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2015

All issues from 2015.

‘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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