Issues Archives

2015

All issues from 2015.

Shiftiness: The Border in Eight Cases

1. A Press Conference

It’s January 2013, and I’m watching some political theater on C-SPAN’s website. Senator Charles Schumer leans over a podium in a Senate pressroom. His glasses sit low on his nose, and he looks more like one of my great uncles than someone reading a policy statement to assembled reporters. But he and seven other senators have hammered out an immigration reform proposal, so this is News. “We still have a long way to go,” he says, “but this bipartisan blueprint is a major breakthrough.”

I take Senator Schumer’s announcement personally. Over the years, I’ve known many people who’ve been in the United States when the law said they shouldn’t be. I’m a public interest lawyer, but I’m not talking about clients. My list includes friends, my husband, and even my father’s mother and aunt, who as teenagers landed at Ellis Island with documents that weren’t their own. Crowded in the steamer’s steerage hull, they must have wondered, “Will it work?”

My great-aunt and grandmother’s papers weren’t doctored or stolen, though—they’d switched with each other. Aunt Mary had stopped growing after falling from a tree, and her family was afraid she’d be rejected at the border as physically defective. Her parents decided she should pretend to be younger, hence the paper switch with my grandmother, her younger sister. The trick worked. My grandmother and Aunt Mary both made it into the U.S. and wound up working in the garment factories. My grandmother, who could sew anything, left the garment shops to raise her family, but Aunt Mary kept working, sealing box after box, inserting slips of paper atop the folded clothing: “Inspected by Number 9.” When finally it came time to retire, she asked my father for help with her Social Security application and handed him a clutch of documents. Each showed a different birthday. My father settled on one, and she started getting her checks.

“She was such a dear woman,” my father says. Holding his hand just above his abdomen, he adds, “She was only about this tall.”

I never met Aunt Mary, so all I know about her is that she was a tiny, unassuming woman who once did something brave and illegal, abetted by my grandmother. People leap into acts such as these when they know the rules don’t favor their survival but they want to live anyway. I have many friends who, like Aunt Mary, did whatever it took to get into the U.S. They plodded through the desert, scrambled over fences, convinced border inspectors at the airport that they were coming as tourists, not to stay. One friend spent the night in a safe house in Tijuana, where she met women who were fleeing the civil war in El Salvador and had traded sex for rides all the way through Mexico.

Then there was an acquaintance who told me his family’s story through choking tears. He and his brother-in-law were entering the country at El Paso, because both lived in the United States with valid papers. The rest of the family was crossing illegally, away from the border checkpoint. “Whose bag is that?” the officer asked the man and his brother-in-law, seeing a purse left on one of the seats.

“My mother left it by accident,” the brother-in-law said, as if she’d forgotten the bag while sending the young men off on their journey. “A woman never just leaves her purse,” said the officer.

But, in the rush to cross with the coyotes, she had left it in the van. His face red with panic, the brother-in-law explained, “I haven’t seen her for fifteen years.” He’d been living in central Washington, and she in a small town in Jalisco.

The officer took pity and said, “Hurry and find her before she gets caught.”

This family was lucky, and some other friends of mine have been lucky, too, falling through one trapdoor or another in our immigration law. They got their papers and eventually became U.S. citizens. But many of my friends haven’t had that chance. They’re still waiting.

So when I see Charles Schumer on my screen, I hope he understands. His proposal comes with a catch, though. The border would have to be stamped secure before anyone could get their papers. By June 2013, Senator Schumer and his colleagues have come up with a bill, which includes border enforcement metrics and timetables; an amendment adds fencing, high- tech surveillance, and electronic identity checks in workplaces—hardly a surprise as the title of the bill starts with the term “border security.”

But perhaps the tripwires and sensors are props in a border security dream, rather than a depiction of border security reality. As I write this essay, I run an online search and pull up images of the border that show corrugated metal fence cutting through the desert. That fence is the picture we put to the word “border,” helping us believe in it as something real and constant, if vulnerable. It provides a place for the border, which the border needs if it’s going to mark the line we think it marks. We want the border to be clear and provide clarity. For almost twenty years, though, I’ve been trying to figure out where the border is and what it does, and I still don’t know.

2. Seeking Asylum, Filling Out Forms 

I didn’t grow up thinking of my family as refugees, but of course they were.

“They didn’t want to be drafted into the czar’s army,” I was told, or, “pogroms,” or “Grandpa’s older brothers and sister were revolutionaries.”

My family came with the stink of oppression on them. By the 1960s, we were upper middle-class, and I assumed that all American families followed this trajectory: the arc of the moral universe bends toward the suburbs. In those suburbs, my parents retained a sense of liberal responsibility. My father, a doctor, joined the nuclear disarmament movement and gave sidewalk talks on the medical effects of thermonuclear war. My mother opposed U.S. Cold War military interventions and on a file cabinet placed a bumper sticker that read, “El Salvador is Spanish for Vietnam.” It wasn’t really, but from this I understood that El Salvador was more than just a far-flung place.

In the 1980s, El Salvador was steeped in a civil war in which the Salvadoran government committed massacres, tortured and disappeared its victims, fired on demonstrators, and murdered priests, nuns, and union members. I learned from my mother that our government was sending military advisors and supporting government death squads, which she thought we shouldn’t do. People were streaming from El Salvador by the tens of thousands, but my mother didn’t tell me about these refugees, because they weren’t arriving in the Philadelphia suburbs. I wouldn’t meet any until years later, when I helped a few apply for asylum.

That happened in 1994. I’d recently graduated from college and moved to Seattle. My boyfriend—now my husband—had come to the city from northern Mexico, and he found an apartment above the restaurant where he worked. The building was shabby, with second-story front doors along the balcony, motel-style, and access to the interior hallway (and laundry machines) through doors that opened directly into the apartments’ bathrooms.

I was working as a receptionist, and one day I saw a poster for an organization called the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP), which provided legal services to immigrants. I called to see about volunteering. “We’ve got a training coming up,” the executive director told me. “Come by on Saturday.”

A paralegal, Julie, gathered us in the office’s dim conference room and taught us the basics of asylum law, showed us how to complete the forms, and told us what questions to ask the people we’d interview. She seemed to know everything. She explained that the circumstances of these asylum applications were unusual. Because the U.S. had backed the Salvadoran government—pressed it to continue the war, even—Salvadoran refugees had a very hard time getting asylum when they’d reached the United States. In fact, in the 1980s, immigration officials denied 97 percent of Salvadorans’ applications, even with all the murder and torture: bloody Cold War politics. Refugees and church groups sued, and the government finally agreed to give them another chance to apply.

The next weekend, I started interviewing applicants. The NWIRP headquarters was packed with men, women, children. I called the next person on the list into one of the offices and started asking all sorts of questions to make the application as strong as possible: the more terror a person had seen the better. But my interviewees didn’t easily produce stories of brutality. When I asked, “Why did you leave El Salvador?” they usually said, “Well, because of the war, like everyone else.” I didn’t know how to get them to say more, or know if there was more for them to say.

Across the hall, Julie stood in another office, tilting toward a seated client. She was saying, or I thought I heard her say, “Don’t you remember anything? You must remember something.”

She had a way of shaking out recollections. Maybe the Salvadorans’ memories lay beneath a tough rind of trauma that needed to be torn open. Or maybe they’d come to see horror as ordinary, not worthy of note. Either way, I learned that you can’t tell what people have been through by just looking at them. None of the people I interviewed came in maimed or disfigured, except for one man who was missing the top half of his middle finger. Instead of the digit, he had a smooth blossom of knuckle. He hadn’t lost the finger in the war, though. It had been lopped off when he’d reached his hand out of a moving car and caught it on a wire. I took his fingerprints for the application, and Julie told me to write in “missing finger” in the box where the print should have gone. The man and I shared a laugh over that. I was twenty-four when I did those interviews. Since then, I’ve met countless people who’ve been through hard things. I’ve met gay men raped by police in Latin America, Jamaican sugarcane cutters nickeled and dimed by rich growers in Florida, a woman who shot her stepfather, a woman who killed her own child in a drug fury. You learn to speak with people about difficult experiences.

But in 1994, all this was new for me. I began to get the hang of it, and when a Salvadoran interviewee said, “I just left because of the war,” I’d ask, “Did guerrillas or soldiers ever come to your house? Was anyone in your family ever killed?” And sometimes this helped people remember, and they’d say, “Oh, yes, there was that time …” I wrote in the answers, and in my memories I picture my interviewee and me in the dusty air of a dingy office, leaning over the application to review it together. The word “alien” appeared on the application in clear black letters, but I didn’t think of the Salvadorans as aliens. If an army bombs a person’s town with weapons provided by the United States, aided by training in the U.S., doesn’t that person have a relationship with the United States? How can we talk about that person as an alien, if there’s no border between us that really counts?

3. Making Our Map

And yet we have maps that neatly mark the boundaries and make them real.

But: there are parts of the United States that don’t appear on most maps of the United States. Pull up a map online, and you’ll get the contiguous forty-eight with Alaska and Hawaii shifted to the southwestern flank, as if pushed there by a finger of godlike proportions. You don’t see Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, or the other “unincorporated territories” of the United States. Although these places belong to our country—whatever the word “belong” may mean—the godlike finger has not moved them within our sight line.

RoughRider-pic

Which takes me to a photograph I’ve downloaded from the National Archives. In the photo, Teddy Roosevelt stands atop San Juan Hill in Cuba in 1898, surrounded by his Rough Riders. They’ve just overrun Spanish forces, having advanced behind a line of Gatling gun fire. They moved, in Lt. John Pershing’s words, “as coolly as though the buzzing of bullets was the humming of bees.” Now they’re posing for a photograph to portray their glory. That’s fine as far as capturing the triumph of that battle goes, but the photo also raises the question of border control. Because of the Spanish American War, the U.S. border was shifting again, and no one knew where it would make landfall.

It was the end of the nineteenth century, and the United States had taken it upon itself to liberate Cuba from Spanish tyranny. By the war’s close, we had a new set of territories, among them the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. President McKinley couldn’t locate these places on a map, but the country still had to decide what to do with them. Should they eventually join the U.S. on equal footing with the states? Should they be treated like nations-but-not-quite-nations, as with the American Indians? Or should the U.S. just cast the new colonies off right away?

These questions concerned the identity of the United States, a country founded on the idea of self-rule, and they weren’t easy to answer. Political leaders and legal scholars began developing proposals and examining the Constitution, while Congress held heated debates. The Anti-Imperialist League roused a crowd of ten thousand at its convention in Chicago, where Massachusetts Senator George Hoar warned the country against descending into “the modern swamp and cesspool of imperialism.” At that point, he thought we still had hope.

But scholar Abbott Lawrence Lowell, future president of Harvard, where he was a professor of government, believed this hope was misplaced: the anti-imperialists had misperceived the essential nature of the U.S. “(T)here has never been a time, since the adoption of the first ordinance for the government of the Northwest Territory in 1784,” he reminded his readers, “when the United States has not had colonies.”

Yet Lowell still saw something different about the new possessions that meant they couldn’t just be fed into the country’s mill of expansion. “The settlers in the West carried with them the laws and customs of the East, and the precious habit of self-government,” he wrote in 1899 in the Atlantic Monthly. Puerto Rico and the Philippines: they were filled with people different from those settlers, who were us. They had no history of self-rule, and, being insufficiently civilized, couldn’t bear the burden of it. It would be “sheer cruelty” to foist it on the Filipinos, Lowell warned, and even for the Puerto Ricans, “self-government must be gradual and tentative.”

The year Lowell’s words were published, my family lived in czarist Russia. We weren’t yet part of this us. Still, in 2014, I can sit at my desk, sort through Lowell’s article, and wonder, as an American: what was it like for us to question the nature of our country in the wake of those foreign invasions? A century later, we have more experience with this sort of thing. We know that occupying Iraq for eight years doesn’t mean Iraq is part of the United States, and it doesn’t mean Iraqis become Americans. We can enact our will on people without feeling like those actions shift our borders. This wasn’t always so clear, and the debates continued. In 1901, fruit merchant Samuel Downes walked into this open question when he attempted to receive a shipment of oranges from the Port of New York. Downes was a founding officer of the city’s Wholesale Fruit and Produce Association and a donor to the Five Points Mission. Probably he was a businessman of some influence in the city.

However, when he tried to get his oranges—thirty-three boxes shipped from Puerto Rico—he learned that customs was charging him $659.35 in import duties. He protested: Puerto Rico was part of the United States. But the customs officials didn’t agree, so, instead of letting his oranges rot, Downes paid the duties and hired a lawyer, Frederic Coudert, who’d been gathering test cases to take to the Supreme Court. Coudert planned to argue that Puerto Rico belonged to the U.S., and the Constitution barred customs officials from treating it any differently.

Much was at stake in the decision—and not just national identity. Oranges and other commodities meant big money, so while almost no one knows about Downes v. Bidwellnow, the case was a national event back in 1901. When it got out that the court was about to announce its ruling, spectators swarmed into the courtroom, eager for the decision.

The justices issued a ruling that continues to confound. For one thing, the decision had no clear majority and was cobbled together from a series of concurring opinions. For another, the justices decided Puerto Rico may belong to the United States, but that doesn’t make Puerto Rico part of the United States. In the decision’s most famous phrase, Justice White called the island “foreign to the United States in a domestic sense,” and I don’t know how any cartographer could express that paradox on a map, godlike finger or not. At any rate, Samuel Downes wouldn’t get his $659.35 back. The duty remained on the oranges, which were foreign.

But what about the Puerto Ricans? Were they also foreign?

This takes us to the case of Isabel González, chronicled by legal historian Sam Erman. In 1902, González sailed to New York in search of her errant fiancé, who was working at a linoleum plant on Staten Island. When she landed at the Port of New York, she was pregnant—making her sexually suspect in addition to racially undesirable—so port officials wanted to block her from entering as an “indigent immigrant.” She found herself in the middle of the debate over the status of Puerto Ricans, and she took a position, arguing that she was a United States citizen. Even after she married her fiancé and became eligible to enter the U.S. through this marriage, she kept it secret so she could pursue her case.

A federal appeals court declared her an alien. Coudert, Downes’ lawyer, wrote, “(A)s the law stands to-day, we have a new and seemingly paradoxical legal category of ‘American Aliens.’” He represented Gonzalez before the Supreme Court, arguing, Erman writes, that because U.S. citizenship really didn’t guarantee much in the way of rights, there was no reason to deny it to the Puerto Ricans. The court wasn’t willing to go that far. It declared that González wasn’t an alien, but she wasn’t a citizen, either.

It took fifteen years for Congress to extend citizenship—statutory citizenship, meaning not guaranteed by the Constitution—to Puerto Ricans, and President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill on March 2, 1917. Later that month Puerto Rico’s appointed governor, Arthur Yager, appeared before the island’s legislators and addressed them as “fellow citizens of the United States.”

“I welcome you into our great national family with high hopes,” the New York Timesreports him as saying, and I imagine him standing grandly at the podium, arms spread wide in imperial embrace.

That November, Governor Yager gathered at San Juan’s Municipal Theater with his daughter, the president of the House of Delegates, and other political and military leaders. They were there to draw eight thousand draft numbers for World War I, making a public ceremony of conscription. Miss Yager picked the first number. The Puerto Ricans went off to war, but the island still wasn’t fully part of the United States and isn’t to this day. You may find Puerto Rico on some U.S. maps, at the tail end of a string of Caribbean islands. It will be marked as “Puerto Rico (U.S.).”

4. Origin Stories

No matter what dangers my family escaped in the early twentieth century, they couldn’t have predicted the greatest danger, which probably would have consumed them had they stayed in Europe. Just as there are still Jews despite genocide, there are still Indians. (When I was a child the idea of an Indian seemed magical to me. In one of my earliest memories, I’m sitting with my family at a Phillies game in Veterans Stadium, plastic seats crummy with peanut-shell dust, when my father says, “I think that man over there is an American Indian.” I searched for the Indian in the stands, but if I saw him I don’t remember it; I recall only the feeling of fascination and surprise. There were still Indians! Now I wonder if some Nazis dreamed of the day that a few leftover Jews would fascinate rather than repel—but I shouldn’t stretch this comparison, because like unhappy families each genocide is genocidal in its own way.)

We could ask many questions about our American genocide, among them questions about borders. On state maps now, sometimes you’ll see the boundaries of reservations marked out, and sometimes you won’t. This points to the unsettled status of Native nations. They’re sovereign nations, but they’re also tangled up in jurisdictional confusion—among the tribes, states, and federal governments—that compromises self-government and, to outsiders, may make them seem like something less. One example is that tribal courts may not prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes in their territory. When the victims are Indians, the federal government is supposed to handle these crimes, such as rape, but it has a history of overlooking them, so it’s as if every non-Native American on a reservation carries diplomatic immunity. In 2015, the law is changing. Native courts will be able to try non-Indians for some crimes of intimate violence against Indians, which seems like a good development, but it doesn’t make jurisdiction entirely clear—jurisdiction and territory still won’t be the same thing, as we often assume they are.

It’s impossible to separate violence from the writing and rewriting of borders. In 1831, amid machinations to expel the “Five Civilized Tribes” from the South, the Supreme Court decided it couldn’t hear a case brought by the Cherokees, who were challenging Georgia’s right to extend state law to their territory. The court’s refusal to hear the Cherokee claim rested on an interpretation of geography. Chief Justice John Marshall wrote, “The Indian Territory is admitted to compose a part of the United States. In all our maps, geographical treatises, histories, and laws, it is so considered.” And so, the court determined, the Cherokee represented not a “foreign state” but a “domestic, dependent nation” lacking the right to sue Georgia in U.S. courts. If a border existed between the Cherokee Nation and Georgia, in this instance it couldn’t keep Georgia out.

I’m looking at another photograph from the National Archives. It depicts the delegation led by Spotted Tail, a Sicangu Lakota leader, to Washington, D.C. The official record indicates the photo was taken sometime between 1871 and 1907, but since Spotted Tail was killed by Crow Dog in 1881 the date range must be too broad. I don’t know who else appears in the photo or what Spotted Tail and his delegation were doing in D.C. I’ve only just learned that he ever existed, and all I see in this photograph of bygone Indians—with their moccasins, blankets, braided hair, and pipes—is a representation of inevitability, which is my fault and not theirs.

Spotted-Tail-pic

Spotted Tail was born eight years before the Cherokee Nation v. Georgia decision. Crow Dog, the man who killed him, was born just a couple of years after. Both came to live on the Great Sioux Reservation decades later, following years of war. Spotted Tail had been imprisoned in Fort Leavenworth after fighting in the Sioux War of 1855. Traveling to the fort under military guard, he passed by so many white farms and towns that he came to believe there was no way to defeat the United States. Crow Dog had fought against the U.S., too, and he also had to make his peace, although I can’t fathom how complicated it must be for a person to negotiate with a society that has committed genocide against him.

The peace treaty that created the Great Sioux Reservation (and set its boundaries) was a nation-to-nation agreement, but it put the U.S. government deep into territory that supposedly wasn’t within U.S. jurisdiction. There would be a U.S. Indian agent on the reservation and an agency office, along with a school, buildings for a carpenter and blacksmith, and provisions to turn the Indians into farmers.

In the end, Crow Dog and Spotted Tail both wound up living here and assuming roles of political leadership. Crow Dog became a tribal police captain. Spotted Tail, a chief, carried a rifle and threw his weight around. He removed Crow Dog from his position twice, and Crow Dog may have suspected Spotted Tail of pocketing tribal money. There were factions, differences of opinion, tactics, and maneuvering. This is what I understand from my reading, although I can’t really understand—I’d have to travel to a different time, language, culture, set of politics.

But I can get a sense of the difficulties. Spotted Tail, Crow Dog, and other leaders had the railroad expansion bearing down on them, the crushing forces of assimilation policy, the U.S. Indian agent right there in his office, boring the American state into Lakota territory. Crow Dog is perceived as being less willing to make concessions to the Americans, Spotted Tail less reluctant.

Yet it will always be a mystery why, exactly, Crow Dog killed Spotted Tail that day. Spotted Tail had attended a tribal council meeting at the Rosebud Indian agency, where the council was planning another D.C. delegation, which Spotted Tail would head. When the meeting disbanded, he mounted his horse and started home. He saw Crow Dog crouched next to a wagon, apparently tying his moccasins but really lying in wait. Crow Dog raised his rifle and shot Spotted Tail through his left breast.

That’s one version of the event. In another I’ve read, the events go like this:

Crow Dog was fixing a bar above his wagon’s axle, while his wife, Pretty Camp, waited in the wagon with their child. Spotted Tail galloped toward them, stopped, and drew his pistol. Pretty Camp yelled a warning, and Crow Dog fired.

In both versions, the tribal council met the next day and, according to legal scholar Sidney Harring, ordered a payment to Spotted Tail’s family of $600, eight horses, and one blanket, which settled everything as far as the Lakota were concerned.

But even if they thought the case was closed, the story continued. In the killing of Spotted Tail, Harring explains, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) saw a test case for pushing its policy of assimilation and establishing criminal jurisdiction in Indian country. The BIA pressed the Attorney to prosecute Crow Dog—the idea being that he’d gotten away with murder—and he was sentenced to hang. With his legal fees paid by the BIA, Crow Dog petitioned the Supreme Court, and once again the court had geographic questions on its hands. Did the treaties and federal statutes allow the federal government to cross the border and convict one Indian for the murder of another? The court said they didn’t. As “aliens and strangers” in Indian country, they lived by their own laws—a victory for tribal sovereignty.

But the victory didn’t last. For one thing, a different sense of geography had taken hold among the citizens of the United States. “The Supreme Court has rendered a decision which will startle most readers,” the New York Times announced. “The decision is that there are persons living in the United States and not subject to the jurisdiction of any State or Federal Courts.”

I can’t imagine Crow Dog believed he was living in the United States, and he wasn’t, really—he was in Indian country—but it’s striking that two sets of people can look at the same piece of land and understand it so differently. This case, maybe more than any other, shows how much the history of the border is also a history of imagination. It’s a matter of who has the power to impose their imagination on the other.

The BIA and white reformers, who wanted the Indians fed into their civilizing machine, didn’t let the Supreme Court have the last word. They worked the legislative process, using Ex Parte Crow Dog as fodder. They had the Major Crimes Act slipped into an appropriations bill and won criminal jurisdiction after all, kicking off another reworking of geography. Ten years later, Congress decided to turn the reservations into individual plots, with “surplus” land to be sold off. The Supreme Court gave its approval in Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock, which permitted Congress to reach into Indian land to administer it as it saw fit. Ninety million acres were absorbed into the United States, reservations rendered patchwork.

Through separate legislation, the Great Sioux Reservation was divided into several smaller reservations and whittled down. Crow Dog continued as a traditional leader, joined the Ghost Dance movement, and for years refused to accept his allotment.

I thought this would be the last I’d read about him, and then I came across a New YorkTimes article from 1903. That was the year my grandfather was born in czarist Russia, the Supreme Court decided Lone Wolf, and the year after the U.S. defeated the Filipinos’ war for independence—a good time for empire. Crow Dog was about seventy and had just left the Rosebud Reservation for New York City. The Times headline announced: “Indians Call on Mayor; Mr. Low Cordially Greets Crow Dog, Who Bears Honors as an Assassin.”

Crow Dog had joined a delegation of fifteen Indians in traditional dress, and they stopped in on the mayor on their way to Coney Island, where they’d perform that summer for the city’s heat-drenched masses. An interpreter handled the introductions in the mayor’s office. “This is Crow Dog,” he said, “who assassinated Spotted Tail, chief of the Arapahoes, some years ago.” The mayor shook Crow Dog’s hand and, after enjoying the company of the costumed Indians, “bid them all adieu.”

5. Borders and Bodies

My favorite constitutional amendment is the fourth, which protects the people from unreasonable searches and seizures. The Bill of Rights overall limits how government intervenes in our lives, but the Fourth Amendment feels most personal, most visceral, because searches and seizures involve state incursions into our homes, our belongings, and even our bodies. The Fourth Amendment also works a kind of legal alchemy on the border, changing its substance.

In 1983, Rosa Montoya boarded a plane in Bogotá, having first swallowed eighty-eight balloons filled with cocaine. She carried in her body the balloons, potentially small bombs of poison, into the airport in Los Angeles. When she landed, she was questioned by customs officials, who locked her up for about twenty-four hours, until they got a warrant and a doctor performed a rectal exam. The doctor fished out the first of the bags, and the rest she passed. Her case wound up before the Supreme Court.

For Justice William Rehnquist, writing the majority opinion, Rosa Montoya was a criminal who during her detention refused food and drink, refused to use the bathroom, retracted her consent for an X-ray, then falsely claimed to be pregnant. Justice William Brennan, in his dissent, paints a different picture. He mentions the snapshots of Rosa Montoya’s children that she extracted from her purse whenever someone new entered the lockup room. He discusses the strip-searches she endured and writes that, when told she couldn’t leave until she excreted into a waste basket, she responded, “I will not submit to your degradation, and I’d rather die.”

I don’t know anything more about Rosa Montoya than this. But ultimately United States v. Montoya de Hernandez isn’t about her. It’s about what the government can subject a person to at the border, where usual Fourth Amendment protections don’t apply. That’s why the court found her detention reasonable, and why to this day people can find themselves locked up at the border, hours on end, with no idea what they’re suspected of having done wrong. I’ve become used to the idea that the government has more power at the border and people less, so stories like these don’t surprise me, and sometimes I find myself more astonished at people’s outrage when they’re put through extensive questioning than at the treatment itself. It’s the border. What did you expect?

To shake me back to reason, it takes a lawsuit like one filed by the ACLU of Texas in December, 2013. The ACLU’s client says that, after a drug-sniffing dog jumped on her at the border crossing, she was strip-searched, probed anally and vaginally, shackled to a hospital exam table and probed again, given a laxative that made her defecate, and put under X-ray and CT scans. She asked the border agents if they had a warrant. They told her they didn’t need one and asked her to sign a waiver if she didn’t want to be billed. She refused, and the hospital sent her a statement in the thousands of dollars. At every step, the men who searched her found no drugs.

Does the border mean that strange men can put their fingers in your vagina, again and again, without your consent? In his dissent in Montoya de Hernandez, Justice Brennan raised a warning about this kind of abuse—although he may not have imagined abuse of this magnitude. “Indefinite involuntary incommunicado detentions ‘for investigation’ are the hallmark of a police state,” he wrote, “not a free society.”

There’s another element of strangeness that isn’t acknowledged explicitly in the Montoya de Hernandez decision. The border that Rosa Montoya was trying to cross wouldn’t show up on the map as a border. It’s somewhere in the L.A. airport, not at the line between Juárez and El Paso, or at Peace Arch International Park, which links Washington and British Columbia. In legal terms, border points such as those at airports are called the “functional equivalent of the border.” They also include territorial waters, spots where roads coming from the actual border converge, UPS sorting hubs, etc.: places that aren’t exactly the border, but close enough.

In other words, to conduct a border search or detention you have to be at the border, but where is the border? On this question, one court has explained, “the border is elastic.” What’s important isn’t that the search takes place at the border but that the person or thing being searched be associated with the border. There’s a three-pronged test to see if this association exists. It asks: Can we be reasonably certain the person/object crossed the border? That the person/object didn’t materially change since crossing? That the search was carried out as soon as practical? Then there is the “extended border” doctrine, with its own approach. These are the kinds of legal tools that, after some time in law school, you begin to see as entirely reasonable. And maybe the tools do make sense, but at some point the inquiry should begin to feel a little metaphysical.

The border is elastic, like a rubber band? Such an idea should make the phrase “border security” evaporate into fantasy.

But if it’s a fantasy, it’s enacted in real life. The ACLU has identified a “Constitution Free Zone” radiating one hundred miles from the border. In this zone, law enforcement sets up checkpoints and patrols bus and train terminals, asking people for papers. And legal scholar Jennifer Chacón has written about border powers washing into the interior, becoming part of everyday policing. In Arizona, with their “papers please” law, state legislators have been explicit in their belief that everyone should be prepared to show the badge of their belonging. But they don’t really mean everyone, and the Supreme Court has held that government agents may consider race when deciding who to stop near the border. So, maybe the border isn’t just a place but also a trait some people take with them wherever they go.

6. Being and Not Being

Since three of my four grandparents passed through Ellis Island, I think of it as a symbol of belonging, but it also stands for a strange idea: that a person can be in the United States without being in the United States. In the 1950s, this happened to Ignatz Mezei, whose story is documented best by law professor Charles Weisselberg.

Born in Gibraltar, Hungary, or somewhere else—it’s never entirely clear—Mezei had moved to Buffalo in the 1920s, where he lived for more than twenty years, working as a cabinetmaker, selling war bonds, serving as an air-raid warden, and so forth. In 1948, with Europe still in turmoil after the war, he traveled to Romania to see his dying mother, but Romania denied him entry. He wound up stuck in Hungary for nineteen months, unable to obtain an exit visa. When he finally got the visa, he headed back home from France on a steamer, but immigration officials stopped him at Ellis Island. The government had received a confidential tip that he was a subversive. There would be no hearing in which he could argue otherwise. The attorney general declared his entry “prejudicial to the public interest” and ordered him permanently excluded.

Detained on Ellis Island, Mezei endeared himself to the people in charge. He fixed things—the pool tables, the couches—and later the guards and officials remembered him fondly to the New York Times, calling him “a nice man.” While he tinkered and waited, the government was looking for another country for him. “During his detention,” the Times reported, “he was twice put on French Line ships for return to Europe, but was rejected by England and France.” Hungary didn’t want him, and various Latin American countries didn’t, either.

Throughout, Mezei asked to be let back into the United States, where he was but wasn’t. He filed five habeas corpus petitions to at least get a hearing, and finally he won the fifth. He left Ellis Island under a $3,000 bond, and reported to immigration officials in Buffalo every week while his case continued. During this time in Buffalo, legally speaking he remained on Ellis Island, waiting to see if he’d be able to cross the border into the United States.

The government appealed the grant of habeas and won in the Supreme Court: because Mezei hadn’t entered the United States, the decision went, he didn’t have the same rights to a hearing as if he’d been in the country. It didn’t matter that he’d been detained for so long on Ellis Island, the court said, because “harborage at Ellis Island is not entry into the United States.” The time he spent out on bond in Buffalo didn’t count, either.

After the court’s decision, Mezei headed back to the island to resume his indefinite detention. A photo in the New York Times captured him on this journey: a man in late middle age with graying hair and a neat mustache, dressed in a suit with vest and tie, framed between two bars aboard the ferry. He looked almost jaunty, but the caption called this his “journey to nowhere.” He’d brought along “a bag of upstate apples in one hand and his tools and clothing in the other.” He still struggled with English and, through his Hungarian-speaking attorney, said, “I feel as if I was walking to death.”

His case got press attention. Finally, the U.S. attorney general decided to let him go before a board of special inquiry. The hearing revealed that Mezei’s life had some complications. First, there was a criminal conviction. Back in 1935, he’d bought seven bags of stolen flour and received a ten-dollar fine. His wife attempted to explain: he’d thought she’d ordered the flour, it was a mistake, but no matter—the conviction made him excludable. Then there were the political activities, namely his participation in the Hungarian lodge of the International Workers Order, which had been placed on a list of subversive organizations. Mezei denied being a communist; the government produced witnesses—one later revealed to be a paid perjurer—who testified that he was. On April 19, 1954, the board declared him a security risk, and it seemed he’d be on Ellis Island forever.

In August, though, the Justice Department granted him parole for reasons unknown. As a parolee, Mezei left Ellis Island and boarded a train for Buffalo, all still without legally being in the United States. Even in western New York—where, banned from the Carpenters Union, he subsisted on bottom-of-the-barrel jobs—he took the border with him and never managed to cross over.

A few years ago, I saw that Mezei’s name had come up in the case of seventeen Uighurs, Muslim refugees from China who’d been scooped up in the war on terror and imprisoned at Guantánamo. There they spent year after year in grim isolation, even after the U.S. government determined it had no authority to keep them locked up, because: where to send them? They couldn’t go back to China, which they’d fled and China was pressuring other countries not to take them. So, the Uighurs proposed making their lives in the United States, and why not? The U.S. had reached into Afghanistan and taken the Uighurs. The Obama administration considered the proposal, but the politics got messy. Elected officials from both parties objected, and then Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told the Associated Press that Americans “don’t want these men in their neighborhoods.”

The Uighurs sued and won a favorable ruling from a district court judge, who ordered them released into the U.S. The victory was short-lived: the appeals court reversed with language that chills. “An undercurrent of petitioners’ arguments is that they deserve to be released into this country after all they have endured at the hands of the United States,” wrote Judge Raymond Randolph. “But such sentiments, however high-minded, do not represent a legal basis for upsetting settled law and overriding the prerogatives of the political branches.” In this settled law, he included the decision that would have kept Ignatz Mezei confined to Ellis Island for the rest of his life, without so much as a hearing; many scholars had considered Mezei a legal relic.

I read Judge Randolph’s words and find them astonishing. Shouldn’t the Constitution protect these men—refugees from Chinese repression—from perpetual detention in a prison camp? No, said Judge Randolph, pushing the Uighurs beyond the edge of the Constitution. Despite recent Supreme Court decisions affirming the rights of Guantánamo prisoners, he declared that “the due process clause does not apply to aliens without property or presence in the sovereign territory of the United States.”

In this case, I don’t know how to think of the border as anything but a bald exercise of power and a heartless practical joke.

The Uighurs aren’t on Guantánamo anymore. Their lives being not entirely their own, some were sent to Albania, others to Bermuda, Palau, Switzerland, and the last to Slovakia. In 2012, two were shipped off to El Salvador, the country that started me wondering about the oddity of borders.

7. Arrive and Forget

It’s the spring of 1992, I’m in my maternal grandparents’ apartment in Philadelphia, and my grandmother is commenting on the Haitians: specifically, the boat people we’ve seen on television lately, bobbing in overloaded vessels as Coast Guard officers lean from sleek cutters, poised for rescue.

In his working life, my grandfather was a neighborhood pharmacist who’d vaulted himself into the lower middle class. Now my grandmother and he live in a tidy apartment filled with family china and ceramic bowls generous with Pearson’s Coffee Nips and other wrapped candies.

“They’re so ragged looking,” my grandmother says of the Haitians, who are risking their lives to reach the United States.

The Haitian president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, has been overthrown, and paramilitaries are beating people, killing them, taking over opposition radio, broadcasting threats on its own station. From what my family and I know of Haiti, this kind of violent repression is nothing new; we remember the days of the Duvalier dictatorship, before Aristide’s election, and in my mind I recreate an image of Michele Duvalier, slender and elegant wife of dictator Jean-Claude, smoking a long cigarette as her family flees to the airport in their Mercedes. But the boat people are not elegant, and my grandmother asks, “What can they possibly do here?”

She’s forgotten that she comes from boat people, too. She was born in the Lower East Side in 1908, months after her family landed, following a journey that must have involved trains, worrying, waiting, and bribery, all before the trip over the ocean. They traveled steerage, which reeked of vomit and shit, and they must have reeked themselves when they emerged into sunlight and squinted at their new city. They didn’t have a penny to their name. When my grandmother learned to speak, she learned Yiddish first. What did her family do here in the United States?

I suspect they did pretty much anything they could. They sewed and haggled. They were people in transition, and it’s this transition I see when I look at historical photos of the arriving Jews. I see both their dark foreignness and the Americans they will someday become, two inseparable qualities. For me, that’s the best of the United States: the constant change and renewal, not necessarily a Puritan move toward perfection as much as a fortunate inability to be a single, unchanging thing, no matter how much we may try to fix that. My family slipped past the border before it was drawn against them in 1924, when Congress said no more Jews.

Almost seventy years later, when my grandmother and I looked at the Haitians in their boats, we saw black people whom our government was trying very hard to keep from becoming Americans. I didn’t know then that it had been presidential policy since 1981 to have the Coast Guard net the Haitians before they hit our shores—in fact, before they even reached our territorial waters. Over the years, this policy took different forms. For a time, the Coast Guard was warehousing Haitians on Guantánamo, leaving them to languish in tent camps, if it thought they’d be persecuted in Haiti. The rest the Coast Guard ferried back. Then, in 1992, President George H.W. Bush decided there was no more room at Guantánamo and ordered that, from then on, all Haitians be sent back, refugees or not.

It seems to me that at the heart of Bush’s executive order lay a border control problem as—or even more—complex than the one he was trying to solve. The order announced that the United States had no legal obligations to refugees outside our territorial waters—their rights began only at the border. But what about the power that the U.S. exercised in the name of law enforcement? This didn’t stop at the border. The Coast Guard traveled into the high seas, stopped foreign boats, questioned passengers, demanded papers, and forced the Haitians back to Haiti.

Reaching Port-au-Prince, the Coast Guard had to hose some of the returning refugees off the boats—because the refugees knew what they were facing. As a writer for the Miami New Times, Steve Almond reported the stories that some repatriated Haitians had recounted to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. They told stories of the military hunting returnees down, herding them onto trucks, shooting them to death. Many fled again.

Haitian community groups sued the administration. In March 1993, the Supreme Court heard the case challenging the new executive order, and the plaintiffs argued that the government was barred from repatriating any refugee, regardless of where it stopped them. The court ruled that the refugee statute and the U.N. treaty on refugees gave the Haitians no protection in international waters and also set no limit on what the U.S. government could do there. The relevant law, the court said, is “completely silent with respect to … possible application to actions taken by a country beyond its own borders.” Only Justice Harry Blackmun dissented.

I first read this decision in the 1990s and still struggle with it. The U.S. was venturing as law enforcers into a place where refugees had no rights. Was it a lawless zone or not? I know people will say this question is naïve. The government was dealing with reality, a challenging refugee crisis, etc.

But that’s not all that’s real. When the Haitians were heading toward Florida, I was a twenty-two-year-old college student and understood nothing about Haiti. I certainly didn’t know that, by 1992, Haiti and the United States had a “long, torrid relationship,” in the words of journalist Amy Wilentz. I don’t think that relationship began only in 1915, when the U.S. invaded Haiti, ostensibly to save it from chaos only to occupy the country until 1934 and establish what historian Donald Cooper called a “thinly-disguised military dictatorship.” Still, the occupation is a pretty significant element of our relationship with Haiti—the starting point for “treat[ing] Haitian governments, at best, as rubber stamps for U.S. policy and for American businesses working in Haiti,” as Wilentz argues—and yet something few Americans know anything about.

This is another thing about the border: it veils what we see and what we know, even about ourselves. It protects our sense of virtue, creates a world in which we can act as empire while believing that we don’t. So, if our law regards Haitian refugees as “strangers,” it may be telling the truth, but they’re only strangers to us; we aren’t strangers to them. And maybe my family and I carry the border, too, but not like the people who are racially marked by it. We’ve assimilated it into our Americanness, so that it changes what we see, and we don’t recognize any part of ourselves in the Haitians anymore.

8. Adorning the Fantasy

When I read the map-making judicial opinions, I fall into their funnel of logic. The justices examine statutory language and precedent, and their conclusions seem inevitable. In the Haitian repatriation decision, Justice John Paul Stevens devotes several paragraphs to discussing whether section 243(h)(1) of the Immigration and Nationality Act applies only to the attorney general or to the executive branch more broadly. Congress carefully drafted the statute, so the distinctions are important if we are to have a government of laws. I walk through the parsing of language and feel the weight of statutory grammar—I’ve drafted legislation, so I know the details matter.

But then I step away from the decisions, and rather than retaining their logic they become patches in a jagged whole. This is the opposite of what occurs with a pointillist painting, where distance produces clarity. Justice Henry Billings Brown seems to experience this incoherence, if for just a moment, in his opinion in Downes v. Bidwell, the Puerto Rican oranges case. He is reviewing the history of the country’s expansion, and he spends page after page examining the legal framework. He looks at the Constitution and its amendments, along with various treaties and statutes. Legally speaking, how has the country brought in new states and territories? His attention to this question is scrupulous and stultifying. Eventually, he turns to the case law and concedes, “The decisions of this court upon this subject have not been altogether harmonious.”

Although, let’s not be coy: this is about power, not just textual interpretation—power braided of words and violence. The words unleash the violence, American hoses pressing down on Haitians, washing them into the hands of military assassins. The Supreme Court said this was legitimate; the border put the Coast Guard beyond law. We used law to escape law. I want to ask how we can make sense of this, though I also don’t want to ask. There is a way to make sense, but that sense comes with its own brutality and silences.

It’s been more than a year since Charles Schumer announced the bipartisan immigration reform proposal. The Senate passed a bill, but nothing is happening in the House of Representatives; border security is a priority for Republicans, we hear. It’s important to Democrats, too, but neither party means border security for people who aren’t us.

I can’t imagine that Crow Dog, on his way to New York City to perform his Indianness, believed that the borders of the United States had provided him national security, or much security at all. And what about the Uighurs, who’d escaped persecution in China and initially had seen the American troops as liberators? “We were happy when we were handed over to the Americans,” Abu Bakker Qassim told the BBC in 2012. “They usually help Uighurs.” This time the American government didn’t help. It banished the Uighurs to a dismal detention camp on Guantánamo and then cast them out to Albania, Palau, and other places they had no reason to know anything about. The border didn’t protect them at all. It’s not “high-mindedness” to say that border security—or the meaning of the border itself—is a matter of perspective. It’s nothing so abstract.

The border isn’t a place. It’s a tool we put to use. As I write, the border is on the move, doing its work. Border Patrol agents and state troopers are roaming highways, demanding to see people’s papers, and the border is moving with them. The agents are sorting who belongs from who doesn’t. But the border doesn’t just divide us. It also connects us in ways that can be brutal, like a torturer’s line of electricity. It ties us to the Uighurs we confined in Guantánamo and the Haitians we repatriated. When I interviewed Salvadorans in Seattle, I saw the weight of the border on them: we can do what we want in your country, but you don’t belong here. The denial of a relationship is part of the relationship. So, it makes sense that we’d want to think the border is elsewhere, confined to a distant desert. We can adorn this fantasy with troops and electronic surveillance and place faith in it. But I doubt that will give us border security. Even in our most vivid imagination, we have no idea what a secure border would look like. We’ve never seen such a thing.

Julie Chinitz has worked in public policy and community organizing since 2000 and is the former policy director at Alliance for a Just Society in Seattle. 

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‘Chumship’ by Kristopher Jansma: ZYZZYVA No. 105, Winter 2015

billboard_latestissue_cover_16winter_largeThe first thing he ever told me was that Clark wasn’t his real name. They’d stuck him with his father’s name, but the minute he turned eighteen he’d be changing it officially from “James.” In the meantime, he wanted everyone to call him Clark. He’d explained this to everyone in a short essay he read aloud on the first day of Adventures for Young Writers, our weeklong summer camp, held at the local community college. That summer I had already done Model Rocket Engineering, Soccer II, Ocean Exploration, and “I’ll See You in Court!” Adventures for Young Writers was my favorite; I took it every summer, and all year looked forward to the hours I’d spend counting sestina syllables, making up short stories, and banging away on the word processors at the typing lab.

Clark and his friend Sam were the only other boys in the group that year, and we sat together at lunch without any prior agreement. Sam was pudgy and short, with a bowl of straw-colored hair that was too long in the front. Clark was something else altogether. My height, with a cleft chin and a constant smirk. He wore khakis, a braided brown belt, penny loafers, and a pastel green polo shirt. Even when we weren’t writing, he gripped a black pen in one hand—a gesture of admiration, I’d later learn in another essay, for then-presidential-candidate Bob Dole. He and Sam were a year younger than me, about to enter the eighth grade a few towns over. We had no friends in common outside of camp, which wasn’t surprising; none of us had many friends to begin with.

When I joined them at the cafeteria table, they seemed to be playing some kind of game: casually eyeing a nearby table of older girls, sporty types, with ponytails and headbands.

“They’re Bulgarians,” Sam whispered.

How did he know? They were speaking English, I pointed out.

“They’re Bulgarian spies,” Clark answered. “Pay close attention.” Without staring, I tried, but could pinpoint nothing especially suspicious or Eastern European about them.

“You see it, right?” he asked.

I nodded.

 

Every day Clark typed up a short, one page humor piece, “Clark Talks Back,” with great care given to the choice of fonts, borders, and clip art available in Word Perfect. These were short observational pieces, somewhere between a Dave Barry column and a Letterman monologue.

There’s a sharp new look in Freehold County fashion these days, namely the Enormously Baggy Pants, which as we speak are sweeping the floors of the mall for free and getting caught in the revolving glass doors at the main entrance. At any time of day now you will be sure to find two or three clueless teenagers stuck inside, perplexed as to how this “totally whack” situation has occurred. While it is inconvenient for the rest of us to have to use the regular doors now, many find they enjoy getting the chance to play Boxer Short Bingo, by keeping track of the different colors of underwear hanging out of the backs of these pants, which can be seen as you pass by on your shopping trip. Try to find all seven colors in the rainbow!

Before the Bulgarian Spy incident, I’d never have expected Clark’s sense of humor to run in this direction. He was always so stiff, so polite to both the teachers and the other students. But on the page he was a whole other person.

“What’s up?” You surely know that this is a typical greeting these days in the halls of William McKinley Middle School, but what you may not know is that the question is meant sincerely. Most young people these days are unable to look in a skyward direction anymore, because they are so concerned about tripping over the hems of their long pants, or their unlaced high tops, and so are forced to ask each other constantly for information about anything going on above their exposed navels…

There were certain themes to which he’d often return. Girls wore too much makeup. The English language was generally imperiled. Rap music and Ren and Stimpy were racing to bring about the end of civilization. Newer, edgier superheroes like Spawn and Hellboy would never, in a million years, be better than Superman. I’d assumed these ideas must be trickling down from his parents, but when I began spending most of my Saturdays at his house, I discovered he had little in common with either of them. His much-hated father was a bristle-mustached ex-Marine, now a well-paid contractor for the DOD. I never heard him speak, not to me or to his son. His mother was an indulgent, lovely woman, always eager to drive us to the nearby mall. By the end of the summer, Clark and I were getting together nearly every weekend and speaking on the phone most weeknights. Together we wrote six episodes of a sitcom, featuring ourselves as middle-age men, bantering like Seinfeld and Costanza. He sent the pilot to ABC studios and was baffled when, a few weeks later, we received a form letter saying that they did not consider unsolicited material.

Everything about Clark said that he did not want to be fourteen, but forty-five. He loved The Beatles (pre-Revolver only) and believed Nintendo rotted your brain. He intended someday to become either the President of the United States or the host of The Tonight Show. One night as we talked on the phone while watching Letterman, he grew quiet. “I just realized we’re going to live to see that man die. I don’t know if I can take that.” I’d never met anyone like him before.

 

Clark had an imaginary girlfriend named Caroline. He’d confided this to me just a few days after our friendship began.

“Look,” he said, “It’s a fact. If you’ve never dated anyone before, girls think you’re a loser, so they won’t go out with you. So what are you supposed to do?”

This felt accurate, given my experiences thus far with Miranda, a girl at school that I adored, but who only spoke to me when she and her boyfriend, Junior, were broken up. This happened two or three times a month, but my intermittent heartbreak-counseling didn’t seem to be getting me any closer to earning the boyfriend spot myself.

“Tell her you’re dating someone else,” Clark advised. “She’ll be all over you.”

He opened a WordPerfect document where, in a cornflower-blue font, he had collected every detail pertaining to his imaginary true love. He and Caroline had met the summer before, in Maine, where her family had a summer house on Frenchman’s Bay and where he’d been visiting family friends one weekend. He’d seen her from some distance—across a rocky shoreline—a vision with curly blond hair, pink shorts, and matching jellies. Later he’d seen her again at the Mount Desert Ice Cream shop. A big scoop of her rocky road had fallen onto the sidewalk. He’d marched over and bought her a new cone. The next day they had played chess on her beach blanket (which had the New Kids on the Block on it). She had a cold and her nose was red. She wiped it with Kleenex Ultra-Soft Tissues. Her younger sister, Patty, was a brat. Her parents, Wilfred and Alice, co-owned a nearby lumber mill. He knew their ages, descriptions, Alice’s maiden name, etc. Caroline wanted to be an AIDS researcher in either Phoenix or Toronto. She used a Wild Basil & Lime-scented hand cream. They’d had their first kiss at sunset on July 17 the previous summer and it had lasted four minutes and nineteen seconds. All that was just page one of nineteen, and he updated the file each time he mentioned a new detail so that he’d never be tripped up in a lie. Clark carried around several letters “she” had written, in case anyone seemed doubtful.

Working off of Clark’s template, I spent hours writing up my own girlfriend, basically Miranda but nicer, only I never showed it to anyone besides him or pretended she was real. While I felt Clark’s plan was ingenious, I knew it would never work for me. I was a terrible liar. I blushed, stammered, stared at the ceiling. Time and time again I saw him con people with a perfectly straight face. We’d spend an entire afternoon at the food court just watching girls walking by, debating their cuteness with the precision and discernment of antique dealers. Then when his mother came to pick us up, he’d tell her we’d seen a movie. On the spot he’d make up a whole film. Once, I remember, we’d seen White Bread, starring Kevin Costner as a single dad named “Pete Bread,” and something happened involving his son’s science fair experiment and he’d become transparent.

There’s a word in one of my older dictionaries, which isn’t in my newer ones. “Chumship: the condition or relation of a chum or chums.” Coined in the early 1830s, its usage peaked in the 1920s and then declined until it was revived by psychologists in the ’80s, who considered it to be an important stage in early adolescent development. That first friend with whom one could frankly discuss adult matters without embarrassment. It was to Clark that I divulged my daydream of swimming with Miranda in a pool filled with hot fudge (but not, obviously, that hot). To me, Clark confided about a time he’d seen a pornographic movie called Carnal Encounters 2 late one night at a friend’s house, and how this guy had started jerking off right in front of him, and how Clark had walked back home in the dark and never spoken to the boy again. We borrowed a pair of binoculars from his father’s closet and used them to gaze across his yard toward the house of a girl named Zoe, very popular in his grade. She was just his type: dressing modestly, beautiful with no need for makeup, and the top student in their English class. She wanted to become a lawyer and work for Amnesty International. We studied her yearbook photo each weekend, and the curve of Zoe’s brown bobbed hair sometimes forced Clark to have to lie down on the floor until his heartache passed. We wrote her into our sitcom, as Clark’s future wife. They had three kids. He knew all their names, and ages, and so forth.

Imagine, then, the earth-shattering excitement one day when he told me over the phone that he’d heard a rumor that Zoe liked him.

“Who said?” I asked. We each had the same Seinfeld rerun on in the background. Usually the rule was no conversation until the commercial break, but this was an emergency.

“Zoe’s best friend Kristen. She was talking to Nikki.”

The three of them were allegedly inseparable.

“But here’s the problem,” Clark said with concern. “This is all according to Sam.”

Sam refused to accept that he and Clark weren’t friends anymore. Clark still called him sometimes because Sam still believed anything he said, and at times like this it was helpful having a henchman at school. Still, he’d often tell me about various-size whoppers that Sam had swallowed. He was always convincing him to do or say embarrassing things.

For hours we debated ways of verifying Sam’s intel. Could Clark buy a red Mead notebook like the one Zoe used, and swap them during Art class, so he could look to see if she had written his name inside anywhere? Or could he sneak into a stall in the girl’s bathroom just before the third period break, when Zoe, Kristen, and Nikki were known to congregate there? Ultimately, I can’t remember what we settled on, only that Sam was employed as some sort of fall guy and that we did get the confirmation we’d been looking for—only it didn’t matter, because Clark’s plan soon turned out to have one unanticipated wrinkle.

In our zeal we had forgotten one thing.

Caroline.

Read the rest of “Chumship.” Get ZYZZYVA No. 105!

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‘Letter to Galway From Tahoe’ by Heather Altfeld: ZYZZYVA No. 105, Winter Issue

Dearest Galway, I hardly got to know you, but when I am sad
I write to my poets, as Hugo did, although his poets, generally speaking,
still required postage, and here you are months dead.
Still, for all we know down here, the dead like mail as much as the living,
and maybe you wait each day on a freshly painted porch for a delivery
just before heading out to a café to read the first crop of poems
from the place you now reside, the first of your newly made things,
no doubt bringing the dead as beautifully as you brought us
to the last hiding places of their tears. Because what I did know of you
was how generous you were with your time, I feel I can talk to you from here,
that you would be willing to press the shell of your hand to your ear
for a few minutes to listen.
Do you remember when you sat with my Lucy,
who came to you with her notebook? You were her first poet.
She was nine, and wanted to hear the Oatmeal poem again,
so you wrote a bit of it in her journal and took her hand and bent down to whisper
something in her ear which she still has never told me, she said it was your secret.
She is here elfing muffins before daybreak, a vision of elfinhood, cheerful and dreamy,
half the time pretending she doesn’t know me. Now she has her own important secrets.
I turn to you because I think you were one of the ones a little like me,

for whom terror and beauty were like the green languages of birds
we longed to interpret, and felt, if we could not do so,
that we had failed. I feel as though our ears heard sadness
just a little more strongly over the din,
that we saw it as our job to know it a little better, to bear it, to sing it,
to make some kind of walking peace with it.
Galway, I feel as though I were born to a race of grievers.
The first time it rose up in me, I was five, lying on my Snoopy sleeping bag,
reading the ending of Charlotte’s Web over and over, so that Charlotte died,
over and over, so I could keep crying—
it was the first time I had learned I could call up such sadness in myself,
and it seemed to be endless, a wrenching, fulfilling bottomlessness.
It turns out I was never much good at anything else.
My parents begged me to be a doctor.
At least in all of the ways that they did not know me,
they saw my aptitude for hearing pain.
Long ago they held my small body up to the light
and saw each of the bones and muscles in my hands glowing a magical pink,
and they wanted to count me among the other fine-coated ones, and say,
That’s our girl! She can find what ails you and fix it!
They wanted to tell others that I could read stitches right to left like Torah,
they wanted me to build a home of the shiny coins I would earn
charting the last breath of a patient.
But the first time I saw a corpse
and watched them wash her frozen body in a ritual bathing,
and saw how completely the body shuts in the end—
the kidneys frozen,
the heart frozen,
the bony arms frozen,
the pinky toe just defrosting under the hard light,
it reminded me all too much of the frailty I will endure sooner or later in my life
the way when I saw you last, your hands revealed how very delicate you had become,
how much more delicate you could become.
One doctor said he had seen a field of bedsores express sorrow
more deeply than any words or songs he had ever heard.
Bedsores. I was not born with this sort of fortitude.
It was not the address pinned to my blouse at birth.
So I went onward, searching everywhere for something I could do,
some way into the world that did not ooze or weep, and found myself
trying to be an anthropologist. Here, I was one distance removed from grief,
one valley away from the body direct; it was my job to chronicle
the days and griefs of others. I could learn the lost language of Yahi,
walk the footsteps of the Olduvai gorge to see how the others had walked before us.
I could study the Gisaro of the Kaluli in New Guinea,
whose ceremonies of sorrow chase human sadness into the bodies of birds
who lift and depart through the forest on their wings.
But this was even worse, tender sleeper, than medicine;

no surgery could save any of it, the annihilation so much more complete.
Did you know from the beginning that poetry was going to be your home?
Poetry is what was left when every other made thing failed me.
Grief, I am still learning, is everywhere, from sonnets to bedsores
from the Krakovian crypts to the nests of the Kahuli
it is in the doddering dirge of the Truckee that has become so sleepy this year
that it seems to have forgotten its velocity to live.
What rhyme can I make that will call the snow to flurry out of the sky for us?
What word will call the world to fill buckets with our tears
we can carry to the edge of the river and fling them in?
What sonnet will bring the butter-blond days of my children’s childhood back
so they can lie against me again one last time, damp with sleep?
How did you learn to describe the face of your love
in her most primordial gesture of desire
without the poem turning on you and finding its way to her grave?
I feel more impotent than I have ever felt in my life.
How can I learn to make a little spot for grief, here,
right next to me, right inside the poem
the way you so often did, where it won’t really bother anyone,
a place where grief can just sit by my side, looking at the passersby?
What was your way out of the Book of Nightmares?
How did you make it back to the Book of Meadows,
where the larks sang and the beetles turned their green backs to the sun?

Get your copy of ZYZZYVA No. 105!

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‘The Snake That Always Bites My Ass’ by Paul Madonna: ZYZZYVA No. 105

billboard_latestissue_cover_16winter_largeFrom the corner, a small boom box played “Get Off of My Cloud” by the Stones, over and over, because some drunk whose name I never cared to remember kept rewinding the tape. Every time the chorus cameon he would—without irony—jump up and sing in someone’s face, “Hey, hey. You, you. Get off of my cloud.”

Outside, torrential rain pummeled the village. It was night, and we were maybe fifteen people crowded into a single room. By day, the ground floor of the two-story teak house served as a restaurant, and at night, as Pai’s trading post. Na’s it was called, after the proprietor, who lived upstairs with her son and sister, and whose father slept on a mat under the stairs, gaunt and toothless, constantly wheezing. The entire front of the first floor was open, like a garage with the door up, and the room lit by several dusty glass kerosene lamps that cast long shadows out onto the gooey, rain-beaten road. A slight breeze brought little relief from either the heat or the sour smell of sweat. It was summer, and days could hit 110 degrees, so that even at night with the rain falling the air could be stifling.

I tended to steer clear of Na’s after dark, going only if I couldn’t wait until morning for supplies or was so desperate for human interaction I was willing to settle for the company of the ragtag group that assembled there: drunkards and braggarts who fancied themselves outlaws and whose tall tales you had to suffer a hundred times over. But on this particular night I’d had little choice. The loosely woven thatched walls of my hut had proven no defense against the heavy rain, and so, in order to stay dry, I took refuge with my fellow storm-dodging expats.

I was in a corner, at a two-person table, playing checkers with Na’s boy, while a group of local merchants crowded in with the regulars to fill the place. There was a pack of hill tribe women, haggard grandmothers without teeth, their gums stained red from the betel nuts they chewed and spit like tobacco, squatting on the floor with their bright pink and purple handicraft bags. There was the local music troupe, comprised of one stern man, six bored children, and a cart of wooden stringed instruments. And then there was the local moonshiner, a squinty-eyed pudgy man with a clay pot of mountain brew. I’d tried his concoction only once. As hallucinogenic as it was alcoholic, it felt like broken glass going down my throat, and like rocks in my head when I woke up. As Na’s father snored beneath the stairs, and one of the hill tribe girls played an atonal melody on a handcarved Bpee, that idiot kept rewinding the Stones tape and yelling, “Hey, hey. You, you…” And that’s when Roy walked in. Draped in a dark green poncho, soaked head to toe.

I’d seen him only once before. He was American, but not like the others in our castaway town. He walked straight over to Na and wordlessly handed her a package from beneath his poncho. Then he turned and walked back out into the rain.

 

The next morning, after the storm passed, under a clear blue sky and fiery white summer sun, he appeared outside my hut. I was wearing only a pair of soggy boxers as I hung the rest of my wet belongings, including my calendar, over the railing to dry, when he put a foot on the first rung of my ladder, held up a jar of peanut butter, and pointed to the picture of the Thai king.

“Nice picture of Elvis,” he said.

Peanut butter, along with regular butter, cheese, bread, and coffee, were all but impossible to come by in Thailand back then. You could get fried cockroaches or stink beans, rice with red ants and larvae, duck mouths or silkworms, but the closest to a cup of coffee you could find were freeze-dried crystals, and for everything else, there weren’t even passable substitutes. So to be invited to share a jar of Jif, well that was about as generous a peace offering as any Westerner could hope for.

I invited him in and we sat on damp mats and passed the plastic jar of creamy peanut butter back and forth, wordlessly scooping in our fingers and sucking them clean until the container wasn’t just empty but was so thoroughly smearless you could have given it to a baby with fatal nut allergies and gone to sleep knowing he would be fine.

From his satchel Roy pulled two cans of Budweiser, handed me one, and cracked open his own. We still hadn’t said more than a word to each other, but he raised his can and nodded, and I did the same, and we both drank, washing the sweet butter that coated our mouths with another hard-to-come-by product in Southeast Asia: American beer.

Read the rest of “The Snake That Always Bites My Ass.” Get your copy of ZYZZYVA No. 105!

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‘Eldorado’ by Lauren Alwan: ZYZZYVA No. 105, Winter 2015

billboard_latestissue_cover_16winter_largeThe bathtub, when we found it, lay upside down on the creek bank, sunk in blackberry brambles. Its four clawed feet pointed skyward, and the cast iron exterior looked badly rusted. Curtis stood at the top of the bank and surveyed the scene. You had to know the man to understand he was pleased.With his stooped posture and immense hands hanging at his sides, he looked morose even when he wasn’t.

The boyfriend was euphoric. We’d located the tub without much trouble, after all. He peered into the shade at the water’s edge. “Right there, just like you said, Curtis. Gonna be tough one to haul out, though. Right?”

The old man said nothing, but cocked a grizzled eyebrow in the direction of the Forest Service road. Silently, returning the way we’d come, he went to fetch his truck. We were at a bend on lower Eddy Creek. The air felt baked, piney, and in the heat, the bark on the Jeffery pines gave off the scent of vanilla.

The boyfriend gave my shoulder a friendly shake. “Good news. Right, honey? Come winter, there’ll be bubble baths in the old A-frame.”

Maybe, I thought. I’d been skeptical about the tub from the start, doubtful as to what we’d find. Who would go to the trouble to haul a perfectly good cast iron tub so far out of town?

Curtis returned with the truck and parked it at the edge of the brambles. Before coming to Siskiyou County, I’d never heard of a winch. The mechanized spool was most often used for hauling trucks out of the mud or skidding fallen trees to open ground for debranching and sectioning. Like the sound of shotgun fire in October, the plaintive whine of a winch motor had become familiar in the cycling seasons of rural life.

With a length of chain in one hand and the winch cable in the other, Curtis made his way down the bank and through the brambles to the tub, the line unspooling as he went. In methodical fashion, he wrapped the chain around the tub’s front legs, and ran the winch shackle through. Once bolted, he gave the line a tug. Satisfied, he trudged back up the creek bank and instructed the boyfriend to stay with the tub and watch the line didn’t get caught.

Righting the knitted cap on his head, the boyfriend hopped into the brambles. The cap was his trademark—being red-haired and freckled, he wore it year-round—and the quirk gave him a kind of ungainly charm. I would certainly miss him, I thought, when the time came to go. It was the red hair that had first won me over—that, along with tales of surfing in Oceanside and his grueling swing shifts at the furnace factory. He had a kind of infectious charm and an unwaveringly simple approach to life—even when we argued, there was something appealing in the vehement way he sped off on his Honda 250. But would I miss him, really? Beyond the project of our house-building, we had little in common. I never spoke to him of my own history, of the fire, my father’s departure, and the events that led me here. Yet the boyfriend talked freely of his history, his devout Christian upbringing and stark ’50s-era childhood. And when he did, it was not out of disillusionment, but nostalgia, and at those times, I knew we had no future. This duplicitous thinking made me realize there were things I wanted to do. Live in San Francisco. Get my degree. Things that had nothing to do with homebuilding or any sort of Foxfire-related self-sufficiency. In fact, I thought, I wanted to be dependent on a system, and had no interest in candle- or soap- or quilt-making, or a life constructed around seasons and weather.

“Stay clear,” Curtis called from the truck, and with the engine running, he switched on the winch motor. At the base of the creek bank, the line strained, and as the tub began to rock, greenery shuddered and vines snapped.

Earlier, as we walked along the dirt road, Curtis mentioned a wife and a house in Mt. Shasta City. He rarely revealed personal details, though at learning he lived in Mt. Shasta, I felt a twinge of envy. The town lay fifteen miles to the south, in rural terms hardly a distance worth mentioning, yet by contrast it was a metropolis—the site of the local hospital and ski shop, along with a health food grocery, vegetarian restaurant, and natural clothing store. In recent years, the town attracted a number of free-thinking entrepreneurs, college-educated progressives who’d embraced the Foxfire aesthetic and parlayed it into retail concerns of candle-making, leather tooling, and the like. Many were drawn to the area by Mount Shasta itself, to the surrounding body of myth and legend passed down from Native Klamath and non-native cultures.

Among the outsider legends, the most prevalent was that of Lemuria, a mythical colony said to be populated by a race of godlike super-beings. The Lemurian chronicle, based on writings of nineteenth century mystics, told of the white-robed survivors of a lost continent, travelers who’d crossed time and space to inhabit the interior of Mount Shasta. I was amazed by how earnestly repeated the story was, and each time I heard it, found it difficult not to smirk. But I wasn’t about to disparage the mystical notions of Mt. Shasta City’s hip entrepreneurs. The natural clothing shop was one of the few places where I could occasionally spend a portion of my hard-earned wages.

From inside Curtis’s truck, the winch motor whined, and the wire on the drum slowly commenced to turn. Wrested free of the overgrowth, like a strange iron-clad mollusk the tub lurched upward. The boyfriend guided the line, and the tub came to rest at a level spot on the road. Curtis cut the engine, and together he and the boyfriend heaved the tub upright. The interior, dappled with shade and sunlight, was pristine, white, unmarred.

“Ha!” The boyfriend clapped Curtis on the back.“We lucked out, huh?”

Read the rest of “Eldorado.” Get your copy of Issue No. 105!

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‘The Cave’ by Austin Smith: ZYZZYVA No. 105, Winter 2015

billboard_latestissue_cover_16winter_largeThe day that Aaron Pierce came out of a house we had never noticed before marked approximately a year since the Drew sisters had chosen to heave their attentions upon me. They were two years and one year older than me, and when they first started sitting next to me I was flattered. I thought there must be something about me they admired. They seemed to be confiding in me things I alone, of all the kids on the bus, could understand. The bullying began with a certain gentleness, the way I imagine the government begins torturing terrorists.With false cordiality the sisters would greet Jack, who did not suspect them, who, in fact, assumed they were homely but perfectly sweet girls. They would then proceed down the aisle with sick looks on their faces, as if it had pained them to be kind. They were the sort of sisters who are often mistaken for twins. Both were waifish, witchlike, with dry red hair and pale skin blemished with dark freckles that seemed a manifestation of some deeper spiritual miasma.

Their names were Angie and Becca. One of them, Becca, let’s say, would sit in the seat in front of me, staring at me with her greenish, depthless eyes. Whoever the meaner one was, Angie, I guess, would sit in the seat  beside me, too close, her long thigh pressed against my shorter thigh. She smelled like the gum they both chewed, cheap gum that, no matter how many sticks it was composed of, they blew in weak, doomed bubbles that broke and shrunk on their tongues. Once established in their habitual positions, they took turns informing me of things I didn’t know. Things of a vaguely sexual nature involving kids in their grades, whose names I knew but who would always be higher than me in the pantheon, if only because they were older. Then, as if they could see that I didn’t know these kids well enough for anything they might say about them to elicit a reaction from me, they began telling me things about the other kids on the bus, as if to dampen any fondness I might feel for them. We were all too young to have done anything too scandalous, but our parents weren’t. They managed to convince me that Kirby Dornik’s father did it with pigs. I knew what “it” was because of things I had figured out on the farm. I made the most progress the day the breeder came with the bull and my presence was somehow overlooked in the excitement and stress of getting a few cows bred. I was at that age when I was willing, maybe even desperate, to believe the story about Mr. Dornik and the pigs. But no matter what I said or did after one of their revelations, they would conclude by saying: “Did you know that?” whereupon I had to admit that, no, I hadn’t known that, whereupon they would say, in rough unison, “You didn’t know that, huh? Well, now you do.”

 

This thing with the Drew sisters had gone on all the previous year. I had hoped that over the summer they would forget about me, and that, come fall, they would choose someone new to pick on, but, sure enough, on the first day of school they sat in front of and beside me with bright eyes, as if the summer had refreshed them. It was like they had gone to bully camp and learned new tricks. It was clear to me even then that their imaginations had reached the limits of what they knew about sex. Over the summer they must have realized, either separately or together, that before school started up again they had to think of something else that I didn’t know, the knowledge of which they could initiate me into. They informed me they were my sisters. When they asked me, “Did you know that?” I told them that I knew it wasn’t true. I had one younger brother, but no sisters. They looked at each other and smiled the way I imagine interrogators smile at each other. The smile said:“We really don’t have time for this foolishness.We may have to take certain shortcuts now, shortcuts that may be unpleasant for you.” The meaner one, Angie, I’m pretty sure, began pinching my arm, saying, “Say You’re my sisters.” When I said nothing, she pinched harder. For some reason I thought of Christ on the cross in Our Lady of the Farmer in Freeport. Every Sunday morning for as long as I could remember I had regarded his bleeding hands and feet and the crown of thorns around his head and his eyes brimming with pain and love with a certain callousness, as if it were all a big theatrical stunt. But now, feeling Angie Drew’s unclipped fingernails pressing closer and closer together with my flesh between them, I gained strength from him. Angie must have been frustrated because, forgetting Becca, she whispered harshly in my ear: “Say You’re my sister.” “You’re…you’re not my sister,” I said. She let go and looked at me as if she had had high hopes for me and was disappointed. Then Becca stood up and walked up the aisle, touching the back of each and every seat with her bony hands, and told Jack I had said the F-word. That night my dad, still in his barn clothes, chased me all around the house, up and down the front and back stairs in a loop. He finally caught me when I made the mistake of darting into my brother’s bedroom, out of which there was no route of escape. I gave up like any victim. As he beat me with the essential mercy of all kind fathers, I was with Christ again on the cross. But the next day, when the Drew sisters surrounded me again and asked me who they were, I said, sullenly, though I knew it couldn’t be true: “You’re my sisters.”

Read the rest of “The Cave.” Get your copy of ZYZZYVA No. 105 here!

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On Concluding Our 30th Anniversary: Letter From the Editor: Issue No. 105

billboard_latestissue_cover_16winter_largeDear Reader,

In 1946, Lionel Trilling penned a barbed sort of defense of “little magazines”:

“They are snickered at and snubbed, sometimes deservedly, and no one would venture to say in a precise way just what effect they have—except that they keep the new talents warm until the commercial publisher with his customary air of noble resolution is ready to take his chance, except that they make the official representatives of literature a little uneasy, except that they keep a countercurrent moving which perhaps no one will be fully aware of until it ceases to move.”

In her introduction to The Pushcart Prize XI: Best of the Small Presses (1986–87), Cynthia Ozick mused in reply to Trilling, “What the small presses keep warm, and alive, are those very forms ‘the cultural situation’ tends to submerge: essay, story, poem.”

So here we are at the close of 2015, charged with keeping new talents and vital forms warm; charged, too, with keeping a quiet countercurrent moving. In practical terms, I take this to mean we are tasked with encouraging authors doing laudable work in contemporary literature, bringing their works to print in the finest form possible, and advocating tirelessly for their value. We endeavor to sustain our authors with all we have to offer (printed page, honorarium, online presence, events, moral support), and hope that, in time, our efforts help them find publishers, agents, and yet more readers, and garner career-sustaining awards and grants, as well. Beyond this service to writers, the journal must offer its readers—dedicated adventurers in contemporary writing, invigorated by work not yet codified by any canon—all the pleasures and insights of literature.

For ZYZZYVA, 2015 marked three decades of all this: discovering new talent, supporting writers and artists at all stages of their careers, and presenting innovative work.

But we also celebrated something less grand yet essential: thirty years of work we might file under “keeping the lights on”: paying rent and bills, fulfilling orders, fixing the printer, maintaining a website, hustling for ads and donations, rebooting the wireless connection, fixing the printer—once again.

This is no small thing. Not many journals, let alone independent ones, make it this far.

And while we may not see the world as so openly adversarial as Trilling saw it in 1946, by its sheer indifference ours may be an even more hostile environment than the one he was observing; it is almost certainly, in public forums, a less civil one. Yet we persevere, and do so with a sense of purpose no less keen than ever.

Working out of San Francisco plays a part in keeping us focused. We all know the city is changing, and that artists and writers and the organizations that support them are under increasing pressure. In a fraught economy of apps and “sharing,” San Francisco may offer the country a representative future, one destined to reach across the continent and wreak disruption along the way. I hope we may yet also offer the country a representative model in how to push back against some of these tides, reversing the crowding out of culture and the diminishment of bohemian life, working vigorously to preserve the diversity of voices and vocations that make a city thrive.

I’m not inclined to see a binary opposition between tech and the arts as inevitable or organic, and I’m troubled by the prevalence of that attitude— and how easily it lends itself to a corresponding condescension to the arts (and publishing, too), as though the only way to look forward or to be visionary is through the lens of an app; as though we must take for granted that paper and ink are hopelessly outdated. Too often the implicit question seems to be, How can tech improve literature and help publishing? Too seldom do we ask what literature might teach tech.

The literary and visual arts are an essential part of what has made San Francisco innovative, beautiful, and visionary. It is a concentration of culture, after all, that makes a city a city. Without it, San Francisco would be all surface, a glorified bedroom community with pockets of its urban past preserved for tourists.

It’s a tough time, but ZYZZYVA has endured booms and busts before thanks to you, dear reader, and to the indispensable financial support of every donor, subscriber, and board member; and to the hard work and dedication of every volunteer and intern.

And daily there are reminders of how vital and fun this work is; how lucky we are to be doing it. We’re encouraged by the astonishing wealth and originality of talent in contemporary literature—among those we publish and those we’re reading outside the journal. We’re thrilled by the wide recognition and acclaim that has arrived for authors such as Marlon James and Elena Ferrante, and are inspired by their daring and important work. We’re heartened by the recent awards and recognition our own contributors have received, and by the robust support of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Zellerbach Family Foundation. We’re inspired, too, by the dedication of our colleagues and their fine work in publishing, in bookstores, and in the arts. We’re honored that each of you holding this volume has carved out time in your day and space in your mind for the pages we’ve labored over.

A hearty and heartfelt toast of gratitude to all. Here’s to the adventure and joy of the endeavor.

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In the Winter Issue

Issue No. 105 closes our 30th anniversary year with a special cover designed by Paul Madonna, as well as new fiction from Dagoberto Gilb, and more, including:

Austin Smith’s “The Cave”: Pining for mom making dinner back at the farmhouse, a boy ventures into an odd schoolmate’s home.

Dominica Phettaplace’s “The Story of a True Artist”: The fraught path to maintaining Internet fame is not making high school any easier.

Davide Orecchio’s “Diego Wilchen No More”: “In the cub, you could already see the invincible Wilchen. He will earn love, only to dash it, and a following, only to disappoint.”

Lauren Alwan’s “Eldorado”: An essay on building a house for two in the woods—a house you never plan to live in.

And fiction from Olivia Clare, Kristopher Jansma, Paul Madonna (an ex-pat in Thailand and a U.S. soldier’s story), and Heather Monley (what really happened that day on the lake when the lightning storm broke out?); plus First Time in Print stories from Andrew Foley and Henri Lipton; and poetry from Heather Altfeld, Dan Alter, Jill Osier, Floyd Skloot, Ed Skoog, and Molly Vogel.

You can get a copy of No. 105 here, or, better yet, order a subscription to ZYZZYVA and we’ll start you off by shipping you the Winter issue.

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In the Fall Issue

Issue No. 104 continues our 30th anniversary celebration with a portfolio of art by the late, great artist Jay DeFeo, a new story by best-selling author Glen David Gold (his first piece of fiction in more than five years), and much more, including:

April Ayers Lawson’s “Vulnerability”: The married artist comes to New York to visit two interested men, unclear about her intentions.

Anthony Marra’s “The Last Words of Benito Picone”: A Buick sends him high above Market Street, and he lands in the everlasting company of a Soviet émigré and a young addict.

Patricia Engel’s “Ramiro”: Are there second chances for a slum kid and a teen girl working with the priests at San Ignacio?

Mauro Javier Cardena’s “Dora and Her Dog”: Meeting for ice cream in the Hayes Valley, his ex-girlfriend asks, What would you endure jail for?

And fiction from Spencer SewardCaille Millner (a besieged instructor finally ditches her philosophy department), and David L. Ulin; an essay from poet Andrew David King on a series of “bone” art by Jay DeFeo, Patrick Brice and Sammy Harkham’s “Hang Loose,” a screenplay about an older surf bum’s desultory homecoming; and poetry from Karen Leona AndersonSally AshtonJoseph Di PriscoCecelia HagenJennifer Richter, and Molly Spencer.

You can get a copy of No. 104 here, or, better yet, order a subscription to ZYZZYVA and we’ll start you off by shipping you the Fall issue.

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In the Spring/Summer Issue

Issue No. 103 kicks off our 30th anniversary year with a wealth of new works by the country’s finest contemporary authors.

Lydia Millet’s “The Island in the Porthole”: What plagues this stranded cruise ship: navigation gone awry or existential crisis?

Héctor Tobar’s “Secret Streams” (a Best American Short Stories 2016 selection): In Los Angeles, a winding path of water brings two loners together.

Julie Chinitz’s “Shiftiness: The Border in Eight Cases”: A meditation on mercurial notions of territory and place in U.S. history.

Christian Kiefer’s “Muzzleloader”: A bevy of unexpected visitors intrude on a widow’s refuge in the Colorado forest.

Joe Donnelly’s “Bonus Baby”: Welcome the return of baseball season with this story of a pitcher sifting through memories while on the mound.

Karl Taro Greenfeld’s “Tracking Gap”: The communications department of a Japanese commercial airline scrambles to handle a PR nightmare when one of its passenger planes disappears.

Plus, more fiction from Molly Giles, Nick Fuller Googins, Ben Greenman, Robin Romm, James Warner, and Monique Wentzel; an essay from Kyle Boelte on serving as a juror; poetry from Luiza Flynn-Goodlett, Robert Hass, Ruth Madievsky, Nicole Stellon O’Donnell, D. Eric Parkison, Joshua Rivkin, Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet, Joseph Voth, and Matthew Zapruder; artwork from Amos Goldbaum; and a new project from philosopher and artist Jonathon Keats, who asks you to consider the vast potential in emulating bacteria in the corporate world.

You can get a copy of No. 103 here, or, better yet, order a subscription to ZYZZYVA and we’ll start you off by shipping you the Spring/Summer issue.

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