ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

A journal for poetry, criticism, reviews, stories and essays published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998.


"Backless" by Nathan Leslie

—Maybe it’s an accident, Lucky says.

—There are no accidents.

Sven picks his nose, wipes his finger on Lucky’s hair.  Lucky punches Sven, kicks him in the shin.  Lucky rubs at his head with the cuff of his flannel.  The elbows are worn thin.  He can see his skin through the thin cotton material.  They both hate living in the gray box house with a cross-walk for a front yard, but Lucky hates it worse.  Sven was cut from the track and field team.  His father said he was fast.  Not fast enough.  Their father works three jobs—dishwasher, car mechanic’s helper, yard work on weekends.  Their mother works two—cleaning houses, waitressing.  Always working, always working.

—You know that stupid poem is about Satan, Sven says.  The stupid little room to hide in.  Don’t you see?  Sven chucks the book onto the checkered chair.  The beige stuffing puffs out of the holes like pus.

—Is not.  Like that poem.  My favorite one of them.

—It’s “Day Star,” idiot.  Mr. Nelson said in Latin that means Lucifer.  What do you think Lucifer means?  Mr. Nelson told us.

—Maybe it’s an accident.

—Go cry now, Sven says.  You know you want to.  Lucky is cutting the backs out of two three-quarter length shirts.  Their mother picked up a box from Goodwill last week.  They don’t think about shame.  Lucky only thinks about ways to get around doing the things they don’t want to do.  He considers that one thing in life he’s good at.

—There are so accidents, Lucky says.  Like names, where you’re born, who your parents are, who your numbskull brother is.  You don’t choose those, Lucky thinks.

Sven pushes his brother from the kitchen table onto the floor.  The glass of murky water spills.  The chair lands on top of Lucky’s leg.

—I guess you’re right.


—Aren’t you gonna fight back?  Why don’t you ever fight back?

Lucky lifts himself from the floor, rights the chair.  He pulls the hair out of his face.

—Just shut up, Lucky says.  Your stupid yap.

Lucky hands Sven a backless shirt and he puts it on and Lucky puts his on and they turn around and look at each other’s backs and they laugh and run around in circles in the kitchen to watch the cheap cotton flail.  If Lucky hadn’t already sniffed he wouldn’t be so into it, but he did.  That wasn’t an accident, Lucky thinks.

—Where is it?  Lucky points to the phone book under the papers and paper bags from Wendy’s and Taco Bell.  Sven pulls out the glue, takes off the cap, sticks his face into it.

—I feel like I’m getting dumber, Sven says.  But I really don’t fucking care.  I wish I could invent something.  I’m too lazy, I know it.

—You’re not lazy, Lucky says.

—I’m a lazy fuck, Sven says.  What do you think?  I don’t know a thing.  So are you.

Lucky pulls out two more numbered shirts from the cardboard box.  Eight and Fifteen.  One has yellow sleeves, another has green.  Lucky guesses a softball team donated their old jerseys.  The kitchen smells.  Like rotten eggs.  Like sour milk.  Like moldering potatoes.  Lucky wonders if a mouse died behind the refrigerator again.  That would make sense.

He goes up to the roof and plays the spoons.  Sven comes up later and watches.  The sun goes down just under the electric line.

When their mother comes home it’s ten p.m.  When their father comes home it’s midnight.  Lucky is usually in bed by eleven.

This night their mother comes up wearing a tiara surrounded by sprigs of plastic ivy.  They had a May Day celebration at Luke’s Grill.

—You look like a demented fairy, Sven says.  Lucky snorts.

—I’m a dryad, his mother says, removing the headgear.  What did you eat?

Sven shrugs.  She points to Lucky.

—How about you?

—Well, let me whip you up something then.  You can’t not eat dinner.

 —What about you?  Sven says.

 —I had grilled chicken, as usual.  And a salad, thanks for asking.

She puts frozen pot pies in the toaster oven and Lucky sits at the table listening to them sizzle.  Sven rests his head in the crook of his arm, casually playing a videogame.  Their mother hands them apple juice.

 —Am I ten?  Sven says.

 —You don’t know how old you are yet?  What do they teach you at school, hon?

Lucky is relieved she is home.  He reminds himself not to say a negative thing.  She doesn’t like the word “hate.”  She says she wants to live in a safe haven.

The pot pies are done. She serves them to Sven and Lucky.  They eat and their mother watches them eat.  Lucky feels wanted.  He sniffs and tells himself he won’t ever do another bad thing.  The look on Sven’s face is blank.  His videogame character is bashing a police officer’s head in with a baseball bat.  Sven’s fingers are moving quickly.

When their father finally comes home he flips on the television and Lucky watches him.  Lucky fingers the carpet and re-reads “Daystar.”  He still doesn’t see evil in the poem.  It’s just about a woman and her life, how she needs to find alone time.  It is what it is.

Lucky’s father looks shorter than he used to.  His face is thinner.  His skin looks yellow.  His stomach is oddly round, as if he swallowed a watermelon whole.

 —Hey kid, he says.  Lucky watches his father pour himself a vodka tonic and then down it.  Then he pours himself another and downs that.

 —Didja eat already?  Lucky asks.

 —Yeah, I ate.

 —Whatdja eat?

His father looks at Lucky, through him really.  Lucky can feel his father’s eyes boring into his face, searching for a secret.  Lucky’s father isn’t an angry man, but he can be stern.  He can bristle.  Sven is asleep on the couch.  Lucky’s mother is upstairs reading an article about the French Riviera; he can hear her flip the pages of the travel magazine.  Lucky can’t remember the last time they went on a family vacation.  Maybe they never did.

 —I ate food, what did you eat?

Lucky knows that’s a question he shouldn’t answer.  His father opens a bag of potato chips and begins to eat them.  He doesn’t offer any to Lucky.

His father leans back on the recliner, looks at Sven and rubs his forehead.  He flips the channels for several minutes, the room changing from green to blue to red to white.  His father finally settles on Sportscenter.  Lucky closes his school book, stands up.  As he walks to his room he pats the back of his father’s recliner.  The chair bobbles just a bit.  Lucky doubts if his father even notices.  He realizes he’s still wearing his backless shirt.  Glancing over his shoulder he glimpses his naked back.  Nobody says a thing about it.


Nathan Leslie’s seven books of short fiction include Madre, Believers and Drivers. He is also the author of Night Sweat, a poetry collection. His first novel, The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice, was published by Atticus Books in 2012. His next collection of short stories, Sibs, will be published by Aqueous Books in the spring. His short stories, essays and poems have appeared in hundreds of literary magazines including Boulevard, Shenandoah, North American Review, South Dakota Review, and Cimarron Review. He was series editor for The Best of the Web anthology 2008 and 2009 (Dzanc Books) and edited fiction for Pedestal Magazine for many years. He is currently the fiction editor for Newport Review. His website is

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