Issues Archives

Volume 28, #3, Winter 2012

<p>Featured in our Winter issue: Fiction from <strong>Ron Carlson</strong>, <strong>Vanessa Veselka</strong>, <strong>Jennifer duBois</strong>, <strong>Earle McCartney</strong>, and <strong>Bruce McKay</strong>. Noir from <strong>Lucas Howell</strong>, <strong>Dawna Kemper</strong>, <strong>Andy Stewart</strong>, and <strong>E.G. Willy</strong>. Poetry from <strong>CM Davidson</strong>, <strong>Marci Vogel</strong>, <strong>John W. Evans</strong>, and <strong>Carolyn Miller</strong>. Introducing First Time in Print writer <strong>Chaney Kwak</strong>. And art from <strong>Jane Hambleton</strong> and <strong>Wendy MacNaughton</strong>.</p>

Featured in our Winter issue: Fiction from Ron Carlson, Vanessa Veselka, Jennifer duBois, Earle McCartney, and Bruce McKay. Noir from Lucas Howell, Dawna Kemper, Andy Stewart, and E.G. Willy. Poetry from CM Davidson, Marci Vogel, John W. Evans, and Carolyn Miller. Introducing First Time in Print writer Chaney Kwak. And art from Jane Hambleton and Wendy MacNaughton.

Christopher Hitchens

Lyle claims he can cure faith. I asked him to do it. A year ago I wouldn’t have, I would have paid to believe in anything. Elena gets worse every night, though. She fell asleep in my bed, and I thought she wasn’t breathing because her little three-year-old face was so gray, but it turned out to be nothing but the shadow of the quilt. I moved her stuffed sea lion closer and she rolled over on it, dragging it down to the deep. The doctors just tell me to love her. Someone else suggested I pray, but belief of any kind at this point feels like being rocked in the arms of an insane mother—faith, that great and breaking bough—not with Elena at stake, I’m done with that.

When Lyle gave me his card, I thought it was a joke. It had a picture of a beach on it with that poem about the footsteps. He’d crossed out the words and written: You can be alone again. According to his website, he can extract the finest strands of transcendent hope. That’s what I’m counting on.

I broke down last night and prayed. I thought I felt something and told Lyle. He said it’s natural. Faith is the only gateway to no faith, he says. I asked what he meant and he said that beliefs, all beliefs, are like a series of tunnels.

“What we’re after here is an open road.”

He showed me the room where it’s going to happen. The walls are covered with pictures of Jesus, Shiva, JFK, Osiris, and the Mandelbrot set—each image with a big, black X through it. Lining the windowsill are smaller icons: Einstein, the Dalai Lama, Elvis, Malcolm X, Christopher Hitchens, and a woman fromlate-night infomercials who sells Ever Bliss™ powdered nutrient drinks. Each picture in a cheap plastic frame with the same black X. Lyle had clearly snapped the shot of Hitchens off a TV screen with his phone and the frame had no glass. The Sharpie lines of the X were fading to gray in the sunlight.

“Nobody is pure anything,” Lyle said, “We have to get it all, even beliefs we think don’t count.”

“But I don’t have any faith, I just wish I did.”

“Same thing.”

“But it’s not the same thing because if I were capable of any real belief I wouldn’t be here. I’d be gone.”

“Besides,” he said, “I’ll bet you have more faith than you think. In situations like yours it’s usually just spread underground.”

I thought of my Wiccan high school years, and the Marias I could only take in Spanish or Bosnian, and the candles and Mexican rosewater, and the vague authority of humming rocks, shells, and feathers, and cigarette smoke blown in all four directions—Lyle was right. Faith was in me like a curtain behind a curtain. Put a gun to my head and ask me if I believe in anything and I’d point to Elena and say, I don’t believe in a goddamned thing. Not if she’s going to die. But take that gun away? Faith grows back in me like a field of mushrooms. Almost overnight.

“The first thing I need you to do,” Lyle said, “is to write down a history of your beliefs. Like praying you don’t get caught stealing candy. Or calling Christians cowards when you’re drunk. It’s all the same thing, it all has to go.”

“Should I write it on anything special?”

“Write it on anything. That’s the point.”

I started that night. I went all the way back to second grade, when I thought I heard God’s voice in a dream. By the time I fell asleep it was dawn and the bush outside my window was filled with chattering finches. I know now what Lyle means when he says faith and no faith are the same thing. I saw both sides of the coin flipping through the air. He means they come from the same place, believing and hating believers, a single tree, and if you don’t pull out all the roots it grows back.

*

Elena goes to her dad on Fridays. I don’t get a choice in that. The worst part is that if something happens to her over the weekend, I won’t be there. The idea that I wouldn’t be there when it counted, that I might be out somewhere not even thinking about her when the real stuff happened is just too much. I try not to think about it but I do, all the time. I can’t sleep when she’s gone, and there’s a revival going on down the street. It’s in a vacant lot out there in the weeds, right on the corner. They put up a tent. You can hear the preacher’s voice through the PA echoing off the basketball courts in the park two blocks away. I’ve been hearing it every night. At first it was just annoying. Another thing like gunshots and Greenpeace knocking on your door, stuff you should care about but don’t anymore because it happens all the time. All evening and into the night:

God’s got it! God’s got it!

And all the black voices calling it back.

God’s got it! God’s got it!

If they had been white I would have called the cops.

Every day I walk through the reedy lot. I see them setting up for the revival. Raking the flattened clumps of grass. Chasing the newspaper tumbleweeds. Bagging the bottles and needles and collecting grocery store circulars, holding them in their hands like garish fans.

They’ve been there all summer.

Fix it, Jesus! Fix it!

They yell out all the things that are wrong—

Fix it! Fix it, Jesus! Fix it!

They have a van full of clean white shirts for the converts, and they come in all sizes. I saw a man that weighed over 400 pounds get saved. They wrapped him in white like a baby. No one is banned from the arms of Jesus. I imagine myself in white steeped in the smell of starch and irons and lemon water, and for a second, I’m pretty damn sure that if everybody would just get the hell away from me I could ride this feeling down into forever, this moment of grace, but they don’t and I can’t and it all breaks into smaller and smaller bits, even when they’re already so small you think they can’t, they do. Faith is like entropy, according to Lyle. The heat it gives off is just from decline. It’s not a closed system.

*

Lyle set up our second consultation at the food court tables by the Orange Julius. He has a face like Eric Clapton’s. You’d never recognize him without context. Both times we met I thought it was a stranger approaching me.

This time Lyle came with diagrams. He set his smoothie down and unfolded a sheet of paper. On it was a genderless human form with tiny lines drawn all over the body. My body.

“I’m thinking we’ll put the needles here.” He took a slug off his Orange Julius and pointed to a series of hash marks. “One for every belief.”

My whole history of hope before me in train trestles and broken rails. I tried to see the pattern, but couldn’t really. Some lines looked like sutures and others more like Amish hex symbols or asterisks.

“Will it hurt?”

“Probably,” he said.

“Is that the chakra system?”

Lyle looked at me for a second then borrowed a pen and drew another set of lines on the figure. “You should have told me about that one.”

Later on that night, I threw a full can of beer at someone’s head. I was at a show and it was a singer of this band I knew. He was prancing around, doing the Iggy Pop thing, rolling on glass with bloody handprints and finger streaks all over his chest. When he pulled himself up on the microphone stand I threw the beer can as hard as I could. The Pabst logo spun like a ninja shuriken across the heads of the audience. I punched a wall when they threw me out. When I woke up, my knuckles were swollen and there were dried brown streaks of blood on my hand.

After I washed up the next morning, I went to see Elena. She and Silas were eating macaroni and cheese for breakfast when I came in. Her cheeks were sticky with orange sauce. In front of her was a huge, half-drunk glass of milk.

“Is it hormone free?”

“They were out.”

“I thought we had an agreement.”

“I didn’t ask you to come over.”

He knows how I feel about those things. I keep Elena away from plastic and fish and she’s never had antibiotics.

“That’s not the point,” I said. “We had an agreement.”

“We also had an agreement about you not taking her to the doctor.”

“I didn’t take her right away, I watched her, for a long time. You would have taken her, too.”

Silas looked at me like I were wearing a wristband or a day pass or something. But I’m sick of seeing patience on people’s faces. It doesn’t affect me like it used to. You have to be an advocate. Silas will believe anything a doctor tells him. And the doctors say Elena meets all the developmental markers for her age. They say she’s fine. But she’s not fine. They don’t know her like I do, and so they can’t see what’s happening. She’s changed. I’ve watched her now through countless car crashes, slips on the stairs, through terrible accidents on the playground when the bigger kids on the chain bridge pretend to shoot each other and knock her off. She’s not the same. It’s written all over her. She is going to die. Someday that is going to happen. And even though I don’t know when, I know it will be too soon.

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Oh, Oh, Oh

Let me tell you about Jackson: the only child of a state senator and an avid bridge player who rarely spoke to each other, he grew up in an airy mansion in Wilson, North Carolina, with six antebellum ancestors in gilded frames looking sternly down on him. His carefree summers left permanent tan lines around his waist and knees; he dominated the little league, excelled in tennis.

At fourteen Jackson left for Virginia to attend the finest boarding school south of the Mason-Dixon Line. White lies and exaggerations, told with a wink and a knowing smile, became his specialty; good-natured imitations, his stockpile of charm. With a trained aw-shucks grin he won over his teachers and classmates, was elected to student council three years in a row. He captained the rowing team, escorted half a dozen debutantes, grew tall and muscular, and applied early to the college where a library was named after his grandfather. Somewhere along the way he learned to mask his upper-crust Southern drawl and began calling himself Jack.

But he had always known that he would derail from the track that had been so carefully set down for him. As he read Dickens in AP English, it hit him: he wanted to be a writer—preferably a tortured one—who wrote about the sordid real life outside the ivied gates of his world: cruel con artists, whores with hearts of gold, self-hating crooks, that sort of thing. He was ready.

***

Here’s Jacques in a nutshell: born in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, he was named Jacques Henri by his Quebecois parents, who struggled to keep up with the rent for their one-bedroom overlooking the murky Blackstone River. When he was four his mom, Marie, shook him awake in the middle of the night and together they tiptoed over crushed cans of Natural Ice and past his father, who was passed out on the floor as usual. With them Marie brought nothing but a six-pack of Dr. Pepper to keep her awake. She sped down I-95 until the Chevy broke down in Springfield, Virginia. There, she traded in the car for the security deposit on a one-story house on a dead-end street.

Without the unpredictable tableside temper of his father, Jacques learned to enjoy food for the first time, began eating prodigiously, and soon grew too big for children’s husky size. He tripped and stumbled under his sudden weight, was taunted by the neighborhood kids for his heft. He never learned to retaliate, though—he wasn’t that kind of a boy. Instead he began calling himself Jack, good ol’ American Jack and never the prissy Jacques Henri, so as not to give the world another reason to tease him.

After long days waiting tables at a disreputable establishment called— must we utter that vulgar name?—Tits-N-Bits, Marie attended night classes and earned a nursing degree. But she couldn’t instill her respect for education in her son. Throughout public schooling his grades remained dismal; he saw no point in writing a five-part essay or figuring out when Train A would catch up with Train B. He never liked the word “junior,” so he felt no remorse dropping out of school after driver’s ed at the end of his sophomore year. From then on Jack worked diligently for years in a series of driving jobs—first delivering pizzas, and now large construction equipment.

This was in the boom years, when everyone was awash in cash, and banks handed out bundles of money to anyone with a name and a Social Security number. As a surprise gift to celebrate his and Marie’s twentieth anniversary in the house, he applied for one of those “No Credit? No Problem!” mortgages advertised on late night television. The landlady, who was moving down to Daytona Beach, tearfully gave him the deed, calling him the most perfect son a mother could ever dream of. We’ll see about that.

***

Jack first skidded toward six on the Kinsey Scale in his freshman year of boarding school. His roommate, Donald Jr., the belligerent son of a well-known real estate mogul, offered some of the vodka that he’d hidden in various containers among his toiletries. Jack’s hands trembled, not from fear but excitement—about what might happen in their drunken state. He tipped back the Listerine bottle and gulped the Grey Goose like he’d seen teenagers chug beer in films. That night, as the vodka burned his throat, he learned how irresistible his winces could be.

Soon Donnie and Jack were wrestling each other to the floor, laughing, snorting, then reaching for each other. They hardly spoke again after that night.

***

Father Patrick responded with a kind embrace to twelve-year-old Jack’s confession of sinful thoughts about boys. But then the embrace gave way to frantic caresses—which Jack knew weren’t entirely innocuous. When Father Patrick’s hand crawled between Jack’s soft tummy and the elastics of his sweats, Jack kicked him in the shin and elbowed him in the beaked nose before running out of the church and swearing never to go back. And no, you are grossly mistaken if you thought Jack enjoyed Father Patrick’s spidery touch even for a second. Jack’s wicked thoughts were about what lay inside other boys’ briefs, not Father Patrick’s dark robe.

Roughly a decade later, the telephone became Jack’s next gateway to what some misguided souls call “that lifestyle.” Glued on a payphone at a rest stop in Ohio, a palm-sized ad promised a certain boyish beauty with bright white teeth. Jack’s first call lasted less than three minutes, a fact he would later figure out from the $4.97 charge on his credit card bill: $2.99 for the first minute, 99 cents per minute afterward—algebra hadn’t been so useless after all. The event was nothing spectacular: unsightly droplets stained his khakis before Huck the Farmhand completely “undressed” him.

Frequenting odd rest stops that bustled with life in the dead of the night, he had rushed encounters with wedding-ringed men, climbed into other truckers’ cabs, sat on a filthy toilet to take a chance on whoever would come into the next stall. Once he was eagerly groped by a bald man who, he would later see on the news, was a congressman from one of those large rectangular states in the middle. Another time, he barely escaped arrest when his truck pulled into the parking lot minutes after an undercover raid. Seeing men scatter from the restroom into the dark brought tears to his eyes; took him back to that day when, as a young boy, he helplessly watched a bully stomp on an ants’ nest.

Curiosity gave way to sporadic guilt, which then turned outward into childish disgust (the stench! the grime! yuck!) but never hatred—toward others or himself. It just wasn’t in his nature to dwell on things he couldn’t change. After each encounter he rubbed his hands with the sanitizer he kept in the glove compartment, and drove away, the echoes of the oldies station trailing behind his truck.

***

The inebriated affair with Donald Jr., it turned out, wasn’t an anomaly. Oh, Jack wasn’t queer or anything. He convinced himself he was just … “curious.” (Later in life he would come to flinch as he recalled using that cliché.)

Curious he was, and he grew more so with every chance affair until he discovered a public library a few blocks away from the boarding school. He’d sneak out for half an hour before dinner and prowl chat rooms. Between each hastily typed line he craned his neck above the carrel to make sure no one else from school was there.

“6’2″, 175lbs, brown eyes and dirty blond hair. 20, bi-curious, discreet, very athletic.” Jack’s online profile was accurate except for his age. And it made him sound like an Adonis. That wasn’t his word, actually. He’d once overheard it from a flaming redhead on the D.C. Metro on a night out with his rowing teammates: “Sure, everyone sounth like an Adonis online when they’re just numberth. That is why you have to ask for their picture!” His naive protégé: “But then don’t I have to give them mine, too? What if it’s my boss I’m chatting with?”

As they sashayed off the train at Dupont Circle, one of Jack’s friends coughed: “Phfags!” Jack joined his teammates in uproarious laughter that swirled inside his gut like shards of glass.

Not that it stopped Jack the curious from rowing to the other side of the Kinsey Scale. In chronological order: Donald Jr. the Freshman Roommate, James on Amtrak over Thanksgiving, GeorgeMasonU from the Internet, Travis(?), James number two, the go-go dancer from PowerBar, Uwe the exchange student, Edwin from the public pool, Dmitri the heartbreaker, Miguel the Nutcracker (ouch), Hector/Hortencia, dearie, who taught Jack how to camp it up like a true queen.

***

While picking out Christmas lights and a new Santa costume in one of those colossal shopping emporiums, Jack impulsively bought a desktop. The routine of dingy rest stops and the constant fear of arrest had wearied him. He had heard people talk about “going virtual,” and it seemed anything would be better than the real world as he knew it. Soon, however, he dioscovered hje just wasnm’t built for computrers. He typed, hunched obver the keyboasrd, withj his two imdex fingers, which were too large amd often hit m,ore than one key at a timne. Buit he got his points acvross.

***

Jack took a deep breath and decided not to feign shock when he heard that his parents were separating. Though they hadn’t seemed too unhappy, he had never seen them particularly happy with each other, either.

“Your father’s going down to Charleston to be with his brother,” his mother said on the phone. “And I’ll be here with your grandparents. I suppose you’ll be staying with us?”

“I don’t want to take sides,” Jack said, perhaps too eagerly, thrilled to be excused of his family’s stuffy Presbyterian suppers. He could hear her sipping something—mint julep? No, never after Labor Day. So it must have been bourbon on the rocks, the only other drink that touched her painted lips, and only under dire circumstances.

“That’s very mature of you,” she said, sounding equally relieved. “I’m proud you’re being more adult about this than your father.”

Jack’s father rang immediately after they hung up. “It’s over,” the patriarch slurred into the phone. “I heard.” “I’m going to have a damn good life without her.” His throat clogged

between words, reducing his baritone into quivery wisps of air. “A damn … good … life, you hear?”

Jack’s father had spent his adult life being cordial to strangers and gregarious with acquaintances, and spared his loved ones from his true feelings. Now, for the first time Jack could remember, his father was unfurling what lay inside his heart to him.

Jack had seen his father cry only once before. After his grandfather’s funeral their mansion was filled with throngs of people clad in black, whom Jack’s father received with his trademark bonhomie, as if he were being a good sport after losing a golf match, not his father. But in the wee hours of the morning after, as dazed Jack rose from bed and made his way to the bathroom, he caught his father sunk deep in the living room sofa, weeping openly as the host of an infomercial chattered on obliviously on the television set. Shocked and scared, ten-year-old Jack tip-toed back to his bed.

The same fear eclipsed Jack’s heart as his father gasped for air on the phone. Jack wanted to traverse the great distance between them and shawl his arms around his father’s sturdy shoulders. But there was only so much he knew how to say.

“Oh, Papa” was all Jack managed, though his own eyes had begun welling up.

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In the Winter Issue

“The one journal I read cover to cover as soon as it arrives—ZYZZYVA is that smart, that brilliantly curated …” —Junot Diaz

“Zyzzyva is a snouted beetle, as any dictionary kid knows. It’s a word that nearly can’t be played in Scrabble, on account of all the Z’s. But those are novelty uses. The real meaning is this superb literary journal, which has real meaning. If you want to learn the things that literature can do with language, read it.” —Ben Greenman

The newest issue of ZYZZYVA offers the same engaging mix of compelling writing and art you’ve come to expect—but with a twist. For the Winter issue, we offer a section of Noir stories (and one especially menacing and dark poem), set among the barrenness around Barstow to the suburbs of the Bay Area.

Here’s what’s inside:

Stories about finding some truth, and a true friend, in Hollywood (Ron Carlson), on a mother looking to rid herself of all her beliefs (Vanessa Veselka), on a family man adrift in his chilly small town (Earle McCartney), on a teen boy and his father, wounded in different ways (Jennifer duBois), and about two brothers on a long walk through the fields, death on their minds (Bruce McKay).

Verse from John W. Evans, Carolyn Miller, Marci Vogel, Elyse Fenton, CM Davidson, and Jane Wong.

Rick Barot’s essay on the particular power of Giorgio Morandi’s painting “Natura Morta,” and artist Wendy MacNaughton’s pen-and-ink history of a pier in San Francisco and the neighborhood that’s formed around it.

Noir from E.G. Willy (paranoia and gangbanging settles over the old neighborhood—in the suburbs), Dawna Kemper (a woman and a baby race into the desert night, but to what end?), Andy Stewart (a petty, envious music instructor is baffled by a charming, good-hearted peer in ways he couldn’t have anticipated), and Lucas Howell (bloody treachery befalls the coyote).

And introducing Chaney Kwak—and what might be the best Christmas story you’ve read in ages (complete with over-the-top holiday decorations, furtive roadside sex, and a precocious would-be hustler).

Get your four-issue subscription to ZYZZYVA now and start with the Winter issue. (Copies are limited.)

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