CRACKED by Nick Farriella

Someone who was once very famous, but not so much anymore, said, “Every whole person has ambitions, initiatives, goals,” about a boy who was very particular and wanted to press his lips to every square inch of his own body. This is not about said boy, but a different boy, a peculiar boy who had never read that story and whose goal was to crack every joint, every ligament, every air pocket and poppable piece of cartilage in his body. The boy was seven.

The origins of this habit, to which he simply called “Cracking” were unknown to him, but if given some thought he might be able to discern two instances in his young life that would have acted as trigger events—as in unrelated, seemingly random phenomenon that took place in distinct separate moments of time, the way a few talks behind closed doors in one nation and one act of violence in another, coordinate with bubbling protests in a third-world country, inevitably leading to a world war. That’s what this was for the boy, a war with his body, a war with tightness and pressure. The two aforementioned random and insignificant events that led to this curiosity, if brought to the front of his memory and studied, would be as such:

1. Driving on I-80 heading south in his mother’s minivan, probably somewhere in Virginia—the strip of VA that feels endless—looking out at the passing nothingness and earnest poppy billboards of advertisements remnant of the ’70s from the back seat, the then three or four-year-old boy, out of boredom mostly, had an urge (probably subconscious) to squeeze his index finger down into his palm until the metacarpophalangeal joint, commonly known as the base knuckle, suddenly popped.

2. Since the knuckle popping car incident, the boy began bending, squeezing, twisting, clenching, extending, contorting and pretzeling each of his fingers until he achieved loud pops and high cracks along each of his metacarpophalangeal, proximal interphalangeal, and distal interphalangeal joints, which led to frustration, swollen fingers, and––inevitably––boredom. That was until almost a year later when the boy was four or five and had started playing recreational tee-ball down at Dawson Park every Tuesday and Thursday. At his first practice on an especially wet April evening, he joined the team of boys and girls for stretches. The first of which was a Lumbar Rotation Stretch––lying supine, arms spread, right leg over the left making the shape of a capital P. At first, he felt stupid being crossed and soaked on the grass of the outfield, but after a gentle (probably subconscious) lean into the pose, his spine rattled like a string of firecrackers, consequentially blowing his young mind. Later, he would do research on the internet to discover he had cracked from the L3 or L2 vertebrae of his lumbar spine (lower) all the way up to the T6 or T5 vertebrae range of his thoracic spine (middle), becoming open to the idea that each of his vertebrae were labeled with numbers and letters, wondering if the rest of his joints were labeled, because if so, he could treat his body like a game of Connect-the-Dots, just with cracks instead of ink.

By the age of seven, the boy was Cracking pretty much all day aside from periods of non-cracking to let his joints fill with air, which he liked to imagine as bubbles filling each crevice of bone and tissue. The cracking, which started as a curiosity, had now—after the concept of pain, like human suffering level of psychic pain, which he begun to feel after his parent’s divorce—had now become an obsession. From the time he woke up, he had a routine of Cracking that he would cycle through. First, he started with the back. Supine, he would lift one leg over the other with his arms out and jerk back, twisting upward; this would cause a cracking sensation similar to the baseball stretching incident, a lineage of cracks, but sometimes only a deep thud or worse, no cracks, and he would feel a sense of tightness swelling in his back, which would mean that was a bad day. Next came each finger in six different ways, followed by each toe in three different ways; he found that his toes were harder to crack, because instead of having three joints like the fingers, the toes only had one—the interphalangeal joint. Lastly came the neck. Sitting up in bed, he didn’t crane his neck slowly, as some videos on Youtube had suggested. Instead, he whipped his ear towards his shoulder, getting a consistent slash of cracks on each side. When once witnessed by his mother at breakfast, she had said, “That looks like you’re going to snap your own damn neck.”

Which he did by the winter of that year.

The boy was now ten and after three crack-less years due to snapping his C2, C3, and C4 cervical vertebrae in his neck, he felt tight like all hell and ready and motivated to release every sac and joint that had filled with air and fluid since his accidental injury. Apart from the sullen days of recovery and times in which he could almost feel a part of himself dying inside from seeing his lonely mother float around the house like a ghost, the boy still remained hopeful that one day he could get to a point where he no longer felt the immense pressure build-up, the tightening and squeezing pain he routinely felt not just in his joints, but also in his mind and his heart, that one day, maybe if lucky, he would be able to finally crack and relieve that pressure from deep within and he could, if lucky, go back to how he felt when he first starting cracking, before the divorce, just a loose and curious boy with nothing but a field of happiness in which he could grow.

So, to get better at Cracking he began watching more YouTube videos titled, “Epic Cracks” for inspiration and within three months of having his neck cast off, he was back to cracking every vertebra and joint in his back, neck, fingers, and toes.

His mother, bless her big southern heart, started to get worried about the boy again when he would grow agitated at not being able to crack certain parts of himself. He would tantrum—crying, swinging fists, throwing his clothes off at a jammed knuckle that wouldn’t budge. She considered taking to him to see the town therapist to have her run some tests, as she saw all this cracking as a possible manifestation of some internal strife—what her mother, the boy’s grandmother, would call, “The Devil’s Innards.” But she was not her mother; she was more of her father that didn’t believe in the devil or the psychiatric arts, for that matter. Not to mention that she probably felt a little guilty for the so claimed internal strife for the epic meltdown that was her marriage. So, she let the boy fuss and pop and crack, figuring it was just a weird phase, like all young boys go through to navigate their world.

The Cracking seemed to mean more to the boy than just a routine or phase because over time he had learned how to contort himself in all strange ways to crack more and more advanced spots in his frail, thin body, as if the cracking itself, meaning the act of cracking and the short time in which he was relieved of tension, became his sole purpose for living, like he was living for the few minutes of relief at a time. He would snap his wrists back like he was revving a motorcycle for a good crack; twist his arms to crack his elbow and shoulder joints; spread his legs out in a horse stance and thrust his hip to each side until both flexors popped; spin his ankles like pinwheels; press his hands along his shins, forearms, ribcage, collar bones, and femurs looking for cracks; collapse his knees, tucking both legs underneath him, bounce until each gave the sound of victory. Craaaaaack. 

One night, after the boy had used his desk chair to dig into his lumbar spine for a few good cracks, the boy felt a strange new pressure in the center of his chest. It had felt like gas had seeped in and was causing him to feel bloated and tight. He felt that he needed to crack there. Unsure of how he could get it done, he first pressed his chest up against the side of his bed frame. Instead of a crack, the wooden post just dug into his sternum and made the pain worse. He then went over to his medicine ball and laid on his back and stretched while gently rolling back and forth, but the pressure just would not budge. Next, he thought he could press down each vertebra in his sternum using his thumb, the way he had discovered places to crack on the top of his foot. But, with each press, he felt more and more pain, until finally, in agitated surrender, the boy stretched his arms far-out and reached each behind his back with a jolt, until the tips of his fingers nearly touched in a Sistine-like way. Alas, a massive crack shuddered through his chest and released a wave of tingles through his ribs, up across his shoulder blades, and down his arms to his fingertips. He fell back onto the floor, frozen like a mannequin that had been pushed over. A wave of cold sensitivity rushed through him and soon he felt nothing, just stillness, free of pressure and tightness. He had done it; he had cracked his way into eternal bliss, never having to feel anything ever again.

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NOOSE TATTOO by Nick Farriella

When my uncle showed up at my door unexpectedly, he had a noose tattooed around his neck and carried a long rope bundled up in his hand. Over the few days he lived with me, he’d toss the rope over the counter when coming in the door. He’d sling it over his shoulder out in the yard when doing what he called, “Jailareobics;” propane tank bicep curls, cinder block shoulder presses, push-ups with his feet three stairs up. When I said, “Uncle Frank, what’s up with the rope?” He said something about casting his own judgment, that the rope was a reminder. “Reminder of what?” I asked. He lowered the collar of his shirt revealing that crazy tattoo.“That we’re born with our heads in the noose,” he said.On Monday, I called my dad and told him about Uncle Frank’s tattoo and that he’s carrying a six-foot rope around with him.“When did he get out?” He asked.“He just showed up on Saturday,” I said.“Keep an eye on him, will you?”“He even lies down with it stretched out next to him on the couch, like it’s a snake,” I told him. The next morning, I awoke to the smell of pork roll and heard it crackling in the pan. There was Uncle Frank, shirtless and completely tattooed, leaning over the stove, rope bound up like a scarf around his neck. He asked how I slept. I asked if he did at all. He held a can of beer in his left hand. It was 6:45 a.m.“Hey, I got the paper,” he said. “Read me the front page, will ya?”I read him the front page of the Times, some story about the governor getting locked up for tax fraud. He let out a manic laugh and said, “He’s not going where you think he is. He’s going somewhere with tennis courts.”“Is that where you were?” I asked.“No, no,” he said. “I was in a hole.”He clicked off the burner and scooped up the pork roll, egg, and cheese and slapped it on a split bagel on the counter. He took a sip from his beer then dropped the plate in front of me and said, “For you.” When I asked what he was having, he lifted his beer, smiled that jackrabbit insane smile, and said, “I’m good.” It was Tuesday. I had to call out of work from my late shift at the warehouse to give Uncle Frank a ride to a meeting with his parole officer. The meeting was at two o’clock, so we spent that morning digging trenches in the yard to lay some ties down. Frank wanted to make a garden. When he showed up a few days before, I didn’t know what to think. He was always carrying some unforeseeable hook with him, that came around when you didn’t expect it. Like this past Thanksgiving. He had disappeared all afternoon, missed the Giants game and everything. We started dinner without him. He turned up halfway through, burping and stinking of the bar. He told me to follow him out back, that he got something for me. It was a new Huffy mountain bike with shocks on the forks. He was so proud. The elation of the gift carried over into the living room where we watched the highlights of the game, ate pie, drank some beers. I thought things would be okay for a while. That maybe this time, he’d stay for good. Until there was a knock at the door and Uncle Frank fled to the basement like a dog in a storm. It was the cops. He had stolen the bike. They took him away with pie cream still on the cusp of his mustache. So when he turned up again, out of the blue, talking about building a garden in my backyard, carrying that long rope, I didn’t reject the idea that he might consider burying somebody in it. Near the George Street exit, Uncle Frank told me to pull over. He had the rope twisted around the entire length of his arm. I asked him what was the matter. He said that if he went to his PO meeting he was going to get locked up—he owed  $120 that he doesn't have and that they’re going to test him for alcohol, which would be like testing his lungs for air. I had a decision to make. His hands were shaking in his lap. I watched the panic rise in him and course through his veins up to his neck as he took quick short breaths. He squeezed the end of the rope with both hands.“Yeah, the noose is getting tighter,” he said. “I can feel it.”I didn’t know what to do. Trucks blew by us, making my car rattle. For some reason, in that moment I remembered something that my dad once told me about Uncle Frank. It was after my tenth birthday party. Someone stole all of the cards with the money in them. Everyone blamed my uncle because that’s the kind of guy they took him for. Tattooed, biker, drunk. After they accused him, he left the party, went to a bar, got roaring drunk, and laid down his motorcycle going 90 miles an hour on the turnpike. His handlebar ripped through his spleen. On the way to the hospital in my dad’s truck, he said, “My brother will be paying for his sins with his body for the rest of his  life.” That really stuck with me, cause every time he’d show up, he’d have a new injury to report; a bum knee, broken fingers, missing teeth. I never did tell my dad that a week after that, I found my birthday cards in my cousin Nicky’s car, with no cash in them. I think he had used my birthday money to shoot heroin. I decided to not drive Uncle Frank to his parole meeting. I said, fuck it. We kept going on Rt. 18 all the way to the shore. He turned up the radio, Black Sabbath was blaring. He drum rolled on the dash and let out dog calls. Ow Ow Owww! He even tossed the rope into the back seat. I thought maybe he had some sense of freedom back, which I felt pretty good for giving him. I couldn’t knowingly drive him to that meeting. It would have been like dropping him off at the prison gates.In Asbury Park, he asked me to stop at a liquor store. I said, cool, and asked if he needed money for some beers. He said, “You kidding? I’d never take money from my nephew.”He was in there a while, so I smoked a cigarette on the outside of my car and watched two crows walk along a telephone wire. They were the biggest crows I ever saw and they moved in unison. I had the feeling they were watching me. Perhaps, it was me feeling guilty for breaking the law and technically aiding a wanted criminal. I thought, what if the cops were able to use birds for intel? Just use some sort of chip that makes them follow and report crime. So, I looked up at them and flashed my middle fingers. I said, “Fuck you, crows.”My uncle rushed out of the liquor store with his hands in his pockets.“What, are you talking to birds now?” He said.We got back in the car. I put on my seat belt and backed out of my spot, looking both ways. Uncle Frank said, “A little urgency please.” It was then I realized the store clerk rushing towards us waving his fists in the air. I sped off.“Frank, what the fuck? You just rob that place?”“I borrowed,” he smirked, sliding a few tall boys of Natural Light and shooters of Jim Beam out of the inner lining of his denim jacket.We went to the beach and got drunk. The weather was shit since it was April, but it was nice to have it all to ourselves. Heavy clouds rolled over. The sea looked angry. The sun came in bursts; one minute it was there, the next it wasn’t and all was cold and gloomy. We sat near the jetty, drinking and smoking. Uncle Frank told me stories about his days with the Hells Angels, running guns and crank. What a life. I threw French fries at seagulls. It was the best damn day I ever had with him. I figured the memory of that day would stick forever. He was so much like that sparse sun, that when he came around, you had to appreciate the shine and warmth of his presence. He was kind of electric like that, full of energy. I told him that I felt pretty bad about not taking him to his meeting.“What’s going to happen next?” I asked.“Another warrant, probably.”“You know you can’t stay at my place anymore, right?”“I know. I never stay in any place for more than a few days, anyway. You take care of that garden.”I told him, I will.A strong wind came over the beach. It was bitter cold and whipped up sand in our faces. The problem with memory is that I’d like to imagine he was crying instead of wiping the sand out of his eyes, because if I saw some tears, that would have been an inkling to the sort of pain he was in. Instead, I couldn’t see shit, just sand.We drove back with the radio off. He kept to himself, not saying much, just staring out the window, watching the signs on the parkway blow past. I wondered what kind of movie was playing in his head. I hoped it was something nice, like those old westerns he used to love and make me watch. The ones where the bad guys always got away. I thought he would figure something out, he always had.He told me to drop him off at Edison Train Station, so I pulled right up to the awning to let him out. It was raining. He gave me a hug and told me to take care of myself. He said, “Thanks for a great day, nephew.” When he walked off, I rolled down the window and yelled, “Uncle Frank, you forgot your rope.”He said, “No I didn’t,” tapping the tattoo around his neck.” The next morning, I awoke to a phone call from my dad. He asked if I saw the news. It was all a blur from there. The family had a wake and a funeral and no one knew what to say. My aunts made up reasons for why and my cousins didn’t want to talk; they took shots of Jameson in the parking lot of the funeral home. That’s the thing about a suicide; it’s like a bomb that goes off in a family with shrapnel blowing through the rings of whoever was close enough to feel the blast. No one knows how to cope. The survivors are left removing shards of guilt and anxiety from what is left of their defenses, trying not to bleed out, with one lingering question: Why? I knew why. I told myself the noose around his neck got so tight, he felt like there were no other options. I always thought my uncle would be the type to chew through the rope, but the noose was a part of him all along, like the damn tattoo.After it was all over, I told my dad about our day at the beach. He said it wasn’t my fault.“I know,” I lied.Then I sat on the porch of my parent’s house, smoking cigarettes, and watching crows take off and land on a telephone wire. Nothing and everything had changed. 

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