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‘Artificial Islands’ by Earle McCartney, ZYZZYVA No. 107, Fall Issue

fall-2016-1Oh, I have suffered with those that I saw suffer! A brave vessel, who had, no doubt, some noble creature in her, dashed all to pieces! —Miranda, The Tempest

The day began with the smell of coffee and the sound of my father knocking around in the kitchen. I pulled aside the curtain to find the big dipper shining bright above the meadow, a pearly patch of sky marking the spot where the sun was about to come up. I listened. Refrigerator door. Rummaged silverware. A sheet of tinfoil ripped from the roll. My father was making sandwiches. I screamed.

The rabbit ears on my TV trembled. This was my brother, Richard, walking like he wanted everyone to know where he was at all times. The door swung open and there he stood, fully dressed, backlit, a hostile figure made of darkness.

“Spider,” he said. “Wake up.”

I made a show of shielding my eyes from the light. “I’m awake.”

“Good,” he said. “Then go back to sleep.”

“But I’m up now.”

“It’s early,” he said. “You were screaming.”

“I was?”

He examined with disgust the segment of my room laid bare by the light from the hall. With his foot, he closed a book that sat open on the  floor. “I’ve got a big day ahead of me,” he said. “Go back to sleep. No more shouting. No more nightmares.”

But I had no intention of going back to sleep. I counted to a thousand, giving Richard time to settle into breakfast and to tell my father that I’d had another nightmare—I’d been having them all summer, ever since my grandfather died—and then I pulled out my ponytail, rubbed my hands all over my hair to make myself look extra unsettled, and joined my brother and father in the kitchen.

My father leaned against the counter sipping coffee from a teacup, the portable radio at his elbow murmuring the marine weather forecast. Richard held his face about an inch above his cereal bowl, mouth open, spoon in hand. From his frozen expression, I knew that he could see what I was up to.

“Miranda, honey,” my father said. “Are you OK?”

“I’m fine,” I said. “I’ll be all right.”

“No, no, no, no, no,” Richard said.

“But I don’t think I can get back to sleep.”

“No, no, no!”

My father glanced at the stairway. You could run a lawnmower through the kitchen without waking my mother, but still he lowered his voice to say, “You know what? Why don’t you come shark fishing with us after all.”

Richard put down his spoon with a clatter. Before he could argue, I ran upstairs to get dressed. I’d laid out everything the night before: bathing suit, shorts and shirt, baseball cap, old sneakers. From under my pillow, I retrieved my lucky pen knife. Richard could have trumped me by waking up our mother, who’d already declared that nothing good could come of letting an eleven-year-old insomniac go shark fishing. But I knew Richard wouldn’t tell. He was my older brother and a constant adversary, but he was also a man of honor.

We drove to the marina with Butch’s boat looming in the rear window, jostling over every bump, seeming as impatient as we were to get where we were going. While Butch backed the trailer down the ramp, Richard and I crossed the gangway to the floating dock. With great satisfaction, I watched Richard run his hand along the rail, unsure of his sea legs. He took up a position at the dock’s edge, knees bent, hands out, looking ready to receive a hiked football. The boat came squealing down the rubber rollers, but before it got to Richard, Butch stepped in and took hold of a cleat on the stern. I caught Richard frowning at Butch’s back like he was considering pushing him in.

He came and stood next to me, distancing himself from the temptation. “You’re going to be hot in that stupid getup,” he said.

I wore black shorts, black sneakers, a black hat, a black T-shirt. I always wore black.

“I’ll be fine,” I said. “I like to be sweaty.”

“It’s my birthday,” he said, “and you’re dressed like a freak.”

“What does your birthday have to do with it?”

“You shouldn’t even be here. Do you have any idea how dangerous these sharks are? Butch, tell her how scared she should be.”

“We’ll be lucky to make it home in one piece.”

The boat lifted off the trailer, and the name Melody bobbed in front of me. My father hoisted himself onto the dock and handed Richard a rope that he’d tied to the bow. To me he said, “Don’t listen to these jokers. They’re just trying to frighten you.” His soggy loafers slapped against the planks as he and Butch loaded the coolers.

Richard sulked. He sighed. He cast the rope back and forth like a whip, like he meant to teach the water a lesson.

Butch said, “Cheer up, Junior. Without your sister here, you’d have nobody to terrorize.”

When my father offered me a hand, I ignored it and jumped aboard. I took a seat on the little shelf between the gunwale and the engine cover, where I could watch the water behind the stern begin to boil. Butch took hold of a corner of the cabin and shoved us off, his calves bulging as he walked the boat down the dock like a strongman pushing a railroad car. As we cleared the end, he leaped aboard and stood on the prow, tenting his hand above his eyes to gaze across the flat, grassy meadow. Through the early morning haze, I could just make out what he was looking at: the cooling tower for the nuclear reactor on Artificial Island. It sat on the horizon ten miles away, disgorging a crooked column of clouds.

“Is that sucker spooky or what?”

As Butch spoke, my father spun the helm to bring us around. Butch regained his balance by grabbing the aerial. “Christ, Dick,” he said. “It’s too early for a swim.”

He climbed down to take the wheel and offered me a wicked look—me alone, not my father or brother. I was his audience. I could see that. And having me as an audience, along with the thrill of nearly falling overboard, seemed to inject Butch full of something wild. He cracked open two beers, and before we’d reached the end of the no-wake zone, he floored the throttle. Melody reared back and roared. I held onto the gunwale as we jumped through the last line of floats and entered the maze of the meadowlands. We cleaved the slicks, shattered through the shallows, flew around bends with chop pounding the hydroplaning hull like it was shooting it full of rivets.

Everything—the islands, the foxtails, the old pilings, the dead trees—moved past us faster than the cooling tower, which squatted on the horizon like a cauldron, its row of white warning lights winking at me. Butch saw me looking, gave it a nod and yelled, “I always feel like it’s watching me!” Then he cut a turn so close to a buoy that I could have reached out and had my arm ripped off.

When I looked again, the cooling tower had dissolved in the haze. We left the meadow for the bay, and the world’s ragged edges fell back. There was a sudden opening into brightness. The horizon was a line pulled tight, dividing blue from blue—and as we hit the chop in the open water, much of that blue turned white. The inboard screamed as it dug in, and a jet of white water leapt up behind us, crumbled from the top to spin and scatter. Butch squinted at me through a rainbow in the vapors, smiled, and opened up the throttle even further.

Between the walls of froth and the lifting cabin I could still make out a segment of horizon. I used it to steady myself as we lifted and plunged. As I watched, a long, low shape, black above red, materialized out of the haze. A supertanker. We were nearing the shipping lanes. Now, yes, I was afraid. Long after we’d left the enormous ship behind us, we hit its wake. Melody was a cabin cruiser, maybe twenty feet long, no bigger than my bedroom. As we dove into each trough, the plunge sent plumes of hard water soaring out to fizz against the next rising swell. On the deeper dives, my body left the seat, and the physical disorientation felt like madness. Butch laughed, clenching a doused cigarette between his teeth. My father gripped the canopy prop as he sipped from a dripping can of beer, beads of water quivering on his glasses and in his moustache. Richard stuck his arms into the spray to splash saltwater on his face. I held onto the gunwale for dear life.

Through all this, I kept my free hand clenched around the opening to my hip pocket, pressing my pen knife tight against my thigh. The movement of the boat, all the soaring and plunging, had me worried that my knife might fall overboard. My grandfather had given me that knife the day he died. I never should have brought it with me.

 Order your copy of Issue No. 107.

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‘Kabul’ by Fatima Bhutto, ZYZZYVA No. 107, Fall Issue

fall-2016-1At first, when the doctor told Soraya, she did not believe her. The vomiting, the taste of metal on her tongue, the way her toes had swollen, making her feet look fat and ugly—all those things should have told her.

Told her for what? She had been trying to keep him; since she felt him slipping away from her, losing interest, she had been trying to fall pregnant with his child.

“Are you sure?” Soraya asked the doctor in the small, white office. The doctor wore a headscarf tightly around her moon-shaped face and her hands smelled of the talcum powder from her gloves. Two months, maybe three. The doctor did not look at Soraya when she spoke. She lowered her eyes. She knew the girl was young; there was no wedding ring on her finger. The doctor eyed the slim girl lying down. She had no thickness around her hips, no strength in her to bear a child.

Soraya’s mother sat on a plastic chair at the foot of the plastic bed and clapped her hands together.

Shukar,” Mrs. Azizullah said, tilting her head toward the cracked ceiling. Her short brown hair was set in round curls and not a strand moved as she spoke to God through the ceiling fan. “Shukar, now we have him.”

“You see how his eyes drift when you speak to him now?” Soraya’s mother had warned her. “You see how he has that far away thinking face on? He’s thinking of her, of the woman he left at home.”

“Not at home, madar,” Soraya corrected. “He met her after he had left his home.”

“Home not at home. Girl not a girl. Doesn’t matter. You see, look at him. He is thinking of someone else.” Get pregnant, her mother said. Get pregnant before he leaves you.

They all knew he would leave her anyway.


Soraya first saw him on the balcony of his house, one story tall. He was standing against the black metal railing, holding a glass of cold tea in his hand. Soraya was walking past with a girlfriend. She saw him immediately. She knew he was foreign. Tall, handsome, and foreign.

Soraya smiled. “Slow down,” she whispered to her friend. “Shoo,” Paro said, hushing Soraya for interrupting her story.

Soraya stopped and bent to the ground, as though to tie her laces, her long hair grazing the dust. “Stop walking,” she repeated to her girlfriend through clenched teeth.

“What are you doing?” Paro said, looking down as Soraya’s hands danced above her bony feet, ticking the skin. “You mental or what?”

But the man on the balcony couldn’t see from up there whether Soraya’s shoes had laces woven through them or not. (They did not.)

“Shoo,” Soraya whispered back, a softness in her voice. “I just want him to see me.”

He saw her.

She slept with him that night. The first time they talked, the first time he walked her home, the first time she told him her name and he, Sheryar, told her his, was also the first time she let him kiss her, touch her, her long hair between them.

“I can’t breathe,” he said, moving a handful of her dark hair from his mouth as she writhed her body over him.

“Can you feel me?” she asked, moving against him.

Everywhere, he replied, parting her hair and pushing it to the side.


It had been two years that he was away from home. First two years, then three, and then before he could count to four the years started jumping, two at a time until—by the time he landed up in Kabul—it had been seven, eight years.

“Don’t come back,” Sheryar’s mother said on the poor telephone line from home. “Don’t come back just yet,” Sheryar’s mother said to her son in exile. It wasn’t safe for him here. It wasn’t safe for a young man. Stay abroad, she said, echoing thousands of other mothers who thought abroad was close enough for people to return from. Like other mothers, she didn’t know that after five years or ten, abroad was too far a distance to breach.

So Sheryar stayed away. He studied law as an undergraduate and did well. With the money his mother sent him, he passed the bar. But then his visa ran out, so he left London behind. London, where he had burgers and milkshakes in Covent Garden on Sundays and danced at Annabel’s on Fridays. Where he bought food from greengrocers who wore green-and-white striped aprons. London, where everyone was a migrant of some kind, where everyone was a refugee far from home.

But Sheryar’s visa finished and he could not get a new one, not without going home. So he travelled south slowly, stopping in Italy, in Greece, and in Istanbul for three of those long seven or eight years, and where he met a girl and fell in love.

Even now, when he thought of Ela, his chest constricted. He felt her absence in the hollow between his third and fourth ribs.

“Was there someone before me?”Soraya asked when she caught Sheryar drifting. She watched as Sheryar turned his body away from her, as he crossed his legs to create space between them, and ran his fingers across the crown of his head in slow circles.

He drank whiskey at night and when he had too many, he sucked on a cube of sugar, holding it in his teeth until it melted into small grains on his tongue.

“Are you thinking of her?” Soraya asked questions like this only to hear him lie, which he always did, too kind to tell her yes. Yes, he was thinking of her. Yes, there was someone before. Yes, yes to everything Ela.

Sheryar shook his head and bit down on a sugar cube.

“Good,” Soraya said, holding her stomach before she even knew. “Good because you can’t leave me now. It’s too late.”

You can’t leave behind a family.

Order your copy of Issue No. 107. 

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‘Big Boss Bitch’ by Adrienne Celt, ZYZZYVA No. 107, Fall Issue

fall-2016-1The woman began as an idea, as so many women do. She couldn’t be entirely beautiful, because that would stretch credibility too far. She couldn’t be ugly, either, though. A face with just enough lines that on a man it would be called rugged or handsome; but let’s put a little makeup on to smooth the edges, hmm? For clothing a pantsuit, and sometimes a skirt. Recognizable brands made invisible through smart cuts and conservative hemlines. And let’s make sure she smiles. A little razzle-dazzle. You can see how her husband found her pretty, once.

We picked out our woman in Oklahoma. Six weeks of traveling throughout the MiddleWest before we got results. Casting would’ve been easier in California or New York, but these days people always look for the provenance, and why include an elitist factor that will just have to be explained away? This girl screams Real America, the way a cheerleader would in the last quarter of the game. She was runner-up Homecoming Queen, 1979. Now she helps her dad run a cattle ranch; the grass is so green it’s blue, so blue the horizon bleeds into the sky.

That is, she helped her dad. Until she started helping us.

We picked her up off the street. She was walking around looking for a leather worker to repair a pair of stirrups. “He switched storefronts,” she said. “Can you believe it? Same sign, same everything, but move it down a block and a half and I can’t pick the damn place out. Been coming The Sheridan Press here for the past twenty years.” Her laughter was self-effacing, aw-shucks, and revealed a few too many smile lines beside the eyes. But these could be handled with a deft concealer brush. We asked if there was someplace we could go talk. About what? she wanted to know. A proposition. What kind? Well. How would she like to serve her country?


It doesn’t take a lot of persuading to get someone to accept a mantle of power. We were counting on that. And also on the fact that she wouldn’t read too far into the fine print before signing on the dotted line, and didn’t have too many ideas for what needed to change in our great nation. General concepts, inarticulable feelings: great. A new day for America. Stand up for the little guy. It was convenient that she still used male pronouns; not everyone does. Even people you don’t expect to be vehicles for inclusivity slip and say “they” instead of “he,” though the grammar books won’t back them up. One less thing we would have to coach her on. She teared up a little when we told her she was just what the country needed, and that, too, is a talent that can’t always be taught. Just enough emotion at just the right moment. Powerful, but soft. Like a blanket that’s put through the wash a hundred times, a thousand.


Our job is to give the people what they’re clamoring for. In moderation, of course. Figure out what they desire and then turn it into something they actually need, like those terrible chocolate chip cookies your mom makes with grated zucchini inside. The people wanted a woman, but they didn’t understand in what capacity. So many different kinds out there, and only us to find the right one. Welcome, open, elusive, chagrined. She wanted to be president, but only after we told her so.

The campaign trail was a dream. A few hiccups in the primaries from those on our side of the aisle who couldn’t see the bigger picture. But once we hit the main stage, things clicked into place. Sometimes after giving a speech she’d start to walk away from the mic and then turn around, flashing a last grin for the cameras. We hoped it would trigger some vestigial supermodel response, a little glimmer of unattainable warmth between the thighs. The newspapers called her a strong woman and a force to be reckoned with, and she was quickly spoofed by variety shows and ambitious comedians. Her name was in the headlines every day. We hardly had to try.


Now, we aren’t sure exactly when people started looking to their politicians and expecting to see a mirror, but these days that’s the game we’re playing. Everyone knows it. People turn on the TV and want their better selves reflected back. It can be a boon: much easier to find someone folksy than a genuine visionary, a policy miracle. An empathetic, systematic, deep-digging go-getter with both eyes on the prize. Not to mention the grace to get through all those interminable dinners with foreign dignitaries while carrying off couture.Even a well-fitted tux can start to feel restrictive after a few roulades de marmelade avec une glace vanille, if you know what we mean.

(As a side note, this is one area of diplomacy we identified early on in which women actually shine brighter. They have generations of experience saying, No, it looks lovely, but I couldn’t possibly, well maybe just one bite. Like how women do well in submarines because they’re designed, as it were, for interpersonal conflict resolution. It’s a scientifically proven element of nurturing.)

But the mirror. The mirror. At last the country figured out that anyone could hold one, and they began to get tetchy about it.They wanted to project their dreams into the nethersphere by ticking off a box in a booth—which we admit is a beautiful idea. But it takes planning to make it work. People drop mirrors all the time. They crack.We needed something scratch proof, not too heavy, classically designed. The pride of Inola High School, OK, and a prize-winning member of 4-h. Pliable, friable, and a decent physical specimen. Don’t judge: they look at physical fitness when choosing the crew for those submarines, too.

There were no problems to speak of until we got her into the office, and even then we were distracted by the early flurry of activity. An indepth special with a bevy of design blogs showing off the new Oval and discussing her selections from the National Gallery. A sit-down with the most sentimental evening news anchor talking about how young she was when she lost her mom, and her own struggles with raising three children at the same time as managing so many heads of cattle. “Heads of state, now,” the anchor joked. Madame President laughed, that same unpretentious chuckle that made our knees weak outside the Stop-n-Chop cafe.

Still, we should’ve seen the signs—no one wants to talk about family planning right after dinner, while sipping a postprandial highball. Her target demographic was people with televisions; there were certain types of female she could be for them, but not every type. Maternal, yes, but only a mama bear when it came to protecting the country from outside threats of the sort we’d earmarked. Easier to pretend that she’d never had a period or bought a box of Tampax—that was one benefit of a post-menopausal candidate, even if it lost us points on sexual charisma. Better to let her appeal be a little bit confusing. A girl in a mink coat who smells like dad’s cigar. A show-jumper who doffs her cap at the end of the rodeo and lets her hair tumble down onto her shoulders while she sweats.

One day, in a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, she made a joke about breastfeeding in the War Room. Afterward, there was whispering in the hallways, interns giggling in pantyhose and bad suits. We snapped and told them to get back to work, and they did—but all the girls had a little extra pep in their step. Some unrecognizable jus as they imagined, even as a gag, something they’d never before thought possible. The boys looked nervous. We couldn’t blame them.

When we talked to the president about taking care with what she said around impressionable young staffers, she didn’t share our concerns. “Kids,” she snorted. Her mannish laugh relaxed us. The distinct impression she gave was of someone thinking something dirty, but not quite ready to say it out loud. Still, when we complimented her brooch she gave us a strange look—one we’d never seen before. It didn’t get any better when we said it must be hell to spend so much time in heels. “Hmm,” she said. Then she told us she wanted to go on Crossfire.

She stretched her concept so slowly that, at first, we didn’t even notice. The morning of the White House Christmas Party she walked into a briefing without any makeup, and snapped at a page who told her she looked tired. “Have to show up as a clean slate before they make me camera-ready,” she said. “Boy, are they going to layer it on. Damned if I’m going to wash my face twice just to give you the illusion I’m well-rested.” Little things added up, and we brushed them off, as we would the dandruff on her shoulder. Lovingly. Sometimes with Scotch tape, or one of those lint rollers they sell in the impulse aisle at Target, though she smacked our hands away. At a rally we’d been careful to position as “church-going” instead of specifically “pro-life,” she made everyone cry with her story about a hometown girl getting pregnant too young and still graduating from high school on time. But then, at the last minute, she turned thoughtful. “I remember,” she said, “how that girl came up and told me she felt like her body didn’t belong to her anymore. She thought life was sacred, of course, but she asked me, isn’t my life a little sacred, too? And I said, Oh honey.” The room was quiet. Then the president smiled, to tentative applause.

It wasn’t so much the things she did: pummeling Congress for weeks until they introduced a bill to enforce the testing of rape kits; visiting with dignitaries in flats instead of the shoes that slimmed her ankles; taking meetings while her husband was out of town, so he couldn’t offer a veneer of approval for those—not us!—who thought he should. No. It was the fact that she wouldn’t listen to us when we offered gentle corrections. “The American people don’t want—” we began. And she said, “Hogwash. My name’s the one they checked off in the voting box.” Later that week she  gave a national radio address with no lipstick. Yes, it was radio, but we were all in the room, and a photographer was present. On our request, he shot the whole event without film.

OK, we thought. OK. We can fix this. We pep-talked our reflections, slapped ourselves on the cheek to stimulate creative thinking without that jittery aftereffect you get from too much coffee. We did a little bit of cocaine. At about 4:00 a.m. one of us lay back on the couch and looked up at the ceiling, making one of those fingerboxes people use when they want to indicate they’re looking through a camera. Directorial as all hell. What if, he said, we had her, but it wasn’t her?

We all laughed. The pot had really loosened us up, and only made a few of us too sleepy. The caverns of our minds were open, the walls throbbing and glistening with portent. Potential. I mean, the directorial one continued, we have the tech, right? For some reason this was a really funny sentence and we all started giggling again, and couldn’t put a lid on it for at least fifteen minutes, at which point the room grew silent as the gravity of the idea settled over our shoulders.

We did have the tech. We were pretty sure.

Order your copy of Issue No. 107.

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‘Portrait of the Alcoholic with Relapse Fantasy’ by Kaveh Akbar, ZYZZYVA No. 107, Fall Issue

You’re in a car and crying and amazed
at how bad it feels to do bad things. Then

you’re in a hotel bathroom with blood
on your undershirt and the smell of a too—

chlorinated pool outside. You know
one hundred ways to pray to the gods

rippling beneath that water. Confess, tangle,
pass through. Once your room is dark

they come inside, dripping wet. When you show
them the burnt place on your arm,

they show you the bands of flesh cut
from their thighs. You suck their tongues,

trace the blisters under their wings. It’s so lucky,
this living forever all at once. When you turn

on the lights, you’re inconsolably
glad. You could stop this whenever, but why?

Order your copy of Issue No. 107. 

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‘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?

Get your copy of ZYZZYVA No. 105!

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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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