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MILK-ALING-ING by Aleah Goldin


I’m waiting for the train when the girl comes up. She’s wearing a hairnet and a collared shirt down to her knees. “What is it?” I ask.

     “You’re tall.”

     “Thanks.” I puff my hair. “I try.”

     “I do too,” she says. Then she sits down on a concrete bench. The bench has recently been cleared of homeless men (they’ll be back), and it’s large enough to fit two, so I sit down next to her. The girl is fiddling with her fingernails, taking them off and on. They’re the long plastic kind, sold behind cash registers.

     “Do you like milk-aling-ing?”

     “Yes,” she smiles.

     “Me too.”

     She crosses her legs, then uncrosses them. “I once met this boy. He was nine feet tall. His legs were like chopsticks, real thick and strong, and it made me want to stop everything and take him to a restaurant. I didn’t of course. I mean, he wouldn’t even take a second glance at me because I’m short, but I thought about it for a while.”

     “He sounds beautiful.”

     “He was. We met on a street corner at a red light. I hadn’t realized it turned red, so I walked straight into him. He was so young. He looked at me, and there wasn’t a wisp on his cheeks. I wanted to kiss him, but the light turned green.”

     “If only it stayed red.”

     The girl runs tongue against teeth. “It’s all right. I’ll find someone like him again.” She’s wearing scuffed flats, similar to Jume’s. “Did milk-aling-ing exist when you were young?”

     “No, it didn’t.”

     “Wow.”

     “Cows used to be milked into buckets.” Nowadays cows are milked directly into thin tubes. I’m pretty sure there’s some processing though because I once pretended I was an inspector and called up Milk-aling-ing Inc. When I told them I needed to schedule a plant visit, they said, “Hold on a sec,” before hanging up. They wouldn’t have done that if there weren’t processing plants.

     “What happened if cows tipped over buckets?”

     “You picked them up.”

     “You did?”

     “Well, not me. But the folks who milked cows did.”

     “Imagine all those folks picking up buckets with their hands. No wonder there were so many diseases. The bacteria just dropped in. Not sanitary at all. I hear the clouds were so full of bacteria that it rained gray. Is that true?” She twists her hairnet. “Oh, it’s time.”

     As the train rumbles, I jot her words down on my arms and legs. I want to soak them into my skin, letter by letter, until they become part of me. Until their blue ink seeps into my veins.
     

FEELING OFF?

a bit, not quite myself today.

 i woke up this morning and felt three inches shorter.

NO QUALMS. NO TEARS.

TUBE IT.

[Main Street Station: Exit 3; Matted]

     
     It’s raining by the time I reach the office. Tell-A-Phone-Question is in center city, next to the skyscrapers. It’s the only building without ten floors and blinds. My manager, Marvin, says it was his intention to have the only center city organization without an elevator or skylight. It’s cause he likes to “keep things personal.” But really he had a falling out with the construction company, and they only completed the barebone design.

     “You’re late.” Marvin follows me to the foyer. He’s a stickler for time. Our phones, the only objects on the desks, are clocks. The hour hands are receivers, and the longer minute hands are bases. The phones rotate when we speak into them. Each second is another minute by their count.

     “It wasn’t my fault.”

     “Regardless of fault.”

     I suck in my stomach. “Pay docked.”

     Marvin is eight feet tall. He supposedly stretched himself with wooden planks before milk-aling-ing existed. One night, when Tell-A-Phone-Question was still a basement operation, he called the company in desperation. “I can’t be short anymore.” He’d gotten the number from a friend of a friend and hadn’t realized that representatives used generic hand-held devices. The Tell-A-Phone-Question representative listened to his question, searched the device, and told him, “Milk it.” At the time, “milk it” had probably meant, “take it for what it’s worth” or “play in to your shortness.” But a month later, when milk-aling-ing came out, “milk it” had a whole new meaning, one which Marvin thought Tell-A-Phone-Question had known.

     I retreat to my desk. Everyone else is hard at work. The representative closest to me pulls out a tape measure. She stretches it, reads a number into the phone, catches my glance, and nods. I smile back, even though I hate her. She put up the milk-aling-ing poster in the unisex bathroom. It’s bigger than the knee-high ones at train stations. It goes all the way from the floor to the top of the door, and now when I pee, I have to look directly at a cow’s face.

     I pull a file from the drawer and pick up the receiver. Beethoven plays in the background, until I hear Marvin’s voice. “Tory, I’m putting you on line six.” He doesn’t wait for a reply. He connects me through.

     “Representative Tory,” I say.

     “My son’s in the hospital.” My phone’s minute hand starts rotating at the sound of the woman’s voice. “How can I make him feel better? He says, ‘All I want to do is walk.’ He can’t though.”

     “That’s hard.”

     “It is,” the woman sighs. “I don’t think any answers you give will help. I just want to talk.”

     “I can listen.” I hope Marvin isn’t connected to the call. He hates it when employees take long, says our numbers go down. At the beginning of the month, he gives awards for the average number of calls we answer. This month tape-measuring woman won. She received forty-nine calls per day with an answer rate of 97%. (On average, I receive twenty-seven with an answer rate of 73%.)  She never arrives late to work. Bonus.

     “Tell me what happened.”

     “My boy was walking. Just walking, and his bones snapped. He was going to the supermarket to grab a carton of eggs—”

     “Snapped?”

     “Every bone longer than an inch. It happened as he walked into the store. Some of the folks nearby tried to hold him together. That’s when I was called.”

     “This isn’t the first time it’s happened,” I say.

     The woman’s voice pauses. “You mean you’ve had other calls?”

     “Yes, I’ve—”

     “Tory!” Marvin hisses.

     I spin around, nearly dropping the phone. He’s on his way back from the restroom, wiping his hands on his trousers. “I’ve had three,” I whisper to the woman. “Three calls.” I don’t have time to wait for a reply. I hang up as Marvin pounds his fist on the barrier between my desk and my neighbor’s.

     “What do you think you’re doing?”

     I close my eyes.

     Marvin yanks the phone from my desk. “What’s our motto?”

     “Twenty seconds flat.”

     “Was your call twenty seconds?” He towers over my desk, and I lean back to see his face. His eyes are slits, and his hair is gelled into a helmet.

     “No.”

     “Pay docked.”
     

BUD SOME BONES?

i wish mine grew.

SPRING TIME’S CHIRPING,

SUCK A TUBE.

[Unisex Bathroom; Glossed]

     
     It’s still raining when I leave work. The buildings are lit up, all ten floors but ours. A train rumbles underfoot. I jaywalk to the station. On my way, I see a boy about twelve at a red light. His legs look like chopsticks, the splintery kind.

     I step onto the platform. I spot the tape-measuring coworker from the other side. She’s changed her shoes since work. She’s whispering to a girl in a denim jumper. They have the same nose. She tugs the girl forward. “Stop it,” the girl struggles. “My tube fell.”

     The train enters the station, and its doors slide open. I take a seat in the back. From there, I watch. The girl picks up the tube. Her mother hustles her towards the train. Right as they’re about to get on, the girl crashes into the platform. It’s a hard fall, one that echoes in the underground chamber.

     A hunched, grayed man turns to me. “I’ve seen it before. It happened to my neighbor’s kid.”

     The girl is still on the ground as the train pulls away.

     The grayed man folds a newspaper in his lap. “She used to run with her dog. Her dog didn’t run, though; it trotted, her legs were so long. Then one day, she collapsed. It was her bones. They looked strong, but well, she was so tall.” He leans back against his seat. “Think how weak they must have been.”

     I give him my card. “If you find anything else, call me.”

     He hands it back.

     I check the card to make sure there’s no smudge or stain. He looks at me, then unfolds his paper. “You shouldn’t drink so many tubes yourself.”

     By the time I reach my station, I feel guilty. I roll the homeless men the rest of my tubes. One tube rolls too far, and a greasy-haired boy picks it up.  He slips it into his mouth and spits. Milk-aling-ing rains, and the homeless stick out their tongues to catch each drop.
     

IT’S TIME TO TUBE

SOMETHIN’ SWEET.

when light bulbs dim,

bare knuckles, teeth.

 [West Indies Station: Exit 4; Glossed]

     
     My front door is unhinged, and my lamps are on. A bookshelf crashes in the sunroom, and I jump. I follow the crash to the sunroom. On the floor  is a twitching hand. I crouch down and stare. It has two freckles near its knuckles and a hot iron scar on the pinky.

     “Jume?” I pull the bookcase over and off. My sister’s hair is clumped in termite nests, and her eyes dart from left to right. She is wearing a torn t-shirt and shorts that have been sliced through. Her nose is gone, and cartilage has been forced in its place.  “What happened?” From lip to toes, she is bruised. The bruises form letters. I can make out a misshapen “M”, “I”, “L”, “K”, and “G.” The rest are too yellow to identify.

     Last time I’d seen Jume, she’d been spouting nonsense from a sidewalk. Her two kids were climbing up her back, and she had been hitting a makeshift podium with a rod. “Do you know what the government does at night?” she yelled. “It topples homeless men into landfills.” A policeman had been watching from the crosswalk. When he blew his whistle, she’d fled.

     “Where are the kids?” I ask.

     Jume looks in my eyes and through them; she has hardly any irises. “Gone.” Her voice is as flat as Marvin’s.
     

THIRSTY LIKE A DOLPHIN?

you could call it that.

it’s one of those painful thirsts.

WANT TO GROW TALL?

oh, i do. i do.

[19th Street Station: Exit 1; Matted]

 

     
     The sun has faded into a harvest moon, and it hangs low. Outside, the streets have cleared, but inside, the apartment feels alive. The churning dryer kills the lice on Jume’s clothes, and the dishwasher cleans her one fork, knife, and bowl. Jume, hand braced with a hardback novel, is sleeping inside the washer with three sets of sheets. (I offered her the bed, but she refused.)

     I rinse my plate and stare at Jume’s backpack. It has ironed-on pictures, and I can make out her two children. There’s Amber, the daredevil, who bit me in a sandpit. Jume had dressed her in green that day, and Amber decided to crawl like an alligator. Her teeth punctured my skin so deep that I refused to talk to Jume for days. When I finally did, she admitted she was pregnant again. “He has a different father,” she said, “but we’re pretending he’s the same.” Unlike Amber, Samuel kept still. He watched, until he had enough. Then he waved his arm, and the scene changed in front of him.

     Samuel was a genius of sorts. By his fourth month, he was walking. By his sixth, he wore clipped bowties and dress pants, which he put on himself. Amber, who’d grown large canine teeth, loved to clasp Samuel in her arms. They’d sit on the patio, rocking back and forth. They were smaller than most because Jume lived as a Paleolithic hunter. She used arrows to hunt pigeons and collected berries from the bushes outside corporate headquarters. She didn’t believe in any milk besides breast.

     “You’ve heard of ‘snapping?’” Jume asks from the doorframe. Sheets are wrapped around her body. Only her head is visible.

     “Yes.”

     “It’s the worst noise in the world. The sound of breaking bones.”

     “It’s late.” I open the dishwasher, stuff the fork, knife, and bowl deep in Jume’s bag. “Let’s not talk about it. These are clean.”

     Jume stares. “Milk-aling-ing wasn’t allowed in our house, but they’re sucking at school. Did you know they have sponsored contests? Who can tear the plastic the fastest. Who can suck the most.”

     Jume points to my tubes near the sink. “You drink it, I know. You’re already drawn in. I can help you stop.” A single rubber holds them together, and it’s stretched taut. There’s fifty in that stack and more in the cupboard. Jume knows, of course. I bet she snuck around the whole apartment before I came home.

     “I’m doing fine. I don’t need your help.”

     “I didn’t realize when it happened to Amber. She was always so wild, so free.  She’d been experimenting—you know what I was like when I was that age. She was sitting on the fridge, kicking her legs back and forth, when she snapped. She wasn’t even half the size of her classmates. Only six foot. Her father had been on the smaller side. It wasn’t natural, but my perception of size was skewed.”

     My hands tremble. “If you stay here, you need to—”

     “Samuel was always so grown up.”

     “Jume, stop—”

     “Do you remember how he’d clip on a bowtie as a toddler? He told me that teachers were forcing him to suck at school. They’d take him out of math to tube. They didn’t want ‘a runt’ in their classes. When he snapped, we knew what it was. He’d heard his bones creaking on his walk from school. But there was nothing we could do. I held him when it happened. I held him and listened to his bones.”

     “Enough!” I hold my hands over my ears.

     “Tory, I am here to help.”

     “I don’t want your help.” I grab her clothes from the dryer and force them into her bag. I pull the drawstrings tight. “Go! I can’t.” Her face is scrunched. It’s hard to look at her, so I turn to the scratches on the floor.
     

USE YOUR BONES

FOR IN-DARK GLOW

… and what you’ll see…

YOU’LL NEVER KNOW.

[South Side Station: Exit 2; Glossed]

     
     Six hours later, the concrete bench is crowded with homeless, and I watch them from the wall. They are kneading each other’s feet. I hug my purse to my chest and watch as an elderly man rolls them some tubes. He stays three feet away, and the homeless laugh. “Are you afraid?” one calls. Another bares his teeth and pushes them back in, when they fall loose.

     The train screeches into the station. It’s rush hour, and there are no seats left. I hold onto a young man’s elbow. Once he leaves, I take his spot. The railing is clammy from his hands, and I can feel his residue. Through the windows, I count the stations. When the train grinds to a halt,  the conductor’s voice erupts from the stereo. “We are sorry for the delay. We’ll be moving in a minute.”

     “What happened?” a hairnet girl asks. She’s at the far end, but her voice is loud. She looks like the girl I met yesterday, taking her fingernails off and on. They have the same collared shirt.

     “The driver,” a man says.

     “It’s the train, a broken track.”

     I stare at the limbs in the car. Elbows, knees, feet. If Jume were here, she’d note the number and start talking to them. She’d make a makeshift podium. “They’re the perfect crowd,” she’d whisper to me. “They can’t leave. They can’t move, and the police can’t interrupt.” The thought of Jume turns to Amber turns to Samuel. My stomach churns.

     I glance up. A milk-aling-ing poster is pasted to the ceiling, and several young boys are looking at it with licked lips. A corner is peeled, and the tallest boy reaches over and presses it back in place.

     “When I grow up, I’m going to tube sixty a week,” the smallest says.

     “Naw.”

     “It’s true.”

     His friend catches me watching. His limbs are knobbier than most. “Know why we’re stuck?”

     “No,” I admit, though Marvin says never admit the negation of yes.

     “I heard that back in the old days this happened all the time,” the boy says. “Trains stopped in the middle of tracks because conductors ran out of steam. Folks were dishonest back then, said it was because short boys pulled up tracks. If their timing was bad, their bones would clog wheels. But really it was just steam.”

     I shake my head. “Doesn’t sound true.”

     “Oh yes.” The boy rubs his jaw. “It’s like how Tell-A-Phone-Question reps pretend they’re from here. Did you ever listen to their accents? The way they roll their g’s. I called in with a question. I asked if milk-aling-ing was the future, and guess what they said?”

     “What?”

     “‘Milk it.’ What does that even mean?”

     “I work for Tell-A-Phone-Question,” I say. “I live here. I know what ‘milk it’ means.”

     The boy stares at me. He bends his head to get a full view. He takes in my sweaty palms and knee-high skirt. “Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that.” He grins. “So is it the future?”

     I wipe my palms on my shirt. I think about the way he smoothed down the poster and how tall even his smallest friend is. “I think folks will learn—.”

     The train rumbles, and I jerk forward, knocking into a pregnant woman. She’s sitting in one of the seats, and she looks up at me, surprised.

     “Learn what?” The boy clutches the railing with both hands.

     The boy stares at me with glowing teeth. “You’re one of them. Aren’t you? One of the purists. That’s why you have ink all over your body.” He spits, and his friends, backpacks swinging, elbow their way over to him. They talk in low whispers as the train speeds through stations. They glance at me. I try not to catch their gaze.

     “Traitor,” one whispers.

     “Low-life,” says another.

     “Old bones,” says the last.

     I almost pull some tubes from my purse to prove that I’m not, but I feel guilty. I think about the gray-haired man scanning me. “Weak,” he shakes his head. “Splintery weak.” The underground lights flicker off. In the darkness, I hear short boys’ bones on wheels.
     
––––––––
Aleah Goldin has been published in Hobart, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review,Gone Lawn, Gigantic, Zeek, and South Loop Review. She is currently on a research Fulbright in Mongolia. If you would like to read more of her writing, click here.