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ZYZZYVA fiction.

Normal Problems: ZYZZYVA No. 100

mailFor a long time, the town killer didn’t kill. It touched you to see him try so hard. After all, it was you he was doing it for. You could tell he missed it, deep down. But he hung in there, as best he could, right up until the very end.

“I could love a reformed killer,” you told him on your third date. “But not one that’s actively practicing.” You were sitting on the back patio of the vegan restaurant he’d suggested. The air outside was springy and cool. Twinkle lights had been lovingly strung through an olive tree that grew in the center of the courtyard and branched out above you.

The evening, just like the first two you’d spent together, had been nearly perfect. The killer was well mannered, thoughtful, and fun to be with. It had been years since you’d had a really good date. And here were three. Right in a row. Perfect up until the moment when he told you what he did for a living.

Now when the killer reached across the table for your hand you yanked it back automatically. “I’m sorry,” he said, slumping down. “I should have told you sooner, but it’s not an easy conversation to initiate.” He stared at his plate where all that was left of the vegetable tagine he’d ordered was a steaming lump of kale. “I just like you so much.”

“Look,” you said, softening. “I like you too. A lot. But you have to quit killing if we’re going to see each other again.”

“I want to.” A weak smile lifted on his face. “But I’m really good at it.”

It was true. Seven years of killing in the same mid-sized college town and the man had never been caught or even brought in for questioning. On the drive to the restaurant on your first date, he’d bragged that he’d never gotten so much as a speeding ticket. He obviously had a weird sort of gift. Of course, the fact that he was handsome probably didn’t hurt. The killer had beautifully behaved hair, a real movie star jaw, and eyes that said trust me. This wasn’t a guy who would have had to do much convincing when it came to getting girls in his car. They probably flagged him down from the roadside. They probably begged him to let them in.

A dreadlocked waitress came and cleared your plates. You shrugged and dragged a shaky finger around the rim of your wine glass. “Everyone has their line in the sand,” you said. “I guess this is mine.”

The killer nodded solemnly. Then the waitress came back with the check and stood there blinking like a lighthouse until the killer handed her a credit card.

You left the restaurant that night feeling depressed. The first three dates had been so promising and though it was still new, the weight of this loss felt disproportionately large when measured against all your other failed romances. It was hard to meet a nice guy, you reasoned. And you had been lonely for so long. You hadn’t been lying when you’d said it. You did like him.

You didn’t expect to see the killer again after that, but apparently he’d been lonely too, because the next night he turned up at your front door, holding a gun.

“Are you going to kill me?” you asked.

“What?” he said, confused. You stared at the gun he was pointing at you. “Oh!” he said, realizing. “Noooo.” He laughed his big handsome guy laugh. The killer took your hand, and lay the gun downon it as though onto a silver tray. “I’m turning this in to you,” he said. The gesture felt so large, you half expected him to kneel down in front of you. The gun was cold and heavy atop your outstretched palm. Your wrist shook a little underneath it. “No more killing,” the killer said. He crossed his heart boy-scout style and kissed you deeply. That kiss! It was like finding a secret window in your childhood home. It felt new and old at the same time.

The gun was just a symbol of his promise, of course. The next day the killer brought over a whole bag of stuff—seven kinds of knives, climbing rope, crowbars, and a carton of Marlboro Reds.

You held up the box of cigarettes. “You smoke?”

“Not anymore,” he said, pulling you close. When he kissed you for the second time, you noticed that his breath was full of a clean, minty kind of hope.


The first time you made love to the killer you were surprised. He didn’t slap you or try to choke you out or even pull your hair. In fact, he was downright gentle. When he came, the dark pupils of his eyes widened and dampened with so much emotion you had to look away.

“It wasn’t what I was expecting,” you confided to him after. You were lying in bed, naked.

Your killer laughed and kissed the top of your head. “That’s what I do,” he said. “Not who I am.”

“Not anymore,” you corrected him.

“That’s right,” he said, spooning you. “Not anymore.” You lay that way for a long time, curled into each other like two organs, while the moon crawled quietly up your bedspread. You fell asleep and dreamed you were wading into an ocean of spaghetti.

In addition to being a killer, the killer also turned out to be a gourmet cook and a strict vegetarian. He made you elaborately healthy meals every night—ricotta-stuffed squash blossoms with an heirloom bean cassoulet, spiced quinoa timbales on a bed of braised greens. You lost weight on this new diet and your chin acne finally cleared up. If you were always a little hungry, it didn’t matter. You felt like a Halloween pumpkin, scooped clean and lit up from the inside.

One night, over a brown rice stir fry, the killer told you of his plans to build a pair of raised beds in your backyard. “I want to plant an organic vegetable garden out there,” he said. “So we can eat the food we grow.”

The killer was like this. Unafraid of the future. He said the words “we will” at least once a day.You had been with other kinds of men before. The kind who tell you that your eyes are like two pictures of Alaska but when you say let’s go to Paris next summer, all they can say is, “You should!”

No one had ever offered to build you a garden before. “That sounds nice,” you said, smiling into your rice bowl.

Three weeks later, the killer moved in.


Order ZYZZYVA No. 100 ($14) here.

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From ‘Strange Attraction’: ‘Black Dress’ by Elizabeth Tallent

shop_anthology_01_strange_large-1000x988Caro—late, late—suffers the acid brightening of the senses that is panic, her eyes on the mirror where her pregnancy pantyhose are an opaque shade of clay, her arms in black sleeves, her belly welling out, sleekly white, below the wadded silk. There is a new, slyly nauseous tilt to this familiar room, which she loves, which her husband swears he bought the house for—where at night, between her husband and the bedside lamp, she lies waiting for him with sudden but predictable impatience to rise and lean across her. The slide of light up his left arm, the graying dark hair in his armpit, and the nicely braced balance of his body spell safe. He is forty-eight; she’s thirty. He says it takes an immigrant like her to want marriage to be a fortress, and a Catholic (lapsed) to believe this is possible, but each night his breathing chest above her, as darkness clicks on, reassures her: here at last is the thing no one ever leaves. The night he lies there and asks, “Can you get the light?” will count as disaster as surely as if the roof fell in. There are other signs, minute betrayals any outsider would miss, that will predict the falling-off. It’s her business to watch for these—to keep him. For the last year, nothing, no premonition or threat of loss. Now she needs this dress for his son’s girlfriend’s funeral.

Caro fears funerals. She arches her back, which only gives her seven months’ belly a more adamant jut, before sawing the silk downward, careful to keep her nails from its tension. From the kitchen her husband calls, “Ready?,” and she has no time left, and no belief, to steady herself for what lies awaiting thirty miles away in Santa Fe: a seventeen-year-old girl, her expression closed, her hair brushed for the last time, tucked into one of those claustrophobic satin beds, lid open, banked in white flowers, a voice over a microphone describing her life. Her family asked if Kevin wanted his class ring back. Kevin said no. Caro, his young stepmother, hadn’t known he had a class ring. Not that she knows everything about Kevin—she’s hardly had time—but his father hadn’t known either. Sometimes the kids of wrecked marriages did that, got covertly conventional. Could this be true of Kevin with his punk haircut, the crucifix that sometimes hangs from his ear? Hart’s divorce from Kevin’s mother couldn’t have been more confused, with mutual wistfulness hanging on long after they separated, enduring even after Hart had met Caro. No wonder that when Kevin fell in love for the first time he dropped through a trap door into blind adoration. He’d grown up with parents who had no idea what was real in what they felt—what deserved protection. The girl in the coffin would be wearing Kevin’s class ring. She might as well have his heart tucked under her folded hands.

Kevin has been waiting with his father at the kitchen table. A while ago Caro heard the coffee grinder, the single sound, apart from the widely spaced wild barks of their neighbor’s new Labrador, to break her fascinated comprehension that the dress isn’t going to fit. Coffee, she’s aware, is a game note of ordinariness introduced into their wait. From behind, as she forces the dress down another quarter of an inch, comes the spiteful sound of tearing. In the small of her back, her fingertips search out the rip. When she inhales, her fingertips feel the rip widen, though now it is soundless. Caro pictures how the father and son sit across from each other, and how acutely conscious they are of having nothing to say. She is never late, and their waiting—being made to wait—is more than rude. It has to give Kevin’s disorientation a deeper, bitterer twist. From a stack of magazines on the dresser, she takes a glass with what’s left of last night’s milk. Room-temperature now, it is the taste of terrible sadness. Kevin’s girlfriend overdosed on Valium, gin, and her mother’s prescription anti-depressants. She had taken the pills from their hiding place under her mother’s tissue-wrapped lingerie, snapped off the child-proof caps, and eaten them in handfuls. It can’t have been easy swallowing so many times; wouldn’t her body have been on the verge of refusing? Wouldn’t nausea have entered in? Ah, Caro thinks, and places her own nausea: with no sense of linear time, no conviction that things that have happened are irrevocably over, her own body is mimicking the girl’s nausea, the nausea she wishes the girl had felt. Caro’s pregnant body wants the girl to throw up. Caro’s secret sense, which she has not mentioned to her husband, is that death has alarmingly little respect for boundaries, that once tipped out it can spill through entire families. That she should stay away.

Her husband prompts, “Car?,” his tone patient and impatient in an oil-and-water mix. The bedroom and kitchen are not far apart. He didn’t need to raise his voice. He did so for politeness—even now, politeness—the pretense being that they can’t be overheard by each other in this house unless they mean to be. That from their bedroom, the father and his young wife haven’t heard his son the last two nights. When, really, there is little more privacy among them than in the house where Caro was born, though that house had a dirt floor and was in Nicaragua and had seven children and a harried, intrusive mother in it. Her mother went down on her knees in dirt that had been drenched in goat’s blood and let dry; her mother began rubbing the floor’s seal to a high sheen, brown saturated with carmine, finally as polished as brick. Caro has always thought her mother invented this trick. She has never asked her mother if this is so. It remains one of those ways in which your parents are, in their competence, magic. See? Brick from dirt. Food from thin air. The butterflies that staggered in hurried fight across the wall at night were the shadows of her mother’s hands. The centipede her mother shook from Caro’s littlest brother’s shoe was ground to bits, hammered with the heel of that tiny shoe, and then it was not the appearance of the centipede but the rage that was magic. It could protect you. Caro shakes her head to clear it.

Last month, coming in after one in the morning and finding Caro still awake, Kevin had taken her carton of ice cream and her spoon, talking music, physics, cars, things he wanted to tell his mother, in Europe with a new boyfriend, someone her ex-husband thinks isn’t good enough but her son, unpredictably, likes. Whose existence Caro was grateful for as she was grateful to be talked to so fast, looking across the table at such open, childish greed. Kevin doesn’t even like ice cream. He was eating just to eat. So many things that are appealing in children are adults’ worst uglinesses. Greed’s one. Kevin’s not often childlike, more the kind of kid who takes part in adult conversation when they begin to rasp toward quarrels, who can divert his father from rising irritation with a joke. “Dad, what do you get if you have an agnostic dyslexic? No. Wait. An insomniac agnostic dyslexic—what do you get? Someone who stays up all night wondering if there is a dog.” On the table between him and Caro, as he spooned raspberry ice cream, was a bunch of Indian paintbrush he had gathered from the deep grass along the highway into Santa Fe. He had stopped to look at the moon, he said. “It was—It was—” He was trying to describe the moon. They both laughed. When Caro finally went back to bed, she found her husband awake, wanting to make love, saying her name over and over into the nape of her neck until she was no longer detecting the sound through her ears but only warmth against her skin and a barely perceptible reverberation of bone, and she had felt confident at last of the love of both of the people she lived with. She had tricked herself, of course, believing this confidence could easily, reasonably, extend into the future, because the girl’s death had changed everything. In Caro’s family, articulate, demonstrative, confessional, grief was nobody’s secret. Her father’s death had fused his five smallest children into a shadow that followed their harsh-eyed mother everywhere, unwilling to let her out of sight. They may not have been noticed, but they were not left, either. They would never be left again, not if vigilance could prevent it.

So, tracing the zipper where it is torn from the silk, Caro considers calling her mother, in Brooklyn now, and a seamstress, who might suggest something that could be done for the dress. Even as Caro debates this, she’s sure there’s nothing her mother could advise. Besides, it’s difficult to picture asking her mother for a favor. Her mother is the kind who requires being prepared for all requests, however minor. Theirs had been a delicately balanced system of exchanges. Perhaps it reflected a widow’s just sense of precariousness—someone who had been so conclusively robbed couldn’t easily give. Caro had never known her life with her mother was claustrophobic, not until she left it. When she had needed to cheer her mother, there had been possibilities in abundance, from weighing her mother’s alive black hair in one small hand while, in the other, the tightly gripped brush fought downward, through washing her oldest brother’s shirts (smell of the outside world), to chasing her little brothers. The eyes of her brothers, when cornered, were glossy and inconsiderate as those of monkeys. Yet within this system, Caro had been recognized by her mother as an unusually resourceful child bent on pleasing. If that couldn’t make her a favorite, it at least got her respect.

“Move,” she whispers, and her arms lift to work the dress off over her head. In the mirror, her legs are so grimly gray it appears that she’s half buried. Awkwardly, she strips the pantyhose off. Their light bundle lands on the dress in the corner. Her belly has the lustrousness of pressurized skin, and that vertical flutter is the baby’s elbow.

When her husband calls, “What’s wrong?” her guilt reaches the baby as a rush of adrenaline, and the baby aims both feet upward and kicks. Caro sits down naked, breath gone, staring at the black dress, whose fault this panic is. If it had fit, she could have gone to the funeral, protected by her own somber, proper appearance. She could have shaken the pale hand of the mother who, caught in traffic on the way home from her acupuncturist, had not known her daughter was dying. Until she heard that part of the story, Caro had always believed in telepathy, between mothers and children especially. The dexterous thumping inside her subsides until the baby seems to be prodding experimentally with a single foot at her ribs. Boy or girl, she wonders, and finds herself thinking, girl. No, knowing. It’s a girl inside her. She leans to the side, drawing her knees in, hands flat to the floor. The dust under her palms is her own inattentiveness. She launches herself upward in a long, graceless uncurling. She rests with her back to the wall.

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A House Well Furnished

Out the window she saw a field. It was small and only on one side of the tracks. There were clothes stretched out on the cut grass. At first she thought they had been abandoned like all the clothes on the streets of the Mission. Maybe she would go through them, but she realized they were laid out to dry. She imagined it was some Richmond version of them. Richmond-her had washed the clothes in a creek and then put them in the field while Richmond-him went out to get some money, get some booze. They slept in a tent under trees by the creek. They were happy.

He started walking and she kept up. He was no longer strutting, but walking with at least the confidence of someone who knew where he was going. She looked around.

The town was poor. Churches and cats were everywhere, like old ladies ran the town. All the churches had bars on their windows. She was pretty sure it was a weekday but everyone seemed to be home. People sat on the porch and fast music came from most of the faded, sagging houses.

They had to walk forever to get to the bar, it was at least thirty minutes, and she expected it after every corner. She stopped looking around and stared at the sidewalk with him. Thinking of the promised beer, she put herself in a timeless trance until it was served. Her mouth, her whole body, longed for it. It waited for her, too. She was glad he wasn’t talking.

The bar was a building made out of sheet metal. The jukebox stood against the wall and shook the whole building to make it a big, shitty speaker blaring out Motown. All these people, now dead or divorced, passionately singing things about love that no one in the bar believed but still felt they should hear. It hurt her head.

His head was still down even though everyone in the bar seemed to know him. They smiled and said hi. They looked at him, then they looked at her and stopped talking, even though it seemed they wanted to say more.

He ordered for them. He had the money; this was all his idea. The bartender came back with two beers and a shot of whiskey. She drank her beer and watched as he downed the shot. She looked at the bartender to see if he was going to bring her one, too. They always had before.

“Don’t I get a shot?” she asked.

“Not now, later. We got to be cool for now. Just drink your beer.”

She didn’t need to be told that. She held her tongue now, but her skepticism warmed. She was angry for a second, but it faded as the beer filled in her skin. At the first sip of beer her dream of the day vanished. She just wanted to get drunk and stay there, nothing else mattered.

They had another round, no shot for anyone this time. They looked at each other as they drained their second bottles. When they put them down he smiled and said to her, “That’s it. I’ve got no more money.”

“What are you going to do?” She kept herself from saying “we.”

He smiled a strange one and looked her up and down. “That’s what we’re here for.”

“Just tell me what’s going on.”

“Don’t worry, freaky, it’s no big deal.”

She realized this whole day had been some stupid plan of his and, somehow, it involved her. She looked around at the other men in the bar. Surely one of them would buy her drinks until she didn’t remember who he was, either. She could live the same blur she’d been living, just in Richmond now.

He put his hand on her naked arm and she remembered the morning. She had to follow the way she felt then. Maybe it could happen with him again. It beat out drinking, which nothing had in a long time. They walked out of the bar.

There was more sun and she lingered in what the two beers had done to her even as she felt it slipping away. This was the only thing she was paying attention to.

He stopped. “Here we are.”

She looked around. They were at a house, the same as all the others, maybe a little more kept up. “What is this place?”

“This is where I grew up.”

“What are we doing here?”

“We’re going to see my mom.”

She tried to remember his name. “Why am I here?”

“Why wouldn’t I bring you?”

“Why would you?”

“Baby, we’ve done everything together the past two weeks. I just thought you’d want to come along.”

“I’m not going to have to do anything am I?”

He smiled. “Just be yourself.” She could see that his beauty was something that he could turn on and off. This was what he had been living off, probably since he was two.

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A Physicist’s Methodical Dissection of an Indian Atrocity: Jaspreet Singh’s ‘Helium’

HeliumJaspreet Singh’s second novel, Helium (Bloomsbury; 290 pages), is an intricately layered, meditative journey through recent Indian history. Raj Kumar, a professor of rheology at Cornell, returns to India, his birthplace, to visit his father, who is recovering from an unnamed surgery. Our narrator, however, finds himself quickly sidetracked by the figures and places of his past, and the story turns accordingly backward—and inward. Raj visits his former university at the request of one-time colleagues, and eventually reunites with Nelly, the widowed wife of Professor Singh, an influential figure in Raj’s life, intellectual and otherwise. The memory and image of Professor Singh, murdered during the 1984 Sikh Massacre, haunts Raj and drives him in his quest to find the truth behind one of India’s—and his family’s—biggest tragedies.

His investigations lead him, eventually (or inevitably), back to the figure that initially spurred his return visit: his father. Raj’s examination of the past is not simply that of the historian or detective; it is one characterized by the dedication to cohesion and ruthless exactitude of the trained scientist. In Helium, Singh brings a scientist’s calculating eye to the description and interpretation of events that prove impossibly distant, apparently imperceptible, clouded by the double mists of myth and memory.

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Restless in the Wilds of Eastern Idaho: David Kranes’s ‘The Legend’s Daughter’

From rainbow trout jumping in the Salmon River to watering holes on the edge of McCall Lake, each of the ten stories in author and playwright David Kranes’s The Legend’s Daughter (Torrey House Press, 172 pages) transports the reader to the wilderness of Eastern Idaho. While Kranes renders a common setting in each story, the collection is not simply a detailed portrait of Idaho, but an examination of the lives of restless people seeking to escape from their lives and find peace.

The Legend's DaughterIn “The Man Who Might Have Been My Father,” a fifth-grader and his mother strike out on a road trip from New York to Sunbeam Springs, Idaho, in a broken down car. Their trip is impulsive—the mother has been receiving letters from a man in Idaho she’s never met. Told from the point of view of the child, the story reveals that the mother’s quest is based on her dissatisfaction with her life. The poorly planned trip leads them through rural America, toward a state they’ve never visited on the small chance it might hold the happiness the mother desires. Throughout the journey, mother and child bond, surviving a series of mishaps, until they pull over outside of Sunbeam Springs. Whether or not the mother finds satisfaction in the mysterious man loses relevancy as the duo dive into the hot springs near the Salmon River in the middle of night. “‘You know if it’s just this,’ she said. ‘If it’s only this it’s okay’,” the mother says while they float in the warm water. Whether or not they stay once in Idaho is unimportant, for the moments of peace they discover floating in the water offer a release from the mother’s ubiquitous anxiety, allowing her to make new choices about their future.

“Between Projects” juxtaposes a woman’s unruffled life along the Payette River with the overbearing influences of the outside world. Karen, a ceramic artist, lives peacefully in her two-room cabin. But the arrivals of a famous actor, who is renting the cabin next door, as well as Karen’s criminal father throw her peaceful existence into the disarray from which she’s spent her entire life escaping. When the actor and the father bond, Karen has no choice but to flee the duo, driving to the edge of Stanley Lake and submerging herself in the water. Despite the tranquility offered in the wilderness of Eastern Idaho, she can’t evade the restlessness of other people. For Karen, the Payette River is a sanctuary, but as with many of the other characters in The Legend’s Daughter, her peace exists for only as long as the outside world doesn’t come dragging her back to reality.

Whether it’s the unraveling of a family or the materializing of marital problems, an uneasy desire for something new fuels Kranes’s characters. At the beginning of “Idaho,” Kranes writes of the protagonist, “For him, truly powerful love involves separation—the love-object across a continent. Better yet: a sea. Love next door seems prosaic.”  Throughout the collection, Kranes offers a richly rendered Eastern Idaho as a place just distant enough perhaps to find temporary solace.

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Significant as Medieval Texts, They’re Bawdy and Lively, Too: ‘The Fabliaux’

The FabiluaxNathaniel E. Dubin’s collection of Old French comic tales in translation, The Fabliaux, is as deceptive as one of the fabliaux themselves. Published by Liveright, an imprint of Norton, in a sumptuous and hefty hardback (almost 1,000 pages long, including Dubin’s bibliography and explanatory notes), the elegantly designed front cover has the title gold-stamped and centered on a prominent black cross; even the couple demurely posed in a bed above the cross (taken from a medieval manuscript) have gold embossing wreathing their heads, lending them both a saintly air.

All this lends The Fabliaux, as a physical object, a sense of serious, even Biblical scholarliness. But this tone is upended quickly upon even a cursory examination of the contents. (I was reading The Fabliaux while riding to work on a crowded bus, when a middle-aged woman plunked down into the seat next to me. From the corner of my eye I saw her assess the meaty reading material in my hands. She might have assumed I was some sort of dutiful student; then she leaned closer and caught a glimpse of what I was reading. “Trial By Cunt,” proclaimed bold black italics at the top of the page. The woman recoiled as if I’d bitten her.)

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The Dark Denizens of a Debauched Rome: Niccolo Ammaniti’s ‘Let the Games Begin’

Let the Games BeginLet the Games Begin (330 pages; Black Cat/Grove Press) by Italian author Niccolo Ammaniti (and translated by Kylee Doust), is an oversaturated, bordering-on-cartoonish romp founded on a larger-than-life premise. A two-bit Satanic cult based out of Rome, the Wilde Beasts of Abaddon, is desperate to enter the ranks of the truly Evil. Though the Wilde Beasts have multiple instances of viaduct graffiti and a botched orgy/human sacrifice under their belt, a rival cult has recently “disembowelled a fifty-eight-year-old nun…with a double-headed axe.” Thus, their leader, Mantos, a furniture salesman who styles himself the group’s “Charismatic Father,” decides they need to gatecrash a massive gala happening in the middle of Rome.

Hosted by a real-estate mogul who’s converted the grandest public park in Rome, Villa Ada, into his personal safari range, the party is going to entail debauchery of every sort—feasting, hunting  (foxes, lions, and an albino Bengal tiger), and plenty of celebrity hooking-up. Mantos is determined to kidnap the evening’s planned entertainment, Larita, a former deathmetal singer who broke up her band when she converted to Christianity. The Wilde Beasts plan to sacrifice her to Satan in a blaze of gore and glory.

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Mythical and Spiritual, Direct and Concrete: The Storytelling Prowess of Sjón

The Blue FoxThree novels from acclaimed Icelandic author Sjón are now available in the United States. Translated by Victoria Cribb, each book offers a vastly different story, beginning with simple and intense prose, which unfolds into a dense examination of a character’s thoughts.

In The Blue Fox (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 128 pages), first published in 2004, Sjón offers two separate narratives. The first describes the initial hunt for a blue fox through the heavy snow of an Icelandic winter in 1883. Halting right before the hunter attempts to kill the fox, the story shifts to the days just preceding the hunt. Fridrik B. Fridjónsson, a farmer and herbalist, is the caretaker of Abba, a simple woman with a mysterious past. Hálfdán Altlason, an eejit who works for the local Reverend Baldur, is sent to Fridjónsson to pick up a coffin. Altlason is betrothed to Abba, and upon his arrival he discovers the coffin contains Abba’s body. Following Abba’s funeral, Reverend Baldur braves the weather and sets off on the hunt for the blue fox. The narrative that follows alternates between Baldur’s attempts to survive catastrophe and the unraveling of Abba’s history.

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You were supposed to keep your eyes closed. Jerry Adelstein knew this, but still he couldn’t help himself. Through his half-open lids he saw Nicki, or rather, the top of Nicki’s head a few rows in front of him. Her black hair was shiny and slicked back with massage oil, glistening like an otter sunning itself on a rock. Though he couldn’t know for sure, he would bet good money that Nicki’s eyes were closed. Unlike him, she tended to follow the rules.

But he shouldn’t be thinking about Nicki. He shouldn’t be thinking at all. Follow the breath, the teacher had said. If you feel your mind drifting, just label the thought: thinking, thinking. She made it sound so easy, as if it were no small matter to shut down the mind. To have thoughts, label them without a running commentary, then let them go, presumably to float up, up, up and away, to some sort of graveyard of lost thoughts.

The teacher’s name was Samjana, the Sanskrit word for awareness, but her surname was Resnick, and Jerry would bet—meditation seemed to put him in a betting mood—that her given name was something more along the lines of Sarah. Or Rachel. In another life, he might have seen her during Yom Kippur services, her head bowed in contemplation during the silent Amidah.

But instead, here they were at the River Bend Retreat, a former monastery situated, aptly, at a bend on the Snake River in Idaho: a thirty-something meditation teacher (not just any meditation teacher, as Nicki had told him back home when trying to persuade him. Samjana was a rock star, the Lady Gaga of meditation teachers) and he, Jerry Adelstein, a fifty-seven-year-old intellectual property attorney fresh off a triple bypass.

Now that, he really, really didn’t want to think about. If he thought about his heart, it would respond, as if in a pas de deux, by thumping irregularly against his chest wall. He peered at Samjana, still and stately as one of the trees outside the picture window which overlooked the rapids. Her legs were crossed in a full lotus position, and it seemed from the peaceful upturning of her lips that she could effortlessly remain that way until nightfall. Thinking, thinking. Behind Samjana, hanging high up on the wall, was a photograph of the Swami who had founded the place. When Jerry had first Googled River Bend, he found many references to the Swami, mostly involving his hasty departure years earlier amid swirling rumors of both sexual and financial impropriety. Thinking, thinking.

Mentally, he slapped himself. Snap out of it, Adelstein! Discipline ruled his life, from the half grapefruit he ate for breakfast each morning and the daily 3.4 miles around the reservoir (a thing of the past), to the color-coded files he meticulously kept on every client past and present. Christ, he even got through The Brothers Karamazov last summer when he and Nicki spent the last two weeks of August on the Vineyard, but this—just turning down the volume, slowing down the avalanche of loose data pinging through his mind—this seemed to be beyond him.


It had been his cardiologist at Mount Sinai who first brought up the idea of meditation.

“Medication?” Jerry had asked.

“No, meditation.” The cardiologist hadn’t realized that Jerry was joking. What was the expression: about as funny as a heart attack?

“Be serious, Jerry.” This, from Nicki, who had been in the room at the time. “You know, I read a study last winter. There are significant benefits.”

Two weeks earlier, his chest had been sawed open, an event that occurred less than twenty-four hours after a stress test and subsequent angioplasty had revealed major blockage in three coronary arteries. It had been a routine visit—an annual checkup—and Jerry couldn’t help but feel that if he’d skipped the visit, none of this might ever have happened. It could have been, as his kids used to say when they were little, a do-over. No railroad track of an angry red scar in the center of his chest, still bare from being shaved pre-surgery. No new normal, a phrase he abhorred. And certainly no fucking retreat in the middle of nowhere led by a woman with a cockamamie Hindu stagename.


Sadjama tapped an ornate gong with a soft mallet, and a single, mournful note filled the room. Slowly people started to come back from wherever they had been, as if returning from a country to which Jerry had been denied access. It seemed like a peaceful place, if perhaps a bit boring, and he found himself wishing that he could at least visit—though he was certain he didn’t want to live there.

As the final vibrations of the gong faded into silence, he trained his gaze on Nicki, willing her to turn around. His fellow retreatants (was that even a word?) stretched and rolled their necks. Joints cracked. Knees popped. The rustling sound of a hundred asses shifting position. Come on, baby. Come to Poppa. Nicki lifted one long arm, then reached behind herself and scratched her back.

“And so.” Sadjama’s bird-like ribcage rose and fell. Her voice seemed to pick up where the gong left off, as if part of some sort of ancient chorus. “And so, we begin to see the contents of our minds. In following the breath, we meet ourselves.”

Jerry pictured a cartoon version of himself, shaking his own hand.

“We are like busy little monkeys, going, going, going so that we don’t have to consider the truth of our own insignificance, our brief time in this vessel, this physical body.”

Jerry didn’t see the upside of pondering his own insignificance. And he was quite fond of his vessel, thank you very much. His physical body staged a rebellion against Sadjama’s words. Surges of uncomfortable energy coursed through him, wave after wave. He wanted to do something. Maybe a few dozen push-ups, though that might kill him, or at the very least mess with the cardiac surgeon’s handiwork. You weren’t supposed to leave the room—another rule on a list of unspoken rules—but still he could feel himself on the verge of leaping up and stumbling to the door. Through the picture window, a foggy mist rose from the river. It looked almost like a photograph of a river, a postcard designed for tourists. If his thoughts weren’t real, then what was? Please, baby. Turn around.

As if he had spoken aloud, Nicki swiveled her head and looked straight at him, her large dark eyes gleaming. The rest of her face didn’t move. No amusement, nor frustration, nor concern creased his wife’s lovely brow. Her eyes, those twin pools, offered him exactly nothing, which was, of course, worse than nothing. A few seconds passed, maybe more. He was drowning. Nicki turned so that she was once again facing Sadjama, her posture as straight as a knife.


His grown children called Nicki “the homewrecker” when she wasn’t around. It was their loyalty to their mother that caused this mean streak, which was otherwise quite out-of-character. Amanda was twenty-eight, Ben, twenty-six. They were good kids, excellent kids, and Jerry was aware that he didn’t have any grounds for complaint. They had sailed smoothly through their childhoods on a sea of academic achievement: Dalton, then Taft, where they boarded during the divorce, and then Ben had followed Amanda to Wesleyan, where both had distinguished themselves. Law school for the girl, an MFA in poetry for the boy, though Jerry couldn’t help but wish it had been the other way around. It was only this one ugly word, homewrecker, which he had overheard as they planned his fiftieth birthday party, that let Jerry know that the wound of the split had remained open, festering. A blight on their otherwise blessed lives. Though, in Nicki’s presence, of course, they were unfailingly polite.

Twelve years since all that had happened—surely long enough to legitimize any sense of sordidness about the whole thing. Yes, Nicki had been a summer associate. Yes, he was a partner, and married, a family man who should have known better—who did know better. Nothing like this had ever happened, or likely ever would have happened if it hadn’t been Nicki. Only Nicki. He wasn’t looking for trouble. In fact, he’d thought of himself as relatively happy—as content, he would have said, as anyone trying to run a law firm and raise two kids in the pressure cooker of Manhattan. But when the firm’s number one recruit arrived at the beginning of that June in the form of a small, fine-boned young woman with the gait of a dancer, whose soft-spokenness masked a formidable intellect and, what’s more, a wicked sense of humor, Jerry found excuses to stop at her desk, to hand-deliver correspondence, to ride the elevator just as she was leaving for the day. An impulsive invitation for a drink, which led to dinner, which led to a lie to his wife about working late. The gentle, quizzical expression that first crossed Nicki’s face, that night, as some invisible hand began to knit the air between them, connecting them in a way that felt bizarrely inevitable. By the time he stopped to ask himself what he was doing, he had already done it. He had fallen in love with a woman technically young enough to be his daughter, and whom he had met through work. He couldn’t have made a bigger mess of things if he had tried.

“The whole world doesn’t just revolve around you, Daddy. What about us?” He could still hear Amanda’s wailing voice. She had been sixteen years old, and she thought of herself, her brother, and her mother as a unit. To violate one was to violate them all. But Jerry couldn’t explain to her, couldn’t barely even explain to himself the way he had been dying a little bit each year, the way he had been feeling numb from the neck down, a head bobbling along on a set of insensate shoulders, all brains and no heart, just getting through day after day. It wasn’t about sex, but rather, a desperate need to feel—to be back inside his body again.

“I’m sorry,” was all he could say, and say it he did, over and over again until the words broke down into syllables, until they lost all meaning.

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The Question of Existence: Gary Amdahl’s ‘The Intimidator Still Lives in Our Hearts’

The Intimidator Still Lives in Our HeartsThe Intimidator Still Lives in Our Hearts (Artistically Declined Press, 295 pages), the new book from author Gary Amdahl (Visigoths, I Am Death), is a collection of stories that features a startling range of settings and characters (a writer, a bookstore employee, a philosopher, and a gambler, to name a handful). But each story is connected through the philosophical questions Amdahl’s dense, sweeping prose addresses, a trait of serious-mindedness not found in many modern story collections.

Of the book’s nine stories, several feature a first-person narrator, including “Breezeway.” In that piece, the narrator reflects on the breezeway between the garage and the house of his grandparent’s house, the basement of which he lived in as a child. He would frequently sit in the breezeway and think in silence. Looking back through old pictures, he also remembers when his younger brother died, and the effect it had on his family. In one scene, the narrator examines an old picture of himself and a dog, and mentions the foreboding look in his eyes in the photo, indicating something unpleasant would happen to the dog. “That such things happen all the time to everybody fails to alter the character of my grief—that is to say, of inexplicable loss. You can in fact see it in everybody’s eyes: that’s what life is.”

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The Chinese Barracks

Ten days after the opening, the work schedules were already growing long. Betty explained it all to Hannah. You worked until your job was done, or you worked until someone stopped you. Jozef, who worked like a machine and chased overtime, never slept until he was ordered to. You were called a broken taco if you worked less than sixteen hours, a champion if you worked more than twenty-four. You compared hours of overtime. You compared hallucinations the way sailors compared tattoos. The shadows of the fresh-frozen house got animated late at night, roused by the clanging of the belt and the slap of the salmon as they fell into empty metal bins, or the slap of salmon as they fell against other salmon. They all saw them, creeping shadows and bright spots in their vision. When the salmon came in half rotted from Bristol Bay, the smell agitated the shadows even more, making them flap like bats. The dark circles under everyone’s eyes grew luminous and sometimes bled like mascara down their cheeks. It was impossible to fall asleep with all this chattering movement: a foreman would grab someone as they stumbled and tell them to take five hours to sleep, but without fail when you lay down the rhythm of some chain clanking in the wind, some seagull, the waves or the waving of the curtain would demand attention and there was a simple and perilous choice—to give it attention and remain awake, or to close your eyes and encounter the current of adrenaline that gave you horrible rhythmic dreams: dreams of conveyer belts of fish; when the conveyer belt stopped you scissor-kicked yourself awake. Everyone understood the slipperiness of the minds of sleepy people, and everyone kept up a watchful camaraderie that had as much to do with self-preservation as it did with brotherhood—it was part of the local currency of kindness, like Skittles and back rubs.


Maryanne, whose father owned boats out of Kelso, kept a supply of Metabolife under her bed and would slip a vitamin-sized pill into the pocket of her friends’ hoodies if she saw them lagging on the slime line or growing emotional. The first night of the season, which stretched from the bell at midnight to noon the next day, she was giving out painters’ dust masks to people who were cold. She handed one to Hannah, who had started shivering around five in the morning. Maryanne helped her put the dusk mask on, tightening it in the back and saying:

“The mask will keep you warm, but the warm air around your mouth will make you sleepy, OK? It’s an even trade.” Hannah nodded, tears of gratitude in her eyes.

When Hannah’s head started dipping after breakfast, Maryanne got sharp, and yanked the mask down to Hannah’s chin.

“If you get dozy, take the mask off!” Hannah nodded doggedly. “Also, don’t eat much at breakfast. If you’re hungry, you’re awake. Fill up on coffee.” She clapped Hannah’s cheek, hard enough to make her understand, gentle enough to get away with it.

As Maryanne moved away, Betty heard her muttering, “That girl has broken taco written all over her.”


Betty had worked with Maryanne the year before, and she knew enough to treat her with respect. She knew well enough what “broken taco” meant, and she new how to avoid becoming one: don’t lag, tow the line, don’t quit the cannery before the last sockeye run comes in. Betty wondered why they didn’t just say “pussy.” To be a broken taco was to be the lowest of the low: incompetent and spineless. Maryanne was the head of the roe house this year, working with the skinny Japanese men who wore white boots and smoked cigarettes as they packed boxes of Grade C roe to ship back to the low-end sushi buffets back home. Maryanne would pick only her friends to work in the roe house. It was the best position you could get: the roe house was away from the noise of the machinery in the cannery and the fresh-frozen house and you could play music and take breaks whenever and maybe learn Japanese.


In the first few days of the season, when everyone worked in the evening and got twelve hours off to sleep and everyone slept, even, often for ten of the twelve hours, there was a quiet held like an inhaled breath. The days were sodden and gloomy, and the bunkhouses stunk of wet wool and sleep and the sweetness of fish blood. The bunkhouses would grow louder by ten p.m., the sun still glowing behind the clouds, and by midnight everyone, flabby faced with sleep, would troop over to the cannery buildings. One of these first few nights the Child brothers, Zack and J. Child, started working in fresh-frozen, and the season had its first fight and real beginning. The Child brothers were delinquents from Portland: Zack’s face was pleasant, round and ripe with acne, and J. Child was sullen, pointedly handsome. Both of them were already notorious for covering up the smell of fish blood with Axe body spray. Both of them had bought their plane tickets from Portland to Alaska on cannery credit.


It was Nusky, the veteran foreman, who assigned the Child brothers to fresh-frozen, stacking fish on pallets and moving them to the freezer. Everyone called Nusky “Leatherneck,” behind his back because his neck was wrinkled and tanned from years on boats. That evening, the Child brothers sauntered in late and Nusky ran up to them and started yelling. Zack, cowed, backed away, but J. Child yelled back at him, calling him, in a voice louder than the machinery, “You leathernecked old bastard.” Nusky stopped talking, grimaced a smile, and patted J. Child on the back. J. Child was wrong to make an enemy out of Nusky, because he put J. Child on duty stacking fish, and J. Child’s carpal tunnel got so bad that the vein started to blacken. Everyone said that he had put things in that vein, though, and no one but Hannah, who later started sleeping with him, held him up as a pitiful martyr. Betty, who decided to cope with her exhaustion through anger, supported J. Child because she decided to hate Nusky.


Betty didn’t get to work in the roe house. She was put in the sorting crew, separating the sockeye from the chum and pink salmon. It was lonely, the work started at midnight, and there were only girls for company. Hannah was on the crew, and Hannah’s roommate, and a Polish or Ukrainian girl named Ilsa. There were a lot of internationals this year—the stringy Japanese and then all these Poles or Ukrainians. Some were returning: Jozef, the machine, was a favorite. The sorting crew left for work when everyone else was getting off and going to sleep. Every two hours they got ten minutes with a coffee pot and a selection of white bread and cold cuts—but even the coffee breaks were lonely for the sorting crew. Betty got angry. The fresh-frozen house was colder at night, and echoed.


Last season, when she was working in the cannery and was good friends with Maryanne, Betty was a favorite of Nusky and the other foremen who rode around on their bicycles with haughty impunity, regally nodding their heads. Bicycles were for the foremen only, but last season Betty hadn’t known this, and when she had found a bicycle by the incinerator, rusted and dented and missing a saddle, she brought it back to the cannery. She saw Maryanne set her mouth in disapproval, but in the excitement of the moment she continued riding in circles around the dock. She set it down to go in to dinner, and when she came out of the mess hall she saw that someone had thrown it onto the rocks. Every low tide, the bicycle was revealed, hanging with seaweed. This season it was gone, dragged into the bay by some angry winter current. Now, standing at the sorting belt, watching the salmon rolling, squirming or stiff with rigor mortis, it seemed clear that Maryanne had thrown her bicycle off the dock. Maryanne kept her distance from Betty, and kept a close eye on her Metabolife. Sometimes Nusky would ride around late at night to check on the night crews at the sorting belt and the beach gang. He was still pleasant to Betty; he offered her chocolate. That was his bartering tool, his restorative—little fun-size candies he’d produce from his pocket with a flourish.


Jozef the machine had already abandoned sleeping. He came up, one night, to the sorting perch, unsteady on his feet, and Hannah asked in a small whisper if he was drunk. His eyes were red, he swatted at the handrail and missed.

“Is he—Is he drunk?”

Jozef lurched. He said nothing about why he was up there. He turned to address the conveyer belt of salmon and spoke in Polish. He had a ring of spittle, dried white, around his mouth. Hannah was watching him with a half-open mouth, backing away.

“He’s not drunk, he’s just sleepy.” They all used the word “sleepy” to describe the various stages of exhaustion, because it sounded cute and chummy. Betty took Jozef’s arm.

“Joe,” she said, and Jozef wheeled: shocked, rocking. “Joe, get some sleep. It’s time for bed.” She helped him down the stairs. He walked in the opposite direction of the bunkhouses.

Back at the sorting belt, Hannah was stock still, glazed with concern.

“He’s fine. He’s just sleepy.”

Betty understood Jozef’s aversion to sleep: without sleep you got the elation, the slamming heart and joy that hammered like a headache, between the troughs of sadness and fear.


Hannah got hysterical when she was in the trough, weeping silently. Eyes scanning the moving shadows in her vision, she would ask, “What was that? What was that?” pointing at nothing. When she was happy, she was silly, giggling and recounting the snippets of her dreams. Betty’s trough was anger—she spat and punched at the fish when she sorted them, sometimes pulling the softer ones apart. She engaged with what she saw moving at the edge of her sight, cursing. When she was happy she was also angry, but giddily so. The girls on the sorting crew tried to stay in rhythm, so that no more than one of them was spooked or anguished at a time. At coffee breaks they poured and sugared each other’s coffee. Sometimes there were fights—they liked the fights best if they were between the Ukrainians or Poles, because they could sit and relax and pretend to interpret what they were saying as they hit each other. Hannah sat and rocked gently and giggled, and Betty balled her fists and said: “Yeah! Yeah!”


Her real name was Tess, short for Teresa, but she had changed it to Betty. The inspiration for this name change was her boyfriend. Her boyfriend’s name was Carl, but his stage name was Mikey Mnoxide. He was never really onstage; he worked repairing motorcycles, and once, when they talked about their plans, he said that they should start a joint bike-repair shop and beauty parlor so that the Bettys could get their hair done while the Johnnys got their bikes looked after. He said it casually, in his bland Kansas accent, and she decided right then to go to beauty school. Now, to practice, she teased her hair into a bouffant, or a beehive, and drew on her eyes with liquid liner. She combed her boyfriend’s hair back into a ducktail, using egg white to give it that sheen and hold. When she opened her beauty parlor next to the bike shop she would make sure that the only haircuts the Johnnys could get were ducktails and crew cuts. She never called him Carl, but she never got used to calling him Mikey, so she called him “you.” He called her “the little lady.”

Even at the cannery, she did her hair before work. She brought a can of hairspray and a jar of pomade. She told the girls on the crew about her boyfriend; she called him “my boyfriend.” She brought a tape deck, and a collection of tapes, all doo-wop. When she was in a trough another girl, usually Hannah, would play “My Boyfriend’s Back” to cheer her up. When Hannah was acting spooky, Betty played her “The Leader of the Pack.” After work some days, they would sit and listen to the tape deck in Betty’s room. Their personalities changed at each song, and grew wistful during the love songs and hard, almost manic, when the music was raunchy. They always skipped “Last Kiss,” because it was about death and made the shadows in the corners of the room flutter with ghostly portents.

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Clear as Cake

Marvin Helgarson smoked a pipe. When he listened to us, he nipped at the pipe—pah, pah, pah—the way that people who smoke pipes do, and when he told us things about our writing, he jabbed the pipe in the air for emphasis. I liked Marvin Helgarson. He was tall, not just everyday tall but tall even by Minnesota standards, though that’s not why I liked him. I’m just trying to give details, what Marvin Helgarson called “salient features.”

The class met Tuesday evenings in the Humanities Building library, sixteen of us wedged in around two long wooden tables that came together in a T with Marvin Helgarson at the head. It felt like Thanksgiving the first night, all of us too close together and filled with dread, though later, after Marvin Helgarson explained about perspective, I could see that maybe that was just my perspective.

“Liars and thieves,” said Marvin Helgarson to get things going. “That’s what you get with a room full of writers.” He rose and swept out his arms like Jesus to include us all.

He meant it as an icebreaker, and most of us chuckled, but the woman across from me said, “Oh dear. I didn’t know anything about that”—meaning, I guess, that she had a different idea about writers and writing, a different idea about what she had signed up for. Her name was Wanda, and she had large warts on her chin and cheeks, and later these warts would appear on the characters in her stories. We were always nervous about discussing them, worrying, I suppose, that we might read something into the warts that Wanda had not intended and that she would know then what it was that people saw when they looked at her.

“Wanda,” said Marvin Helgarson, “I don’t mean writers are really thieves.” He paused, picked up his pipe, and sucked on it. “It’s more like when someone lends you a pen to use, and then you just don’t give it back.” About lying, he said nothing.

“You’re going to be working together intimately,” Marvin Helgarson said, “so you need to know who you’re dealing with.” He asked for a volunteer to begin the introductions, and Fred Erickson, who was wearing a tie with a treble clef on it, jumped right in, describing his family and hobbies and years as the director of a choir in Idaho, from which he was now retired. Idaho seemed far away to me, and I wondered how he had ended up in Moorhead, Minnesota, but I didn’t ask because I was intimidated by my classmates, most of whom came to campus once a week for this class but were adults with jobs and families the rest of the time.

I took a lot of notes that semester, tips that Marvin Helgarson shared to help us with our writing, like when he told us that sometimes the things that seemed most compelling to write about should not really be written about at all. They were just anecdotes, he said, odd things that had happened to us that were interesting to discuss in a bar but were not literary, by which he meant that they could not transcend the page. He explained this the first night of class, jabbing the air with his pipe so that we understood it was important, and then he said it again several months later when we discussed the nutty lady’s story about a woman who cleaned rest stops along I-94. In the story, the woman and her cleaning partner were finishing the rest area near Fergus Falls when they discovered a body inside one of the trashcans. The story, which was just two pages long, mainly a lot of boring details about cleaning that lent veracity, ended like this: “The woman was dead and she was also naked. We were shocked and scared, and after the police came, we finished the bathrooms and went home.”

When Marvin explained to the nutty lady that it wasn’t really a short story, that it was more of an anecdote, she stood up. “Anecdote?” she said. “This really happened, you know. It happened to me, right after my ass-wipe husband left, and I had to be at that job every morning at six.” She snorted. “Anecdote.” Then, she walked out. It was late, nearly nine o’clock, and we could hear her footsteps echoing, not only because the building was empty but because she was wearing ski boots.

We didn’t see the crazy lady again, but at the beginning of the next class Marvin showed us what she had left in his mailbox: a manila envelope with our stories for the week, chopped into strips with a paper cutter. You see, she really was crazy. But also, she’d had enough of us I think, enough of us telling her stuff about her writing. Three weeks earlier, she’d submitted a story about a woman whose vagina hurt all the time, except when she was having sex. As a result, her husband, who was a farmer, got very tired of having sex all the time and told her that she needed to go to the doctor to have her vagina checked. “I’m putting my foot down” is what he said, which made me laugh, though I didn’t say so because I didn’t think the story was supposed to be funny.

The woman and her husband spoke with what seemed like Irish accents, but when they drove into town to see the doctor, they drove to Bemidji, which is in Minnesota. I raised my hand and said they sounded Irish, pointing to things like “lassie” and “thar” because Marvin had told us to back up our comments with examples from the text, but the crazy lady looked pleased when I said they sounded Irish. “Yes,” she said. “They’re from Ireland. They moved to Minnesota when they were young in order to have an adventure and be farmers and also because something tragic happened to them in Ireland and they needed a fresh start.”

“I guess I missed that,” I said and began shuffling back through the story.

“No,” she said. “It doesn’t say it. It’s just something I know. I was creating a life for my characters off the page, the way that Marvin said we should.”

“That’s a lot to have off the page,” pointed out Thomas in what I thought was a very nice voice. Thomas was also one of the older students in the class. The first salient feature about Thomas was that his parents met at a nudist colony, where they were not nudists because they worked in the kitchen, chopping vegetables and frying meat. The other salient feature about Thomas was that he was a minister. I knew these things because he sometimes wrote his sermons at Jack’s, the bar that I hung out at, and one night we drank a pitcher of beer together and talked, but when we saw each other in class the next week, we both felt awkward.

“But the story isn’t about them leaving Ireland,” said the crazy lady triumphantly. “It’s about”—she paused because I guess even a crazy lady feels strange saying “vagina” to a minister—“the pain in her female parts.”

None of us knew what to say, so we looked down at the story, at the scene in which the woman and her husband, who was tired from having sex all the time, visited the doctor. When she was in the doctor’s office, lying on the table with her feet in the stirrups, the doctor, who was an elderly man, positioned himself between her legs and called out, “Three fingers going.”

This was supposed to be a minor detail I think, but Tabatha, who was a feminist, got mad. “That’s ridiculous,” she yelled at the crazy lady. “What kind of a doctor would say, ‘Three fingers going’?”

“Doctors are just regular people,” the crazy lady yelled back. “They get tired of saying the same things over and over, day after day. This doctor is like that. He’s old, and he’s tired. I am showing that he’s a regular person who is exhausted and wants to retire. I am developing his character.”

“That’s not development,” Tabatha said. “Then the story becomes about him, about how he’s a misogynist and is going to get sued one of these days for saying things like ‘three fingers going’ to women when they’re in a vulnerable position.”

Tabatha was not someone that I wanted to be friends with, but I liked having her in class because she never disappointed me. Her first story, called “Cardboard Jesus,” was about this guy Bart who spends all day watching television, and then one day a cardboard man jumps out of the TV and starts going on and on about how Bart needs to change his life, so Bart names the little man Cardboard Jesus. Finally, Bart gets tired of Cardboard Jesus making him feel bad about his life, so he puts Cardboard Jesus in the garbage disposal. The story ends with Cardboard Jesus getting chewed up, and the last line is him calling out from inside the disposal, “Why hast thou forsaken me?”

Most of us did not really care for “Cardboard Jesus.” I said that it seemed unlikely, and Marvin said, “Are we talking character believability?” and I said that I couldn’t really put my finger on it but that there wasn’t a character worth rooting for in the whole piece. Tabatha snorted and said, “It’s not a football game,” even though we weren’t supposed to talk when our story was being discussed.

“Maybe it’s the dialogue,” I said finally.

Just the week before, Marvin had explained about dialogue, how it’s supposed to sound like a normal conversation except less boring. Our dialogues, it turned out, had too much verisimilitude. “Look,” Marvin had said. “Imagine a guy goes into McDonald’s and says, ‘I’d like a Big Mac and fries,’ and then the cashier says, ‘OK, that’ll be $4.05,’ and the guy pays and walks out with his burger and fries.” He paused. “Typical conversation, right?” and we nodded. “So what’s wrong with putting that conversation in a story?” he asked.

Tabatha’s hand went up. “Why is everything always about McDonald’s?” she said. “I would never have that conversation, because I would never go to McDonald’s.” She looked around the table. “Or Burger King,” she added, pre-empting the possibility of a setting change.

Marvin Helgarson sighed. “Fine,” he said. “But my point is that this conversation is only interesting if one of them says something we don’t expect, if the cashier says, ‘No, sir, you may not have a Big Mac and fries.’ Then you have a story.” Tabatha started to speak, probably planning to point out that the cashier was doing the man a favor, but Marvin held up his hand at her. “Dialogue,” he explained, “is all about power shifting back and forth.” His pipe volleyed illustratively through the air.

“What’s wrong with my dialogue?” Tabatha asked, looking at me and making her eyes small.

“I don’t know,” I said. Her dialogue was the opposite of what Marvin had cautioned us about. It didn’t have any verisimilitude. “I guess it just feels sort of biblical.”

The crazy lady raised her hand and said that there was nothing biblical about the story. She said the story was libelous, and Marvin said, “I think you mean blasphemous,” and she said that she knew what she meant and so did God. Thomas said nothing, even though he was a minister, and then Tabatha announced that everyone had missed the point, which was that “Cardboard Jesus” was a “modern-day crucifixion story.”

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