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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.

You can order a copy of Issue No. 101 here.

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‘A Daughter’s Letter to Tamsen Donner’: 2015 Best American Nonrequired Reading Notable, Issue No. 101

Tamsen Donner died in 1846, a member of the ill-fated Donner Party entrenched in the snow in the Sierra Nevadas. Thirty-six members of the party succumbed to starvation, exposure, or other afflictions. In the end, little is known of how Tamsen Donner actually died. She may or may not have been murdered by another member of the group. She may or may not have been cannibalized.

Dear Tamsen,

I write to you now because my mother is gone, because you were the reason for the trip to California, because of the king crab legs my mother ate at the Outback Steakhouse just north of Las Vegas, because of a pinecone.

Perhaps I should address you more formally, as you would have been accustomed to back in your century. Mrs. Donner. My dear Mrs. Donner. But I am tempted to call you Tammy, even Tam. Tami? Your full name, Tamozine, is not one we still use. It went out of vogue along with bleeding and leeching. Tamsen sounds more like the name of some queer woman in a song that old men whistled on their way to the outhouse—a song about a frozen woman who was missing her toes, perhaps because some hungry traveler ate them.

I took a road trip to visit your grave. My parents went, too, because my mother wanted to see San Francisco, and my father wanted to see Yosemite. I was doing some research for a novel I wanted to write, a fictionalized account of your story, and I wish I could say the trip was for you specifically, but the truth is that I wanted to take a road trip anywhere, to get away from the life I was living, a life that no longer felt like my own. Maybe you understand. It’s like there’s a river inside of you, a river that changes size and force at different points in your life, but all the time, deep down, you know what direction it runs—and you know that, at some point, you’ll jump in.

I’m sorry to say that the Donner party jokes abounded on our trip, from my mother and me in particular, because we like that kind of wittiness and because it was something to do between stops at Denny’s and IHOPs on the drive from Oklahoma to California. It’s not that we were particularly cruel—most people in my time would have done the same. Those jokes are just too easy. Cliche even. Honestly, and this may be the worst part, they’re not even funny anymore. I wonder about that—about how much time must pass before you can joke about tragedy. I can’t imagine ever joking about my mother.

 

Grief can eat a person up. OK, not funny, but see what I mean? The puns are hard to avoid.

 

I hope it brings some comfort that the winter you died is still the worst on record. They say that the snowdrifts were twenty feet high—about the same height as if the members of my family were to stand on the others’ shoulders. And they say that there were nine separate blizzards that year. I try to picture you in that cabin, counting things to pass the time: the number of eyelets on your boots, the stitches on the hem of your dress, the lines across your palms, the number of faces you remembered from your childhood.

Here’s another: Overheard at the site of the Donner Party: “What a great piece of ass!”

 

I tried to imagine the sleet whipping your face—stinging—that pins-and-needles feeling that affects your feet when you sit on the toilet too long or when your boots pinch your feet too tightly. That sensation is called paresthesia, but you wouldn’t have known that. I like to think you would have had a folksy word for it, a word that made it OK for you to talk about it, made it somehow more comfortable—a word like harkey bumps. I thought about these things as I sat by my living room window, watching the snow pile up around me during those Midwestern winters—the winter before the trip to California, when my husband was gone for work, and the winter after the trip, when I was living with another man.

 

Also overheard at the Donner party site: “Thanks for the mammaries.”

 

From the first day of the trip my father was a challenge. He’d had a bout of depression that year, and my mother had done her best to suffer through it with him, to get him off the medication that was causing the depression, and to see him through to better days. But she needed a break. She’d asked to come along with me on the trip—quite unlike her—but then my father wanted to come, too, and then it was the kind of thing where you tell yourself, “My parents aren’t getting any younger. I’ll be glad we did this together.” I was thirty-five. She was sixty-six.

My father talked about the Acoma Indians as we drove, and I thought he was mispronouncing Acoma but I didn’t want to correct him. I saw a sign for Winslow, Arizona, and mentioned the Eagles song. Neither of my parents responded. Eighty minutes later, when we actually passed through Winslow, Arizona, my father said, “Hey, Winslow, Arizona. That’s in an Eagles song.” Then my mother told him to turn up his hearing aid, but instead he began humming, There’s a girl, my lord, in a flatbed Ford.

My father wears the hearing aid because years of dentistry have left him hard of hearing with a ringing in his ears. He’s easily frustrated when he can’t hear something he wants to hear, but sometimes I think that he mostly likes the silence. When I was in kindergarten he had a midlife crisis, so we moved from Oklahoma to Oregon because it was supposed to be one of the safest states to live in in the event of a nuclear Holocaust. Unlike you, Tami, we didn’t have to trudge upmountain with oxen—we just rode out with my grandparents in a Ford conversion van, stayed one winter, then went back to Oklahoma. I am happy to report that all members of our party survived the trip, although we left our Golden Retriever, Sir Copper Fields Rogue, with a friend somewhere in Grants Pass, presumably safe from neutron clouds.

I know that your family took a lot of the blame for what happened, and I can commiserate only by saying that, on a much lesser scale, my family is also quite notorious for bad family trips. We once went to Ruidoso, New Mexico, for Christmas, and my father turned onto an uncleared road where our minivan got lodged in a snowbank in the median, stuck like a pig in a doggie door. We had to walk uphill to my uncle’s cabin, carrying our luggage, which for me included a suitcase and a Brother word processor (it was this thing that typed, after the old way of typing, but before the new way of typing). Anyway, by the time we got there, my fingers were numb—far past the harkey bumps stage. My mother instructed me to hold them under lukewarm water, but my father told me that I should put my hands under his armpits to warm them. As you know, areas that get the largest blood supply stay warmest—armpits, chest, genitals. I knew my father was probably right (again, as you know, things like that come instinctively in such times), but I told him I would rather die than stick my hands into his armpits. So instead I used my own armpits, and after a few hours my fingers were comfortably returned to the dexterity necessary to play Nintendo with my sister. (This would be the equivalent of knitting in your day.) That was when I was in high school.

 

What did one Donner say to another?

Can you give me a hand?

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‘Bank Repos for Sale,’ 2015 Best American Short Stories & Best American Nonrequired Reading Notable, Issue No. 101

Springer got applications from lots of meatheads in town for the job. Large corn-fed guys who could have knocked Springer out just giving him a good smack upside the head, the kind who stood outside the strip clubs he occasionally frequented with their bulging arms crossed over their puffed up chests, wearing the don’t-fuck-with-me look they had been working on since before puberty. Any of these guys would have done just fine. But then the right one came in. He was black. He was from out of town. He was perfect. His shaved scalp, the roll of muscle-fat at the back of his neck, his dark skin—he would make more of an impression than anyone homegrown.

“So what’s your name?” Springer asked him.

“Leroy Brown.”

“Leroy Brown. Like in the song?”

“Yeah.”

Springer blinked once. Then he said, “I’m Springer. First name Avery. Like Tex Avery. He made the greatest cartoons. Watched them all the time when I was little. Can’t find them anywhere anymore.”

“The cartoons where a white dude would get blown up with dynamite and turn into a black dude, right?”

“Yeah, those ones.”

Leroy laughed. He was impressed that Springer, who was hardly tall enough to reach his shoulder, didn’t even break eye contact with him during that exchange. The little dude had some balls. He would call Springer ‘Tex,’ after the cartoonist. No one in town knew where Leroy got the nickname, and Springer liked that. It set him apart, in a good way.

 

To clarify: Leroy’s real name was Douglas Jefferson and he was from Chicago, Illinois. He had a clean slash mark on the right side of his abdomen that had turned pink like the inside of a seashell as it scarred over, contrasting against the surrounding skin. Springer noticed the slash one day when Leroy’s shirt hiked up as he bent over to pick up something heavy. Springer said, “If anybody around here asks, you can tell them you got injured by farming equipment.”

“Yeah. Farming equipment,” Leroy said slowly as if he was trying the words on. Then both men laughed as if Leroy had just squeezed himself into a shirt that was hilariously too small.

 

URGENT—DATED MATERIAL—LAST NOTICE, the envelope threatened, in blocky red letters. The bright, blood-like ink of the stamp had been smudged by someone’s sweaty finger. Either the postman’s or whoever had pounded the dire words onto the paper. Louisa scarcely paid it mind. She threw it away without opening it. The last time she handed one of these envelopes to her husband with the suggestion that maybe he should take a gander at it, he did not take it well. There was, after all, the strange but real possibility that nothing might ever come of it. Sometimes problems went away when they were simply ignored long enough.

Her youngest said, “Ma, can I go outside?”

“Did you finish your orange juice?”

“Yah.”

“The hell you always up to out there?” Bill snapped at the boy as he slid off his chair. The child didn’t answer, merely sidled outside without a sound, shutting the door carefully after him so that the latch wouldn’t click, a habit all the kids picked up because slamming doors were inevitably yelled at.

“Goddamn obsessed with being outside,” Bill mumbled into his coffee cup. “He’s going to grow up and pick grapes out there with the Mexicans.”

It was clear to the others around the table, Louisa and her two teenagers, that the humiliation was less in picking grapes than in doing so with Mexicans. It was that word, Mexican, that almost made Marjorie, a lanky seventeen-year-old girl with hair the same color and dryness as straw, backtalk. Shutting up was an effort. Suddenly she understood the strained look that was so often on her mother’s face. Louisa spent a lot of time working real hard at shutting up.

Marjorie thought of the casual ease with which the prettiest girls at school tossed out sarcastic zingers, because they could get away with it. They could chasten hopeful males with a simple Like, whatever. Marjorie would think of something more cutting. She would say: Dad, just because you lost your job doesn’t mean you have to be such an asshole. Or better—with wide-eyed, faked innocence: What’s wrong with Mexicans? The one I’ve been hanging out with really knows how to make a girl feel good.

How fast would her father’s hand be then? She might show up at school later with a shiner. But no. That would mess with her blossoming beauty, the one thing that might get her out of this town. She wouldn’t do a thing like that.

 

To clarify: she wouldn’t do a thing like that means that Marjorie wouldn’t push her father hard enough to make him smack the prettiness off her face. It does not mean that she would not have sex with a Mexican.

Marjorie had met her mestizo, a Mayan striped with Spaniard, at the secluded pond where she swam alone when she cut school. She was already halfway out of her clothes when she saw him there, chest-deep in the water, wearing nothing but a tiny gold cross around his neck, his dark eyes filled with calm curiosity. She let out a little yelp, covered her reddening face with her hands. She ran away because she didn’t want him to see her embarrassed. Not because she didn’t want him to see her naked.

She was back the next day in a polka dot bathing suit, while he had somehow managed to scrounge up a pair of tattered yellow swim trunks. By the end of the afternoon, these small nods to decency had been shed. She was completely overtaken by his rash tenderness. It somehow didn’t matter that his body was slight and an inch shorter than hers, though she’d previously only dated beefy Aryans from the football team. He was twenty-one. He spoke fragmented English with a thick accent. He grew his straight black hair down to his shoulders. It gleamed darkly like the fur of a healthy animal. He was the best secret she had ever kept.

Any time Marjorie closed her eyes when she was in her prison home or her prison school, she saw his tawny skin glittering with water beads. His wet hair streaking down the sides of his face as he bent to kiss her. His tiny gold cross gleaming in the oblique sunlight coming in mottled through the leaves. His eyes were uncannily large and black; they almost frightened her. His name was Alberto Esperanza. The name rang exotic in her dazzled ear. To her, it sounded almost like the title of a song.

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‘Hold On’: 2015 Best American Short Stories Notable, Issue No. 100

The first thing I remember is the woman’s voice, amplified through the megaphone, calling my name. Castillo, Robert. I opened my eyes, but knew they were open only because I could feel my lids moving. There was no change in the darkness.

Cuarón, Eduardo. Daniels, Margaret. Daniels, Rachel. I couldn’t move.

Everything hurt. There was no light, not much air. But the names kept coming. Diaz, Rosalie. Eaglesham, Jessica. Faye, Renee. I started screaming, Help me, I’m under here!, but my voice went nowhere, it just died in the debris around my face. Hernandez, Adrian. Hull, Leticia. I screamed until I realized how stupid it was, using all the precious air. When I was finally quiet, I could hear her again.

Hold on, she said. We’re coming for you.

The names continued. But after every ten or so, she’d stop and say, Hold on, we’re coming, or, Don’t give up, we’re digging.

And they were. Once I stopped screaming, I could hear that, too. The sound of shovels and picks ringing in the rubble.

There were 146 names after mine, and when she got to the end of the list, she started again at the beginning.

***

There are about 5,600 pay phones left within the Los Angeles city limits. There are nine on the Santa Monica Pier, eighteen in and around the Convention Center downtown. TheVons supermarket in Echo Park has six. Dodger Stadium has eight, one of which is consistently in need of repair.

My department at the phone company was responsible for these units. We cleaned and serviced, collected the change from the coin boxes, and, as of the last few years, demolished a handful of underachievers every month, casualties of cellular progress.

The destruction was my least favorite part of the job. It felt like a kind of forced euthanasia. Eva always got upset when I made that comparison. She thought it was disrespectful to the elderly. But some of those phones were as old as senior citizens. They had put in a lifetime of service, day and night, weekends, holidays. Some of those phones had never failed until their lines were snipped and they were ripped from their sockets and tossed into the back of one of our trucks.

I always tried to leave them with their dignity. I’d clear away the cigarette butts and scrape off the hardened bubble gum, spray the faceplate and receiver with disinfectant one last time, and then, gently but firmly, cut the line.

***

“Are we losing our pay phone?”

“You are. I’m sorry.”

“Well, I can’t—I guess nobody really used it.”

“Two hundred dollars a month.”

“Excuse me?”

“It averaged about two hundred dollars a month. That’s 400 calls.”

“Really? I never saw a single… Then why are you taking it down?”

“Two hundred dollars barely pays for the dial tone. This unit used to do close to a thousand, and that was when it was a quarter a call.”

“Well, I’m sorry to see it go for some reason. Out with the old, in with the—Did you feel that?”

“Feel what?”

“That. Whoa. Did you feel that?”

***

I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to describe it to reporters and friends and strangers who stop me on the street. What’s it like?

For a while I just said that it was like being buried alive, which is true, and also, I thought, sort of funny. I hoped it would lighten the mood a little. People didn’t want light. They’d nod and look deep into my eye. I can’t imagine, they’d say. Women took my arm. Men set their hands on my shoulders. As if touching me would give them some kind of understanding. As if this was something I could pass on, something I could share.

What’s it like? the network newsmagazine reporter asked me, leaning forward in her chair. What’s. It. Like.

There was movement back in the darkness of the studio, a camera swiveling from the reporter’s face to mine. On one of the monitors I could see the shot: a slow zoom-in, a closeup on the eyepatch. I could feel everyone in the studio—the reporter, the cameramen, the producers back in the booth—waiting for the answer. Twenty-five million, someone had said during the last commercial break. Estimated viewers, leaning toward their TVs.

What’s it like?

“I can’t describe it,” I said, letting myself off the hook, letting twenty-five million people down simultaneously. “It’s indescribable.”

***

By the time the woman with the megaphone had gotten to Miller, Jessica, I’d started to calm down. I was on the list. They knew I was there. A few minutes before I’d walked into the building, I’d answered a call from my supervisor at the phone company, so he knew I was inside when it came down.

I lay there and waited. Whenever people talk about how brave I was, how heroic, I always want to say, I just lay there. Everyone else did all the work. But no one wants to hear that. They need to believe there was some great inner strength tapped, some proof of the resilience of the human spirit in its darkest hour.

But there wasn’t. I just lay there.

***

I was in the hospital for six weeks. I went through fourteen surgeries. I lost an eye, I gained a walking cane, though the doctors said I was young enough that the limp probably wouldn’t be so pronounced in a few years. I’m told that I displayed a tremendous amount of bravery in the way I handled this, too, but I don’t see it. What was I going to do, throw myself out the window? I was too doped up to get out of bed.

I spent most of the time in the hospital watching the news. They were still showing footage of the rescue: the cops and firefighters pulling me out, carrying the stretcher down the mountain of steel and cement; the huge work lights holding back the darkness; the workers and newspeople cheering and crying. That shot where, right before they load me into the ambulance, I raise my hand. I don’t know what I was doing. Feeling for my eye, probably. That same shot, over and over. Raising my hand. Everybody cheers. The triumph of the will.

They showed earlier scenes, too. The first shots of the collapsed building. The swarm of sirens and flashing lights. The rescue workers digging day and night. The mayor telling the cameras, This is no longer a rescue operation; this is a recovery operation.

Every so often there was a shot where you could see the woman with the megaphone, pacing at the foot of the rubble. You could hear her under the voiceovers of the newscasters and guest experts. It’s a wide shot, to get the full scope of the devastation, and she’s tiny in the frame. A black woman, middle-aged, heavyset, with a bit of a Southern drawl. You can hear it softening the corners of the names she’s saying. Pollack, Henry. Pullman, Sarah. Her back is to the camera. She never stops talking, never lowers the megaphone.

Hold on, she says. We’re coming for you.

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‘The Dead Ones’: 2015 Best American Essays Notable, Issue No. 100

You came to say goodbye to her because she was your mentor. Years earlier she had given you something precious, and precious things need their recognition. Instead you sit in her kitchen with its flat Californian light washing in while her husband’s energy pulses most talk out the window. He sidles from around the counter to be with the two of you. How often he has stood beside her talent, you wonder, the way each mate in a partnership does, helping to uphold the myth, her husband a mystery now uncloaked. You recall those moments in her work in which lady characters enjoy their satisfying flirtations: a Mexican shop clerk, a gas station owner. The lipstick applied before she went out. The local gas station owner, an appreciator of Portuguese wine, in vivo, has told you of his appreciation of her, whether it was for that quick intelligence or those miniskirts that managed to survive the sixties in Berkeley along with her Jackie O. hair. A legacy of beauty: by chance you realize, hearing the husband’s name, that years ago you took classes with her daughter, long ago, dancing for the first time and all of you at that pubescent cusp.

The daughter with her long flowing hair had seemed to occupy a calmer moment, a different century. One couldn’t forget such calm. While the husband, father of that flowing-haired girl, mate to that wry mentor, is unforgettable from the other end of the spectrum, small with restless eyes, standing while performing an intake of the vitals, manic at the apparition of you, the former student. He has heard much of you, he says, she passed you the baton, right? While talking, he peels and eats in quick succession three hard-boiled eggs.

The eggs matter. He needs the fuel, being a doctor heading to see clients. They will talk to him about their problems in neat forty-five minute segments. Or is it fifty? For each of those segments his ears will remain, in theory, open while his mouth closed, hiding the impatience he stuffs down with those eggs.

He’s a psychiatrist, she tells you, or maybe a psychologist? A psychoanalyst! She lands on the right profession and is triumphant. The flag plants on accuracy.

In other words, her memory is failing. It had failed, it would fail more. What had been charming ellipses and cutoffs in her prose style now are permanently imbricated in her psyche.

She has forgotten much, a wave of her hand says, but the dry humor remains intact. She takes you to a dusty backroom, she the beautiful teacher, her legs stockinged filaments leading you to a library squeezed in between other domestic needs. My study, she says, and in that spot she has something to tell you, something about horror and loss, what she keeps calling her own good-bye party. As she tells you about it, you hear how much she lives in an echo chamber of recall, and how deeply each echo pierces her anew.

 

Call mentorship a form of death in life. Why? Because our mentors show us that we must feel the quicksilver shooting through our veins. This is the one life we have! Make use of it.

In a neat back-to-back, two dominoes facing out, you can also say death stays our ultimate mentorship. Then the question remains: must we carry the hearts of everyone until our heart, like a ship crowded with the memory of those who have left, eventually also sinks like they all did?

Or could memory itself act as a buoy?

There is a black chair with the impress of his body still upon it. As he faded, he liked to sit there while a party took place. The music played louder while he became more of a phantom, inhabiting his skin and bones as if all the better to shrink from them. Occasionally, indignities overcame. With a helper, he had to excuse himself until eventually he excused himself altogether from the greatest indignity, which is living when you can no longer move. Otherwise the chair still sits there: same creased worn spot where the wrist lay, same grease on the reading-lamp’s swivel-switch, same poetry books he favored, the translations on the facing pages, helpful unlike the music of all those parties. Now all of it explains nothing, as phantom as his body, the memory alone speaking in dream-tongue, polyglot but inscrutable.

 

Better, perhaps, to start with that beautiful first friend, the flash of a smile in a heated summer, the one who first showed you how comfortable a person could be in her own skin, you an adolescent saying goodbye to her on a crowded foreign street. Both of you exchange students in high school. The foreboding so palpable at that good-bye: she was to take a trip with her new clam-handed English boyfriend with his high equivalently palpable patches of red in the cheek. Such patches could signify maturity or schoolboy shame, you couldn’t know. You couldn’t know much, being too new to the world yourself. Soon you would return to the strange family in whose attic you had been living while attending a high school in which the algebra or possibly trigonometry teacher droned on about x plus y and you sometimes remembered with a shocking thrill just short of accomplishment that your bohemian boyfriend back home, as his parting gift, had done some stray licking and fondling. In this foreign land, you remembered, at least your body was no longer terra incognita. The metaphor sutured: the thanatos of that dreary foreign classroom engaged in passing on a knowledge seemingly unto itself, with no relevance, dry and dead with all its students engaged in their own parallel daydreams, against the quick shudder of life, the eros which had as its sole x or y the future.

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‘One Quarrel’: 2015 Best American Short Stories Notable, Issue No. 100

Though they had parted and now lived in different cities, he only remembered one quarrel of all the years and travels. They’d been through Europe together, of course, when they were young and she’d been sunburned in France and fond of the wine, the first she’d ever liked, a thick red wine from a vineyard twenty minutes from their campground above the beach, and she’d taken off her bikini top like everyone else and browned herself, and one day at the campground she’d quickly pulled him into the women’s shower room where they had to be very quiet in the big shower stall, but brown and soapy she had laughed and laughed and became known as the American woman who thought washing up was very funny. And they’d been to Tokyo, a city he remembered as a city of nights, the lights of the Ginza as they sat in the backs of taxis knowing not to kiss because their first cab driver had stopped and shaken a finger at them and said, Not in Japan. They said that every night in the hotels they found along the river in Scotland as she came into his arms or he came into her arms. Not in Japan. They’d lost luggage and he’d lost his wallet twice and found it again once; it was still on the roof of the cab at the taxi stand at the Gare du Nord on their second trip to Paris, a magical lump which saved that day. But they’d had years of staying home too, and three houses, each newer than the last but not as nice or made as well: a brick house, a block house, and then a frame house with stucco, which went to flinders in a Midwestern hour under an unnamed tornado, but all three had been great houses with their paintings on the walls and their bare feet padding in the kitchen, and they’d raised three children, two girls and then Charlie, all of it intense and permanent, the infinite schooldays and the impossibility of seven times eight and then the magical answer, and the sudden projects for school, the poster for Magellan and the maps, and then all the lessons, cello and horseback riding, and the injuries, no broken bones, but Dora burned at camp and the scar on her forearm, and Eleanor, two years as a spacey teenager, riding her bike into the back of a parked car, the dental work, and later the acrid season with her boyfriend Matt or Catt or Ratt and his tattoos and the night she showed them her tattoo, the Chinese characters, and they sat quietly looking at her thigh, neither asking, and finally their daughter Ellie looking up from the blue mark on her leg and saying, “Well dears, it will then be always a mystery until the next person sees it and when he does there’s going to be a party!” and she got on her hands and knees on the couch knowing that he and his wife could not even move and she crawled over and kissed them each. And then two years later she was right about the party as it accompanied her entire wedding, and it was Wesley, the groom, who told them that she’d told him about Ratt and that he had now seen the tattoo all right and he smiled and said: it’s the character for Patience, and Ellie says she chose it for you two.

And then the two of them walking around the last house, the only one that was ever empty late at night, carrying half a glass of wine and listening, putting pans away and magazines, and collecting the dropped towels and being able to hear the children sleeping: three, then two and then one and then Charlie at college and his internship in Richmond (their baby is a speechwriter!) and still with the same half glass of wine they circled the house looking for a shirt draped over a chair and crossing by each other with the ache of the empty house in their hearts and asking “Are you still up?” And he couldn’t remember a quarrel from any of it.

Later, living alone and coasting on the memories that substituted for sleep, he’d work his way back through the seasons of their life and he knew there wasn’t a time that someone stood angrily and left the table or slammed a door or any of it. He remembered tears in the car, but what were they ever about, some night driving around the lake coming home from a party and him crying or her, the reasons long lost. He remembered vividly her saying his name sharply as he parked the car one wheel over the curb when they’d raced back after their one tornado, but then as they stood on the littered lawn and looked at most of their house, torn open like junk mail, as if the brown wind had also been looking unsuccessfully for their children, their hands flew out separately like ridiculous magnet toys and found each other. There were shingles driven into the walls of the upstairs hallway which was now open to the world like something intended, the rosevine wallpaper finally right in the cloudy open air of day.

The quarrel he remembered was ancient, but he saw it as clearly as anything he’d known in the last week of his life now. It was the first year they’d begun to see each other. They were in college and had met in a small honors history class in which you could smoke it was so long ago, and a girl in the class always smoked her Salems and a shed into a tin Band-Aid box that she’d painted gold, and it was her performance of smoking that they both remembered as much as their project, an analysis of the New Deal and the political fallout from the Civilian Conservation Corps and how it became a fundamental step away from the farms, from agricultural America. The girl in their class always lit a cigarette before she spoke and she could handle and maneuver the cigarette and point with it and then look down and tap the ash during her remarks, and they both laughed about how unfair it was for her to have that advantage, and his wife said she was going to win that battle and open her fist while defending the Democrats and reveal a pair of her underpants. Later in class, she had done it and he saw it coming and still gasped until he saw it was a lace handkerchief with which she wiped the corner of her mouth and then smiled at him gloriously, his shocked open eyes, and that was actually the last beat in their terrific courtship and it led them to her bed that night after her roommate had gone up to campus for the underground film society which was showing “Woman in the Dunes.”

So they were involved, and everything good in his life doubled in a way that he knew was permanent, his schoolwork and his ability to leave her apartment at eleven or twelve at night and kick through the comically leaf-strewn streets like a movie set that fall up to the campus and across the soccer fields to the dorms in the cold wind and by the time he pushed through the oak door of his room, he knew what he would say in his paper about the poet Robert Browning or the poet Percy Shelley and he sat at his old manual typewriter close enough to the window to hear the ghost of the fall wind carrying the legions of leaves down from the mountain canyons and gathering them against the brittle fences of the residence hall tennis courts and he typed the nine-page paper through top to bottom and then at four a.m., he cruised the sleeping corridors of the dorm and finally out into the dark morning claiming the world in long strides the way love had claimed him.

It was in the middle of December when they quarreled. …

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