.

 

Roland Leach has three collections of poetry, the latest My Father’s Pigs published by Picaro Press. He is proprietor of Sunline Press, which has published eighteen collections of poetry by Australian poets, and his most recent venture is an art and literary magazine called Cuttlefish.

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First like this, then like this

 

By Rafael Mendez

 

The flag was from Nigeria, two towers of green with white between them. Henry folded it into a triangle, the same way his father had taught him. Primero asi, luego asi, and you’re done. He could still hear the vague instructions, could see the brown hands directing an invisible orchestra. He mimicked the movements and placed it between Andorra and Costa Rica. Papa always kept them in alphabetical order, said the world only worked when countries stayed in their place. Henry mixed them and matched them. His wall chameleoned every day. He pinched the front of his university button-down and flapped it outward twice, drying the sweat on his chest. The phone screamed down the hallway. It was Ricky but it wasn’t his voice. It was the voice of a man who’d swallowed Ricky whole so that he echoed from inside a different body. The Americans won’t put it up, they won’t put our flag up. We march today. Hours later, standing across from the white mob, his friends screamed Panamá, Panamá, Panamá. The whites screamed USA, USA, USA. And before the bullets, Henry thought, Primero así, luego así, and you’re done. Primero así, luego así, and you’re done.

 

Rafael Enrique Mendez was born in Panama City, Panama in 1993. He is a graduate of Emerson College. He currently works at Fundacion Calicanto, an NGO that focuses on the at-risk citizens of his home country. His major influences are diverse and include Junot Diaz, J.R.R. Tolkien, Jorge Luis Borges, Sandra Cisneros, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In his fiction, he mixes both Spanish and English, a style that reflects his bilingual and bicultural upbringing. His writing focuses on the fusion of Latino and American culture and their combined influences upon his heritage as well as his personal views.

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Jobs Initiative

 

By Ron Singer

 

INTERNAL MEMO

from: Sizwe Tik-Boer, Secretary, Planning and Development

South-Central African Consortium of Works & Days

to: All Departmental Undersecretaries (42)

subject: Jobs Initiative

date: 20 October 2014

STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL!

Introduction:

There is surely no need to remind you that the aggregate rate of unemployment in our region is among the world’s highest. Nor do I need to rehash the underlying causes of this dire situation. Finally, it would be rubbing salt in our own wounds to recall the pledge we so boldly issued at the time of our incorporation a decade ago: “Full Employment by 2014!” All of this information is readily available in the gutter press.

I will remind you, however, that none of our recent initiatives (massive works projects; tax breaks for start-ups, transplants, and old firms that hire new workers; doubling the number of civil servants, to over 700,000; and the radical expedient of paying families not to have children) has so much as made a dent in the unemployment numbers: (2004 regional rate: 37.43%; 2014 rate: 37.34%).

Comrades, it is time for us to think outside the box (which, by the way, is where many of our poorest citizens reside –in cardboard boxes).

Proposal:

In some of the world’s most prosperous cities and nations –places with low unemployment rates– there obtain patterns whereby specific ethnic groups predominate in specific occupations, occupations with which these groups, for various reasons, have been historically and culturally associated. Two examples: in New York City, pace recent diversity initiatives, there remains a predominance of fire fighters and police officers of Irish extraction; judges and lawyers, Jewish; Sanitation workers, Italian; etc. In Honolulu, Hawaii, the pattern is, perhaps, even more pronounced. Unsurprisingly, the Chinese work as merchants and in restaurants; the Japanese, as secretaries and civil servants; and “native” Hawaiians, Samoans, etc., as menials and nightclub entertainers.

In our own region, as well, many jobs employ specific ethnicities, sometimes in shameful ways. Consider the Zulu war dancers who perform for patrons at upscale restaurants, spicing their meals with a frisson of bellicose thrusts and parries. No less obloquious, perhaps, are the township tour guides who offer visitors ethnic meals and a view of “how we, the —- (fill in name of group), live.”

Putting aside, for the moment, the vexed question of stereotyping, let me propose that we could bring tens, even hundreds, of thousands of the unemployed into the workforce by re-organizing, along ethnic lines, jobs presently lurking in the shadow economy. By suiting job to culture, we could marshal pre-existing skills and bring dignity to hitherto despised tasks. No less important, transferred to the regular economy, these jobs could generate substantial tax revenues, not to mention dramatically lowering the official rate of unemployment. To give you an idea, here is a preliminary list:

San/Basarwa: beggars who collect trash from automobile owners at stop lights (foragers).

Zulu & Xhosa*: people who stand watch over parked automobiles (herders).

* To avoid conflict, each of these two major ethnicities could be assigned half the brands of automobile.

San/Basarwa*: touts for restaurants, nightclubs, and other businesses (hunters).

* Allocating two occupations to this single ethnicity can be justified by their astronomical unemployment rate, twice that of any other group in southern Africa.

Whites: organizers, overseers of the above (baases).

The Ball Is in Your Court:

With this concept in mind, each and every Departmental Undersecretary is hereby directed to transmit to my office, by the end of the month, the following:

1. A list of ten (10) other shadow-economy jobs and the ethnicities to which they are best suited.

2. Breakdown by profession/ethnicity of numbers of putative employees.

3. Detailed timetable and cost estimates for implementation.

4. Draft outline of a public relations campaign.

5. 2-3 possible titles for the initiative.

6 (optional) Any constructive criticism you may decide to venture.

Let me close by reminding you that your cooperation in this endeavor is essential to the economic future of our region, not to mention the continued job security of each and every one of you.

NOTE: Owing to the potentially controversial nature of this proposal, and to the fact that it is in the embryonic stage of development, it is essential that the proposal be considered STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL and that it NOT be leaked to members of the press! THIS MEANS YOU!

(signed) GP-N, per SP-B

Secretary, Planning and Development

S-CACWD

 

Satire by Ron Singer (www.ronsinger.net) has appeared in many publications (The Brooklyn Rail, Coffee Shop Poems, diagram, Evergreen Review, The Journal of Microliterature, Mad Hatter’s Review, nth position, Word Riot, etc). His eighth book,Uhuru Revisited: Interviews with Pro-Democracy Leaders, was issued February 1st, 2015 by Africa World Press/Red Sea Press. This is Singer’s second appearance in Oblong.

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The Backwards Child

By Matthew Cook

 

From the moment my brother Jonathan was born it felt like everything he did was the wrong way round. He reached out for father’s bulbous nose with his left hand, not his right. All the lush black hair he arrived with slowly fell out and refused to grow back. I hardly remember seeing him eat, but I lost count of the times he was sick on me or someone near me or on the floor or on himself.

Other people noticed it too. When he started going to nursery he was loved by his carers for being so talkative, such a big grown up boy. But as the months passed they too became baffled and suspicious, complaining that he had failed to thrive. That he seemed to have forgotten so much.

It was all very distressing for our mother. Jonathan was her only son and she encouraged us to see him as she did, as the great hope for our family name. She talked brightly about what it would be like when he was fully grown, when he filled every available inch of whatever room he was in, and how we would all dance around and over his giant body like Lilliputians, serving him food, darning the spots where his muscles burst through his clothes and preparing him for the important tasks he had been born to do, on which subject she was frustratingly vague. I joined in with the cuddling and the cooing and the worship, keeping my distrust to myself. When he was handed to me I pinched his fat skin folds with my fingernails to hear the sharp little breaths that followed. I was nine years old, and there wasn’t a single book in our house I hadn’t read. Yet overnight I had been usurped by a ball of fat and wind.

We lived in a town called Bingford. Like Jonathan it was too small and backwards. The residents were sweet natured and kind, though we rarely had out of town visitors on account of Mr Hamaduri. Mr Hamaduri’s restaurant was the first building on the main road, and the manner he had of rushing out from the shadows to greet approaching cars with open arms scared most tourists away (and did them a favour really, as I now know things about Mr Hamaduri and his restaurant that I wish I did not).

Of my sisters, Olive and Faye thought Jonathan was the bee’s knees, but thankfully Carol disliked him almost as much as me, and we spent many pleasurable afternoons plotting against him. The only memory I have of us actually playing with him was a game we invented called Sliders. It involved placing him on a tea towel then spinning him across the dining room floor to one another, like a fat, giggling air hockey puck. The rules demanded that he be naked for some reason. (A revelation: was this why he was so often sick?)

There were a number of theories as to why Jonathan was so strange. The first was that father took his job in the chemical laboratory just before Jonathan was conceived and so his sperms may have gone peculiar (this is what mum believed). Another was that the fifth child is always wonky, or so said grandma Hattie. ‘The first is the champion, the second ignored, the third a comedian, the fourth sweet natured and the fifth as twisted as a monkey’s leg. It’s all there in the bible!’ she often declared, and even dug a yellowed St James’ out to prove it on one occasion but ended up entertaining us with lurid descriptions of the end of the world instead. There were other theories too: milk poisoning; exposure to cat faeces (Hattie owned seven); genetics (mother and father are third cousins, though we are not supposed to know); and evil radiation from the electricity pylon behind our house.

As the months passed and passed my fantasies of destroying Jonathan became ever more vivid and specific, and I dedicated countless pages of my diary to drawings and descriptions of my plans. I was working on them feverishly in my room one Sunday evening when I heard noises downstairs. Carol had noticed that Jonathan was very pale. Mother had called Dr Harris, who said there might be something wrong with Jonathan’s heart. There was no discussion. We simply ran for the car in our pyjamas and threw ourselves in. The surgeons went straight to work. For hours we sat in the hospital waiting room staring at the black and white checkerboard floor wondering what sort of game this was. Inside my head a single thought turned over and over like a washing machine; it was how in New Zealand water spins down sinks the wrong way and so maybe Jonathan’s heart pumped everything the wrong way and always had so perhaps we should just go there because Jonathan’s heart and possibly his whole body wanted to be a New Zealander and who were we to argue.

But I didn’t say anything. Nobody said anything. Time slowed to a trickle. Father handed out blackberries which we ate until we felt sick, succulent little hand grenades that exploded in our mouths and left their shrapnel wedged unbearably in our teeth.

When the doctor finally came out to speak to us I was almost blind from staring at the checkerboard. We all looked up as one and saw that he was walking fast towards us, the way you might walk to sneak up and attack someone, his trainers squeaking faintly on the tiles. Then he began to talk, and I couldn’t hear a word, because time had finally stopped and reversed itself and all that existed in the entire universe were the white laces of his trainers, one a neat little bow, the other unfurling, treacherous and wild and without end.

Matthew Cook has been a hospital porter, a script consultant and a retail snoop but is currently a freelance writer based in Liverpool. His fiction and reviews have appeared in Number Eleven, Small Doggies, PANK, Tusk, Imbroglio and Cooldog. You can sometimes find him on Twitter @mattjohncook.

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