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

‘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?”


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?”


“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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‘To Bloom, to Burst, to Blaze’: 2015 Best American Essays Notable, Issue No. 100

I’m thinking about suicide. Not my own—not that. I know about the yawning vortex. Talk to me at three a.m. when I’m groping through the house, chased awake. I can see The Great Nothing in the blinking lights on the television; can hear it in the yowls of the coyotes in the neighbors’ fields. I can actually feel certain death, cold as the bathroom mirror while nearby, my family breathes on.

I’ve had the morning terrors since twenty-nine—a condition diagnosed by various doctors. It goes on whether I drink or don’t, whether I give up coffee or poach myself in caffeine, whether I get pricked with acupuncture needles or take medication. They all call it something different. Acute anxiety. Panic attacks. Whatever it is, I can’t fucking sleep.

Yet I’m the sort that comes back in the morning. If I can swing my legs to the floor, then: eggs. I’m talking about routine here. Death of friend, death of hope—death, period. Still when the day comes, this reason. Eggs.

What I’ve been thinking about are other people’s suicides. What it would be like in those final moments. How brave you’d have to be to pull the trigger or jump off the bridge. And what is the thinking? What final, delicate poems were running through Anne Sexton’s mind as she closed the garage door? What spectacular ramblings were spinning through Virginia Woolf as she waded out with that stone?

Sometimes I picture getting there just in time. We know about dreams, don’t we? We’re allowed to do everything right. I picture rowing to Virginia before her head goes under, or going ’round for a drink at Anne’s just as she’s getting into the car. Hey, what are you—? Don’t do that. Let’s go watch a movie or something. Or better, some eggs.

Sylvia Plath. 1932–1962. Poet-genius who died with her head in the oven. She’s the one I think about the most, really. After all, I, along with thousands of other bookish females with a tendency toward blue, have worshiped her every word since finding The Bell Jar in the school library at fifteen. Of course, TBJ’s only the starter drug. Every serious Plathy knows that. We go on to Ariel (the non-Ted version, of course), then muddle through The Colossus. Then, if we’re really serious, study the unabridged diaries.

Sylvia! we cry. Oh, there have been armies of us, knobby-elbowed girls poring over her tangled prose while aching away on our twin beds.

We are so alike!

I, too, have gone mad over a boy.

No, thirty boys!

I, too, worship those who pay me no mind!

“Tonight,” Sylvia Plath wrote in her diary in 1956, after drinking in

the same bar as Auden, “the unforgettable snatching of toothpicks and

olive pits from the tables of ambrosia Gods!”

Me, too, Sylvia! I totally would have done that!

But you betrayed us. You tore up the sequel to The Bell Jar, burned it in a rage. You destroyed another perfectly good book of stories about life at Cambridge, a book I would have loved. And then, you deprived us of a life of prose. You died, Sylvia. On purpose.

Or did you? You friend, aware of your despair, had hired a nurse the day before to help with the children. A professional, nurturing woman who was due to come the next morning. There are theories that perhaps you wanted to be saved, as you asked the neighbor to check on you hours before the deed and left a note saying to call your doctor.2 What if that nurse had come early? Even an hour might have made a difference, some sources say. So during my “blue hours,” as you called them, I picture showing up to Fitzroy Street. Kicking that door open, slamming open the windows. Wake up, Sylvia! Come on. Breathe. An intervention, during a gray morning eleven years before I was born.


Can I talk to you, Sylvia? Really talk to you? Why not, right? What are you going to say? No? There’s something I’m not telling you, Sylvia. Lots of things, but I don’t want to overshare. Do you know the critics, the ones who rejected and sneered at you, praise you now as a pioneer of female sharing? Accidental or not, you became the colossus. First it was your story, then your voice, then your role in literature. You’re an entire genre. The first female confessor.

Though honestly, that title might not be so terrific. These days we’ve got females overconfessing all over the place. If I see Lena Dunham’s butt one more time, I’m cutting off my cable. And the theory is you did it first. Taught us how to share without being disgusting. I hope I’m not disgusting. I’m just talking to you.

All right, so. This really started when I was twenty-six. The same age you were when you married Ted. I had just moved to San Francisco. I often wonder what would have happened if you had come here. If instead of getting all academic and Fulbright about it, you’d just gone Kerouac and hit the road. You’d probably be alive and not famous. Maybe you’d live on my street, still alive, and writing in the remote Northern California town I’ve chased myself into.

But that’s not what happened to you. That’s what happened to me. San Francisco. I had no reason except this thing called the Internet boom. The whole country seemed to tip west. I put a plane ticket on my credit card. I wasn’t certain what I was going to do, as I had no skills and nothing to offer but an expensive college degree. I know Smith got you places, New York and Cambridge and all that. But it’s come to mean less, college. The smartest ones don’t even go now. They start companies at nineteen and become billionaires and buy fancy bowling alleys. I don’t want to generalize, but unless you come in the form of a Sylvia Plath app, these tech kids probably don’t care much about you.

But back then. 1999! We were somewhere in the middle of David Foster Wallace and the new Star Wars. I had a window seat, and as we were landing I pressed my forehead against the glass. The city was iced with pink and blue, but mostly it was the color of the communion wafers the reverend back home placed on our tongues.

No one writes like you about being a lost girl in the city, Sylvia. Those scenes in The Bell Jar, where you were lonely and sick in Manhattan and not sure what to wear or how to act, those are never to be surpassed. So I’ll just give you the broad strokes. Temping at a pet food company. Drinking all night, falling asleep on a camping mattress in a friend’s closet. Awake at seven, rising with the energy of a Dionysian nymph. I didn’t know it then, but those nights of sleep, they were true miracles.

I got a job. Actually, I had three jobs in one year, one more lucrative than the next. 1999. It would make you dizzy, how much money there was. These places we worked, they were palaces of waste. Mountains of bagels in the morning, espresso machines, video arcades, ergonomic foot warmers. The place I finally landed, an advertising agency, welcomed me to their “family.” I had no experience in advertising, but this didn’t matter. They liked my vibe, and paid me $65,000 a year to write about a supply chain. I still don’t know what that is.

You only lived to be thirty. But getting older is actually not so awful. One of the good things, for instance, is the growing ability to make sense of the past. What I see now at forty is just how easy it was, with no purpose other than feeling good and making money, to become unequivocally lost. My job was particularly abstract, as we were not even the company creating nothing, but the company talking about nothing. The agency asked very little of me in actual work, though my soul, it claimed. Every Monday we were to share our “hopes for ourselves” in a “supportive environment.” Hugs were encouraged. There was almost always crying involved. I was twenty-six and I took a bath in the Kool-Aid. At the time I had nothing else better in which to believe.

I met many people in 1999. These were not the heady, fascinating poets you surrounded yourself with in your twenties, Sylvia. These were easy men and women, East Coast transplants. Do I want a beer, they’d muse, or a cocktail? We did not see San Francisco as real life. There was always a party, a new way of mingling with the same people, be it an event with a theme of a decade we had missed, or a dinner party with different courses at different people’s houses, or a trip to a warehouse pulsing with trance. In your time some of the parties might have been called Happenings, but they were not even as cerebral as that. I remember emerging occasionally and getting cynical about the emptiness of it. Still, I was young, and confident this would eventually change.

It did. I made a friend. A real friend. And if time is a sieve, he is one pebble from that era still left to me, other than some photos and a pair of white boots I have always, even now, been too scared to wear.

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‘Mendocino Fire’: 2015 Best American Short Stories Notable, Issue No. 100

One time in the library in town, a boy has a rat inside his T-Shirt. Its head pokes out under the boy’s chin, its claw-y hands clinging and whiskers quicked forward. It is as if Finn has never wanted anything before: this, this is her destiny, to be a girl with a rat inside her shirt. Wherever she goes the rat will hang on, the alert small subject of her gigantic solicitude. How long do you think a rat will last in the woods against foxes and ravens and owls and hawks? But if she was very careful and kept it in a cage and was very careful. Do you think a rat wants to be your little prisoner, or do you think a rat wants to be free like you are?


Nights when the fog holds off they lean around the illicit summer fire, smoking and telling stories and feeding twigs to the fire for the love of seeing small things burn, story after story and there is Finn, almost five, riding the high end of a tilted redwood log in the dark. Mary, too, tells stories. Whenever Mary tells how Finn was born, Finn feels both beloved and ashamed, her helpless, ridiculous baby-self held up for them to dote on. That story ends with Mary crying in ever-fresh astonishment: Finn, you were so beautiful! Finn works her arms from too-long sleeves and pulls her knees to her chest under the sloppy tent of Goodwill sweater smelling of the grown man who gave it away. Who smoked. Who was not her father because she’s asked and Mary shook her head. The baggy sweater hem covers the boots so only their toes show, and she evens the boot toes so neither is ahead, neither is winning, not the left, not the right—old black boot toes in a setting of moss and fingerlength ferns and upthrust mushrooms whose caps are pale, pushy, tender, mute. A boot toe edges into the crowd of mushrooms. One is uprooted and maimed by the slow back-and-forthing of the toe of the boot. Then she is sorry. Finn closes her eyes and fills up with sorriness.

That is killing, Finn.

For a while she is absorbed in accusing herself, then blame loses its electrical charge, and if she wants that absorption again another mushroom will have to die. Boredom nudges her boot toe close to another cocky little button of rooted aliveness.

What is that like? Not to be able to move out of the way?


Another night, that summer or the summer after. If firelight flashes high enough there’s laughter because first it’s a freaking face up there in the dark, then it’s a little kid. Now and then Finn has come down when coaxed, and that was a mistake. They may not mean it that way, but their solicitude is an oblique condemnation of Mary. Finn holds that against them even if her mother doesn’t.

Aren’t you cold in just that sweater and your poor legs bare? And Jesus look how scratched up.

How long since you seen chocolate? I think I got some somewhere.

My little girl is your age just about and she can say her ABCs. Can you say your ABCs?

In this full-moon circle there’s a stranger, though the grown-ups don’t at first know that, each person assuming the lean bearded dude with the hostile vibe arrived with someone else. Afterward no one will own up to having told him about the circle, but that could have been from shame at showing the kind of piss-poor judgment that fucks up everyone’s night.

Finn, who can go a long while unseen, has been found out: he has noticed her. He has called, “What’s your name?” and gotten no answer. The wiry dark shrub of his beard parts again, the teeth asking, “What’s your name?” Finn’s hesitation lasts long enough to offend him down there in his bared-nerve world and he shouts, “Don’t answer then you autistic little shit, not like I give a fuck.” Finn is being, for the first time, hated: her nerves memorize the shock. And him: she memorizes him, this shirtless shaven-headed hater, brows heavy and meaningful in contrast to the round gleaming exposure of his forehead, and, inked on the left upper slab of his chest, a tattoo, a spiral as big as her handprint would be if she left a handprint on his bare, slightly sweating, hard-breathing chest.

“Hey,” someone, not Mary, commands gently. “Hey come on now. Hey.”

Another voice says, “Way disproportionate, man, going off on a kid like that. Pretty fucked up.”

Someone else says, “Look, she never answers.” Adding, “But it’s not autism.”

Someone says, “Maybe, man, you should apologize to Finn.”

He says, “Finn.”

Mary, at last: “You know her name.”

“Finn,” he calls up to her. “Finn, man, I’m sorry, I lost it.”

The others wait for an utterance equal to the scale of his offense. He, too, for reasons of his own, seems to want to say more. He calls, “You not telling me your name, it just hurt my feelings. I lost it.”

At this skewed sincerity they laugh, and he sits down and leans in to accept the joint, and everyone in the mended, redeemed circle relaxes. Finn is almost asleep when she hears his voice again: “You know what I saw on TV last night? This bear. This polar bear. It teeters on this little dwindling raft of ice and it can’t fucking stay where it is and it can’t fucking go because there’s no other ice in sight. It’s swimming and swimming, this small, like a dog, polar bear head in a world of water, forever and ever water, this bear swimming hard against the drag of its long fur with nowhere to swim to, nothing to climb out onto, ice gone, ice melted, and it’s despair, what he feels, what we feel, that is despair and we all know it. You think Mendocino is different, your safe hole to hide in? Well wake the fuck up, they’re coming for the last little scraps. Who stops them? Us? Have we stopped them from fucking over the fucking planet? Let me tell you their ideology. Want me to tell you their ideology? Take take take take take take take. Kill kill kill kill kill kill kill.” When he says “kill” they hear not only fucked up and pissed off, there’s a personal element, some provocation an ordinary person could tolerate, which he, being crazy, can’t bear. “What’s coming should fucking terrify us. Tell me this. Why aren’t we fucking terrified? Why don’t we do a fucking thing?” He gets to his feet, he wants to find her, to talk to her. “Now it all falls on children.” He tilts his face up but the fire has died down and she doubts he can make her out against the darkness. He says, “She’s gonna see—,” and means her. He’s forgotten her name.

He says, “She’s gonna live to see—”

He’s forgotten the end of the sentence.

With soft concern, the kind that doesn’t presume to insist, someone drawls, “Come on, man, sit down, why don’t you sit down”—and other voices, fastidiously soft, tug at him. “Come on, it’s all right, sit back down, good, that’s good, don’t cry, it’s a beautiful night, you’re among friends, there’s the moon.”

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When Henderson first saw it from the bridge, the fire was prowling in the weeds above the creek bed, sinuous, orange, menacing—a lion.

Without debating it with his better judgment, he cut his pickup left and headed down a dusty road between two dusty vineyards. In this dry season, a fire beginning on anybody’s place could spread to your own, so the thing was, to kill it as a cub.

As he pulled into the yard, an ugly dog with the blotched coat of a hyena ran out snarling at him, straining at the end of a long chain. The house was small with a room just added, lined with plastic, not quite plumb. There was a shed with a stack of copper tubing, a table saw, sheets of corrugated fiberglass, wooden forms. And a vegetable garden: sunflowers, tomatoes, beans.

There was no car or truck.

Yelling at the dog to drive him back, Henderson trotted to the standpipe near the garden and turned the valve. A pressureless trickle bled out the end of a short hose. They were on an old well here probably, or maybe just a cistern sunk in the creek bed. If you haven’t got water, Henderson thought, you haven’t got anything.

Henderson grabbed a shovel out of his truck and, swinging it once at the dog to send him away again, dug into the mound of soft silt along the creek bank and started throwing it onto the flames. The day felt as hot as the fire, a lesser sun sucking up the air around it, making the near vineyards and distant wooded hills quiver as though through molten glass. Just him and it, and he was damn well going to smother the son of a bitch.

Henderson told it so, loading up his idiot stick, arching it so the dirt whumped down along the spreading darkened cancerous edges, not making much headway, but at least staying even. It was all part of the same problem—the dry grass, the empty creek bed, the dust, the parched dying deer wandering the roads. Nothing water wouldn’t fix. And the dam he was working on would mean water. Only if you weren’t fighting the parts house, it was the construction timetable, the unions, the politicians or the environmentalists. It was becoming damn near impossible to do anything. Making this, by comparison, almost a relief: just Henderson and the fire.

He kept himself between it and the house, figuring to give up the garden and maybe some of the fruit trees. As long as the wind didn’t kick up, he could probably force it back to the gravel of the creek bed.

Henderson hated and feared fire the way other men hate and fear failure. Two summers ago, a grassfire started by some deer hunters had burned through twelve thousand acres of forest over near Rivermouth, had clouded the sky and rained ashes for thirty miles around. Three months back, Henderson had hiked out from the town of Fernwood, up the first row of hills and come upon the fireline. It was like standing at the edge of the sea. Had the people in the town any idea how close they’d come? How near the lion’s hot breath had been? From the way they lived now—leaves and twigs deep on the roofs, barrels of trash, dry brush around the houses—they grazed idly, in the lion’s hungry eye.

He felt the lion now, treacherous and cornered, looking for a lapse: a pounce at the butane tank, a leap of a spark onto the dry shake roof, and all that would be left here would be another square black carcass.

But he was on top of it when the pickup appeared, a kid driving, in Levi’s and T-shirt, long hair and a beard, but trimmed and clean, his pregnant wife and a toddler with him. The kid ran up, grabbed a shovel and did as Henderson was doing.

Setting up a rhythm then, the two men chuffed one shovel after the other into the silt, taking four steps, dance each around the other, arch the dirt onto the flames.

Goading and compensating, hitting it harder than either would alone, neither willing to take a lesser shovelful or miss a turn, the kid as if to prove the property was deservedly his, Henderson panting and straining to convince the girl? the kid? himself? that he could do a young man’s work. And all of this the stronger for remaining unsaid.

Under this attack, the fire gave ground, shrank, fought back at the edge of death. Then it was over, but for smoldering earth. And what had bound the men was gone.

Henderson’s face was hot, his eyelashes felt shorter, his clothes sweated wet inside, scorched dry out. He felt a twinge of shock for the first time, at the rashness with which he had acted.

“I’m Jim,” the kid said, smiling and extending his hand. “This is Nancy, and this is our son Darrell. This man saved our house from burning down, Darrell.” The toddler stared at

Henderson and looked confused.

They sat down on a lumber pile to take stock. The kid looked at the ugly smudge of       smoking landscape that had been a simple stretch of weeds along the creek back of his house.

“We were gone less than an hour,” the kid said as if he ‘d caused it. “Just went into town was all.”

“You were lucky. I just came by here on my way back to work.”

“I can’t get over it,” the kid said. “It’s like the days when people pitched in to help their neighbors raise barns.”

“Nobody likes to see a fire this time of year,” Henderson said. “Call the Forestry and they’ll get out here in time to help you sift through the ashes.”

The girl appeared with a cloudy-looking pitcher of apple juice and a pitcher of iced tea. Henderson and the kid glugged tea out of the pitcher without pouring a glass. The girl said, “It’s amazing. In the city nobody would have thought of doing that.”

“What do you do?” the kid asked Henderson.

“Heavy equipment machinist. I went into town to pick up a part. “

“Do you like vegetables?”

“Don’t go to any trouble,” Henderson pleaded. But the kid was already into his garden, picking cucumbers, tomatoes, bell peppers, squash. The two kids looked to Henderson like they could use nothing so much as a good steak and french fries.

“What’s all the copper pipe?” Henderson asked.

“Water heaters,” the kid called from the garden. “I install solar heating systems. Collectors, wood stoves, pool heaters.”

“Is that a fact.” Henderson stared at the work shed.

The kid dumped the vegetables into a cardboard carton and brought them over to Henderson who was already trying to figure who he’d give them away to.

Henderson thanked the couple, then tried to distract them from giving him anything else. “How you folks fixed for water here?”

“We manage,” the kid said defensively.

“We carry in cooking water,” the girl corrected him, “do our laundry in town and flush only when we have to.”

They exchanged looks and Henderson knew that water was An Issue between them. The life between man and woman, even that had been invaded by the same problem. What was it Henderson had heard or read somewhere? More men had been killed disputing water in the West than had died over gold. At least people could get together and do something about water.

Henderson slapped his palms on his knees as part of a move jack-knifing himself to his feet. His back hurt in a way that made it impossible to stand fully erect at first.

He attempted to console them. “You’ll have water in that creek year-round when the dam is finished.”

The kid gave the girl a stare so intense she turned her head away. Something mean entered his eyes, and then his voice.

“I hope it never is,” he said to her, and Henderson.

He was one of them, Henderson realized. One of the ones that circulated petitions, handed out leaflets, walked picket lines, and sabotaged machinery. Who got between Henderson and his job.

It had been a long, hot day and it wasn’t getting any cooler. The thing to do was for Henderson to leave quietly, tactfully. Yet he had earned the right to speak his mind.

“I work up there,” he told the kids, and smiled. “Repair graders, earth movers, CATs.”

“You’re aware, I suppose,” said the kid, “that it’s being built on a major earthquake fault.”

“That’s some other guy’s decision,” said Henderson.

The kid spoke like his thoughts had been written down and memorized in advance. You weren’t just talking to a person, Henderson felt, you were debating with a movement. What irked him most was the damned moral superiority of it all, as if you were doing something evil just by having a job.

“There are other sources,” the kid insisted. “Just cutting down on what’s wasted would be enough.”

“Everybody bringing in cooking water, using a privy, doing laundry in town?”

“No. Like maybe just getting some of the ranchers to stop pumping water out of this creek and using it to water grazing land for their cattle.”

Henderson hated arguments like this, spreading away like smoke from the seen to the unseen until people were driven, in the name of some distant invisible thing, to commit acts they never would have otherwise. A year ago, the night before construction began, the equipment had been vandalized. People had disabled the controls and pissed and shit in the cabs. They’d had to lock everything up after that and bring in security guards. Educated kids, he thought, discouraged then and discouraged now.

Kicking the dirt off his shovel, Henderson tossed the shovel into the back of his pickup. He started to say something hard, but deciding better of it, thanked the girl for the iced tea instead and invited them to come out and look at the dam.

“Look,” the kid began, pressured by a glare from the girl, “it isn’t that I’m not grateful for what you did. It’s just that this is something I—we—feel strongly about. It’s not always good manners to say what you feel.”

“I suppose,” Henderson agreed. “I don’t spend much time thinking about things I can’t do much about. And I suppose it’s better to be honest about how you really feel, in which case you can keep your vegetables, which I honestly don’t care for.”

Taking a final kick at the dog, Henderson climbed into his pickup.

He backed up, spewing dirt, then floored it in a redneck roar up the dirt road to the highway. The forces of Progress and the forces of Nature had fought a draw on a hot afternoon in California.

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Green Shirt: ZYZZYVA No. 100

ZYZZYVA Issue 100I always wear my crappiest clothes to fly. It’s been my habit for a long time, so long I don’t remember, dating back two decades, quarter of a century. My uniform: well-worn cargoes, brown or khaki, fabric so thin it feels like a bed sheet, soft, threadbare. Old promotional T-shirts, advertising books too ancient, even, to be remaindered; my current favorite highlights an early 1990s exegesis of the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade. Button-downs frayed at cuffs and collar, not unlike the ones I wore in high school, although the point then was a certain shabby chic. Such affectations, it should go without saying, no longer compel me, not when I fly or any other time. And yet, perhaps, I am looking for a through line, a link to my younger self, a consistency by which to neutralize my fear.

Fear? I’d be lying if I said it’s not a factor, although this is equally about comfort, since these are the clothes I wear around the house. I am happiest in loose clothes, old, baggy, shapeless, clothes in which I can forget myself. This is a key conflict with flying, as on a plane I never lose touch with my physical existence, my desperation to remain alive. Does that sound overstated? Desperation is a strong emotion, and mostly when I’m in the air, I’m lost in a book, avoiding conversation with my seatmate, trying to crawl outside time a little, to get it over with. Still, I hate to fly—or no, don’t hate it any longer, although I’ll never like it, never feel comfortable strapped into a narrow chair in a long tube full of strangers, shot across the sky like a bullet, all of us aware that we may die. “People are polite on airplanes,” observes Don DeLillo in his play The Day Room. “There’s a whole thrilling layer of politeness, especially in the last few seconds before takeoff, on a transoceanic flight, at sunset, with a crew of sixteen, twenty-four. … Going down the runway, everyone belted in, assigned letters and numbers. The landscape hurtling past, the temperature regulated …We sense the presence of death.”

Here we have the reason flying stirs us, as if we were in a church or synagogue, or any other place where we sit in rows and confront the bitter half-life of our evanescence, pray that we don’t disappear. It’s why air travel used to come attended with such solemnity, why we used to treat it as an occasion of a kind. The first flight I remember—late summer 1967, New York to Los Angeles on an American Airlines 707, movie (Twiggy in The Boy Friend, I want to tell you, although it didn’t come out until four years later) unspooling in sixteen millimeter jags and stutters as the plane traversed the clouds—I wore a tie and blue Brooks Brothers blazer; my mother dressed in pearls and heels. I was six, but even at this age, flying left me edgy: excited, certainly, imagining that we were in a rocket, marveling that the sky could be so static, as if we weren’t moving through it, yet at the same time more than a little unmoored. It was as if some fundamental connection had been severed, and now that we had managed to get up, there was no clear passage for us to come down. The ten-minute rule, I’d later come to understand, since the real danger of flying occurs in the first ten minutes and the last ten minutes, ascent and descent, as we leave the planet and again as we return. There’s a message in all this somewhere, a signifier of release and control. “Be at ‘Full Alert’ During the Critical Periods,” a website called How to Survive a Plane Crash admonishes, but what interests me more is how I might move away from such alertness, how I might, in other words, be reassured.

At six, I already had a full-blown fear of death. My earliest encounter: four years old, in the living room of our small Central Park West apartment, telling my father I envied G.I. Joe because he didn’t have to die. My father was twenty-nine, and not particularly equipped for such a conversation; a decade later, in a different apartment on the other side of the park, he would tell me we were born to be part of the food chain when I asked him, in a fit of adolescent existential torment, what was the purpose of life. On Central Park West, he managed to be softer, either because I was younger or because he himself was not completely formed. Yes, he told me, but then you wouldn’t know the joy of living—a platitude, to be sure, but not untrue, and especially striking given that the joy of living has never been a pleasure he’s embraced. It was two years after that, in our Galaxie 500, driving through an alley in Long Beach, California (where my father had a one-year fellowship; hence, the cross-country flights to visit grandparents, to spend the holidays, to maintain close contact with Manhattan, the glimmering endpoint of my parents’ American Dream), when I had my first experience of (let’s call it) death dread, that pit-of-the stomach panic, like a case of vertigo, when you realize there is no way out. The moment remains as articulated as a film clip, the four of us en route to my father’s cousin’s in the Valley, me leaning over from the back seat, my brother in the corner next to me, playing with a plastic dinosaur, olive green. Even if you could get out of dying, I remember saying, you wouldn’t want to live forever … and then the bottom dropped out of my guts and I was uprooted, without gravity, as if I were in a plane falling from the sky. It wasn’t that one option was impossible and the other inevitable, it was that both were unacceptable, unimaginable, each the inverse of itself. As Philip Roth laments: “The ceaseless perishing. … What an idea! What maniac conceived it?” He’s right, of course, but the real horror is that, even if there were an alternative, it would be just as bad.

Order a copy of Issue No. 100 here.

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