Issues Archives

2011

All issues from 2011.

Lost Coast

He wasn’t difficult to find. For a time, in the small little world I inhabit, he was everywhere. These days all you need is six songs and some blog traffic to make people believe you might be a homespun genius, a blessed saint, a prophet of the unconscious. I got his number from his record label — press connections and called him up.

“Well, fuck me, Walt.” His Midwestern twang was mixed up now with a California drawl. “It’s pretty fantastic to hear from you. I mean, shit, I was just thinking about you the other day. How the hell you doing? You doing good?”

“Not as good as you. You’re blowing up out there, aren’t you?”

“Aw, man, just a run of luck.”

I went on about how great the EP sounded, practiced in my art of inflated praise. He begged off, talked about his collaborators and how the spirit of the old lighthouse they’d recorded vocals in had infused the tracks with something somehow ancient, a kind of lonely vigilance.

“Shit, come on out!” he said when I mentioned I might be heading out west for a few days. To check out the SF scene, I said, maybe write about it for the website. “Stay with me and my girl. We’d love to have you. Man, it’s been too long. I can’t believe it, you and me, making it in the same business! This is cool. This feels really right to me.”

I knew that he was just about to start recording his first full-length album. I said I didn’t want to disturb him during the creative process.

“The first full-length anyone will actually hear,” he said, laughing at his own expense. Meaning all the rest had been ignored, but now that he was trading on his past, his story, he was finally getting some attention. “Nah, Walt, you gotta come stay with me and Vanessa. I’ve told her so much about you.”

Meaning, he’d told her about John.

“I’ll check into a hotel. Don’t want to put you and your girl out.”

But, then, just at the last minute, just as I was getting on my flight at O’Hare, I called him again, asked if I could crash after all. I hadn’t even booked a room, but I lied and said my reservation had gotten lost in the system. Keaton faltered for a moment, then said, “Sure, man, crash with us.”

That’s when I knew it would all go my way.

*

Keaton Wilding, the County B Submarine EP. On the flight, I listened on repeat, ten times or more. Stereogum: “An astonishing debut. Wilding’s tormented past gives staggering depth to songs that, on first listen, seem like simply more blissed-out California pop.” Popmatters: “Wilding assembles a ramshackle cast of San Francisco musicians to craft a sound that seduces and sucker-punches. If Brian Wilson and Syd Barrett had a love child, he would be named Keaton.” All the most fickle websites and magazines, the “tastemakers,” were falling over each other to herald his arrival. Only the site I wrote for, on which all the reviewers are anonymous, had tried to stem the tide: “Capable, but shallow. The kind of bleary-eyed confession that wears itself out quick.”

We were from the same small town. Keaton was two grades behind me. I’d known him through John; the two of them, along with their friend Mason, were hardly apart. I remembered Keaton playing Snowdaze, our winter talent show. Dressed in Birkenstocks and a ball cap, cradling a Taylor acoustic, he sat at the front of the school cafeteria and covered some god-awful song by Phish or String Cheese Incident or August Rawling Band, one of those jam bands still carrying the sputtering torch of the Dead. Keaton and John were always driving off to Alpine Valley or the World to see those late-night spectacles: thirty thousand people, each in their own private dream, twirling and weaving to twenty-minute guitar solos. It was the drugs, not the music, that snared John. And the drugs came from Keaton.

Keaton hit the last chord of the song; the cafeteria echoed with applause. At the senior table, my friends and I smirked — that bullshit stoner music was laughable to us. Back then I was way ahead of the game. All I listened to was free jazz, Bulgarian women’s choirs, Charles Ives, and the Residents (the early albums).

*

Keaton and his girl lived in an apartment way out by the beach. “We’ve got the best view in town,” Keaton said as he led me out the bedroom window and up a narrow ladder to the roof. He lit a Parliament, leaned on the railing, and stared out in the direction of the sea. You could only hear the waves. It was too foggy to see anything other than the tops of a few frumpy sand dunes.

“Vanessa apologizes. She’s over in Oakland with the guys from Silent Partner. She’s doing some woodcuts for their album art and a few show posters. You should review them. Their new record is gonna be rad.”

“I heard their last one, Deadly Silent. Reminded me of Secret Machines.” Not intended as praise.

“They’re such sweet guys, too,” Keaton went on. “They’ve really helped me out along the way. We’ve played a bunch of shows together.” He ground out his cigarette on the railing and turned to me, and for a brief moment we met eyes and I saw in his a question — What are you doing here?

We went back inside. He got us a couple beers and flopped down on the couch. The sandals and ball cap were gone, replaced by threadbare cords, a faded Members Only jacket, and, the latest in affectations, a pair of boat shoes, no socks. Clothes chosen as a parody of clothes. He still wore his hair long, but sheathed now in a week’s worth of grease. The Taylor was gone from sight; in the living room, the beat-up Fender Jazzmaster pictured on the cover of the EP hung from a peg. The burden he carried was more proudly displayed. It was there in every gesture, the way he narrowed his eyes when he took a drag, sighed when he cracked a beer. No more Keystone Light, the swill he, Mason, and John used to drink driving around in Mason’s Jeep. Out here it was Tecate with a wedge of lime.

“How’s it going with the website?” he asked me. “You digging it?”

“It sure doesn’t pay the bills.”

“You probably get a ton of free music though.”

“Everyone gets free music these days,” I said.

“Don’t I know it. That kind of shit doesn’t bug you until you get a record deal. I quit my day job,” he confessed, seeming embarrassed about it. “It’s cool, we’re more or less getting by. But it kind of puts the pressure on. To, you know, ‘succeed.’”

“The EP is doing great.”

“Yeah.” He laughed. “Man, we didn’t have a fucking clue what we were doing with that one. I mean — ” He hesitated, suddenly unsure of himself in a way that made him almost unrecognizable to me“I was so fucking fried the whole time. What the hell were we thinking recording in a lighthouse?” He sighed, popped another Tecate. “So, we’re booked for this session at Hyde Street Studios on Friday. Want to come with?”

Come with. He still had a little of the Midwest in him.

“I wouldn’t want to get in your way.”

“Nope. Come on down. It’d be cool to have you there.”

Maybe he thought I’d write about it for the website, get a little early buzz going. Maybe he wanted me there as a reminder of John.

“I’d be honored,” I said.

We drank beer and listened to records. For all the specialized knowledge we had in common, we ran out of conversation quickly, now that business had been taken care of. I said I was getting sleepy. Jet lag. He made up the couch for me. Just before he turned in, he made himself some peppermint tea. He said it helped keep his vocal cords loose.

*

I descend the staircase. Stand out in the street, trembling. A finger of fog drifts toward me, passes through my body. Am I alive? The Jeep “submarines” under the truck trailer. We speak, it seems so real. Didn’t I tell you? Don’t go with them. A foghorn sounds, very far away. Then I feel him, I feel him. He’s there, at the corner, waiting where the murk meets darker night. I quicken my pace. He grows more distant, a patch of dark gray against the dark. Headlights brush past me, a wall of air; I brace for the collision. Don’t go. Don’t go. And then the lights come on.

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O SHIRTWALKERS!

Can you surrey? Can you picnic?
Surrey down to a stoned soul picnic…
And from the sky come the Lord and the lightning.

-from the song “Stoned Soul Picnic” by The 5th Dimension

They hit the streets, those
Single gents spilling out of the cleaners
All partnered up & promenodding
Escorting their dainties.

O You Shirtwalkers!
Drop her, she’s just a thin wire of feigned domesticity
Nothing but a clothes hanger.
The press and starch of your city life
Is blanding your manly.

Don’t you see me passing?
I want to slap my hands against your plackets &
Pop your buttons one-by-one.
Bite my canines down onto your stays &
Pull them full out of your collar.
(I promise you’ll not go floppy.)
I want to spill myself all over your chest like the reddest marinara.

You Over-Laundered Shirtwalkers!
Don’t you crave a whiff of underarm piqued?
It’s nature you’ve forgotten.
Can you surrey?
Can you picnic?

Don’t you know I want to be your little chicken pot pie?

 

Jeannette Allée is a Seattle poet and writer. Her work has appeared in The Best American Poetry series, Iowa Review, Field, and The Believer. “O SHIRTWALKERS!” is one of her two poems published in ZYZZYVA‘s Fall issue.

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Starting Over

I can’t not keep coming back
to this place that’s not a place,
its pepper trees, olive trees, lilac,
narcissus, jasmine, here with me
and mock orange and eucalyptus
and working words that fill in others,
an earthquake-enlivened rose bush,
pollarded plane trees and sycamores,
and cypress flat-topped by sea wind.
Here are Interstate concrete,
desert dust, hardpan,
here are cobblestones
and woven bricky streets,
Death Valley’s salt flats,
here are red granite domes
that cool at night and groan.
They are here. The imagination
rushes toward the world
in fear of forgetting anything:
witness and invent, it says,
and stay in motion in every
invented place. It tells me,
here you are the nothing
that is this place,
and all places are you,
none of them yours to keep.

 

W. S. Di Piero, who lives in San Francisco, is a poet, translator, and essayist. His latest works include the essay collections When Can I See You Again? (Pressed Water) and City Dog (Northwestern University Press). His forthcoming book of poems is Nitro Nights (Copper Canyon). “Starting Over” is one of his three poems published in ZYZZYVA‘s Fall issue.

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Sight Lines

My mother has hardly any baby pictures of me, and when I once asked her why, she waved her hand vaguely and said I looked funny. Opening a shoebox, she pulled out a handful of small black-and-white photos with pinked edges. There I was, wispy-haired and dimple-kneed, your basic baby, except for the eyes. My eyes turned inward, especially the right one, as if trying to focus on a spot on the bridge of my nose. Or maybe as if they weren’t ready to see what was out there.

I had known, of course, that I was born with crossed eyes. Because of my crooked eyes, I not only look different, I see differently. And there are some things I don’t see at all. This dusty box of old photos was another reminder of what has been hidden from me.

 

About two percent of newborns have strabismus, meaning one or both eyes aren’t aligned. The muscles that control eye movement and position are imbalanced, so the eyes can’t focus straight ahead. Most strabismic children are born with inward turning eyes, also called esotropia. This is a problem.

Normal vision is “binocular” —both eyes focus on an object or scene, and each eye takes a two-dimensional picture from its perspective. Because of the spacing of your eyes, each picture is taken from a slightly different angle. The brain fuses the two images to create an image that, when interpreted by the brain, seems three dimensional. This fusion, known as stereopsis, creates depth perception.

With strabismus, both eyes take a picture, but because the pupils are off center, so are the images, and the brain can’t fuse them. This means that the brain “sees” two separate images. To avoid seeing double, my brain learned to suppress the picture from the more inward turning right eye.

When I was about a year old, the doctor had my parents put a patch over my left eye. The idea was to strengthen and straighten my right eye by forcing it to work on its own. It wasn’t a cute little pirate patch, but a big Band-aid colored one, secured to my forehead and cheek by a couple strips of white tape. (There aren’t many photos from that time either.) The patching didn’t succeed, so a year later I had surgery. My left eye straightened out pretty well, but the right one shifted from its inward gaze to a position slightly upward and to the right of center.

Without straight eyes, and despite many years of eye exercises as a child to force my right eye to cooperate, I never developed binocular vision. My brain continued to pay attention only to the image from my stronger left eye. I say stronger because it was straighter, but in fact, without glasses, my left eye was about 20/1000. My extreme nearsightedness was made worse by astigmatism—blurriness caused by an asymmetrical cornea. Even with glasses, the vision in my left eye is not very sharp.

* * *

It’s the first dance with the boys’ camp and I want to be pretty. I am twelve, with slim tanned legs and long straight hair, but all I see in the mirror are brown, thick, cat-eye glasses. So tonight I leave my glasses in the cabin and blindly follow the other girls into the dining hall decorated with crepe paper and lanterns. The boys stand awkwardly on one side of the room and the girls on the other. Now a boy is walking toward me—I think—or is he headed toward another girl? He passes her and comes right up to me and asks where I’m from. Up close I can see he’s really cute, with tousled brown hair and spirited eyes. Emboldened, his buddies cross the divide and crowd around me. I am in the center of a group of eager boys. The cute boy asks me to dance, Jim Morrison is singing “Come on baby light my fire,” the room is a blur except for the boy now looking into my eyes. I am Cinderella at the ball: when it is over, I will be able to see again, but he will ignore the girl in the cat-eye glasses.

* * *

Although my right eye sees remarkably better than the left (20/50), my left eye still does all the work. I think of my right eye as a passive participant in my vision; it registers what’s on the right side, but if I want to actually look at something on the right I turn my head so my left eye can interpret it. If I close my left eye, the right eye sees pretty well, but it moves slowly, tires quickly and reads at about the pace of a second grader. Eye doctors never bother to give me a corrective lens for my right eye, because it doesn’t matter.

What I see can perhaps be described as what others see when viewing a movie or photograph. But while my brain can’t perceive depth the way most people’s brains do, I do have some depth perception. My brain (everyone’s brain) uses many cues to judge depth, such as how fast objects move in relation to other objects or how they shift as I move my head. The scientific terms that describe monocular depth perception cues are evocative: kinetic, parallax, distance fog, converging at infinity. The words almost seduce me into thinking these tricks create for me a fully three-dimensional world. In fact, some scientists and doctors believe that people with my type of vision—monocular, one eyed—are only at a disadvantage when seeing things close up.

* * *

Mrs. Powell, my sewing teacher, frowns at me. I lick the end of the kelly green thread and try again. I hold the needle close to my face and slowly bring the thread toward the sliver of light at the needle’s eye; my eyes burn from the effort of focusing. The thread brushes past the needle like strangers passing on a narrow sidewalk. The other girls are sewing rickrack onto their aprons with tidy little stitches but I haven’t started because my needle and thread are in two dimensions and the needle is like a reflection, never exactly where I expect it to be.

* * *

I have always wondered about what normal people see. Take stereoscopes. When I look through one at, say, a photograph of the Eiffel Tower, I see it with my left eye, and I think it looks just like the real Eiffel Tower. When others look through the stereoscope first with one eye, and then with their two normal eyes, they say the Eiffel Tower is suddenly three-dimensional, poised in the space around it, real in a way that a two-dimensional photograph is not. Real is also the word my husband used when we saw a 3-D movie recently. To me, it looked like any other movie. So if the three-dimensional world is real, does that make my world unreal?

A few years ago I read an article suggesting an answer to that question. It was about a woman with strabismus and monovision. She had a type of strabismus in which neither eye is dominant; instead, the brain shifts rapidly between the image from the left eye and the one from the right. She began intensive vision therapy to train her eyes to work together; within weeks she achieved stereovision. Her descriptions of what she sees now versus what she saw with monovision are like the difference between seeing the world in color instead of shades of grey. Objects stick out in space, everything is more textured, sharp, colorful, nuanced. When she goes for a walk, each flower, each leaf she sees seems to stand out by itself. When it snows, she feels as if she is among the snowflakes instead of looking at a flat plane of falling snow.

Vision therapy won’t work for me because my right eye can never be strong enough to get my brain’s full attention: I will never walk inside that snow globe. Reading that article was like reading a travelogue from someone visiting a beautiful country I know I’ll never get to see. It’s a land of stunning vistas, glorious colors, gorgeous sights — but my passport is no good there. For the first time, I understood the enormousness of what I was missing.

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Second Wind

The white of the ocean’s foam-froth is said
to contain all colors, while the sea’s green-blue depths
are composed of the colors our ancestors could
not bear. Or could not bear to let go:
the story varies with the source.
And the shadow that lies on the sea is cast

by no flying or orbiting thing, but by
the ocean floor where it blocks the light
from the sun at the heart of the earth. These things,
however they might terrify, are nonetheless
true. I will hold you through the shivers
and terrors. I will kiss the unholy curve
of your neck. I will try to take your mind

off the shadow. It is the shape of a tree.
There is the brusque sound of the branches as they
caress the wind. Its black silhouette
against the calamitous sunset. The darkness
that lives at its core. What the leaves know
and do not tell the roots. And what the roots know.

 

Troy Jollimore‘s first book of poems, Tom Thomson in Purgatory, won the National Book Critics Circle award for poetry in 2006. He is an associate professor at California State University, Chico. His most recent book of poems is At Lake Scugog (Princeton University Press). “Second Wind” is one of his two poems published in ZYZZYVA‘s Fall issue.

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Lust for Life

We live on East 12th Street, across from a Catholic school where little boys play kickball in suits and ties. Eli says they’re straight out of a Truffaut movie; the way they look like little men, the way the teachers drag them from the playground when they get into fights. Eli knows everything about foreign movies. If he really likes one, he calls it a motherfucker. The other night we saw a total motherfucker about a couple who give themselves a big going away party but then the money falls through for their trip to Africa, so they hide out in their apartment embarrassed to tell their friends that they never left. We’re kind of like them. I mean, we’re not exactly hiding out, but our apartment is our little sanctuary, where we can pretend to be the only people in New York. A tiny, lit window amid fifty others in a giant brick building. With our cat, Myshkin, silhouetted behind the iron security bars.

Eli and I are sitting at that window right now, looking down at pigeons fighting over a pizza box. We’re playing our favorite game: What Would You Miss Most If You Were Dead?

“I’d miss the sound of the radiator clanging,” I say.

“But how about when it first comes on, in October, and you think about the long, grey winter with your face stiff and freezing and your ears feeling like they’re going to snap off,” says Eli.

“I like the winter because you don’t see those huge cockroaches in the street anymore.”

Eli rubs my arms up and down with his hands. “I like when they disappear because I know they scare you and I don’t like to see you scared.”

“It freaks me out to think of them swarming somewhere underground. Or stuck together in a giant frozen clump just waiting till it’s time to come out again.”

As I talk, Eli takes my hand, extending my arm like a skinny, white twig. He kisses the bruises. He got mad at me last night for scratching our new Iggy Pop album and pushed me. Not really hard, just a little shove. I mean, I sort of fell back against the wall, but I was wearing stilettos. Now Lust For Life skips and crackles, repeating the words “torture film” over and over, until one of us moves the needle. And no matter how cheap they sell records at Crazy Eddie’s, buying a new one means less money for the phone bill. Which we don’t plan on paying anyway.

“I’m sorry Jane-face,” he whispers. He always calls me that, and I don’t know why I like it so much.

“I’d miss you being sorry.”

He murmurs something like, “I’d miss you missing me being sorry,” and carries me to the mattress, which covers most of the floor of our one and only room.

 

It’s grey outside and I’ve overslept. Eli has already left for his job at the used bookstore. He always comes home mad because no one there likes him. He’s been trying to organize the employees into an “anarchist union.”  He posts notices for meetings in the stockroom, to which no one shows up. Instead, they laugh behind his back and call him “Irate Eli.” I know this, because my friend Ellen was there on Eli’s day off and heard them talking. They were saying that only a retard wouldn’t know that “anarchist union” is an oxymoron. They don’t understand that Eli has something a little fucking deeper in mind. It has something to do with “dismantling the power pyramid.” Maybe Eli tends to go on and on about it. And no, it’s not my favorite side of him, but basically he’s nice to me. Except for when he isn’t.  Even then, it’s not like he’s completely mean.  So he slaps me in the arm, big fucking deal. And anyway, I’m no doormat. I hit him back. It’s called passion. He always apologizes for starting it and acts really sweet for at least a couple of weeks. Plus, he’s an amazing cook. Add to this the fact that he’s five years older than me (I’m 20), with blond, curly hair that dips over one of his liquidy blue eyes, writes perfect imitations of Frank O’Hara poems, and always wants to be with me. That’s the real draw. He’s my first serious boyfriend and he loves the righteous shit out of me. And he isn’t one of these losers who’s afraid to say so. In short, he’s a motherfucker.

 

I’m late for my acting class at the Lee Strasberg Institute. I put on whatever clothes are lying closest to the bed. Eli and I are the same, skinny size, and so it doesn’t matter who wears what. He’ll say, “Buy us a pair of pants today,” or “Look, I got us a Lydia Lunch T-shirt.” I pull on our black pants and wrinkled bowling shirt covered in cat hair. I run my fingers through my hair, stiff with gel and hair dye. Eli is proud of my bright red hair and tells everyone He Loves Lucy.  A black swath of eye-liner and I’m out the door, in the street, the freezing air blowing tears sideways out of my eyes.

I run up the stairs of the steam-heated school, peeling off my coat, scarf and gloves as I go. Students are draped over chairs; their heads hanging backwards, arms limp at their sides. The teacher walks around testing everyone’s relaxation level, picking up arms and letting them drop. An arm that stays suspended in space: BAD. Complete floppiness: GOOD. She gives me the raised eyebrow (I have been late many times before) as I slump backward, letting everything hang. Eventually I feel a hand around my wrist, and my arm being raised. Her grip tightens. Christ, here we go. She’s looking at the bruises. I want to go, “OK, show’s over,” when she finally drops my arm, which is now so tense it feels like a crowbar. Here at Strasberg, they say relaxation opens the emotional floodgates. It’s the first step in learning how to cry. Real actors can cry the way I can only do at the movies, or in the bathroom with the door locked. That’s why I’m here, to learn the fine art of weeping. That’s what makes you great. That’s what gets you a job.

But I also have other plans. I’m not like the girls in my class, running around with their doctored-up headshots, trying to look like Jaclyn Smith. I’m going for something darker, more real. Just yesterday I caught sight of my reflection in a window, and I thought, “Shit, yes!”  There I was, walking by a building covered in peeling Richard Hell and the Voidoids posters, and everything about me, my hair, my clothes, looked art directed. Like I had sprouted up from the street like an indigenous element of the urban terrain. But I’m not totally alone. The one person in the whole school who gets me is Ellen. I knew it the moment I saw her black, chopped off Louise Brooks haircut. She and I talk for hours about the work we plan to do. We’re in the thinking stages of a movie that will be truly revolutionary because it has no plot. Imagine, a movie where nothing happens. Only the sound of footsteps on glass. Wow. I just thought that part up.

The lights go on.

“See you Friday,” the teacher says.

We all sit up, groggy. I put on my father’s overcoat from the ‘50s and my black beret. Ellen comes up.

“Walk me to the train.”

“OK.”

We hit the street and it feels a little warmer, because now it’s snowing which takes the edge off. The sky is pearly pink and things are quiet; the Ukrainians sprinkle salt on the sidewalks in front of their tablecloth/samovar/Easter egg shops.

“So, how’s Irate Eli, the master of all things evil and sundry?”

“Fuck you. He’s being very sweet. I mean, very, very sweet.”

“Let’s go have a beer.”

“I can’t. Retour D’Afrique is playing at the Quad.”

“Haven’t you seen that like fifty times?”

“Yeah, so what? It’s Eli’s favorite movie.”

“Oh, well. In that case, forget it. I mean, I’m just so sorry. What would Eli do if he couldn’t watch Retourdefuckingafrique on a continual loop for the rest of his life? What time does it start?”

“Eight.”

“It’s six-thirty. I dare you to come in and have one fucking beer.”

We’re standing outside the St Mark’s Bar in a clutch of skinny German kids and various punks and New Wavers.

“OK, but you’re buying.”

Ellen pulls me in to the bar. I see people I know: a directing student who once filmed me walking down Wall Street in a bathrobe at 4 a.m. Two French girls who slept on my floor for a week. And tons of regular customers from the restaurant where I work.

“Hey, waitress, where’s my soy burger?” says one of them.

“I reserve the right to refuse service to anyone,” I yell over the noise as Ellen orders the beers.

Before I know it I’m looking at two empty Heineken bottles. The directing student is making fun of me for studying method acting instead of experimental theater. I’m screaming over the jukebox, saying he’s full of shit, what about real motherfuckers like Brando? He buys me a shot of Don Julio. I bet him the next round that I can cry on cue. Everyone at the table is suddenly interested; they watch me as I stare off into space, conjuring up a dog that I once saw get hit by a car. The room begins to blur, when I notice the clock on the wall. It’s 8:30.

I throw a crumpled up five on the table and stand up.

“Shit. I have to go.”

Everyone’s yelling something, but at this point I’m banging into people on my way to the door. Then I’m huffing out little clouds of frosty air, running the four blocks home, slipping in the snow as I go. I get to our building and walk up to the fifth floor. Eli isn’t home. Myshkin rubs against my legs and follows me as I throw off my coat and flop down onto the mattress. The room is undulating in a nauseating way and I lie there, focusing on a tiny dot on the wall. The cat purrs, the radiator bangs, and I pass out.

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Love Story, with Cocaine

Maarit’s father had given her a dog because he hoped it would provide her with something to do. It was true that Maarit did not have much to do, though she always felt busy, which was, perhaps, a natural consequence of waking up daily at 3:00 P.M. Most of her activities involved spending her father’s money. That her father’s solution to this would mean Maarit necessarily spending more of his money (on dog food, on dog toys, on dog hospitals and dog vacations) was typical of him. Equally typical was Maarit’s decision not to say so. She was his youngest, most glamorous, and most difficult daughter, and she knew that a large part of her father’s toleration of her lifestyle depended on her maintaining its hair’s-width acceptability.

The dog, a greyhound Maarit instantly named Mimu, came to her fully grown, or nearly so. He moved with snakelike grace, his coat was a rich thunderhead gray, and his eyes were little expressive bogs of brown. There was, however, no way around the fact that there was something plainly wrong with Mimu. He shivered constantly, for one thing, and was a reflexive biter of such determination that Maarit removed Mimu’s muzzle only when serving him supper. Soon Mimu’s most spectacular behavioral quirk emerged: attacking strangers.

His first victim was an old Russian woman, whose mauling occurred within Toompark only a week after Maarit first laid her hand upon the hard, skully part of Mimu’s brow. The old Russian woman, in Maarit’s mind, sort of asked for it by dint of attempting to pet Mimu as she passed by. One might think that a leashed, muzzled dog would be incapable of inflicting much damage. But Mimu’s previous custodian had not thought to trim his nails in some time–if, indeed, ever. By the time Mimu had the old woman on the ground (Maarit pulling back on the leash with every one of her 105 pounds), he was raking her chest and arms with a catlike avidity. It was a cloudy weekday evening; the park was virtually empty. Taking note of this, Maarit helped up the speechless and pretty badly bleeding old woman and without another word allowed Mimu to drag her back to her apartment in the Old Town. For several days she stayed away from Toompark.

The second attack was trickier, emotionally speaking, in that it involved a child who was walking with his mother along Toompark’s edge. Again it was early evening, the champagne-colored sun dissolving behind some trees. Mimu just bolted at the sight of the boy. The leash in Maarit’s hand went from a dense fabric cool to searingly hot in the space of half a second. Maarit let go, endured the endless seconds in which Mimu approached his target, and watched with fascinated horror as Mimu launched himself at the boy like a gorgeously living torpedo. Mimu was muzzled and Maarit got him under control quickly enough; crystal-eyed shock seemed to be worst of the boy’s injuries. When Maarit tried to slip away, the boy’s hysterical mother followed her. When Maarit began to run, so did the mother. Maarit surrendered to her fate, and–nodding, apologizing–gave the boy’s mother a fake cell phone number and fake address.

Unbeknownst to Maarit, the woman knew who she was: Maarit’s father, a businessman whose business he chose to describe publicly only as “business,” was often in the tabloids. The next day the woman showed up at her apartment–another gift from her father–with two frowning policemen. (The woman had been provided with Maarit’s address by a dry cleaner they both shared, a breach of trust so severe that Maarit seriously considered taking legal action.) When Maarit was asked by the policemen if Mimu had had anything to do with an attack on a Russian woman a few days before, she hesitated a moment too long. They seemed to know her eventual, emotionally riveting denial was a lie, and there was some vague talk of putting Mimu down. Her father, who had key allies among the city’s constabulary, took care of the matter, and even gave Maarit money for a dogwalker. Maarit hated this taciturn flunky, and after a few weeks paid the dogwalker twice what her father was paying him (three times what her father was paying him, actually, given that it was all his money) to stay away from her. From there she went back to walking Mimu on her own.

The next person Mimu attacked was also in Toompark, this time in the middle of the afternoon. The only reason it happened was because Maarit allowed herself to be distracted by the wolf whistle of three Russian men evidently enjoying a midday vodka blowout. (Maarit, who was not Russian, would have sooner slept with Mimu than a Russian.) When Maarit, whose post-independence command of Russian had faded to a few lush profanities, turned to tell the men to go fuck their mothers with a broken broomstick, Mimu bolted. His victim this time, thank God, was a man. By the time Maarit had Mimu under control (a very relative concept with Mimu, true), the man was, somehow, laughing as he got to his feet.

He was an American, around thirty years old, and had long and shinily unclean brown hair: the haircut of someone who did not worry about haircuts. His face, though, was clean-shaven and kind, if not particularly remarkable. He was wearing a black V-neck sweater (which had spared his arms the brunt of Mimu’s claws) and jeans whose knees where, thanks to Mimu, whorled with Milky Way-shaped grass stains. Maarit, who lived for a time in Cambridge before flunking out, had always been fascinated by the masculinity gap between the English words “guy” and “man.” Before her was a guy. To her frequent emotional sorrow, Maarit was most often attracted to guys. She was not attracted to this guy. She did, however, like the fact that he was daring enough to pet Mimu, whose down-turned head was so narrow that his dark black nose resembled the dot beneath an exclamation point. To Maarit’s surprise, Mimu did not resist the American’s touch or even growl.

“What name?” he asked Maarit in her language, which he obviously spoke only in brain-damaged form.

She told him, in English.

“What does it mean?”

“Nothing,” she said. “It’s his name.”

He lowered into a squat to look Mimu in the eye. “Mimu the mean,” he said. Apparently this gratified Mimu, who seemed to relax a little, even going so far as to sit, his head lifting in that arrogant greyhound way. The guy looked up at Maarit, squinting. “And what’s your name?”

She told him.

He smiled. “All the girls’ names here are so pretty.”

“Do you want something?” Maarit was annoyed now.

He shrugged. “Everything I want, I’ve got.”

At this, Maarit tried not to smile. Displays of confidence, even when boldly affected, were one of her weaknesses. “You talk like an idiot.”

“I’m not a tourist,” he said. “I know who you are. We actually live three doors away from each other.”

She did not respond. If this was a line, Maarit would give him nothing.

“I’m in eight Rataskaevu. Top floor. You’re twelve. No idea what floor you live on.”

“Top floor.”

“Aren’t we both fancy?”

She started away; the guy stood. “Hey,” he said, keeping pace beside her, “your dog attacked me. The least you can do is join me for a drink. My name’s Ken.”

“You want to drink in the afternoon?”

“I often drink in the afternoon.”

She looked at him. Her decision wheel spun around inside her and stopped, decisively. “Where?”

“Eight Rataskaevu happens to have an excellent bar.”

She laughed. “I am not going to your apartment.”

“I’ve got other things there. Fun things. Fun things for fancy people.”

She said nothing, slightly and suddenly afraid of him now.

He sighed, picked a piece of grass from his sweater, rolled it into a ball, and flicked it away. “Look. You’re friends with Jaanus Kask, right?” He looked around, as though invoking this name had been potentially unwise. “I know him, too.”

Jaanus Kask was someone Maarit saw fairly frequently, though he was hardly her favorite person on this earth. She liked very much what he was able to get for her, though.

“I don’t like doing coke alone,” he said.

Funny thing: neither did Maarit.

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Houdini at 40

Handcuffed and head down in the tank
two and a half minutes behind
the black velvet curtain, deadbolts
across the opening and nothing
but the sound of water filling my ears, I discover
myself on the verge of a possible mistake.  This is to say

I meant for Anatole to leave me bound this time round;
the longer the lapping occurs in my head,
the closer I come to the governance of happiness.  I am truly
singing in here, not drowning but singing, and if only you

could hear me strumming in this little ocean
of sleep, you would know this is my real gift; to sleep
through the séance of my life, awakened only
by the cleverest of parlour tricks—waxy eggs sliding
through ear canals and leaden pencils
pulled through long fingers.  There is nothing
that disarms me like milk-cans full of pennies

and your heart, nothing that unlocks me
like disremembering the dead who tell heaven
through blue flame, nothing secretly more disheartening
than the idea of an afterlife that means I will have to live

on beyond the chains of this one, clasped and traveling
from one watery cylinder to the next, proving myself again
the prince of air.  If cuffed and spun long enough
will I forget how you forgot how to
kiss me that night, how your mouth

is still the dark space my hand slips into before pulling
the blinking yellow canary from the crushed velvet
of a gentleman’s top hat?  If I let the burble of water
that asks to be my breath back into the pockets of lungs,

can I have you back again, telling me over pans of apple betty
skate blades on the frozen Danube

and a girl’s magic is cutting men’s hearts to lace?  Anatole
slips the bolt, unbraids the clank from my hands, the coil
of what I know I can escape from.  I flip myself
rightside up, dripping like a newborn,
ready to pretend I have willed myself alive.

 

Heather Altfeld is a lecturer at California State University, Chico, and the board chair of Blue Oak Charter School. She is at work completing an untitled manuscript of poems. “Houdini at 40” appears in ZYZZYVA‘s Fall issue.

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Editor’s Note #92

Dear Readers,

Welcome to the new ZYZZYVA. After 26 years we’ve given the journal a new look, even a new heft.

Over the past months we’ve worked on a redesign with Three Steps Ahead, the same California firm behind our new website. ZYZZYVA’s original print design, created with care by Thomas Ingalls & Associates in 1985, was elegant and restrained. We kept in mind the clarity and the spare beauty of their vision as we sought to add other elements speaking to the pleasures of print, to the craft of bookmaking, and to the stimulating quietude of reading. We considered paper weight and tone, typesetting and titles, mingled serifs with sans-serifs, discussed the old-fashioned whimsy of endpapers—always with a view toward presenting stories, poetry, and art in the best way possible.

Perhaps the most dramatic shift is in our cover design. This new presentation of cover art evokes how a work is thoughtfully displayed in a gallery or museum; the shadowing effect playfully reproduces the quality of a piece hanging on a wall. This nod to gallery exhibitions reflects our intent: to present the artwork we curate with the same attentiveness we bring to the literature we publish.

This issue features yet another vital development in our commitment to the visual arts: the journal’s first-ever full-color art spread. We are thrilled to inaugurate this new feature by showcasing stunning photographic portraits by Katy Grannan and striking paintings by Julio Cesar Morales.

Our primary focus is, as always, on publishing the highest quality art and literature; design is secondary, and must serve the content. But in this digitally driven age, it is incumbent on any publisher to consider all aspects of a print product, including the physicality of the object, and to answer fully a book reader’s implicit (sometimes explicit) query: why should I spend time with this journal?

Our implicit (now explicit) answer to you: because it offers a feast of contemporary poetry, prose and art. Because each issue seeks to be unexpected, fresh and affecting. Because your time is rewarded with our vigorous attention to every detail of the reading experience.

And not least of all: because this journal is also a beautiful object—one that, we hope, is pleasing to the eye, pleasing to the touch, and takes a place of pride and enjoyment in your home. We imagine ZYZZYVA on your coffee table, your bookshelf, your nightstand, there in a stack of other books by the bed or on the desk. And we hope that every time your gaze falls upon it you’re reminded anew of the sensory and cerebral pleasures of print.

L.

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Piropo

They say that change in your life happens quickly, and maybe it’s true, because my life with Vicente and Joaquín changed in just days. I guess I’d had enough of watching over Joaquín like a child. You just can’t baby-sit a grown man. Sometimes at night he’d go out for a walk. I always wanted to go with him, but he told me he needed to be alone. Who knows what he was doing. Sometimes he’d be gone for hours. I never once followed him, but I could have. Maybe I was afraid of what I’d find. I felt him stray from me in every way. He wanted to blame it on my hair, on our not having relations.

All my life, I’ve fought like an animal to take care of my own—my child, my parents, my brothers, and now Joaquín. I’m tired. I think I lost that urge to fight. My father sometimes used to call me una fiera, una loba, words you shouldn’t use for your daughter. Yet I could tell he was proud of my fury. Other men think it’s bad. No one wants a wolf in his home. Only in the forest do men dare shape-shift and let their nahuales battle it out. Attacked beneath the trees, a man either roars or whimpers as he feels his life leaving him, his blood let. Does he love life enough?

But we are not in the wilds where a man might have to bare his teeth and give his life over to a nahual. We’re at the corner of Haste and Tehama.

 

So this one day, a green Expedition pulls up in front of us. Vicente was so tired of waiting for work he said we should take whatever the driver was offering. The man in the Expedition was playing the Carlos Santana CD all the teenagers liked, the one with a song from Maná. He lowered the volume.

“Buenos días. Necesito unos albañiles. Tengo un patio de ladrillo que necesito terminar.”

He wore a denim shirt that looked freshly ironed. Whatever patio he wanted fixing wasn’t one he’d started. His face didn’t show any wrinkles from outdoors work. He looked like an abogado or a professor with his round rim glasses, like the kind of man who takes hours to read his newspaper.

Vicente appreciated the man’s attempt in Spanish and took over where I usually ask some more questions. How many days of work? The man said, Two or three, max.

 

Vicente went to the driver’s window, got a figure for payment, and then motioned for us to get in. With three of us the job would be quick. I hoped it would be clean. I usually like laying brick.

In the car the man’s voice relaxed as we headed toward north Berkeley.

“Me llamo Connor Dougherty y aquí vivo cerca.”

“We understand English pretty good,” I told him, sitting between Joaquin and Vicente. “It’s just sometimes when reading contracts or signing for deliveries, I’m the one who takes care of it.” We were driving to a house on Santa Fe Street, off of Marin Avenue. “If there’s something complicated you can tell me, but we pretty much follow instructions, not a problem.”

“Oh, I see,” he said. “It’s a pleasure for me to speak Spanish, though. I worked at the Universidad Autónoma for two years. I’ve tried to keep it up since then.” They all try to keep it up. I let him talk about his work in Mexico.

As soon as we park in front of the cream-colored house with brown tejas, I know he’s one of those Hispano lovers. The entryway had blue and white Talavera tiles on the front part of the stairs. Big clay planters lined the walkway through the yard, and the bougainvillea climbed the pillars of the front porch. I was maybe even expecting his wife was a pocha, but no, his wrinkly thin señora came running out to meet us.

“Buenos días a todos. Bienvenidos.”

I moved behind Vicente and pulled my cap down. Sometimes other women could pick me out.

They led us around the side of the house and pointed out the half-finished patio job. I wasn’t sure about the two or three days. The patio seemed to connect to some forms where a foundation was waiting to be poured.

“And that?”

“That’d be great if you could handle the foundation work, too.”

“That depends. Are you working with an engineer?” This was a job to be inspected by the city.

“The design and calculations are already set. I just need to order a large quantity of concrete.”

That was my cue to not ask any more questions.

“I was really hoping to get it done soon, since we’re planning a party. My daughter graduates in a few weeks.”

“Well, it will take us a bit longer, even though you have already done the hardest part.”

Vicente picked up a level that was tossed with some of the other tools in a wheelbarrow. He placed it on the three meters or so of patio they’d already started. Vicente checked how they’d handled the first part. The remaining ground had been leveled off and prepared, so we just had to follow the pattern and set the brick. Mr. Dougherty spread out the plans and explained the design to Vicente. They had purchased some nice Moro and White Antique flats to make a pretty contrast. He wanted some sort of Mayan border to show in a pattern through the darker brick. It surprised me they would build that into their backyard. Some people with money have crazy ideas, but at least this was pretty nice.

Joaquín got started mixing cement in a corner of the yard, and I gathered the tools we’d need to get started. At around eleven, Mr. Dougherty left, but said his wife would bring us lunch. He was going out to order the cement delivery for the foundation.

 

What I love about laying brick is the balance of shapes, like a dance. I even dream of dancing and hear music in my head, no matter if the guys are loud and playing el Cucuy, who is so obnoxious, on their radio. I think of Manzanillo and working on my grandparents’ home when I was so young I could barely lift a brick. Even then my father let me drag the trowel across the bricks sandwiching wet concrete. The fonda across the street played danzones from morning until night. The old people sat and fanned themselves, drinking glasses of jamaica. Father would place the bricks, and I’d flatten and scrape. We’d trace over the lines with a little metal strip and shape any messy edges. The ends of the bricks always met exactly in the middle of the brick placed below them. The lines of gray cement stood out like squatting guerreros—a short body in the middle with arms stretched out, forearms raised at the elbow skyward. The perfect balance reminded me, too, of lovers dancing. The sharp lines were their arms in the hold of a danzon, stilled in a frame separate from their bodies, recto pero dulce. The trowel scrapes across the brick in just the time it takes for a woman to be spun and dipped.

“¿Te gusta un pan dulce o un café?” Mrs. Dougherty held out a tray of pastries.

“No thank you, señora.” I didn’t want to slow down to eat.

Joaquín took off his gloves and sat in a white, big-cushioned patio chair. He accepted some pastries and even had the nerve to ask for coffee. The lady came out with a second tray, one with coffee, cream, and a large glass of orange juice. Maybe I should’ve taken a break, after all.

Joaquín smacked his lips over the juice. Hey, I think this is fresh-squeezed. This juice tastes like honey.

Vicente shot me a look like Joaquín was crazy. Only he could spend fifteen minutes savoring orange juice and pan dulce while we worked like dogs to finish the damn patio. We were nowhere near done and still had to negociar details on that foundation. Vicente whistled at Joaquín. Joaquín got the hint and put the lady’s little cup and plates on the tray, then walked it over to the house. I watched him stare into the patio screen for a little minute, then slide it open without even knocking. He entered that lady’s kitchen like a thief.

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Everything That Happens Can Be Called Aging

I have more love than ever.
Our kids have kids soon to have kids.
I need them. I need everyone
to come over to the house,
sleep on the floor, the couch
in the front room. I need noise,
love, the noise of love,
too many people in too small a place.
I need dancing, the spilling
of drinks, loud pronouncements
over music, verbal sparring,
broken dishes and wealth.
I need it all flying apart.
My friends to slam against me,
to hold me, to say they love me.
I need mornings to ask for favors
and forgiveness. I need to give,
have all my emotions rattled,
my family to be greedy,
to keep coming, to keep asking
and taking. I need no resolution,
just the constant turmoil of living.
Give me the bottom of the river,
all the unadorned, unfinished,
unpraised moments, one
good turn on the luxuriant wheel.

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Son of the General

Below the hotel veranda, neighbor boys shoot down mangoes with slingshots. Sometimes they miss and startle roosting fruit bats. A belt stretches across the restaurant table. “Eso no es nada,” son of The General says, referring to the cloth belt that he uses on his child. “Once, when I was around sixteen years old, I walk into the army station and the soldiers ask me, ‘Are you afraid of your father, El General, or do you respect him?’ ‘Claro—of course, I’m afraid of him,’ I answer. My dad overhears and rages into the room. ‘Miedo? Fear? I’ll teach you what fear is.’ He turns to the soldiers. ‘Prepárense el agua.’ He yells at me, ‘Strip down to your underwear.’ I do what he says. The soldiers drop ice water on me from an overhead tub. Out of nowhere, my dad slams his pistol on the side of my face and then my shoulder. I fall to the ground and my dad comes after me again. For sure, I think my shoulder’s broken. Then I get up, limp home in my underwear, pack my bags, and leave for an artist community in the mountains.” After a peasant massacre, El General earns the nickname “El Loco.” Green Berets send counterinsurgency experts to train him in how to clean up Communism. El General forms “La Mano Blanco” — “The White Hand” — the first Death Squads in Central America. Surveillance files are established with tabs: union, student, antigovernment, religion. Murdered victims are thrown in ditches with signs, “La Mano Blanco.” Bankrolled by the CIA, El General buys land and a fleet of luxury cars. President LBJ presents El General with a medal for his “Exceptional Meritorious Service.” Studying abroad, the son of El General and my husband become roommates. In college, the son receives a phone call. His brother was murdered leaving church. The army advises him not to return for the funeral. A year later, another phone call. This time, El General was murdered. Again, he is advised not to return. “We know who killed El General,” says a high ranking military official. “If you give us the word we will avenge your father’s death.” The son does not give the word. Both he and my husband graduate, relocate, then lose contact as they wait out the war in different countries. Granted political asylum, the son of El General and his first wife settle near pacific waters, which at first they find comforting. But when warm currents from home never arrive, they shake their heads at the chilly waters, as if an old friend has changed; his wife says the ocean knows only one season: winter. Once, holding his firstborn, the son walks against a seawall. A surging tide sideswipes him, knocks his baby out of his arms, and pulls his boy out to sea. He lunges after him, reaching for hand, heel, or leg. The next wave returns his son back into his arms, unharmed, as if the sea grants second chances. Now, he has a recurring nightmare, even though his firstborn has grown, lives abroad, and plays in a rock band. Enshrouded in waves, dark seal shapes rise, then crash to shore. They are babies. Babies crawling to land. Before the next wave breaks, he gathers as many as he can, but still, he can’t find his firstborn. He wakes on all fours, pillows and covers in hand. By chance, twenty years after college, my husband runs into his old roommate at our vacation hotel. Remarried, he has a child our son’s age. When I meet him, I am standing waist deep in the pool and he almost falls in as he reaches across the water, trying to shake my hand. Late afternoon, we share foil-wrapped roasted fish with him and his new wife. Our caramel-colored sons look like twins. My one-eyed fish stares up at me. Long-tailed roosters strut by our palapa as if they own the pool deck. Below the veranda, neighbor boys shoot down mangoes with slingshots. Sometimes they miss and hit fruit bats. A soft belt stretches over the table. Our server delivers another round of Pilzners topped with limes and hands the boys their Cola Champagne. Seeing a shadow in the deep end, my husband dives into the pool and pulls up a boy. Bloated, face purple, hands blanched, he isn’t breathing. On the other side of the pool, his mother screams. Distracted by shell necklaces for sale, his parents didn’t see their son jump into the pool. The boy spews a fountain of water when his uncle administers CPR. He starts to breathe. They rush him to the hospital and later he is released in good health. Sons in hand, we walk out to the beach and await the sunset. Sitting in the sand, we watch the sun glow iron red. Farther down the beach, the father of the drowned boy also watches. The father never thanks my husband. The son of El General shrugs. “What’s a father going to admit?” With his palms face up, the setting sun rests in his hands then slides through his fingers. Like molten lava, the sun burns into the horizon.

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