Issues Archives

Volume 27, #1, Spring 2011

<p>New fiction from Tom Barbash, Vanessa Hua, and Erika Recordon; dispatches from Stephen Elliott, the best (mostly) daily columnist in the country;  Paula Priamos on the danger within her family—and lurking outside; poetry from Matthew Dickman, Carl Adamshick, Robin Ekiss, and David Meltzer; and featuring a cover by Richard Misrach</p>
Read this issue’s Editor’s Note

New fiction from Tom Barbash, Vanessa Hua, and Erika Recordon; dispatches from Stephen Elliott, the best (mostly) daily columnist in the country; Paula Priamos on the danger within her family—and lurking outside; poetry from Matthew Dickman, Carl Adamshick, Robin Ekiss, and David Meltzer; and featuring a cover by Richard Misrach

Piropo

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

“Me llamo Connor Dougherty y aquí vivo cerca.”

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

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

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

“Buenos días a todos. Bienvenidos.”

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

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

“And that?”

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

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

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

That was my cue to not ask any more questions.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Everything That Happens Can Be Called Aging

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

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Son of the General

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

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On Entering 2nd Grade

Here. Take red clover in the mail box
take Tigey take soft and old
and barbed wire
take care take yourself.
Or take karaoke for example

your glasses a souvenir the Ferris wheel
or ferret.
Take Mr. Hoppy Junior
and his penchant for light
take insomnia laugh tracks trucks balance
beams and global warming take
lemon drops.

Take the enamel off the paint
and the springs from the trampoline.
Take manes and tails
and the large eye-fruits of the named but invisible
horses that follow you to school.
The dock is rising to where sky reclaims the water —

So take your stories
and throw them in.
Take stepping off cliffs
into lakes rope swings that sway in the air
your mother’s hair clip
and stockings the seam —
take no more streets without trees

no glitter no secret gardens no books
about baby-sitting clubs
no more afternoons
speedboating away from rage.

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In a Car, Far Away From Here

I should be suspicious a few weeks later when my sister asks right after dinner if I’d like to go get ice cream. She never asks me to go anywhere, never even comes out of her room. Despite the statewide manhunt for Cooper, our parents have allowed her back in her own bed at night. It’s not like she’s busy on the phone talking boys with friends. She doesn’t have any. Ever since we moved to Chino, she keeps more and more to herself. She misses too much school because she’s tired. And the few friends she did make have all but given up calling to find out what’s wrong. My parents now pay a shrink in L.A. to figure out what they can’t.

As I reach the car I call shotgun, forgetting in my excitement that I’m to be the only passenger.

We ride in her 280-Z, my father’s old sports car. It was a gift for having aced her driver’s test. The car is intended to be an incentive for her to drive to school, providing her with another kind of license—to show off. Before accepting it, she insisted that the maroon car be painted white like the Z the cool photographer drives in Madonna’s “Borderline” video.

My sister takes me to Baskin-Robbins and buys me a double scoop of chocolate chip. For some reason she doesn’t give me time to eat it there. Never before has she let me eat or drink in her beloved car.

I hang behind in the store, convinced this is some sort of trap.

“Are you sure?”

Rhea has the lightest-colored eyes in the family. They’re hazel, and they change colors depending upon the light in them. Something dark is in them now, something deliberate and dead set that’s doing more than clouding her judgment.

“C’mon, Paula,” she says. “Let’s just go.”

On the way out, I grab a wad of napkins.

Instead of returning home, she speeds south down Central Avenue, toward the outskirts of the city. We pass Chino Grain and Feed, built like a gigantic aluminum shed, where my parents pick up bales of hay and straw for the horses. We pass the grass field and wooden bleachers that is the Chino Fairgrounds. I don’t like where we’re headed. The prison is less than a block away.

“Where are we going?”

“I told you. We’re going on a drive.” She looks over at me in disgust. “It’s dripping.” My sister no longer likes food. She used to be overweight, so overweight that our grandmother, our yia yia, would sew her polyester pants with an elastic waist. In the last six months, she’s dropped more than fifty pounds. Now too thin, her weight still eats at her in other ways and she subsists on nothing but Tab and Cup o’ Noodles.

Quickly, I lick around the sides of the cone and stare out the window. The prison is surrounded by chain link, which is how it got its nickname “the prison with no walls.” Barbed wire is coiled across the top, though Cooper didn’t risk climbing over it and cutting up his hands. He didn’t have to. According to my father, he walked right out through a hole in the fence. “Either he cut it himself or somebody else had before him,” my father explained. “Naturally, they’re trying to keep that part out of the papers.”

All of the front towers are unlit, except for one where a man in a dark gray baseball cap is visible. Even at this distance, I can tell he isn’t looking where he should be. He’s focused on something inside the tower, maybe watching a baseball game or a game show on one of those portable TV’s.

I lean toward the dash and point at the guard.

“How come he isn’t on the lookout? He’s watching TV, I can tell. Don’t you see him?”

My sister bats my arm out of her line of sight.

“He’s probably watching the monitors, Paula.”

At the stoplight, she turns right, in the direction of the hills and there is now no denying where she is taking us. I roll down the window. The night air blows hard and fast in my face, and I can’t catch my breath. Ice cream melts cold down my fingers. I toss out the cone, hoping a cop will see it and cite her a thousand bucks for littering. Anything to make her stop.

The 280-Z doesn’t have power steering and she needs both hands to make this next sharp turn. There are no street lights so I’m not sure how she knows this is the right road. It’s made of dirt and gravel and at the sound of the spoiler scraping the ground, I’m convinced she’ll change her mind and back right down. Instead she downshifts into first gear and steps harder on the gas.

Hurriedly, I roll up the window as if being separated by glass is an actual form of protection.

“Turn around,” I say. “Please, Rhea.”

“You need to confront your fears.” Her tone is polished, adult sounding, possibly like her new L.A. shrink.

The house is just a dark bulky shape and I tell myself my sister might’ve gotten the addresses mixed up. This house could belong to a family that is off on vacation or simply out to the movies. The front yard is in need of trimming.

She stops the car in the circular driveway and outstretches her arm as if she’s performed a magic trick.

“You see? Nobody’s here.”

If this isn’t the spot where the worst mass murder in San Bernardino County took place, others have apparently made the same mistake as my sister. Beer bottles and fast food wrappers litter the front yard. In less than a couple of months, the house has become a creepy hangout spot for teenagers. It seems too soon. The cops should’ve secured it longer, but there’s no trace they were even here. No yellow police tape sealing shut the front door or fingerprint dust around the windows and doorknobs. No obvious signs of the bloody slaughter that occurred inside.

Cooper attacked the father first because he was the strongest, an ex-Marine who would’ve fought back on instinct. He stabbed and struck the father’s head and chest so many times that one of the man’s fingers was later found inside the closet. Next, Cooper turned the knife and hatchet on the wife who only got as far as the foot of the bed. The children, awakening to her screams, must’ve run toward the bedroom where Cooper hid like a shadow in the dark.

“I want to go home now,” I say.

“Or else what?”

My sister is taunting me by bringing me here. It has nothing to do with overcoming my fears. All she wants is to scare me.

Maybe it’s my anger that forces me out of the car and makes me grab an empty beer can. Although the lip of it is too smooth to do any real damage, I have a plan. The tab twists off easily and there it is, a tiny, jagged stump. I hold it against the car door, the custom paint job that my father jokingly said cost him an early appearance in L.A. Superior Court with a perverted high school gym teacher. The man was caught, his silk running shorts around his ankles, in the back seat of his Prelude during lunch period with a seventeen-year-old girl. Luckily for him, the student thought she was in love and clammed up. My father got the charges dropped, arguing that although he exercised poor judgment, the gym teacher did nothing criminally wrong by showing this girl how to avoid a groin pull.

I rattle my threat for effect.

“A long curly swirl would look cool,” I say. “Or maybe my name in cursive.”

Even in the dark, I think I see her eyes change color.

“You little skatofatsa.”

Cursing me in Greek, calling me a shitface, is just a start. Part of me is scared because I could be in for a serious beating. Sometimes she play fights with me, almost always getting too rough, and I wind up locking myself in my room, hating her, with a reddened cheek or a welt on my forearm. It occurs to me that my sister might even ditch me here on Cooper’s murdering ground.

“Don’t think I won’t do it,” I warn, thinking up my own Greek curse word I’ve heard my father use. “From taillight to headlight, palio hondree.”

I’m not sure what I’ve called her. My father shouted those two words once on our way back from an Angels game when we were cut off on the freeway by a female driver. They are successful in getting a reaction out of my sister. She reaches into the glove compartment, pops a pill from a prescription bottle, and downs it with a gulp of Diet Coke. I’ve only seen her take medication if she has a cold. This is different, and I worry if what she’s just swallowed is going to make her sleepy. Already, she looks worn out.

“Christ,” she says. “Just get in.”

I wait until we’re safely back on Central before I dare ask what I called her.

My sister smiles, though it’s an uneasy one. The pill has relaxed her some.

“You called me a fat ass.”

The worst I’ve ever yelled at her is vlaka. Moron is nothing compared to what I just said.

“Sorry,” I say. “You’re not fat.” And although I mean it, my apology comes too late.

 

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The Giraffe

When we were angry with each other,
we spoke only to the giraffe.

He bent down as if to drink,
while I rose up to the tree line

where the acacia waited to be stripped
by my tongue. A compromise, then:

admission of redress. In spite
of thirst and thorns, we ate.

Oh the exquisite distances
between mouth and tail!

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The Third Daughter

The Chairman is dead. Outside, the people of Chinatown are cheering. They light firecrackers and beat pots and pans, chanting as they march three floors below the window of my apartment. Their signs say, “Smash the Emperor!” Drips of paint spoil the sweep and curve of the calligraphy, the characters bleeding as if shot.

Shouts and curses echo over the cobbled San Francisco street. The Chairman’s supporters, wearing black armbands, march from the opposite direction. A standoff, a scuffle, and two men roll in the street until one reaches under his opponent’s leg to pinch his testicles like a ripe tomato. The man howls, the other shouts, “Fuck you and ten generations of your ancestors!” This is how the civil war continues, half a world away and a quarter-century too late. Without dignity.

The cheering swells, the revelers giddy with rice wine and easy victory. Sincerity shines in their faces. No longer will they whisper the Chairman’s name, afraid of his reach across the ocean. No longer will they invoke him to scare their children, or as a curse against their enemies. No longer will the people I betrayed live under his threat. With the Chairman dead, the people here will be able to reach family trapped on the other side. They can return to the homeland they thought closed forever, kneel and press their foreheads to the soil. If only I could hunger like them, for a dream, for anything larger than myself. What I want is to want, once again.

I tear myself away from the window, unable to watch any longer, and comb my wet hair with my fingers. After a busboy at the Pearl Pavilion collided with me, spilling sauce down my back, I returned to shower between my shifts and heard the news on the radio. I undo the towel wrapped around me. At twenty-seven, I am plain and strong, hard lines everywhere but my chest. I trace a finger across a thin scar on my right kneecap, where I fell in the fields as a child, and the burn scar on my wrist, a souvenir of the Chairman’s revolution. I smooth my callused palms on the red satin shirt, the stain rinsed out and blotted dry. The dampness makes me shiver as I fasten the frog closures, feeling the pinch at my neck. The uniform is slightly too small, tight across my shoulders. I slip on black trousers, and as a final touch, a necklace of a prancing jade ox. A gift from the Cook, on the third anniversary of my time at the Pavilion. I reach my arms up to clasp the thin gold chain, feeling my chest muscles pull tight, and my breasts push against my shirt. Here my awkward younger self emerges, exposed and on display. Although I might appear strong and sure-footed, versions of me compete within. A clumsy peasant. A nimble dancer. A straight-backed revolutionary. A doubting missionary.

Old Wu knocks at the door, three hard raps his signal. I tell him to come in.

He shuffles inside, his back bent, but his eyes strong. He never married, like many of the bachelors who came here as teenagers in the 1930s to work in laundries or as houseboys. While my parents grew up toiling in the fields, he set sail for Gold Mountain.

“The old bastard is dead!” he crows.

The Chairman and I met the year I turned sixteen. I look away so that Old Wu cannot see my grimace. I pour us tea, ever the dutiful daughter. Even though the tea scalds my tongue, I drink, trying to ease the heaviness in my chest, and the taste is smoky, lingering and pervasive. I roll the empty teacup in my hand, absorbing the traces of warmth from the ceramic, solid and heavy, hard as bone.

“Guneung, you’re so quiet,” Old Wu says, addressing me as “young maiden.” He sits on my folding stool, the only piece of furniture that I possess, other than my bunk bed and a cardboard box that serves as my dresser and night stand. He coughs, a deep, wet hacking that has plagued him this autumn. He catches his breath and sets down his teacup on a stack of newspapers. “You should be happy! Let’s have a real drink. I have a bottle of plum wine I’ve been saving for the right occasion.”

He grins and mimes clinking glasses. Not for the first time, he is trying to romance me. I put on my coat and usher Old Wu into the dark hallway that smells of grease and stir-fried vegetables. “I’m late for work.”

“Be careful.” He wants to protect me, but he doesn’t know that I have faced down dangers he could never imagine.

“Don’t get mixed up in their fights,” Old Wu adds, his face anxious, and suddenly I am ashamed of my resentment. Why should my past visit his present?

Old Wu has never inquired about my history and I have never volunteered. Perhaps he wants to believe, for my sake, that I never suffered. I walk down the narrow, steep stairs, where the overhead light has burned out again. Outside, firecrackers sputter and pop. My foot slips and I pitch forward before I catch myself, bracing my hand on the peeling wallpaper. I hesitate, not yet ready to face the crowds.

The Chairman tried to obliterate our past, but the Chinese still revere our dead. Against his wishes, in secret, we prayed to our ancestors and asked for their blessings and protections. Now we will sweep the tombs of our ancient heroes and sing the stories of their great deeds.

Consider the hero’s tales of piety and courage, of coincidence and reversals of fortune, of virtue and corruption. To become a hero, your details will be worn away, worn smooth, until you are blank, the barest of outlines. Only then can you become a light leading the people of this generation, the next and the next.

* * *

I was born in 1949, the year of our country’s Liberation, when a peasant became leader of our country, when the Chairman’s rule promised to end hunger and superstition, to end all that made us weak. Even in this new era in which women could be heroes too, my father must have been disappointed when I was born. He wanted a son so much that I became one for him.

Sixteen years had passed since Liberation and my birth—a blink, a breath in a country with a history thousands of years old— and I was impatient for change. Only recently had my village begun to recover from three years of famine. I did not know then that my homeland was poised between periods of chaos. That we were less than a year away from the Cultural Revolution, that  schools would close and teenagers — model students one day, thugs the next — would form gangs and turn on their neighbors, their teachers, and their parents. They would destroy the old world, so a new one could be born.

The Party official was its harbinger. He arrived on an early autumn day, just before the harvest. The rumble of his Jeep echoed through the valley and along the rutted road that led to our village. We dropped our hoes and ran in from the cornfields. He was new to us, short and compact, his steps slow and precise, and his expression steady. He ordered the girls aged fourteen to twenty to line up in the plaza, and told us to remove our hats. I took my place at the end, hunching my shoulders. It did no good. I was still the tallest, broad-shouldered and knock-kneed, awkward as a baby calf.

Ba, sitting beneath an acacia tree, tipped the brim of his straw hat, and I straightened. He was reminding me that as tall as I was, he was taller. As dark as I was, he was darker. Until last year, I joined him and the other men in the plaza in the evenings, listening to their riddles and stories, rowdy and rousing. Then my body began to curve and swell, and I was no longer welcome.

Everyone in my village shared the same surname, Song. Our neighbors knew my parents and my grandparents. They recognized the inherited shape of my ears, my temper, and my fate. They had me determined before I was born. My sisters and I shared our middle name—Mei, plum tree of integrity—that indicated we lived through the same generation of civil wars, bandits, and famine. The winter blossoms open in snow. Pure, strong, and reckless. I like to think that at first I was a doll to my two sisters, new and precious in a home with no toys and no time to play. Later, I became Third Daughter, another task in a long day. To carry, to feed, to bathe, to silence. I became competition, the meager portion of porridge divided once more.

The official began to walk along the line. I straightened my wrinkled gray tunic and sagging pants. He paused before each girl: the scrawny ones, the short ones, the village beauty renown for her dimples and petal soft skin. At last, he stopped at me. I shifted on my feet, wondering if the visitor found me wanting. I resisted looking down—resisted what was expected of me. I studied his high cheekbones, his deep-set eyes, and he drew back from my scrutiny. The official turned around and examined each candidate for a second time.

The wet heat was starting to break, and our shuffling feet had kicked up the scent of chickens, dust, and straw. I flexed my hands, sticky with sweat. My knees ached, and my shoulders were sore from weeding since dawn. Cicadas droned, their song monotonous yet haunting, punctuated by the flick of their wings. Such tiny creatures, but together, deafening. To my left, my neighbor sucked nervously on the end of her braid. To my right, another tugged on her tunic. The official paused not before the village beauty, but the oldest candidate, her squashed nose covered by a glistening mole.

I wanted him to pick me for this duty and to separate me from the rest. I prayed to the Chairman, asking him to grant me the opportunity. I imagined him beaming, his hand outstretched. Mine, reaching. I wanted to live like a hero: courageous, admired, eternal. Rebellious, too, for giving up a typical life. My parents told us stories bursting with heroes who sacrificed for the people. Female heroes were few but vivid: a teenage spy, beheaded after she rallied peasants against enemy soldiers. A factory worker burned to death after she stopped a huge fire. A peasant killed when she held together a collapsing kiln.

When I was eight, I wanted to be Sister Yu, who herded her commune’s escaped sheep during a blizzard. She crouched against the wind, straining to hear their frightened bleats. Pretending, I wrapped a rag around my ears and eyes, trying to feel my way home from the edge of the village. I dipped my hands into the icy river until they went numb.

When I was twelve, I wanted to be Iron Girl, who grabbed the reins of a stampeding ox to save three terrified elders. She died when the cart ran over her. I flicked stones at our exhausted ox, willing it to run and rage, but it did not raise its head. My exploits earned the scorn of my neighbors, who called me muddle-headed, a stupid egg. I never explained what I was doing. Heroes died, but they lived forever in me.

If the official did not pick me, in a year I might be married. Later, I would have a baby, then another. Even if my marriage were delayed three, five years, even if it had nothing in common with the disappointment of my parents, I would rise at dawn, toil, hunger, and ache, every day repeated until I died.

My neighbor, Fatty Song, whose strong arms and broad back I admired, pushed to the front. At the spring festival, Fatty, a brigade leader, had apologized for bumping against me, never knowing that I had brushed against him. He played the bamboo flute, sweet yet sinuous melodies that I wanted for myself. Behind him stood my sisters, too old to participate. First Daughter nudged Second Daughter, and they began to whisper. I knew they hoped that the official would pass over me. My sisters, born less than a year apart, were always together, crows perched on a roof—forever watching, cawing in a language not meant for me.

My mother leaned on the arm of First Daughter. Ma was tiny, slender with delicate features—plump mouth, brushstroke brows, and long-lashed eyes. People snickered that my mother was like a flower planted in dung because she was married to my father. The beautiful invited such ridicule. My two sisters inherited my mother’s looks and consequently absorbed most of her attentions. She braided their long, shiny hair, but ran a comb through my thin locks. Her hand rested easily on their shoulders, never mine. My sisters were the first to survive infancy, arriving after a stillborn son and a toddler fallen to a fever, and my mother loved them with an intensity forged from loss. I inherited Ba’s broad nose and high cheekbones—crude if handsome in a man, but plain on a woman. It pleased me that we looked alike, sharing what no one else did.

Ba rose to his feet. As a teenager, soon after he married my mother, he left for the provincial capital to make his fortune. He had quick hands and thought he could work in a factory. He returned a year later, missing the pinky finger of his right hand. He had attempted what others in his generation wanted, and his failure earned their contempt. I turned my head to the breeze, soft and warm. Low, slanting light transformed the crumbling bricks and splintering wood of our homes into something inviting and beautiful. I was proud that the official had arrived when our fields were lush and the persimmon trees heavy with heart-shaped fruit. We must have seemed like a model village, a socialist paradise.

The official didn’t know about the village’s squabbling during the long mandatory political meetings. A few, like my father, challenged the directives from the Party. Dig up the graveyard and change the course of a flooding river? The land where our families had lived for generations was beyond change, Ba had argued. He was too fond of the past, a nostalgia that spat at the promise of the future. That was when I first began to question my father, for how could he deny the Chairman’s wisdom? The headman triumphed, Ba lost, and the river straightened where it once curved.

I cocked my hip and stared at Headman Song, trying to attract his attention. Two years ago, a musician on his way to the capital had sought shelter in our village. Although he wore the same rough clothes as the rest of us, his eyebrows arched like willow leaves and his skin glowed. His high haunting voice silenced us. He sang of heroes, of a mischievous monkey king who rebelled against the heavens. He plucked at a zither over his lap, the melody roiling from his fingers. Every family volunteered to house the musician that night, for the village never had such remarkable visitors. Headman Song prevailed, and he moved his wife and four children to his brother’s home to provide quiet for the musician. At midnight, I crept to his house in the hopes of listening to another song. Instead I heard grunts and moans. Through a crack in the front door, I saw their shadows on the wall come together and apart. I recoiled, but part of me wanted to be inside, too, pushing and clinging. Shudders ran through both men. I leaned closer and knocked over a stack of baskets, falling to my knees and skinning my hands in the dirt. I tried to untangle my feet from the baskets and as I rose, the headman burst through the door, naked. His nipples were startling, large and flat. He gripped my wrists, and I kept my eyes on his face. He scowled beneath his knit brows, his body heavy with the thick soapy smell of chestnut trees in bloom. I did not scream, and he knew I would keep his secret.

Now I waited until the headman’s gaze settled on me. I floated my hands as the traveling musician once did over his zither. Over the headman. His eyes widened. I swiveled my head over the length of the crowd, as if to say, I will tell everyone. Headmen elsewhere in the province had been beaten for lesser offenses, for the people hungered to humble the powerful. The people listened to their confessions, stripped their authority, and forced them to tote night soil and catch flies in a jar. Even if few believed me, the headman’s reputation would suffer, for such was the strength of accusation in those days.

The cicadas rose in pitch, droning and deafening. Headman Song took the pipe from his mouth, and turned to the official. They spoke with their heads bowed and expression hidden. The official returned before me and rested his hand on my shoulder. He was testing me, and I did not wince or draw back.

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How to Fall

I rode up to the snow-blessed hills of Vermont on a ski trip for singles. I did. Two overheated buses full of women and men between the ages of twenty-two and thirty drinking flavored vodka from plastic martini glasses, and trying to mask their awkwardness. My college roommate Amanda dragged me along, in part for company, but mostly to extract me from the ditch I’d dropped into since things ended with Mitchell. I was permitted to mention Mitchell once — for under ten minutes — Amanda said. The subject was otherwise off limits.

“Deal,” I said.

“Let’s see,” Amanda said.

There were a few more women on the trip than men, not by design, but two of the men had called in sick at the last moment and another — the one I decided I would have hooked up with — was in Florida arranging his grandfather’s funeral.

A broadsheet was circulating with mini-profiles of all of us, and pictures of everyone but me (I’d signed on too late). Amanda quickly sized up the talent — dentist, doctor, actor, shrink … software engineer, sports agent, magazine editor — and she picked out two lawyers, Kevin and Roland, who worked for the same public interest firm, and were sitting two rows back from us. Kevin’s hair was thinning and his gray eyes were slightly amused. Roland, who wore a pale blue ski cap, had a wide smile, the patchy beginnings of a beard, and attractive lines around his mouth. They seemed charming enough in our initial conversation and if I pretended I was someone else I could get through this, I thought.

 

We were booked into a fairly large bed and breakfast — eight rooms, and Amanda arranged it so our room was next to the lawyers. It was around nine when we arrived. Killington, Vermont. We went straight to dinner. There were other singles at our table, all perfectly harmless, but after they cleared the salads we confined our conversation to the four of us. The lawyers were telling stories of spectacular ski accidents from their childhoods. Roland used to race. He’d had a nearly fatal collision with a tree when he was seventeen and lay in a coma for a week. They were certain he would die or end up a vegetable. “I think my brother had already made plans to move into my room.”

He closed and opened his eyes as though reenacting it for us.

“Then one day I just woke up.”

“He transmogrified,” Kevin said.

We waited for an explanation.

For around half a year — while Roland convalesced from his broken leg and two broken ribs — all the murkiness and “fuckedupness” in his adolescent life disappeared, he said. His grades improved. He wrote a play (loosely based on his hospital stay) that earned him raves in the school newspaper, and he learned how to play the French horn. He read War and Peace.

“It was as though I’d cleared out all the clutter in my brain and I suddenly had room for everything I’d wanted to do. It lasted until the summer after graduation.”

Kevin refilled everyone’s wine glasses. We looked at Roland now, who seemed uncomfortable with the attention he’d drawn.

“Then I went back to ripping off convenience stores,” he said. I believed him until the corner of his mouth turned up in a smile.

“He was a god as a racer,” Kevin said.

“I’m far more restrained these days,” he said.

“His restraint would make your hair stand on end,” Kevin said. “I’m mister leisure out there. I snowboard with the high school dudes.”

“How old are you?” Amanda asked him.

“Thirty.”

“Have you ever been married?”

Amanda was a financial analyst, and accustomed to gathering information before committing her clients’ resources. I shot her a look.

“Yes,” he said.

“Somehow I knew it,” Amanda said.

“She died,” Kevin said. “Not from skiing.”

“I’m so sorry. How did she die?” Amanda asked.

“She had an aneurysm,” he said. “Listen, I don’t want to depress everyone. It was a while ago.”

“Two years,” Roland said.

“You poor, poor thing.” Amanda leaned toward Kevin with increased interest. “My uncle had a stroke. He’s better now. They got to him early I guess. How old was she?”

“Twenty-six.”

“My god, that’s so young.”

“It is.” He fidgeted with the clasp on his leather watchband. “Anyway, how long have you guys lived in the city?”

“My whole life,” I said.

“Five years,” Amanda said, about herself. Then she told them about my childhood. It was a sweet gesture I suppose, though she mangled several details and made me sound fairly disturbed (and my father sound like a polygamist). While she was talking, I started to picture Kevin’s young wife a day before her death, booking a vacation she’d never take, or buying groceries she’d never eat, and then I remembered Mitchell and I realized he was at a secure distance now, and I felt calm, because when you got right down to it, what had happened to me? Nothing life-threatening. No coma, no aneurysm.

Not yet anyhow.

I poured myself another glass of wine. Then two more, and we had shots of vodka after that, which Amanda said should be our last.

We started telling jokes. Or maybe I just did. I told them the one about the city boy moving upstate. He gets invited to a party by his downstairs neighbor.

“What’ll it be like?” he asks.

“Oh it’s going to be wild,” the guy says. “There’s going to be some drinking, there’s gonna be some fuckin; there’ll be some fightin, and maybe a little dancing.”

“Who all’s coming?” the city boy asks.

“Oh, it’s just going to be you and me.”

I’m not sure why I told that one, or why I thought it was so funny. But the men laughed and Amanda didn’t.

“So the first guy gets raped,” she said.

“No,” I said. “That’s not it at all.”

“So then what is it?”

“It’s about false advertising,” I said.

Roland raised his glass, “And that underneath it all we just want to drink, fuck, fight, and dance.”

 

The night he broke up with me, Mitchell and I decided to sleep together one final time, and when he slipped out the front door in the morning, I felt surprisingly intact. I had the typical what-did-you-do-over-the-weekend conversations at the media distribution company where I work, accomplished a few basic tasks, and I thought: maybe this’ll be easy. And then I thought, what does it mean if it’s easy? And then I started to call Mitchell to ask him what it meant. But I remembered the rule we made about not calling and so I hung up.

After work I went to the Museum of Natural History, and I coursed around my favorite spots, the whale and the dinosaurs, and the Pygmies. I tried to make it fun, so that it would be a story I’d tell my friends—you know what I did? I went to a museum by myself and you know what? I had a blast. And they’d think— she’s going to be just fine. I’ve always liked seeing people alone in museums, jotting down notes, lingering at a painting or a piece of Mayan pottery. I liked the idea that I could be like that. But I began to feel very self-conscious, and I wanted to get to a phone so I could call Mitchell. I had left my cell phone at home so I wouldn’t be tempted.

 

I hightailed it through the park. It was November and fairly cold, and you could see the breath emerging from the mouths of the bundled-up joggers and shoppers who passed by. I began to think that going out without a phone had been a mistake. I wondered, What if he calls?

He called, I thought. Or stopped by to make up and I wasn’t there. Convinced that this would happen, I stayed in the next few nights watching DVDs. I chose ones I thought would distract me, like The Matrix, which with my diminished concentration I couldn’t really follow—people in pods, and a world that might or might not exist, and Keanu Reeves in a black coat taking pills and shooting people in what looked like the entrance to a bank.

At eleven the following Sunday night, I called Mitchell and told him that if he came over and we slept together it didn’t have to mean anything.

Brilliant move.

It was two weeks before I heard from him. And over those nights it was like I imagine life must be in a methadone clinic — cold sweats and a soul-shriveling restlessness — but this is nothing new. Everyone in every country of the world has bushwhacked through this. It probably didn’t help that we slept together twice more. I have no explanation other than that both times I believed we were back together, though he explicitly told me (“Are we clear on this, Jen?”) we weren’t. When I left at three and searched for a cab I did this thing where I dug my fingernails, and one time a pencil, into my arms, the way I would as a little girl when the doctor gave me a shot and I wanted to divert the pain. I saw my reflection once in the wide-angle mirror of my apartment building’s lobby. My hair was squashed and matted and my arms were blotched with little red cuts. I looked like a junkie with shitty aim.

 

Under the silky light of a storybook moon, the four of us walked back through the cold to the B and B. The proprietress was at her desk when we arrived and she asked us for our breakfast preferences. She handed us sheets of pale green paper with an impressive list of food and beverage selections. I circled grapefruit juice and pancakes, and bacon, and then thought better of it and crossed out the bacon, and then wrote out the word bacon, and then wrote the word Yes next to bacon, so they would know I wanted it. What the fuck. I asked for a pot of coffee — it said a cup or a pot, and I liked the idea of someone brewing a whole pot just for me.

We turned in our lists and then we lingered in front of our room. A dog barked from downstairs. I thought Amanda might ask the guys in and I would have gone along with it, but it was better we went our separate ways. The rooms were small and one of us might have felt trapped. We could hear their voices through the walls though we couldn’t make out what they were saying, even when we listened through the water glasses.

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Our Brave Little Soldiers

Maria and I went to a party in an empty airplane hangar. The idea was to eat some cake and forget about the war. The place was decked in streamers and flags. There was punch and some folks came dressed as famous prisoners. I was having a pretty good time talking to Nelson Mandela, when the loudspeaker kicked on.

It seemed everywhere we went that year there was a loudspeaker. The enemy was obsessed with announcements. He made three or four of them a day—dim, lengthy ruminations that varied according to his mood. If the enemy was feeling cross, he shrieked belligerently, insulting us, calling us filthy whores, cock-sucking motherfuckers, and things like that. But if the enemy was pleased, he wooed us. He said we looked good, and called us his special children. Other times he seemed altogether unaware of us. He recited poetry and read passages from the books he loved best. Once, he sobbed openly for eleven minutes. The problem with being a prisoner is you just have to stand there and listen.

Now the party had stopped, and Nelson and Maria and I were hanging out by the punch bowl, waiting. The enemy tapped the microphone and cleared his throat. Hello, he crooned. Can everybody hear me?

He wanted to fight. He said he would take us all, but his plan was to start with the tiny babies and work his way up. Bring me your tiny babies! he growled. Then he laughed maniacally, and hung up. Even for the enemy, I thought he sounded extreme.

Maria found the tiny babies huddled together in the cap of an old coke bottle. She put her head to the floor and tried to coax them out. They’re afraid, she said. See. But I couldn’t see. I said it just looked like a dirty bottle cap. So Maria turned the cap over, and shook the tiny babies free. They fell into the palm of her hand. See, she said again. Then I saw. Her hand was cupped and it looked like she was holding a mound of finely ground pepper. I squinted and saw the little eyes, brown and gloomy, stuck, inside the little skulls.

We had to use tweezers to dress them in their tiny shields and tiny black boots. We didn’t have any swords, so we strapped tiny sewing needles to their backs. Then we set them down in front of the hydraulic door. There, we said. Now that’s done.

Maria took up a gold trumpet and led us in a fight song. Our tiny soldiers began marching, first in place, then toward the door. Even in their uniforms, they didn’t look very professional. Their helmets were too big and kept falling down in front of their eyes. They had a hard time keeping a straight line. One of them stumbled away from the group to throw up.

Eventually, they managed to get outside. We watched them make their way across the runway and into the field beyond it. And then we couldn’t see them anymore. Once, I thought I spotted them, but it turned out to be ash from Nelson’s cigarette. I was still safe. I should have been glad, but I wasn’t. I felt like crying.

We stayed there for a long time. We kept on cheering because Maria said they could still hear us. I thought about my voice sounding as big as God, and how now would be a good time to say something profound, but I couldn’t think of anything good. Maria hooted and Nelson clapped. Be brave, we cried. Good Luck!

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My Father in Russia

Now he’s sending me text-messages
from a room full of furs and samovars,
vodka and dumplings, walking
around his living room
in an old uniform remembering his comrades
and The Great War, his medals
are heavy, the ribbons float
from his chest to the floor like nightgowns
while his grandmother makes borscht
and his little brother steals copper from the new
developments. When he greets me
on the street he calls me Citizen.
Citizen! Hello!
and we duck into a bar
where he changes into American jeans
and a white t-shirt, a pack of Camels rolled
up into his sleeve so you can see
the tattoo that says Lick Me
in Chinese over the head of a cobra, the red walls
covered in gold
framed mirrors, full
of men with newspapers, some without
their fingers
and some with crutches, an abandoned
television living
the rest of its life in the heart
of the boy washing dishes
in the back, listening
to David Bowie in English. My father
is toasting all his children, the ones he has
never met, the ones
he hasn’t had yet. I keep seeing him
in the eyes of women, in their
slender feet. I want to walk along
a cobbled street with him, my arm
around his waist like a nurse
heading to the opera. He’s getting ready
for the revolution
by not being at all, not even the bones
of a horse or the handle of a plow. It’s hard
to imagine the body of a man you don’t know.
It’s up to me now. Citizen!
he hollers. And then I remember. He lives
in Russia, on-line, I’ve seen him,
a beautiful bride, a blonde
with lips full of grapes and white breasts
that lift up into the heavy gravity of earth,
I’ve seen him at night
when I’ve been lonely, he talks
with an accent and will fuck you for real, after
the flight is financed
and a check is sent, oh dad
moaning through the computer
in a cocktail dress and mink stole, the long
thin fingers, a fake diamond
glinting below a tiny knuckle. I can order him. I can save
the money and meet him
at the airport in Long Beach, I can carry his bags
while he walks behind me
in heels, I can buy him a latte
and English lessons, put my hand on his thigh, fill him
with chardonnay,
tell him I want him and tie him up
with the silk stockings I sent
as a promise of another life,
an afterlife,
floating above the Windsor-green golf courses of Santa Barbara.

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Editor’s Note #91

Dear Readers,

In 1985 Howard Junker founded this publication, and kept a steady course all these years. In the case of a West Coast literary journal, a steady course requires a perpetual willingness to take risks—to offer, time and again, the thrill of discovery. Yet having survived these many years, it is now clear that we have the fortitude of some enduring values. As Howard once said, ZYZZYVA asserts “classical values: the possibilities of individual vision; the enduring magic of words; the delight of variety; absolute freedom from commercial constraint.”

As we take up where Howard Junker left off, we will continue to uphold these values. Continue reading

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A Note from the Editors

A little more than 25 years ago, ZYZZYVA was founded. Since then, the journal has created an enduring space for writers and artists living on the West Coast — defined here as not only the states of Washington, Oregon, and California, but Hawaii and Alaska, too. The list of past contributors — many of whom were first published in ZYZZYVA — is impressive, and a testament to ZYZZYVA’s relevance.

We are fortunate to have such a strong foundation from which to build. Continue reading

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