The complete and fully searchable archive of ZYZZYVA’s 26 years of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and art is coming soon. We’re working hard behind the scenes to make the entire archive available right here, free of charge. In the meantime, we hope you’ll enjoy browsing through these selections from our back issues.

‘Stealth’ by Etan Nechin, ZYZZYVA No. 106, Spring/Summer

Just around the time of my tenth birthday, I got a gas mask. In fact, everybody did.

My dad and I went to the collection point to bring them home. He signed a few papers, gave his ID, and we picked them up from the woman near the exit. She was wearing a gray uniform that made her look tired and bored, and it probably was boring sitting in a classroom all day handing out gas masks to people she didn’t care about.

Each mask came in a big brown box that my dad told me not to open unless the guy on the news with the large tinted glasses said so, but as we came into the house he opened one of the boxes so we could all see it for a moment. It was black and big, had two large openings for the eyes and had a new car smell, only more personal. Then he stored the masks on one of the shelves in his large concave studio, tucked in with the glass, wooden palates, rocks, and tools. After that, we had some cake.

I wanted to be the one who put the masks away, but I couldn’t because I was barefoot and shards of glass were strewn all over. And besides, he told me a studio was no place for a kid, only for men. The other thing that defined that period of my life apart from getting a gas mask is that I truly believed that all people were artists: all men had large concaved studios where they would listen to the radio or have friends come over to sip mint tea with leaves picked straight from the garden and served in cracked porcelain cups that they found at the flea market at the end of the day when vendors just wanted to get rid of their merchandise.

All the men I knew were artists, and all the old women chain-smoked long-stemmed menthol cigarettes and cursed and gave out stale candies. I believed everybody was a painter or an actor, sculptor, stained-glass artist, and potter because those were all my friends’ parents and all the people I knew, or my parents knew, which meant I knew by association. I was never allowed to sit in the studio and draw or write or play with toys, only deliver messages from my mom, although sometimes she would just go out to the front door and yell, and he would yell back, especially around dinnertime.

Every day I would take the school bus from the village to the comprehensive school where I met a lot of kids whose parents didn’t live in my village, but for me they were artists nonetheless. My friend Dan’s father was an artist who grew bananas, and the mother of the girl I was in love with, Naomi, was an artist who spoke with other people about their feelings. And Nimrod, the kid with the green-gleaming football shirt, had a dad who was an artist, but nobody knew what he did or where he was.

At recess we would all huddle in the corner on the far side of the soccer field. It was getting to be winter so we collected old blocks and made impromptu chairs for our little gang. Shmaya would take out his heavy worn sticker album and show everyone his latest acquisitions. I didn’t have an album but I did have a bunch of stickers that I would put on my notebook or the tape deck that my Uncle David gave to me when he came to visit from the States.

The stickers came in packets of four, with a piece of gum that had the color, and taste, of an eraser. All around the school you would see them lying on the pavement, waiting to be stepped on by an unsuspecting teacher or student.

That day Shmaya revealed his biggest find yet—it was General Schwarzkopf, standing in front of large screens, adorned in medals, smiling bullishly. His complexion was a dead green due to the faded, cheap façade of the sticker and it reminded me of how Iraq appeared on TV.

“What did you trade for it?” Ruvie asked.

“Two Russian Mig 21s, a Reo truck, two English Tornadoes, and James Baker.”

“You overpaid,” Ruvie glazed over us with a haughty look of a savvy auctioneer, “by a James Baker.”

Shmaya looked straight at him, unimpressed.

“Yalla yalla. As of now, I’m the only one in this school with a Schwarzkopf, and I already have a two James Baker’s at home. AND, the last time I saw your album, you didn’t have either.”

Ruvie seethed. “Well, my brother’s friend has all the collection and he’s much older that you and he said he can get more. So I’ll get mine in no time.”

Observing their little sticker-arms-trade tête–à–tête, I wondered how much James Baker was worth in the United States, where my uncle lived, and if nobody would trade planes for him, what would people do with all those stickers of him.

Ruvie scurried off, stomping through the damp field towards the class on the other side. We flipped through the album which was filled with airplanes, generals, tanks and politicians but in the middle of it there was a large gaping hole, a void so big, it eclipsed everything else one could get—even Saddam Hussein.

It was the Holy Grail of the sticker collection: the American Stealth Bomber.

Shiny and sleek, its amorphous, polygonal shape divulged some of its mystique. A chimera-like entity, the missing Stealth sticker loomed over the album, oppressive in its absence. It was a real piece of art, like those black and red steel sculptures you see in public gardens. My mother called those sculptures “kinetic”—my mom was an artist who taught art to the kids at my school. She didn’t make art, instead talked about it in long stirring words that seemed to me as beautiful as the pictures in the art books strewn throughout her classroom.

In this piece of art there was an artist who flew the plane all the way from Maryland or Pittsburgh or Huntington, West Virginia to Baghdad, but nobody has ever seen one, Shmaya told me. He was talking about the plane, not the sticker, even though we scoured the skies—and the local grocery stores.

The next day, on the bus to school all of us was staring through the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of the planes flying to Iraq.

“I saw one!” Yoni yelled.

“It’s just a cropper,” Ruvie said.

“I’m pretty sure it was a Mirage,” Yevgeni said.

“I’m pretty sure you don’t know what you’re talking about,” Yoni retaliated.

The bus weaved its way across the field roads and dropped us off and we spilled like paratroopers from the door, jumping one by one on to the curb.

Nobody was still or silent during history lesson. The excitement of things to come was too palpable. We passed notes to each other, some were about the planes, some were about the fact that Sigal was now officially Yakir’s girlfriend, some were about how the lesson was boring and how Ms. Gilat always smelled like stewed lentils.

Napoleon and his army was nothing compared with a band of countries fighting in Iraq: America, England, France, Denmark, and Australia allied to topple one man.

Just as the ruckus was threatening to topple Ms. Gilat, the classroom door swung open and a man in a khaki uniform came into the room.

We all hushed up immediately.

“Kids, this is Sergeant Druker. He came to the school to go over what you need to do in case of a missile attack.”

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‘Hotel Bar’ by Ruth Madievsky, ZYZZYVA No. 106, Spring/Summer

Somewhere a dog is eating chicken bones
from a trash can, picking at
the gristle, the shards of bone
sharp enough to conquer
an intestine, and somewhere a liver cell
is dividing too quickly,
the palm of a hand
is meeting the face of a child
and I don’t know why that’s happening, why
the sound of flesh
against flesh is so satisfying,
the way taking off your bra
at the end of the day is satisfying, the unhook
and the exhale, the whole enterprise
pulled out through the sleeve
and tossed onto the bed or tossed
at the person in the bed,
and somewhere a person is in bed
with her mother,
who is crying because she can’t
lie in bed with her mother,
and somewhere a grandmother lives in a wall,
doing whatever it is
that people who live in walls do, and I wonder
if that’s similar
to what people who live
in the ground do, and how that’s similar
or different from what
people who are ash
do, and somewhere a man
who feels like ash all the time
is dragging a grocery cart
through the spice aisle,
and somewhere a woman
who fantasizes about leather
is pulling chicken bones
from a dog’s throat, speaking the shared
language of suffering,
all those silent syllables
flickering between them
like so many lightning bugs, like embers
from a fire someone’s boyfriend
is stoking
before returning to bed
and going down on the person in the bed,
whose body is like a hotel bar,
offering heat and darkness and
liquors that taste different
depending on the day, the time,
the person removing
the stopper, and somewhere
a woman is taking a break
from singing
into despair’s microphone,
and somewhere a man isn’t waxing the floors
of his self-loathing, his wrists
intact, the amber vial
still married to its childproof cap,
a song without words
on the radio, enough tea leaves
for a second cup.

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‘Amboise’ by Ariel Dorfman, ZYZZYVA No. 106, Spring/Summer

Somebody beat me to it, somebody else had killed himself first. That’s the first thing that I thought, God help me, when the loudspeaker at the Gare d’Austerlitz announced that train service had been interrupted indefinitely due to an accident caused by “une personne,” someone, male, female, old, young, no matter, someone of whatever sex and whatever age and who was not me had committed suicide on the tracks somewhere south of Paris.

Not that the announcement specified what sort of accident, not even a mention of suicide or even the location, but I knew right away, seated snuggly with Lucy in our second class compartment waiting for the train to leave the cold, grey station, I knew how it must have been, I saw the scene. I had imagined myself that very afternoon, that very evening, probably late at night when Lucy was asleep and I was all alone, and the oncoming train in Amboise rushing into the station and the last split second of saying you fool, you stupid fool—or maybe, if luck would have it, at last, at last, at last, whispering those goodbye words. Later, as the day progressed, we would learn more about the circumstances of the incident, I didn’t tell my wife that I had guessed the details of that death, I wasn’t going to give her even a hint of my plans or my dark thoughts, I wasn’t going to let her stop me, not this time. Even to say, it must have been a suicide, even that, would have alerted her.

Instead we chatted about the consequences of the delay: if the train was en retard for more than two hours we would miss the connection in Orleans, we would not arrive at Amboise in time to catch the 14:45 bus to Chenonceau.

“Maybe we can go somewhere else today, we’re already packed,” Lucy said brightly. “And then try again tomorrow.”

But tomorrow wouldn’t do. It would be raining—did that matter, rain, shine, does anything like that really matter if you’re going to kill yourself? Yes, it does, it did matter that the sun should be out in all its glory in Chenonceau—and as for somewhere else, it was to that chateau I needed to take her, that one and no other one, today and no other day. Tomorrow I wouldn’t be alive.

“Giverny,” Lucy said. “We’ll take the Metro to Saint-Lazare and go see the Monet gardens. And sleep there—my sister said there’s a cute little bed and breakfast just down the road from the gardens—and then tomorrow we’ll be back here at Austerlitz. By then they’ll have fixed whatever happened and Amboise will still be there and the chateau’s not going to move now, is it, your parents wouldn’t care which day we visit, right?”

I was too depressed to argue with her. It had taken all my strength to plot that day’s trip, all my cunning to keep the latest bad news from her for the last week, all my resilience to just find out each train and each bus and opening hours and closing hours and the right hotel at the right price, as if this were an ordinary outing and not the final one for me, and if we didn’t go today, if one more thing went amiss, just one more, I wouldn’t have the will power to go through with my death, that’s how disheartened I felt.

So I just sat there.

She waited for me to say something, anything, but I just sat there, smiled wanly, in what I hoped was a reassuring way.

She reached across the compartment and took my hand in both of hers and pressed hard and lifted each finger to her lips and gave each tip a kiss. I loved it when she did that. Loved it but couldn’t help thinking that my fingers still had, would always have, the smell of hospital and medicine no matter how hard I scrubbed my nails each morning. Not all the soap in the world …

“It’s going to be alright, Leo,” she said.

But it wasn’t. For the last week I had known it wasn’t going to be alright and the damn train was stopped and I was such a useless piece of dying flesh and had such bad luck that I couldn’t even manage to kill myself on schedule.

“I’m going to find out how long this will take,” she said.

“I can go,” I said, but I let her bustle off and stayed behind, nursed my energy like a fire in winter. Her French was not as good as mine, but she managed to charm strangers and bureaucrats as I could not. They didn’t seem to mind her accent or occasional grammatical lapses. Her smile, her open face, her eyes, her eyes.

For the tenth time that morning I looked at the information I had jotted down about the train and the bus and the chateau itself. Not that I needed to know much about Chenonceau. If there was one place in the world few people had heard of but that was marked in my memory and my heart from the youngest age, it was Chenonceau.

“What’s so special about it?” It was a question I had kept asking Mom, or maybe it was my dad, or at least that’s how I remembered starting each conversation about that chateau. “What could be so special that you decided to have a child there, that you decided that it was worth while bringing me into the world? In that one place of all places?”

“One day,” she answered, or maybe it was Dad, we spoke about it so often that all those conversations mingle in my mind like blood seeping into mud, “one day you’ll marry and then you must take your wife there. Promise me—une promesse solennelle—that before your time is over on this earth—” it must have been my mother’s words I’m remembering because she always spoke like that, operatically, with lyrical and precise French emphasis—“promise me that you will take her there, mon fils, to Chenonceau where both of us said, your father and me, we said it simultaneously, Leo, we told each other in the same breath, let’s have a baby, both of us, while we watched the river flow under the arches of the chateau.”

Chenonceau made you, she said, and not only because of that day when I visited it with your father. Chenonceau started you, that’s what she told me. Both of them seated in the garden—the larger one, designed by Diane de Poitiers, the garden with the fountain in the middle that she would never again see once her lover, king Henri II, died, and Diane was exiled by Catherine de Medicis—that’s where they had turned to each other, my French mother and my American father, with the Cher passing by silently and the cries of children in awe as they saw the Renaissance castle straddling the river and the overgrown forest behind it where salvation lay one moonless night years earlier and the fairy-tale setting, my mother and my father had chosen to fight despair and have me, or someone like me—and call him Leonardo if it was a boy and Leonarda if it was a girl, because they conceived me that night in the town of Amboise, thirteen kilometers from Chenonceau, Amboise by the Loire where Da Vinci had died, where his bones were buried in the castle overlooking the town.

A good place to die.

Except my timetable, the closing of the circle, had been screwed up by someone who had beat me to it, had taken his life—I imagined it to be a man, but younger than me—on the railroad tracks, no poison, no pills, no gunshot wound, no drowning, nothing left to chance, just let the locomotive and the steel do all the work.

“Come on, Leo, let’s go.”

Lucy was back with the news that someone had committed suicide in Choissy-le-Roi and the secours team was on its way. She had managed to wheedle out of the inspector on the quay his calculation that it would be at least three hours before any trains could depart. “I asked him if this is a frequent occurrence, and he shook his head and said more often than you would expect. Souvent, hélas.”

“Did he say anything more about who it was, sex, age, anything?”

“He didn’t say, maybe doesn’t know, maybe he’s just being discrete. But the point, Leo, is we can’t stick around here all day, just waiting. If your information is correct—”

“It’s in the tour book and I called and they confirmed and—”

“Well then, we should get going. Look, the Gare de l’Est is just across the river, fifteen minutes’ walk, I can pull the rollaway if that tires you out. We’ll take a suburban train to Crécy-la-Chapelle. I went there when I was an exchange student. It’s a lovely medieval town, with moats and canals, cobbled streets, great brie cheese made on site, and the Église Saint-Georges, everything untouched by time. Except it has all the modern conveniences. And it’s only an hour or so from Paris.”

“Isn’t that close to Disneyland?”

“Visitors get to Disneyland from the Gare du Nord, so we won’t be bothered by that sort of people.”

It was useless discussing the matter. She had made up her mind and the only way for me to change it was to tell her outright, listen, I’m staying here on this stupid train because I need to kill myself today, tonight, sneak out as soon as you’re asleep, and I can’t do it until I’ve kept my promise, taken you to see the chateau where my mom and my dad shared the imbecilic idea of having a baby, so please just sit here with me and make my last moments less miserable.

Out of the question. Instead, there I was, one of my hands in hers and the other rolling behind me our small black overnight bag, there I was, joining the straggling stream of despondent passengers who had come to the same conclusion, the day was fucked, the train was not leaving, time to make other plans, there I was, bowing to my fate, when Lucy stopped. “Wait, wait. Hand me the tickets. We need to have the inspector stamp them so they can be used again tomorrow.”

Another ten minutes while we waited for the man—he was clean-shaven, with eyes as friendly as they were small and wore his cap with satisfaction, pronouncing each word meticulously, with a slight melody—we waited for him to wrap up his conversation with a gaggle of voyagers who were demanding explanations, hoping that he was wrong and that the delay was temporary. He was very methodical, needed to stamp each ticket people deposited in his care, write something on the margins, consult his watch to verify the exact hour, minute, second, write something else.

“Let’s just go.” I nudged Lucy a bit. “Please. Let’s just get the hell out of here.” Now that everything was going sour, I wanted to escape the station, the site of my defeat—like a general who refuses to stay a minute longer in the building where he has signed his rendition.

“It’s our turn now, Leo.”

I watched her hands as they moved in the air like birds, remembered her hands on my back when I had been able to make love to her, couldn’t keep my eyes off those fingers, didn’t even realize it when the inspector had finished his stamping and signing and verifying, just felt relieved when one of those hands of hers took mine again as if I were a child and we shuffled off in the direction of the Seine and the Jardin des Plantes and the Gare de l’Est.

I needed a café crème, I needed it desperately—Clyde had said I shouldn’t, that coffee was really bad for me, but what did I care what was good or bad for my body, what debt did I owe to a body that had betrayed me with such malicious efficiency?, all doctors, including Clyde, should rot in hell—I could see the colorful awnings of the cafés opposite the Gare d’Austerlitz and Parisians already seated outside in the dapple of sunshine through the elms, we were almost outside the station when an announcement came over the loudspeakers.

Service was being resumed! Dans l’instant. Immediately.

We looked at each other, Lucy and me, we looked at each other just as my parents had done so many decades ago that golden afternoon at Chenonceau, we thought the same thought, we smiled at each other—my first real smile in a week—and wheeled ourselves around and rushed back through the station, hoping the train had not left, that the nice inspector would give us and so many others the time to clamber on board and be on our way.

It was only when we had breathlessly settled in our seats, this time side by side, not across from each other—they were still there, the seats, as if they knew we would return, as if to tell us that they had not given up on this trip!—it was only when the train had shuddered into a start and then a glide and then a heavenly whoosh, only then that I remarked to myself how bizarre that I should feel such exhilaration at the fact that I was managing to board a train that would allow me to kill myself, that I was happy because I was going to die.

“You see, Leo?” Lucy said. “You see how everything is going to be alright?”

“Yes,” I said.

“You see? If we hadn’t taken so long in leaving, if we hadn’t waited for the inspector to stamp our tickets, well, we’d have been on our way to the Gare de l’Est and Crécy-la-Chapelle. It’s like a little Venice and you’d have liked it, but I know you so much want me to see Chenonceau and Amboise and the Loire.”

“Yes,” I said, “I do want to take you there.”

We didn’t talk more during the hour or so it took to get to Orleans, merely basked in each other’s presence, the warmth of her body by my side, almost making me forget why I was going on this trip, what awaited me at the end of it.

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‘Who Will Help the Queen of the Rodeo?’ by Ron Carlson, ZYZZYVA No. 106, Spring/Summer

We hit a pheasant just outside of Myton. The ditches were choked with tall grass and he jumped up right into our windshield and bounced all the way across the road. He woke both the kids and left a lightning crack in the glass top to bottom. There was no traffic in the cloudy afternoon and I loped back and found him and wrapped him in one of the clean rags in the toolbox after showing him to Mickey and Doris. I had all the summer gear roped into the back of the truck, both bikes and some new lawn furniture along with our gear. We all felt bad, but he was a wonder. “Now, we have to cook him for dinner,” I told them. “Like a chicken.” I clipped one brilliant tail feather to the visor in the old Chevy.

“Should we pray for him,” Doris asked.

“Yes,” I told her. “We will.”

I had both car seats on the front seat and Mickey reached his hand out toward the crack in the windshield.

“It’s OK,” I told him. “It was broken last year, too, remember?”

The glass was unbroken about half the year. Mostly, I got it blistered with stars from the chip seal road work they did every summer on the other side of the lake. The town of Windchime was crazy for those pebbles. You could not go slow enough up there; there was always some character in his tool truck coming your way going forty.

We drove through Myton, past the old fort which is now a repair garage, and on through the desert to Givemore where we stopped at The Showtown for groceries. The big ranch town has a Kmart and a Walmart as you enter, but we always stopped at Showtown to get the first month’s groceries. It was owned by one of our neighbors up at the lake, Dalton Pace, who also was the butcher. Touring that old store was a once a year enterprise when we filled the cart over the top with great loads of every possible thing. Dalton was at the meat counter and saw us coming. “Up for the summer,” he said. “Good to see you.”

The kids looked at him leaning against the glass case with his bloody apron and I said, “It’s Mr. Pace from the log cabin.” His place was a deluxe log home always varnished brightly with a log outbuilding, a workshop I envied. There were always two or three ATV s in the yard.

“You twins,” he said. “Hi, kids.”

They stood there, students of the carnal display, and sometimes I worried about how measured and shy they were, but now Doris raised her hand in a wave and then Mickey waved.

“We’re going to get those fish this year,” I told him. “Aren’t we, kids?”

They weren’t sure, but finally they nodded.

I ordered up two books of his hand-cut bacon and several packages of the ground chuck and six rib eyes. I told him about our pheasant, and he used his big crayon to write out a recipe for me with cooking instructions and gave me a baggie of seasoning.

“We killed a bird,” Doris said, sober as the king’s magistrate.

“And he’s going to be delicious,” Dalton said. “Are you coming down to the rodeo tomorrow?”

“I want to go to the rodeo,” Mickey said. “I want to see the horses.” We had spent two hours last summer at the little tiny roundup at Windchime.

Dalton Pace fished in his shirt pocket and pulled out rodeo tickets and handed them over.

“Mindy is queen this year.” He smiled. We’d known his daughter since she was six or seven; he had three.

“Who’s the king?” Doris said.

“The king,” he laughed.

“I’m not sure there is a king,” I said.

“The parade’s at noon,” he told us, giving me now all our wrapped parcels, and a wrapped brick of dry ice for the cooler. “They’re having an auction at the old office in the afternoon,” he told me. “We’re moving to the new grounds; there’s a new building there. You may want to come over, Mike. They’re selling the typewriters and going to computers. A rodeo with computers. It had to happen.”

I started to roll away and the kids stood still judging the man. “I’ll see
you tomorrow,” he said. “Look for the clown in the red tuxedo.”

They stared, my little jury. “Say goodbye,” I said. I loved saying that because I knew there would come a day when my life would not need such instructions. You tell your children to say goodbye. You sit with them and their shoes and you say, “Other foot,” while they’re thinking something you’ll never know. I was saying “Other foot,” less and less.

I called Annie from the payphone in front of Grinders, the funky coffeeshop downtown, because it was one of her favorite places when we came to town once a week. She was still at the office and was hoping to clear the case she was working on by noon tomorrow and drive up in her car.

“Go through town and meet us at the rodeo,” I said. “It starts at seven.”

“Oh, I hope I can finish,” she said. “How’s everybody?”

“The adventure has begun,” I told her. “We’re having pheasant for dinner.”

She knew immediately what had happened. “Use the electric skillet,” she told me. “It has a lid in the drawer under the stove.”

“I miss you,” I told her. “We miss you already.”

“I should have been a teacher,” she said. “If this deal traps me in town one more day, I’ll regret it.”

“You should have,” I told her. “You could have figured out the Spanish American War better than I have. But you’re a magnificent lawyer. Teach those guys right and wrong.” It was an old joke about the paperwork associated with water rights litigation.

“Be careful driving up that mountain, and have a good time.”

“See you tomorrow, “I said. “Don’t bring your valise. We learned that last year.”

 

In the cab of the truck Mickey had climbed out of his car seat and was running his fingers along the crack in the windshield. I buckled him in and we drove up the old canyon highway through the red rocks and up into the pines, alert for deer in the gloomy afternoon.

The kids were sleeping when we turned onto the dirt track along the lake front and I crept through the forest there, all the new six-foot spruce and jack pine lining the road. The beetle had killed the old growth and now the forest was coming back. When I steered us onto the lane of our driveway it was grassy and the truck was silent as I parked the vehicle alongside the old woodpile.

I left the kids sleeping and went around and found three deer in the meadow. The grass around the cabin was tall and I could see two deer beds in the treeline beside the fireplace wall. The old heavy door worked easily and I propped it open and went in waving away the webs. It was a feeling every time, entering the old place, the fine smokey smell and everything where we had put it last August. I opened the back door and all the blinds and I rolled the mower out beside the house and turned on the electricity. I washed the wagon wheel tabletop and closed the fridge and turned off the taps. Going outside again to turn on the water, in the valve box I’d dug, I saw the truck door swing open and two little legs slid onto the ground.

“Dad,” Doris said. “Mickey’s still sleeping.” She came over to me taking big steps in the new world. “Well, we’re here again. Let the summer begin,” she said, princess of the manor. “Dad, look, look, the deer.”

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‘Last Dance’ by Lou Mathews, ZYZZYVA No. 106, Spring/Summer

The old lady next door is having a birthday and she thinks I should come to the party at the Community Center. That’s what they call the gymnasium at Coma Park now. It still smells like a gym to me. That old lady is turning seventy-five, and I guess that she thinks I should forgive and forget because she’s now old and venerable. That was the word her friend the priest, Amadeo, used to describe her when he invited all parishioners to her birthday party: “a venerable member of our congregation.” Socorro said she puffed up like a bird on a cold morning when the priest said that. What I say is that Anita Espinosa has been a cabróna for a lot longer than she has been old, and I would know. She’s been my neighbor for almost fifty years. She is three years younger than I am, but she’s always been older. When she and her husband, Lorenzo, moved next door, she and my wife, Josie, got to be friends, and I liked Lorenzo. I knew him better than his own wife did, and I still liked him. Lorenzo was a paving contractor and to get the city jobs he also had to pave the way with the politicians. He knew a lot of bartenders and whores, but he usually made it to Mass on Sunday and that was enough for Anita. She was religious, and Lorenzo pretended to be, so she thought they were happy until he died.

Josefina died long before Lorenzo did. A couple of years after Josie died, I remembered I was a man and I brought some girlfriends home and that was when Anita started causing me trouble. The old ladies at Cristo Rey started giving me the mal ojo and even at Las Quince Letras I heard about the chisme she was spreading about me. Then that Filipino priest, Amadeo, came up to me after Mass, right in front of everybody like I had asked for his help. He said he hadn’t seen me at church lately. I told him maybe he hadn’t been looking hard enough and then he asked me if I was experiencing doubts about my faith. I said, doubts? He said, yes, doubts about faith and life and was I in need of counsel. I said, no, not at all. I said that every day I thanked the God who had provided me with the fruit of the vine and the joys of women, which made him blush, so I knew for sure where that question had come from.

I talked to Lorenzo about it and he said he would talk to Anita but he never did or she didn’t listen, so our friendship dried up. The bad news she spread about me kept reaching my ears so I stopped going to church and planted a Eugenia hedge between our houses and let it grow up.

When Lorenzo died and they read the will it turned out he left some money to educate a couple of kids that Anita didn’t know about. She made some novenas and ignored her own greedy children who wanted to contest the will and then she joined the church full-time. It was sad. She was only in her fifties and still a good-looking woman, but she put on the black rebozo and mantilla and started to shrink. You could see the hump grow on her back, and her shoulders reaching up for her ears. I still said hello to her when I saw her at Lupe’s store or on the street, and I was always polite and friendly right up until the time she was going off to Mass about six in the morning and she saw my friend Socorro leaving my house on her way to work. Socorro is a good woman and a hardworking woman. She tends bar at Las Quince Letras and works the morning shift at IHOP because she’s a widow and has three kids, and sometimes out of kindness she also tends to me and that was her mistake according to Anita. Socorro nodded and said, “Buenos dias,” and Anita hissed and said, “Sinvergüenza!” That was like calling her a whore. I stopped being polite after that. I wouldn’t talk to her and I fertilized and watered the hell out of that Eugenia hedge.

The comforts of the Church for old women like Anita will carry them a long way, as long as they are healthy. But sometimes, the promise of heaven isn’t enough to overcome the pain of this earth. Anita started to feel a lot of pain in her bones and in her joints. I could see that pain when she hobbled down the sidewalk. I know that walk. I walk the same way. When the pain of the arthritis got too bad and the Church’s comfort wasn’t enough, she remembered what her mother and her grandmother had done and started brewing yerba buena and marijuana tea. I knew that because I saw the marijuana growing up in the middle of her corn. When she started brewing that tea, Anita almost became a real person again. She would smile once in a while and tap her feet to music and not go to church every day and she started to cook again.

That was the one thing she did better than anyone in Shaky Town, even better than Josefina, who was a great cook. She had a touch with tamales that couldn’t be explained. She did two kinds, pork in a red sauce with citron, and chicken with green chile and Oaxacan cheese and herbs, and both of them would float off the plate and into your mouth, they were so light and flavorful.

She started cooking them for the church and they would sell out so fast that Amadeo raised the price on them from two to an unheard of three dollars. They still sold out and fistfights started in the waiting lines, and then Jacob Silverman, the food guy for the L.A. Times, wrote about them. Anita got to be respected for those tamales and what I said to anyone who would listen was, good for her. Shaky Town didn’t need any extra prayers from old ladies, the ones we already got haven’t done much, but those tamales made a difference. Anita made them for the church still, but she did some catering, too, to save up money for her big birthday. I wasn’t going to church anymore but my niece, Dulcie, would buy tamales for me after Mass. Anita knew somehow. Maybe she looked through my trash out at the curb and saw her knot on the corn husks, or smelled them on my breath when I walked by her house, or someone from Kelsoe’s Roundhouse or Las Quince Letras repeated what I said about those tamales, but she knew and she started to tell Dulcie that Don Emiliano didn’t have to buy his tamales at the church, if he wanted some just to leave a note in her mailbox and she would leave them on the porch on Sunday. Because even if I hadn’t talked to her except to say buenos dias or buenas tardes in quite a while, I had been a good neighbor and a good friend to her Lorenzo.

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‘Letter to Galway From Tahoe’ by Heather Altfeld: ZYZZYVA No. 105, Winter Issue

Dearest Galway, I hardly got to know you, but when I am sad
I write to my poets, as Hugo did, although his poets, generally speaking,
still required postage, and here you are months dead.
Still, for all we know down here, the dead like mail as much as the living,
and maybe you wait each day on a freshly painted porch for a delivery
just before heading out to a café to read the first crop of poems
from the place you now reside, the first of your newly made things,
no doubt bringing the dead as beautifully as you brought us
to the last hiding places of their tears. Because what I did know of you
was how generous you were with your time, I feel I can talk to you from here,
that you would be willing to press the shell of your hand to your ear
for a few minutes to listen.
Do you remember when you sat with my Lucy,
who came to you with her notebook? You were her first poet.
She was nine, and wanted to hear the Oatmeal poem again,
so you wrote a bit of it in her journal and took her hand and bent down to whisper
something in her ear which she still has never told me, she said it was your secret.
She is here elfing muffins before daybreak, a vision of elfinhood, cheerful and dreamy,
half the time pretending she doesn’t know me. Now she has her own important secrets.
I turn to you because I think you were one of the ones a little like me,

for whom terror and beauty were like the green languages of birds
we longed to interpret, and felt, if we could not do so,
that we had failed. I feel as though our ears heard sadness
just a little more strongly over the din,
that we saw it as our job to know it a little better, to bear it, to sing it,
to make some kind of walking peace with it.
Galway, I feel as though I were born to a race of grievers.
The first time it rose up in me, I was five, lying on my Snoopy sleeping bag,
reading the ending of Charlotte’s Web over and over, so that Charlotte died,
over and over, so I could keep crying—
it was the first time I had learned I could call up such sadness in myself,
and it seemed to be endless, a wrenching, fulfilling bottomlessness.
It turns out I was never much good at anything else.
My parents begged me to be a doctor.
At least in all of the ways that they did not know me,
they saw my aptitude for hearing pain.
Long ago they held my small body up to the light
and saw each of the bones and muscles in my hands glowing a magical pink,
and they wanted to count me among the other fine-coated ones, and say,
That’s our girl! She can find what ails you and fix it!
They wanted to tell others that I could read stitches right to left like Torah,
they wanted me to build a home of the shiny coins I would earn
charting the last breath of a patient.
But the first time I saw a corpse
and watched them wash her frozen body in a ritual bathing,
and saw how completely the body shuts in the end—
the kidneys frozen,
the heart frozen,
the bony arms frozen,
the pinky toe just defrosting under the hard light,
it reminded me all too much of the frailty I will endure sooner or later in my life
the way when I saw you last, your hands revealed how very delicate you had become,
how much more delicate you could become.
One doctor said he had seen a field of bedsores express sorrow
more deeply than any words or songs he had ever heard.
Bedsores. I was not born with this sort of fortitude.
It was not the address pinned to my blouse at birth.
So I went onward, searching everywhere for something I could do,
some way into the world that did not ooze or weep, and found myself
trying to be an anthropologist. Here, I was one distance removed from grief,
one valley away from the body direct; it was my job to chronicle
the days and griefs of others. I could learn the lost language of Yahi,
walk the footsteps of the Olduvai gorge to see how the others had walked before us.
I could study the Gisaro of the Kaluli in New Guinea,
whose ceremonies of sorrow chase human sadness into the bodies of birds
who lift and depart through the forest on their wings.
But this was even worse, tender sleeper, than medicine;

no surgery could save any of it, the annihilation so much more complete.
Did you know from the beginning that poetry was going to be your home?
Poetry is what was left when every other made thing failed me.
Grief, I am still learning, is everywhere, from sonnets to bedsores
from the Krakovian crypts to the nests of the Kahuli
it is in the doddering dirge of the Truckee that has become so sleepy this year
that it seems to have forgotten its velocity to live.
What rhyme can I make that will call the snow to flurry out of the sky for us?
What word will call the world to fill buckets with our tears
we can carry to the edge of the river and fling them in?
What sonnet will bring the butter-blond days of my children’s childhood back
so they can lie against me again one last time, damp with sleep?
How did you learn to describe the face of your love
in her most primordial gesture of desire
without the poem turning on you and finding its way to her grave?
I feel more impotent than I have ever felt in my life.
How can I learn to make a little spot for grief, here,
right next to me, right inside the poem
the way you so often did, where it won’t really bother anyone,
a place where grief can just sit by my side, looking at the passersby?
What was your way out of the Book of Nightmares?
How did you make it back to the Book of Meadows,
where the larks sang and the beetles turned their green backs to the sun?

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‘Paddle to Canada’ by Heather Monley: ZYZZYVA No. 105, Winter 2015

billboard_latestissue_cover_16winter_largeThe children were too young to know the trick of counting seconds between lightning and thunder, but the parents did this in their heads, without speaking of it to each other. There had been families on shore when they’d set out in the boat, children playing in the grass, but now when the mother looked back, the last families were running toward their cars. The rain was getting harder, filling the boat’s hollow places. Lightning flashed again, then again, and the mother and father each noted, without speaking of it, that the time between flash and boom had shortened. They pumped their legs faster, but the paddleboat wasn’t built for speed. The mother’s feet slipped off the wet pedals, and though the father held tight to the rudder, the boat kept turning to the left. In the back, the boy and girl, wanting to bail, splashed at the water with their hands and laughed. Their father yelled, “Stop that! Hold on to the boat.”

A thunderclap boomed and the children put their hands to their ears and screamed. They were getting close to the dock now, but the lightning was coming fast, one flash then another, too fast for the mother and father to count. The children held tight and stared through the rain out the back of the boat. That’s when they saw it: lightning strike a tree on the far side of the lake.

But the boat thudded against the dock, and the parents lifted the children and unsnapped their life jackets. There was no sign of the teenage boy who had rented them the boat, so the father tied the rope to a cleat, and they ran back to the car.

They waited for the storm to die down. They were soaked and shivering, and the father turned the heat as high as it would go. On the foggy windows, the children drew pictures: a sun wearing sunglasses, a dog with long, spindly legs.

It was not until the next day that the father remembered he’d left his driver’s license as a deposit, and he drove back to retrieve it. The road curving through the park was littered with leaves and branches that had fallen in the storm. At the boathouse, the teenager was gone, replaced by an older man, the manager. The way the father had tied up the paddleboat, the man said, it was a wonder it didn’t come loose and drift away. Because the family had neglected to sign out at the boathouse, there was no proof that they had returned the boat when they said they had. He should charge them for the full day, not just the hour they had already paid for. When the father asked him to consider the circumstances—the storm, the lightning, small children—the manager gave him a hard look and said they shouldn’t have been out on the lake in that weather. But he opened a desk drawer and handed the father his license.

Because they had survived, it all became something to laugh about: the father pedaling so hard his face was red, the mother unable to keep up, and the boat turning in circles. The mother yelling to slow down, the father yelling to speed up, the kids splashing water in the back, the father yelling that they should stop splashing and hold on, because the last thing they needed was the kids to fall in the lake. Then, at the boathouse the next day, the angry manager—a bald man, their father said, with a patchy moustache—complaining they had left the life jackets in the boat where anyone could have stolen them, as if anyone would want a set of waterlogged life jackets scrawled with the name of the park in permanent ink.

Their father even laughed at the very idea the boat rental required a deposit. “What do they think we’re going to do?” he said. “Paddle to Canada?”

For weeks, he had only to say,“Canada,” and the children would dissolve into giggles, but they didn’t understand. Their father saying, “Paddle to Canada” made it possible. They imagined one lake connecting to another, like a paper chain, all the way to a vague northern border.

 

They were a family of risk and adventure—those were the type of stories they told of themselves. The time Jessie sprained her ankle on a hike and the father carried her three miles back to the trailhead. The day on the road trip when their car ran out of gas in the middle of the desert. The time Michael wandered off on the beach and no one noticed, and when they finally found him, two hours later, he wasn’t afraid. He and another boy had been walking around the boardwalk, collecting change off the ground and in pay-phones, and had found enough to buy themselves an ice cream cone, which they traded turns licking.

The paddleboat was the family’s favorite story: the time they almost died on the lake. They had pulled through and made it to shore—they were a family of survivors.

They pushed everything to the brink. The parents tickled the children, held them upside down, and teased them until their eyes filled with tears. The mother and father’s fights were loud, with screaming and broken dishes, and the brother and sister, too, wailed at each other and inflicted bloody noses and bruised skin. The family told stories of packed suitcases and trips to the emergency room. They laughed, and this they believed was their strength—that they could make light of it all. And so they kept pushing, until they found an edge and toppled over.

After the divorce, the stories took on a different tone. “Your father took too many risks,” their mother said, “and he wouldn’t listen.” Taking the kids on strenuous hikes, refusing to fill up the gas tank. That day in the desert, they had passed a gas station in a small town, but he had claimed there would be another town, another gas station, and they had driven on. On the beach, the mother had gotten back from the restroom and asked where Michael was. The father had shrugged—shrugged! “And if he hadn’t been so cheap,” she said, “he would have bought the kids ice cream cones, and Michael wouldn’t have run off in the first place.”

He was always cheap.Complaining about the paddleboat deposit. Why shouldn’t the boathouse take his license, when people like their father tried to get more than they paid for? If the storm hadn’t come, he would have kept them out past the hour reserved, and then he would have argued and argued against the extra fee.

Their father had insisted on taking the family out on the lake, even though the sky was dark and cloudy, and he wouldn’t turn back when it started to drizzle. “We could have been killed,” their mother said, “but your father was determined.”

The children didn’t hear their father’s side of things as often as they did their mother’s. When he married his second wife, he moved to another state. He made offhand comment —“Your mother would say something like that”—but when the children grew into teenagers and sometimes believed they hated their mother, they wanted more. What would he say about the men their mother had dated, about her new husband, the stepfather they despised? What stories would he tell about the years when he and their mother were still married? Sometimes—when their stepfather yelled, when their mother said, “I’ve had it up to here”—they wanted their father to tell them that the fighting, the divorce, had really all been their mother’s fault. They imagined how he would tell the paddleboat story: their mother hysterical, shrieking, and no help on the pedals. And then, when their father didn’t call or he canceled a visit the day before, they believed he had been careless, that day in the boat, and had risked all their lives.

The lake was not far from the mother’s house. The paddleboat rental had closed years before, but the dock was still there, and on hot days the girl walked to the end and dangled her feet in the water. The boy sat on a bare patch of shore and threw rocks out as far as he could. It seemed impossible now: the family together in a little boat. In itself, the story of the thunderstorm was small, but the family had told and retold it so many times that it loomed large, and it seemed important to know its essential truth. How had it really happened? Their memories had become muddled with what they had been told, and what they wanted to believe.

Jessie remembered, or thought she remembered, her father’s hands under her arms, lifting her out of the boat, and the steamy car in the rain, and her and Michael’s fingers tracing pictures on the glass. Michael remembered getting back to the house, and his mother in the living room holding him close and breathing in his wet hair. They turned these memories over and examined them, shuffled and rearranged them, as if thinking of them hard enough or in the right combination would lead somewhere, would form a pathway to a world that had been lost in the confusion of their lives. They remembered their small hands splashing water, and their father’s voice, stern, and his eyes betraying fear. Their mother, in the front seat of the car, wrapping her arm around their father’s, and leaning over to rest her head on his shoulder. And lightning, tonguing down to the upper branches of a tall tree, and the tree, for one brilliant flash, illuminated from within, and then dark, and breaking off into the lake.

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‘The Snake That Always Bites My Ass’ by Paul Madonna: ZYZZYVA No. 105

billboard_latestissue_cover_16winter_largeFrom the corner, a small boom box played “Get Off of My Cloud” by the Stones, over and over, because some drunk whose name I never cared to remember kept rewinding the tape. Every time the chorus cameon he would—without irony—jump up and sing in someone’s face, “Hey, hey. You, you. Get off of my cloud.”

Outside, torrential rain pummeled the village. It was night, and we were maybe fifteen people crowded into a single room. By day, the ground floor of the two-story teak house served as a restaurant, and at night, as Pai’s trading post. Na’s it was called, after the proprietor, who lived upstairs with her son and sister, and whose father slept on a mat under the stairs, gaunt and toothless, constantly wheezing. The entire front of the first floor was open, like a garage with the door up, and the room lit by several dusty glass kerosene lamps that cast long shadows out onto the gooey, rain-beaten road. A slight breeze brought little relief from either the heat or the sour smell of sweat. It was summer, and days could hit 110 degrees, so that even at night with the rain falling the air could be stifling.

I tended to steer clear of Na’s after dark, going only if I couldn’t wait until morning for supplies or was so desperate for human interaction I was willing to settle for the company of the ragtag group that assembled there: drunkards and braggarts who fancied themselves outlaws and whose tall tales you had to suffer a hundred times over. But on this particular night I’d had little choice. The loosely woven thatched walls of my hut had proven no defense against the heavy rain, and so, in order to stay dry, I took refuge with my fellow storm-dodging expats.

I was in a corner, at a two-person table, playing checkers with Na’s boy, while a group of local merchants crowded in with the regulars to fill the place. There was a pack of hill tribe women, haggard grandmothers without teeth, their gums stained red from the betel nuts they chewed and spit like tobacco, squatting on the floor with their bright pink and purple handicraft bags. There was the local music troupe, comprised of one stern man, six bored children, and a cart of wooden stringed instruments. And then there was the local moonshiner, a squinty-eyed pudgy man with a clay pot of mountain brew. I’d tried his concoction only once. As hallucinogenic as it was alcoholic, it felt like broken glass going down my throat, and like rocks in my head when I woke up. As Na’s father snored beneath the stairs, and one of the hill tribe girls played an atonal melody on a handcarved Bpee, that idiot kept rewinding the Stones tape and yelling, “Hey, hey. You, you…” And that’s when Roy walked in. Draped in a dark green poncho, soaked head to toe.

I’d seen him only once before. He was American, but not like the others in our castaway town. He walked straight over to Na and wordlessly handed her a package from beneath his poncho. Then he turned and walked back out into the rain.

 

The next morning, after the storm passed, under a clear blue sky and fiery white summer sun, he appeared outside my hut. I was wearing only a pair of soggy boxers as I hung the rest of my wet belongings, including my calendar, over the railing to dry, when he put a foot on the first rung of my ladder, held up a jar of peanut butter, and pointed to the picture of the Thai king.

“Nice picture of Elvis,” he said.

Peanut butter, along with regular butter, cheese, bread, and coffee, were all but impossible to come by in Thailand back then. You could get fried cockroaches or stink beans, rice with red ants and larvae, duck mouths or silkworms, but the closest to a cup of coffee you could find were freeze-dried crystals, and for everything else, there weren’t even passable substitutes. So to be invited to share a jar of Jif, well that was about as generous a peace offering as any Westerner could hope for.

I invited him in and we sat on damp mats and passed the plastic jar of creamy peanut butter back and forth, wordlessly scooping in our fingers and sucking them clean until the container wasn’t just empty but was so thoroughly smearless you could have given it to a baby with fatal nut allergies and gone to sleep knowing he would be fine.

From his satchel Roy pulled two cans of Budweiser, handed me one, and cracked open his own. We still hadn’t said more than a word to each other, but he raised his can and nodded, and I did the same, and we both drank, washing the sweet butter that coated our mouths with another hard-to-come-by product in Southeast Asia: American beer.

Read the rest of “The Snake That Always Bites My Ass.” Get your copy of ZYZZYVA No. 105!

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‘Eldorado’ by Lauren Alwan: ZYZZYVA No. 105, Winter 2015

billboard_latestissue_cover_16winter_largeThe bathtub, when we found it, lay upside down on the creek bank, sunk in blackberry brambles. Its four clawed feet pointed skyward, and the cast iron exterior looked badly rusted. Curtis stood at the top of the bank and surveyed the scene. You had to know the man to understand he was pleased.With his stooped posture and immense hands hanging at his sides, he looked morose even when he wasn’t.

The boyfriend was euphoric. We’d located the tub without much trouble, after all. He peered into the shade at the water’s edge. “Right there, just like you said, Curtis. Gonna be tough one to haul out, though. Right?”

The old man said nothing, but cocked a grizzled eyebrow in the direction of the Forest Service road. Silently, returning the way we’d come, he went to fetch his truck. We were at a bend on lower Eddy Creek. The air felt baked, piney, and in the heat, the bark on the Jeffery pines gave off the scent of vanilla.

The boyfriend gave my shoulder a friendly shake. “Good news. Right, honey? Come winter, there’ll be bubble baths in the old A-frame.”

Maybe, I thought. I’d been skeptical about the tub from the start, doubtful as to what we’d find. Who would go to the trouble to haul a perfectly good cast iron tub so far out of town?

Curtis returned with the truck and parked it at the edge of the brambles. Before coming to Siskiyou County, I’d never heard of a winch. The mechanized spool was most often used for hauling trucks out of the mud or skidding fallen trees to open ground for debranching and sectioning. Like the sound of shotgun fire in October, the plaintive whine of a winch motor had become familiar in the cycling seasons of rural life.

With a length of chain in one hand and the winch cable in the other, Curtis made his way down the bank and through the brambles to the tub, the line unspooling as he went. In methodical fashion, he wrapped the chain around the tub’s front legs, and ran the winch shackle through. Once bolted, he gave the line a tug. Satisfied, he trudged back up the creek bank and instructed the boyfriend to stay with the tub and watch the line didn’t get caught.

Righting the knitted cap on his head, the boyfriend hopped into the brambles. The cap was his trademark—being red-haired and freckled, he wore it year-round—and the quirk gave him a kind of ungainly charm. I would certainly miss him, I thought, when the time came to go. It was the red hair that had first won me over—that, along with tales of surfing in Oceanside and his grueling swing shifts at the furnace factory. He had a kind of infectious charm and an unwaveringly simple approach to life—even when we argued, there was something appealing in the vehement way he sped off on his Honda 250. But would I miss him, really? Beyond the project of our house-building, we had little in common. I never spoke to him of my own history, of the fire, my father’s departure, and the events that led me here. Yet the boyfriend talked freely of his history, his devout Christian upbringing and stark ’50s-era childhood. And when he did, it was not out of disillusionment, but nostalgia, and at those times, I knew we had no future. This duplicitous thinking made me realize there were things I wanted to do. Live in San Francisco. Get my degree. Things that had nothing to do with homebuilding or any sort of Foxfire-related self-sufficiency. In fact, I thought, I wanted to be dependent on a system, and had no interest in candle- or soap- or quilt-making, or a life constructed around seasons and weather.

“Stay clear,” Curtis called from the truck, and with the engine running, he switched on the winch motor. At the base of the creek bank, the line strained, and as the tub began to rock, greenery shuddered and vines snapped.

Earlier, as we walked along the dirt road, Curtis mentioned a wife and a house in Mt. Shasta City. He rarely revealed personal details, though at learning he lived in Mt. Shasta, I felt a twinge of envy. The town lay fifteen miles to the south, in rural terms hardly a distance worth mentioning, yet by contrast it was a metropolis—the site of the local hospital and ski shop, along with a health food grocery, vegetarian restaurant, and natural clothing store. In recent years, the town attracted a number of free-thinking entrepreneurs, college-educated progressives who’d embraced the Foxfire aesthetic and parlayed it into retail concerns of candle-making, leather tooling, and the like. Many were drawn to the area by Mount Shasta itself, to the surrounding body of myth and legend passed down from Native Klamath and non-native cultures.

Among the outsider legends, the most prevalent was that of Lemuria, a mythical colony said to be populated by a race of godlike super-beings. The Lemurian chronicle, based on writings of nineteenth century mystics, told of the white-robed survivors of a lost continent, travelers who’d crossed time and space to inhabit the interior of Mount Shasta. I was amazed by how earnestly repeated the story was, and each time I heard it, found it difficult not to smirk. But I wasn’t about to disparage the mystical notions of Mt. Shasta City’s hip entrepreneurs. The natural clothing shop was one of the few places where I could occasionally spend a portion of my hard-earned wages.

From inside Curtis’s truck, the winch motor whined, and the wire on the drum slowly commenced to turn. Wrested free of the overgrowth, like a strange iron-clad mollusk the tub lurched upward. The boyfriend guided the line, and the tub came to rest at a level spot on the road. Curtis cut the engine, and together he and the boyfriend heaved the tub upright. The interior, dappled with shade and sunlight, was pristine, white, unmarred.

“Ha!” The boyfriend clapped Curtis on the back.“We lucked out, huh?”

Read the rest of “Eldorado.” Get your copy of Issue No. 105!

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‘The Cave’ by Austin Smith: ZYZZYVA No. 105, Winter 2015

billboard_latestissue_cover_16winter_largeThe day that Aaron Pierce came out of a house we had never noticed before marked approximately a year since the Drew sisters had chosen to heave their attentions upon me. They were two years and one year older than me, and when they first started sitting next to me I was flattered. I thought there must be something about me they admired. They seemed to be confiding in me things I alone, of all the kids on the bus, could understand. The bullying began with a certain gentleness, the way I imagine the government begins torturing terrorists.With false cordiality the sisters would greet Jack, who did not suspect them, who, in fact, assumed they were homely but perfectly sweet girls. They would then proceed down the aisle with sick looks on their faces, as if it had pained them to be kind. They were the sort of sisters who are often mistaken for twins. Both were waifish, witchlike, with dry red hair and pale skin blemished with dark freckles that seemed a manifestation of some deeper spiritual miasma.

Their names were Angie and Becca. One of them, Becca, let’s say, would sit in the seat in front of me, staring at me with her greenish, depthless eyes. Whoever the meaner one was, Angie, I guess, would sit in the seat  beside me, too close, her long thigh pressed against my shorter thigh. She smelled like the gum they both chewed, cheap gum that, no matter how many sticks it was composed of, they blew in weak, doomed bubbles that broke and shrunk on their tongues. Once established in their habitual positions, they took turns informing me of things I didn’t know. Things of a vaguely sexual nature involving kids in their grades, whose names I knew but who would always be higher than me in the pantheon, if only because they were older. Then, as if they could see that I didn’t know these kids well enough for anything they might say about them to elicit a reaction from me, they began telling me things about the other kids on the bus, as if to dampen any fondness I might feel for them. We were all too young to have done anything too scandalous, but our parents weren’t. They managed to convince me that Kirby Dornik’s father did it with pigs. I knew what “it” was because of things I had figured out on the farm. I made the most progress the day the breeder came with the bull and my presence was somehow overlooked in the excitement and stress of getting a few cows bred. I was at that age when I was willing, maybe even desperate, to believe the story about Mr. Dornik and the pigs. But no matter what I said or did after one of their revelations, they would conclude by saying: “Did you know that?” whereupon I had to admit that, no, I hadn’t known that, whereupon they would say, in rough unison, “You didn’t know that, huh? Well, now you do.”

 

This thing with the Drew sisters had gone on all the previous year. I had hoped that over the summer they would forget about me, and that, come fall, they would choose someone new to pick on, but, sure enough, on the first day of school they sat in front of and beside me with bright eyes, as if the summer had refreshed them. It was like they had gone to bully camp and learned new tricks. It was clear to me even then that their imaginations had reached the limits of what they knew about sex. Over the summer they must have realized, either separately or together, that before school started up again they had to think of something else that I didn’t know, the knowledge of which they could initiate me into. They informed me they were my sisters. When they asked me, “Did you know that?” I told them that I knew it wasn’t true. I had one younger brother, but no sisters. They looked at each other and smiled the way I imagine interrogators smile at each other. The smile said:“We really don’t have time for this foolishness.We may have to take certain shortcuts now, shortcuts that may be unpleasant for you.” The meaner one, Angie, I’m pretty sure, began pinching my arm, saying, “Say You’re my sisters.” When I said nothing, she pinched harder. For some reason I thought of Christ on the cross in Our Lady of the Farmer in Freeport. Every Sunday morning for as long as I could remember I had regarded his bleeding hands and feet and the crown of thorns around his head and his eyes brimming with pain and love with a certain callousness, as if it were all a big theatrical stunt. But now, feeling Angie Drew’s unclipped fingernails pressing closer and closer together with my flesh between them, I gained strength from him. Angie must have been frustrated because, forgetting Becca, she whispered harshly in my ear: “Say You’re my sister.” “You’re…you’re not my sister,” I said. She let go and looked at me as if she had had high hopes for me and was disappointed. Then Becca stood up and walked up the aisle, touching the back of each and every seat with her bony hands, and told Jack I had said the F-word. That night my dad, still in his barn clothes, chased me all around the house, up and down the front and back stairs in a loop. He finally caught me when I made the mistake of darting into my brother’s bedroom, out of which there was no route of escape. I gave up like any victim. As he beat me with the essential mercy of all kind fathers, I was with Christ again on the cross. But the next day, when the Drew sisters surrounded me again and asked me who they were, I said, sullenly, though I knew it couldn’t be true: “You’re my sisters.”

Read the rest of “The Cave.” Get your copy of ZYZZYVA No. 105 here!

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‘Infelicities of Style’: 2015 Best American Essays Notable, Issue No. 102

Last night, I dreamed I saw Lloyd Geduldig. Dusk was falling. Alongside a grain silo just outside the town, his broad, pale face hovered low, like an early moon.

The silo stood near a T-junction, and just behind it, tread marks cut across a field. Clumps of mud were strewn about: a tractor had recently traveled the rut, tearing up the ground. Apart from that, all was thickly covered with snow.

Yes, the dream came complete with an old-fashioned winter, the kind we used to curse as we stamped our feet at the bus stop, the kind upstate New York has not seen these thirty years. And on the hillside, the bare trees were like pencil strokes. Just the way I remember.

 

I didn’t care if my moving arm disturbed people in the nearby seats. If the sibilant scratch of pen speeding across paper or the occasional crackle of pages turning in my spiral notebook distracted others from the action onstage, I didn’t care. I was busy pinning down my immediate, my strong reactions. I sensed obscurely that if I could capture those responses and also seize the reader with a powerful first sentence, good copy was within my grasp.

But as I took notes, writing at times with such vehemence that my pen dug into the page underneath and the page behind that, I sometimes wondered: who would take my writing seriously, if they knew who was behind the byline? I was a freshman at the local college, just seventeen years old. The years mount and mount; the question hovers.

The deadline for the morning paper fell at midnight. As the applause died away, I would rush from the theater and make for my dorm room, settle in at the keyboard, and roll in a blank sheet. At first, I wrote on a portable Olivetti, a gift from my mother when I went away to college.

But computers were about to become the big thing. Nobody had their own machine yet; a company called Apple donated several rooms full of them to the school, and then I would go to one of those rooms after the performance to write the review and print it out. Sometimes, especially when term papers came due, there was a long wait. You got the computer for forty-five minutes; if you needed more time, you had to log off and put your name on the list again. And there were always more people in line: some reading, some writing, some bedded down on the floor, their heads pillowed on knapsacks filled with textbooks.

While I waited, I would make some more scrawls in my notebook. When at last my name was called, I worked rapidly to weave my notes into something more substantial—substantial yet brief, for Lloyd had said to keep it to 750 words.

 

If I was lucky and got two free tickets for the performance, my boyfriend came, too. While I wrote the review afterward, he sat patiently, headphones clamped to his ears, listening to his tapes for Japanese class.

When I finished, we descended the long, cobblestone hill from the campus into the sleeping town. We crossed the pedestrian mall in the center with its darkened stores, then went one block farther, down State Street, past the movie palace and the tobacco-store Indian. The door of the newspaper office had a drop slot for nocturnal submissions, down low, near the ground.

The deadline met, we continued for a few blocks more, almost to the far edge of the town, to the all-night diner by the railroad tracks. I usually ordered chili, washed down with a strawberry milkshake; the boyfriend always had a burger with fries and a Coke. We split the check, then trudged back up to the dorms. We rarely spent the night together; we both had roommates.

 

I bolted awake early and ran out to buy the morning paper. I flipped through it, searching for my name, my words. I pulled out the extra copy of the typescript I’d kept from the night before and compared my draft with the published version, puzzling out the reasoning behind the edits.

A few days later, the mail would bring an envelope addressed in tiny, crabbed script. In the enclosed note on newspaper letterhead, the editor would comment on my work, signing off with his initials, LG. “Nice work, save a few infelicities of style,” said a typical missive, following up on a piece of mine about a postmodern dance troupe that had passed through on a one-night stopover from the great metropolis downstate. The infelicities were gone.

The note always came wrapped around a check for twenty-five dollars. There was no direct deposit then.

 

My first meeting with Lloyd is among the things I barely remember now. It probably followed a cold call, dorm room to newspaper office; I had a knack for cold calls back then, because when I was seventeen, eighteen, twenty, twenty-five, the essentials—jobs, housing—were in constant flux. I was always chasing after some necessary thing.

To whoever picked up the phone at The Journal, I must have said that on the strength of a few years of ballet lessons and some library books about dance I’d pored over until the pages wore thin beneath my gaze, I wanted to take over doing their dance reviews, and that person, having no idea what to tell me (on the phone, I sounded even younger than I was), must have passed me to Lloyd. I never found out what his job title was exactly, but he had authority. People got passed to Lloyd when nobody else knew what to do with them.

Here is the sum of what I recall about Lloyd. He was old then, when I knew him, at least forty-five. He wore suspenders and was rarely without a pipe. From time to time, he made a passing reference to his early life in Britain. His accent had been sanded down by long years in the United

States, it seemed to me. Why he came to America, and whether he brought a family with him, left one behind, started one here or some combination of the above—these things I never learned.

Mainly what I knew about Lloyd was that as an editor he took infinite pains with his own work and that of others, perhaps not even distinguishing clearly between the two. He had the penmanship of someone whose attention to the crucial, minute detail caused him untold anguish.

And he was definitely out of place in the bustle and rush of a newspaper office. Even at seventeen, I could tell that he was not meant to work in a newspaper office. He should have been up on the hill, at the college, teaching something. I had no idea why he was at the bottom of the hill instead of the top, only that the bottom was the wrong place.

You can read “Infelicities of Style” in its entirety in Issue No. 102, which you can buy here.

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‘Traffic’: 2015 Best American Essays Notable, Issue No. 101

I can’t remember exactly how old I was—I’m guessing eight or nine—when I first learned that my father had killed a child. The actual event, if I can call it that, took place before I was born, I think, but I can’t be absolutely sure. In any case, it wasn’t until I was in primary school that my mother mentioned it, almost in passing. After that, when it came up now and again, it was never as a shameful thing or a crime, but always as an example of the unfairness of the world: a parable about traffic safety and greedy parents. The boy, the story went, had been lurking behind a parked automobile and, just as my father was driving home from work, dashed out in pursuit of a rubber ball with such little regard for his own life that my poor father never had a chance to stop. This would have been before, or maybe during the Second World War, and somehow that came into it as well.

The child died, though I was never told the details, only that afterward his parents had the temerity to take my father to court—criminal or civil, I’m not sure which. In the end, my father was found not guilty because of his car’s skid marks that, I was told, showed he could not possibly have stopped in time. Or maybe they showed he had not been traveling that fast in the first place. In any case, it was the skid marks, along with a good lawyer, that kept him out of jail, and clearly, this child’s parents had been monsters for thinking that a man as nice and as good as my father was would somehow strike their child on purpose.

And so it happened—although I certainly never connected these two things—that shortly after I first heard this story I started running out into traffic. Not traffic, exactly, but in front of single cars, like a bullfighter dodging a bull, on a narrow highway near my house. I would hide behind a bush, and then, when it was too late for the driver to hit the brakes, jump out and run straight across the road, as close to the car as I possibly could. Sometimes I did it alone, but usually with a friend who could watch and describe the expressions on the panicked drivers’ faces, because I was too busy trying not to be hit. If I were hit, though, the knowledge that it would be their fault was a powerful attraction. And so, over the space of about a month, one summer I got into the habit of doing this two or three times a week, until one driver, after an especially close call, turned his car around, pulled up and yelled at us, at me. He was red-faced and trembling and furious, his eyes nearly popping out of his head, and I was scared to see anyone so angry; I quit then and there.

But there is one more piece of information to this story, one other fact I’m not quite certain about, but which I almost completely believe is true, one that nobody ever spoke of. Namely, back when I was a child, there were a lot of places people called “neighborhood bars,” where men would stop after work to have a couple of shots, down a few beers, and talk. The places were—to use a curiously modern word—spots for them to network: to hear of jobs, of cars for sale, of houses for rent, or just to talk about current events and share complaints. By those standards, my father was a good networker. I don’t think I can ever remember him coming straight home from work without the smell of whiskey on his breath, and there were countless nights I remember my mother complaining as the supper she’d prepared was left out cold, waiting for his return until nine or ten o’clock.

In other words, my father was an alcoholic, although in those days the only way I ever heard the word applied was to men like my Uncle Louie, who, my father said, “couldn’t handle the booze.” Which was probably true enough, because after Louie joined Alcoholics Anonymous he used the meetings to build a network of his own. Louie networked himself into such a career as to leave the rest of our family standing open-mouthed in awe. Louie had a racing stable, a country house, and his kids went to private schools—all unheard of in my world. At least until the day they found that my uncle was a criminal and had used his position of trust, the one he had established through countless AA meetings, to steal the company blind.

But my father could handle the booze; he kept his job even though many was the night or morning I would hear him in the bathroom vomiting, something I took to be the price of being an adult male. These were the days, and maybe still are in some quarters, when, at least for a certain class of people, the first thing you did when a guest walked through the door was to offer them a drink. Then people would reply, “I thought you’d never ask.” Those were the days that drunk-films—W.C. Fields and The Thin Man—were considered charming.

So I’m as certain as I can be that my father had been drinking the day he killed that child. That would explain, for one thing, why the boy’s parents felt they had a right to make their case; some witness or another had undoubtedly smelled the liquor on my father’s breath. That would explain how the whole thing got as far as an actual trial, and maybe it would also explain why my mother, a legal secretary, kept slaving at her job in the firm that had defended him, even as my father complained about her bosses being pigs.

And it would also provide the answer as to why my father kept on drinking for years after his family and his doctors told him he had to give it up. To quit would be have been for him to admit there was something wrong with alcohol, and therefore when he’d struck the child that he’d been wrong. That would have been more, I think, than he could have borne. So instead of quitting, when I got a little older, he would encourage me to take a sip of a ginger ale-and-rye highball, or beer, or wine—though he wasn’t much for wine—to “keep him company.” We were co-conspirators, in a way, and then afterward, for many years, for nearly twenty of them, it was the alcohol that kept me company.

I’ve noticed that in America no one admits to being old, and I can’t blame them. The old are just repositories for loss, or worse—endless and self-congratulatory memories. When it comes to my choice of reading material, or even watching, I much prefer stories of the young caught up in their first flashes of excitement, or about the middle-aged in the first dawn of disillusion. Still, I find plenty in old guys like myself to listen to, mostly in the locker room of the local Young Men’s Christian Association (three out of those four names untrue). In that context, I’m happy to report my fellow oldsters seem to have learned little, or if we have, we sure don’t speak of it. So at the Y, the guys in the locker room talk about sports or food or nothing much at all, but certainly not how they have lived their lives in blindness, and not how the person they thought they were and the person they turned out to be is different. I don’t blame them; it’s not a subject for mixed company. And as for my part, I ask myself: do any of them need to know that while I lived much of my life thinking it was one kind of book—an adventure story, I suppose—it was already a sad history, one with whole pages torn and missing, with sentences, some mercifully and others not, illegible?

My father, my own son, and I have this in common: we are all dog lovers. My son was raised with dogs his entire life, and I’ve kept dogs for at least fifty years. But what strikes me as strange about my father and his dogs is that right until the end of his life, his animals would often get away. Sometimes a gate would be left open, sometimes there would be a hole in a fence that should have been mended but wasn’t, or, walking out of the house to check his mail, my father, who should have known better, would leave the front door wide open. And then his dog would be running down the street, into traffic, with my father shouting after it, sometimes catching up to it, and sometimes not. Sometimes, arriving too late, he would watch it killed.

Or such is my conjecture.

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