Issues Archives

Volume 30, #1, Spring 2014

ZYZZYVA Volume 30, #1, Spring 2014

Featured in our Spring issue: Fiction from Ron Carlson, Daniel Handler, Michelle Latiolais, Paul Madonna, Scott O’Connor, Erika Recordon, Elizabeth Tallent, and Héctor Tobar. Poetry from Dan Alter, Valerie Bandura, Noah Blaustein, Christopher Buckley, Robert Hass, Michelle Patton, Kay Ryan, and Austin Smith. Nonfiction from Katie Crouch, Jim Gavin, Glen David Gold, Jonathon Keats, Edie Meidav, Rebecca Solnit, and David L. Ulin. Art from Jane Fulton Alt and Bill Mattick.

‘Hold On’: 2015 Best American Short Stories Notable, Issue No. 100

The first thing I remember is the woman’s voice, amplified through the megaphone, calling my name. Castillo, Robert. I opened my eyes, but knew they were open only because I could feel my lids moving. There was no change in the darkness.

Cuarón, Eduardo. Daniels, Margaret. Daniels, Rachel. I couldn’t move.

Everything hurt. There was no light, not much air. But the names kept coming. Diaz, Rosalie. Eaglesham, Jessica. Faye, Renee. I started screaming, Help me, I’m under here!, but my voice went nowhere, it just died in the debris around my face. Hernandez, Adrian. Hull, Leticia. I screamed until I realized how stupid it was, using all the precious air. When I was finally quiet, I could hear her again.

Hold on, she said. We’re coming for you.

The names continued. But after every ten or so, she’d stop and say, Hold on, we’re coming, or, Don’t give up, we’re digging.

And they were. Once I stopped screaming, I could hear that, too. The sound of shovels and picks ringing in the rubble.

There were 146 names after mine, and when she got to the end of the list, she started again at the beginning.

***

There are about 5,600 pay phones left within the Los Angeles city limits. There are nine on the Santa Monica Pier, eighteen in and around the Convention Center downtown. TheVons supermarket in Echo Park has six. Dodger Stadium has eight, one of which is consistently in need of repair.

My department at the phone company was responsible for these units. We cleaned and serviced, collected the change from the coin boxes, and, as of the last few years, demolished a handful of underachievers every month, casualties of cellular progress.

The destruction was my least favorite part of the job. It felt like a kind of forced euthanasia. Eva always got upset when I made that comparison. She thought it was disrespectful to the elderly. But some of those phones were as old as senior citizens. They had put in a lifetime of service, day and night, weekends, holidays. Some of those phones had never failed until their lines were snipped and they were ripped from their sockets and tossed into the back of one of our trucks.

I always tried to leave them with their dignity. I’d clear away the cigarette butts and scrape off the hardened bubble gum, spray the faceplate and receiver with disinfectant one last time, and then, gently but firmly, cut the line.

***

“Are we losing our pay phone?”

“You are. I’m sorry.”

“Well, I can’t—I guess nobody really used it.”

“Two hundred dollars a month.”

“Excuse me?”

“It averaged about two hundred dollars a month. That’s 400 calls.”

“Really? I never saw a single… Then why are you taking it down?”

“Two hundred dollars barely pays for the dial tone. This unit used to do close to a thousand, and that was when it was a quarter a call.”

“Well, I’m sorry to see it go for some reason. Out with the old, in with the—Did you feel that?”

“Feel what?”

“That. Whoa. Did you feel that?”

***

I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to describe it to reporters and friends and strangers who stop me on the street. What’s it like?

For a while I just said that it was like being buried alive, which is true, and also, I thought, sort of funny. I hoped it would lighten the mood a little. People didn’t want light. They’d nod and look deep into my eye. I can’t imagine, they’d say. Women took my arm. Men set their hands on my shoulders. As if touching me would give them some kind of understanding. As if this was something I could pass on, something I could share.

What’s it like? the network newsmagazine reporter asked me, leaning forward in her chair. What’s. It. Like.

There was movement back in the darkness of the studio, a camera swiveling from the reporter’s face to mine. On one of the monitors I could see the shot: a slow zoom-in, a closeup on the eyepatch. I could feel everyone in the studio—the reporter, the cameramen, the producers back in the booth—waiting for the answer. Twenty-five million, someone had said during the last commercial break. Estimated viewers, leaning toward their TVs.

What’s it like?

“I can’t describe it,” I said, letting myself off the hook, letting twenty-five million people down simultaneously. “It’s indescribable.”

***

By the time the woman with the megaphone had gotten to Miller, Jessica, I’d started to calm down. I was on the list. They knew I was there. A few minutes before I’d walked into the building, I’d answered a call from my supervisor at the phone company, so he knew I was inside when it came down.

I lay there and waited. Whenever people talk about how brave I was, how heroic, I always want to say, I just lay there. Everyone else did all the work. But no one wants to hear that. They need to believe there was some great inner strength tapped, some proof of the resilience of the human spirit in its darkest hour.

But there wasn’t. I just lay there.

***

I was in the hospital for six weeks. I went through fourteen surgeries. I lost an eye, I gained a walking cane, though the doctors said I was young enough that the limp probably wouldn’t be so pronounced in a few years. I’m told that I displayed a tremendous amount of bravery in the way I handled this, too, but I don’t see it. What was I going to do, throw myself out the window? I was too doped up to get out of bed.

I spent most of the time in the hospital watching the news. They were still showing footage of the rescue: the cops and firefighters pulling me out, carrying the stretcher down the mountain of steel and cement; the huge work lights holding back the darkness; the workers and newspeople cheering and crying. That shot where, right before they load me into the ambulance, I raise my hand. I don’t know what I was doing. Feeling for my eye, probably. That same shot, over and over. Raising my hand. Everybody cheers. The triumph of the will.

They showed earlier scenes, too. The first shots of the collapsed building. The swarm of sirens and flashing lights. The rescue workers digging day and night. The mayor telling the cameras, This is no longer a rescue operation; this is a recovery operation.

Every so often there was a shot where you could see the woman with the megaphone, pacing at the foot of the rubble. You could hear her under the voiceovers of the newscasters and guest experts. It’s a wide shot, to get the full scope of the devastation, and she’s tiny in the frame. A black woman, middle-aged, heavyset, with a bit of a Southern drawl. You can hear it softening the corners of the names she’s saying. Pollack, Henry. Pullman, Sarah. Her back is to the camera. She never stops talking, never lowers the megaphone.

Hold on, she says. We’re coming for you.

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‘One Quarrel’: 2015 Best American Short Stories Notable, Issue No. 100

Though they had parted and now lived in different cities, he only remembered one quarrel of all the years and travels. They’d been through Europe together, of course, when they were young and she’d been sunburned in France and fond of the wine, the first she’d ever liked, a thick red wine from a vineyard twenty minutes from their campground above the beach, and she’d taken off her bikini top like everyone else and browned herself, and one day at the campground she’d quickly pulled him into the women’s shower room where they had to be very quiet in the big shower stall, but brown and soapy she had laughed and laughed and became known as the American woman who thought washing up was very funny. And they’d been to Tokyo, a city he remembered as a city of nights, the lights of the Ginza as they sat in the backs of taxis knowing not to kiss because their first cab driver had stopped and shaken a finger at them and said, Not in Japan. They said that every night in the hotels they found along the river in Scotland as she came into his arms or he came into her arms. Not in Japan. They’d lost luggage and he’d lost his wallet twice and found it again once; it was still on the roof of the cab at the taxi stand at the Gare du Nord on their second trip to Paris, a magical lump which saved that day. But they’d had years of staying home too, and three houses, each newer than the last but not as nice or made as well: a brick house, a block house, and then a frame house with stucco, which went to flinders in a Midwestern hour under an unnamed tornado, but all three had been great houses with their paintings on the walls and their bare feet padding in the kitchen, and they’d raised three children, two girls and then Charlie, all of it intense and permanent, the infinite schooldays and the impossibility of seven times eight and then the magical answer, and the sudden projects for school, the poster for Magellan and the maps, and then all the lessons, cello and horseback riding, and the injuries, no broken bones, but Dora burned at camp and the scar on her forearm, and Eleanor, two years as a spacey teenager, riding her bike into the back of a parked car, the dental work, and later the acrid season with her boyfriend Matt or Catt or Ratt and his tattoos and the night she showed them her tattoo, the Chinese characters, and they sat quietly looking at her thigh, neither asking, and finally their daughter Ellie looking up from the blue mark on her leg and saying, “Well dears, it will then be always a mystery until the next person sees it and when he does there’s going to be a party!” and she got on her hands and knees on the couch knowing that he and his wife could not even move and she crawled over and kissed them each. And then two years later she was right about the party as it accompanied her entire wedding, and it was Wesley, the groom, who told them that she’d told him about Ratt and that he had now seen the tattoo all right and he smiled and said: it’s the character for Patience, and Ellie says she chose it for you two.

And then the two of them walking around the last house, the only one that was ever empty late at night, carrying half a glass of wine and listening, putting pans away and magazines, and collecting the dropped towels and being able to hear the children sleeping: three, then two and then one and then Charlie at college and his internship in Richmond (their baby is a speechwriter!) and still with the same half glass of wine they circled the house looking for a shirt draped over a chair and crossing by each other with the ache of the empty house in their hearts and asking “Are you still up?” And he couldn’t remember a quarrel from any of it.

Later, living alone and coasting on the memories that substituted for sleep, he’d work his way back through the seasons of their life and he knew there wasn’t a time that someone stood angrily and left the table or slammed a door or any of it. He remembered tears in the car, but what were they ever about, some night driving around the lake coming home from a party and him crying or her, the reasons long lost. He remembered vividly her saying his name sharply as he parked the car one wheel over the curb when they’d raced back after their one tornado, but then as they stood on the littered lawn and looked at most of their house, torn open like junk mail, as if the brown wind had also been looking unsuccessfully for their children, their hands flew out separately like ridiculous magnet toys and found each other. There were shingles driven into the walls of the upstairs hallway which was now open to the world like something intended, the rosevine wallpaper finally right in the cloudy open air of day.

The quarrel he remembered was ancient, but he saw it as clearly as anything he’d known in the last week of his life now. It was the first year they’d begun to see each other. They were in college and had met in a small honors history class in which you could smoke it was so long ago, and a girl in the class always smoked her Salems and a shed into a tin Band-Aid box that she’d painted gold, and it was her performance of smoking that they both remembered as much as their project, an analysis of the New Deal and the political fallout from the Civilian Conservation Corps and how it became a fundamental step away from the farms, from agricultural America. The girl in their class always lit a cigarette before she spoke and she could handle and maneuver the cigarette and point with it and then look down and tap the ash during her remarks, and they both laughed about how unfair it was for her to have that advantage, and his wife said she was going to win that battle and open her fist while defending the Democrats and reveal a pair of her underpants. Later in class, she had done it and he saw it coming and still gasped until he saw it was a lace handkerchief with which she wiped the corner of her mouth and then smiled at him gloriously, his shocked open eyes, and that was actually the last beat in their terrific courtship and it led them to her bed that night after her roommate had gone up to campus for the underground film society which was showing “Woman in the Dunes.”

So they were involved, and everything good in his life doubled in a way that he knew was permanent, his schoolwork and his ability to leave her apartment at eleven or twelve at night and kick through the comically leaf-strewn streets like a movie set that fall up to the campus and across the soccer fields to the dorms in the cold wind and by the time he pushed through the oak door of his room, he knew what he would say in his paper about the poet Robert Browning or the poet Percy Shelley and he sat at his old manual typewriter close enough to the window to hear the ghost of the fall wind carrying the legions of leaves down from the mountain canyons and gathering them against the brittle fences of the residence hall tennis courts and he typed the nine-page paper through top to bottom and then at four a.m., he cruised the sleeping corridors of the dorm and finally out into the dark morning claiming the world in long strides the way love had claimed him.

It was in the middle of December when they quarreled. …

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‘To Bloom, to Burst, to Blaze’: 2015 Best American Essays Notable, Issue No. 100

I’m thinking about suicide. Not my own—not that. I know about the yawning vortex. Talk to me at three a.m. when I’m groping through the house, chased awake. I can see The Great Nothing in the blinking lights on the television; can hear it in the yowls of the coyotes in the neighbors’ fields. I can actually feel certain death, cold as the bathroom mirror while nearby, my family breathes on.

I’ve had the morning terrors since twenty-nine—a condition diagnosed by various doctors. It goes on whether I drink or don’t, whether I give up coffee or poach myself in caffeine, whether I get pricked with acupuncture needles or take medication. They all call it something different. Acute anxiety. Panic attacks. Whatever it is, I can’t fucking sleep.

Yet I’m the sort that comes back in the morning. If I can swing my legs to the floor, then: eggs. I’m talking about routine here. Death of friend, death of hope—death, period. Still when the day comes, this reason. Eggs.

What I’ve been thinking about are other people’s suicides. What it would be like in those final moments. How brave you’d have to be to pull the trigger or jump off the bridge. And what is the thinking? What final, delicate poems were running through Anne Sexton’s mind as she closed the garage door? What spectacular ramblings were spinning through Virginia Woolf as she waded out with that stone?

Sometimes I picture getting there just in time. We know about dreams, don’t we? We’re allowed to do everything right. I picture rowing to Virginia before her head goes under, or going ’round for a drink at Anne’s just as she’s getting into the car. Hey, what are you—? Don’t do that. Let’s go watch a movie or something. Or better, some eggs.

Sylvia Plath. 1932–1962. Poet-genius who died with her head in the oven. She’s the one I think about the most, really. After all, I, along with thousands of other bookish females with a tendency toward blue, have worshiped her every word since finding The Bell Jar in the school library at fifteen. Of course, TBJ’s only the starter drug. Every serious Plathy knows that. We go on to Ariel (the non-Ted version, of course), then muddle through The Colossus. Then, if we’re really serious, study the unabridged diaries.

Sylvia! we cry. Oh, there have been armies of us, knobby-elbowed girls poring over her tangled prose while aching away on our twin beds.

We are so alike!

I, too, have gone mad over a boy.

No, thirty boys!

I, too, worship those who pay me no mind!

“Tonight,” Sylvia Plath wrote in her diary in 1956, after drinking in

the same bar as Auden, “the unforgettable snatching of toothpicks and

olive pits from the tables of ambrosia Gods!”

Me, too, Sylvia! I totally would have done that!

But you betrayed us. You tore up the sequel to The Bell Jar, burned it in a rage. You destroyed another perfectly good book of stories about life at Cambridge, a book I would have loved. And then, you deprived us of a life of prose. You died, Sylvia. On purpose.

Or did you? You friend, aware of your despair, had hired a nurse the day before to help with the children. A professional, nurturing woman who was due to come the next morning. There are theories that perhaps you wanted to be saved, as you asked the neighbor to check on you hours before the deed and left a note saying to call your doctor.2 What if that nurse had come early? Even an hour might have made a difference, some sources say. So during my “blue hours,” as you called them, I picture showing up to Fitzroy Street. Kicking that door open, slamming open the windows. Wake up, Sylvia! Come on. Breathe. An intervention, during a gray morning eleven years before I was born.

 

Can I talk to you, Sylvia? Really talk to you? Why not, right? What are you going to say? No? There’s something I’m not telling you, Sylvia. Lots of things, but I don’t want to overshare. Do you know the critics, the ones who rejected and sneered at you, praise you now as a pioneer of female sharing? Accidental or not, you became the colossus. First it was your story, then your voice, then your role in literature. You’re an entire genre. The first female confessor.

Though honestly, that title might not be so terrific. These days we’ve got females overconfessing all over the place. If I see Lena Dunham’s butt one more time, I’m cutting off my cable. And the theory is you did it first. Taught us how to share without being disgusting. I hope I’m not disgusting. I’m just talking to you.

All right, so. This really started when I was twenty-six. The same age you were when you married Ted. I had just moved to San Francisco. I often wonder what would have happened if you had come here. If instead of getting all academic and Fulbright about it, you’d just gone Kerouac and hit the road. You’d probably be alive and not famous. Maybe you’d live on my street, still alive, and writing in the remote Northern California town I’ve chased myself into.

But that’s not what happened to you. That’s what happened to me. San Francisco. I had no reason except this thing called the Internet boom. The whole country seemed to tip west. I put a plane ticket on my credit card. I wasn’t certain what I was going to do, as I had no skills and nothing to offer but an expensive college degree. I know Smith got you places, New York and Cambridge and all that. But it’s come to mean less, college. The smartest ones don’t even go now. They start companies at nineteen and become billionaires and buy fancy bowling alleys. I don’t want to generalize, but unless you come in the form of a Sylvia Plath app, these tech kids probably don’t care much about you.

But back then. 1999! We were somewhere in the middle of David Foster Wallace and the new Star Wars. I had a window seat, and as we were landing I pressed my forehead against the glass. The city was iced with pink and blue, but mostly it was the color of the communion wafers the reverend back home placed on our tongues.

No one writes like you about being a lost girl in the city, Sylvia. Those scenes in The Bell Jar, where you were lonely and sick in Manhattan and not sure what to wear or how to act, those are never to be surpassed. So I’ll just give you the broad strokes. Temping at a pet food company. Drinking all night, falling asleep on a camping mattress in a friend’s closet. Awake at seven, rising with the energy of a Dionysian nymph. I didn’t know it then, but those nights of sleep, they were true miracles.

I got a job. Actually, I had three jobs in one year, one more lucrative than the next. 1999. It would make you dizzy, how much money there was. These places we worked, they were palaces of waste. Mountains of bagels in the morning, espresso machines, video arcades, ergonomic foot warmers. The place I finally landed, an advertising agency, welcomed me to their “family.” I had no experience in advertising, but this didn’t matter. They liked my vibe, and paid me $65,000 a year to write about a supply chain. I still don’t know what that is.

You only lived to be thirty. But getting older is actually not so awful. One of the good things, for instance, is the growing ability to make sense of the past. What I see now at forty is just how easy it was, with no purpose other than feeling good and making money, to become unequivocally lost. My job was particularly abstract, as we were not even the company creating nothing, but the company talking about nothing. The agency asked very little of me in actual work, though my soul, it claimed. Every Monday we were to share our “hopes for ourselves” in a “supportive environment.” Hugs were encouraged. There was almost always crying involved. I was twenty-six and I took a bath in the Kool-Aid. At the time I had nothing else better in which to believe.

I met many people in 1999. These were not the heady, fascinating poets you surrounded yourself with in your twenties, Sylvia. These were easy men and women, East Coast transplants. Do I want a beer, they’d muse, or a cocktail? We did not see San Francisco as real life. There was always a party, a new way of mingling with the same people, be it an event with a theme of a decade we had missed, or a dinner party with different courses at different people’s houses, or a trip to a warehouse pulsing with trance. In your time some of the parties might have been called Happenings, but they were not even as cerebral as that. I remember emerging occasionally and getting cynical about the emptiness of it. Still, I was young, and confident this would eventually change.

It did. I made a friend. A real friend. And if time is a sieve, he is one pebble from that era still left to me, other than some photos and a pair of white boots I have always, even now, been too scared to wear.

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‘Mendocino Fire’: 2015 Best American Short Stories Notable, Issue No. 100

One time in the library in town, a boy has a rat inside his T-Shirt. Its head pokes out under the boy’s chin, its claw-y hands clinging and whiskers quicked forward. It is as if Finn has never wanted anything before: this, this is her destiny, to be a girl with a rat inside her shirt. Wherever she goes the rat will hang on, the alert small subject of her gigantic solicitude. How long do you think a rat will last in the woods against foxes and ravens and owls and hawks? But if she was very careful and kept it in a cage and was very careful. Do you think a rat wants to be your little prisoner, or do you think a rat wants to be free like you are?

 

Nights when the fog holds off they lean around the illicit summer fire, smoking and telling stories and feeding twigs to the fire for the love of seeing small things burn, story after story and there is Finn, almost five, riding the high end of a tilted redwood log in the dark. Mary, too, tells stories. Whenever Mary tells how Finn was born, Finn feels both beloved and ashamed, her helpless, ridiculous baby-self held up for them to dote on. That story ends with Mary crying in ever-fresh astonishment: Finn, you were so beautiful! Finn works her arms from too-long sleeves and pulls her knees to her chest under the sloppy tent of Goodwill sweater smelling of the grown man who gave it away. Who smoked. Who was not her father because she’s asked and Mary shook her head. The baggy sweater hem covers the boots so only their toes show, and she evens the boot toes so neither is ahead, neither is winning, not the left, not the right—old black boot toes in a setting of moss and fingerlength ferns and upthrust mushrooms whose caps are pale, pushy, tender, mute. A boot toe edges into the crowd of mushrooms. One is uprooted and maimed by the slow back-and-forthing of the toe of the boot. Then she is sorry. Finn closes her eyes and fills up with sorriness.

That is killing, Finn.

For a while she is absorbed in accusing herself, then blame loses its electrical charge, and if she wants that absorption again another mushroom will have to die. Boredom nudges her boot toe close to another cocky little button of rooted aliveness.

What is that like? Not to be able to move out of the way?

 

Another night, that summer or the summer after. If firelight flashes high enough there’s laughter because first it’s a freaking face up there in the dark, then it’s a little kid. Now and then Finn has come down when coaxed, and that was a mistake. They may not mean it that way, but their solicitude is an oblique condemnation of Mary. Finn holds that against them even if her mother doesn’t.

Aren’t you cold in just that sweater and your poor legs bare? And Jesus look how scratched up.

How long since you seen chocolate? I think I got some somewhere.

My little girl is your age just about and she can say her ABCs. Can you say your ABCs?

In this full-moon circle there’s a stranger, though the grown-ups don’t at first know that, each person assuming the lean bearded dude with the hostile vibe arrived with someone else. Afterward no one will own up to having told him about the circle, but that could have been from shame at showing the kind of piss-poor judgment that fucks up everyone’s night.

Finn, who can go a long while unseen, has been found out: he has noticed her. He has called, “What’s your name?” and gotten no answer. The wiry dark shrub of his beard parts again, the teeth asking, “What’s your name?” Finn’s hesitation lasts long enough to offend him down there in his bared-nerve world and he shouts, “Don’t answer then you autistic little shit, not like I give a fuck.” Finn is being, for the first time, hated: her nerves memorize the shock. And him: she memorizes him, this shirtless shaven-headed hater, brows heavy and meaningful in contrast to the round gleaming exposure of his forehead, and, inked on the left upper slab of his chest, a tattoo, a spiral as big as her handprint would be if she left a handprint on his bare, slightly sweating, hard-breathing chest.

“Hey,” someone, not Mary, commands gently. “Hey come on now. Hey.”

Another voice says, “Way disproportionate, man, going off on a kid like that. Pretty fucked up.”

Someone else says, “Look, she never answers.” Adding, “But it’s not autism.”

Someone says, “Maybe, man, you should apologize to Finn.”

He says, “Finn.”

Mary, at last: “You know her name.”

“Finn,” he calls up to her. “Finn, man, I’m sorry, I lost it.”

The others wait for an utterance equal to the scale of his offense. He, too, for reasons of his own, seems to want to say more. He calls, “You not telling me your name, it just hurt my feelings. I lost it.”

At this skewed sincerity they laugh, and he sits down and leans in to accept the joint, and everyone in the mended, redeemed circle relaxes. Finn is almost asleep when she hears his voice again: “You know what I saw on TV last night? This bear. This polar bear. It teeters on this little dwindling raft of ice and it can’t fucking stay where it is and it can’t fucking go because there’s no other ice in sight. It’s swimming and swimming, this small, like a dog, polar bear head in a world of water, forever and ever water, this bear swimming hard against the drag of its long fur with nowhere to swim to, nothing to climb out onto, ice gone, ice melted, and it’s despair, what he feels, what we feel, that is despair and we all know it. You think Mendocino is different, your safe hole to hide in? Well wake the fuck up, they’re coming for the last little scraps. Who stops them? Us? Have we stopped them from fucking over the fucking planet? Let me tell you their ideology. Want me to tell you their ideology? Take take take take take take take. Kill kill kill kill kill kill kill.” When he says “kill” they hear not only fucked up and pissed off, there’s a personal element, some provocation an ordinary person could tolerate, which he, being crazy, can’t bear. “What’s coming should fucking terrify us. Tell me this. Why aren’t we fucking terrified? Why don’t we do a fucking thing?” He gets to his feet, he wants to find her, to talk to her. “Now it all falls on children.” He tilts his face up but the fire has died down and she doubts he can make her out against the darkness. He says, “She’s gonna see—,” and means her. He’s forgotten her name.

He says, “She’s gonna live to see—”

He’s forgotten the end of the sentence.

With soft concern, the kind that doesn’t presume to insist, someone drawls, “Come on, man, sit down, why don’t you sit down”—and other voices, fastidiously soft, tug at him. “Come on, it’s all right, sit back down, good, that’s good, don’t cry, it’s a beautiful night, you’re among friends, there’s the moon.”

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Green Shirt: ZYZZYVA No. 100

ZYZZYVA Issue 100I always wear my crappiest clothes to fly. It’s been my habit for a long time, so long I don’t remember, dating back two decades, quarter of a century. My uniform: well-worn cargoes, brown or khaki, fabric so thin it feels like a bed sheet, soft, threadbare. Old promotional T-shirts, advertising books too ancient, even, to be remaindered; my current favorite highlights an early 1990s exegesis of the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade. Button-downs frayed at cuffs and collar, not unlike the ones I wore in high school, although the point then was a certain shabby chic. Such affectations, it should go without saying, no longer compel me, not when I fly or any other time. And yet, perhaps, I am looking for a through line, a link to my younger self, a consistency by which to neutralize my fear.

Fear? I’d be lying if I said it’s not a factor, although this is equally about comfort, since these are the clothes I wear around the house. I am happiest in loose clothes, old, baggy, shapeless, clothes in which I can forget myself. This is a key conflict with flying, as on a plane I never lose touch with my physical existence, my desperation to remain alive. Does that sound overstated? Desperation is a strong emotion, and mostly when I’m in the air, I’m lost in a book, avoiding conversation with my seatmate, trying to crawl outside time a little, to get it over with. Still, I hate to fly—or no, don’t hate it any longer, although I’ll never like it, never feel comfortable strapped into a narrow chair in a long tube full of strangers, shot across the sky like a bullet, all of us aware that we may die. “People are polite on airplanes,” observes Don DeLillo in his play The Day Room. “There’s a whole thrilling layer of politeness, especially in the last few seconds before takeoff, on a transoceanic flight, at sunset, with a crew of sixteen, twenty-four. … Going down the runway, everyone belted in, assigned letters and numbers. The landscape hurtling past, the temperature regulated …We sense the presence of death.”

Here we have the reason flying stirs us, as if we were in a church or synagogue, or any other place where we sit in rows and confront the bitter half-life of our evanescence, pray that we don’t disappear. It’s why air travel used to come attended with such solemnity, why we used to treat it as an occasion of a kind. The first flight I remember—late summer 1967, New York to Los Angeles on an American Airlines 707, movie (Twiggy in The Boy Friend, I want to tell you, although it didn’t come out until four years later) unspooling in sixteen millimeter jags and stutters as the plane traversed the clouds—I wore a tie and blue Brooks Brothers blazer; my mother dressed in pearls and heels. I was six, but even at this age, flying left me edgy: excited, certainly, imagining that we were in a rocket, marveling that the sky could be so static, as if we weren’t moving through it, yet at the same time more than a little unmoored. It was as if some fundamental connection had been severed, and now that we had managed to get up, there was no clear passage for us to come down. The ten-minute rule, I’d later come to understand, since the real danger of flying occurs in the first ten minutes and the last ten minutes, ascent and descent, as we leave the planet and again as we return. There’s a message in all this somewhere, a signifier of release and control. “Be at ‘Full Alert’ During the Critical Periods,” a website called How to Survive a Plane Crash admonishes, but what interests me more is how I might move away from such alertness, how I might, in other words, be reassured.

At six, I already had a full-blown fear of death. My earliest encounter: four years old, in the living room of our small Central Park West apartment, telling my father I envied G.I. Joe because he didn’t have to die. My father was twenty-nine, and not particularly equipped for such a conversation; a decade later, in a different apartment on the other side of the park, he would tell me we were born to be part of the food chain when I asked him, in a fit of adolescent existential torment, what was the purpose of life. On Central Park West, he managed to be softer, either because I was younger or because he himself was not completely formed. Yes, he told me, but then you wouldn’t know the joy of living—a platitude, to be sure, but not untrue, and especially striking given that the joy of living has never been a pleasure he’s embraced. It was two years after that, in our Galaxie 500, driving through an alley in Long Beach, California (where my father had a one-year fellowship; hence, the cross-country flights to visit grandparents, to spend the holidays, to maintain close contact with Manhattan, the glimmering endpoint of my parents’ American Dream), when I had my first experience of (let’s call it) death dread, that pit-of-the stomach panic, like a case of vertigo, when you realize there is no way out. The moment remains as articulated as a film clip, the four of us en route to my father’s cousin’s in the Valley, me leaning over from the back seat, my brother in the corner next to me, playing with a plastic dinosaur, olive green. Even if you could get out of dying, I remember saying, you wouldn’t want to live forever … and then the bottom dropped out of my guts and I was uprooted, without gravity, as if I were in a plane falling from the sky. It wasn’t that one option was impossible and the other inevitable, it was that both were unacceptable, unimaginable, each the inverse of itself. As Philip Roth laments: “The ceaseless perishing. … What an idea! What maniac conceived it?” He’s right, of course, but the real horror is that, even if there were an alternative, it would be just as bad.

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Hacks: ZYZZYVA No. 100

ZYZZYVA Issue 100The summer after I graduated from college, I told a bartender that I wanted to be a sportswriter. The bartender claimed to know a sports editor at our local paper, one of the biggest dailies in Southern California. “The dude gets wasted in here all the time,” he said. “I’ll give him your resume.”

A young man is lucky to have these kinds of connections. At the time, I had several paying gigs which, together, nearly amounted to a job. I spent my days coaching at a basketball camp, my nights shelving paperback thrillers at a used bookstore, and on weekends I picked up shifts at the gas station where I had worked throughout high school and college. So I waited on the bartender. It’s worth mentioning that he didn’t work at a cool and seedy bar on the edge of town. He was a bartender at Islands. In any case, he came through. Two weeks after we talked, I got hired as a stringer to cover prep sports. The drunk who passed along my resume got canned just before I arrived, so I never had a chance to thank him for launching my career in journalism.

Before my first assignment—a high school football game in Anaheim between two last place teams—I was approached by one of the senior writers, Walt Brady, who had been covering local prep sports for over two decades. As I would learn, Walt fulfilled every stereotype of the sports desk hack. He was a forty-eight-year-old bachelor with a greasy comb-over. He drove a four-cylinder hatchback and his desk was littered with coffee stained legal pads and toothpicks from club sandwiches.

“Do you know how to do agate?” he asked.

“What’s agate?” I said.

Agate, I learned, simply meant the box scores. That night Walt taught me how to score a high school football game. He pulled up an extra chair to his desk and I sat down next to him. I became instantly familiar with his stench, a sour mixture of sweat and nicotine emanating from the plaid shirt that hung loose off his stooped frame. He talked quickly, in ominous tones, as if imparting some ancient and terrible wisdom, an alchemical formula that would transform my naïve understanding of the world. “In this column, you keep track of rushing yards.”

Nervous, I hung on his every word, and all his pointers would end up being extremely helpful on my first night. He was the only senior writer who bothered to explain howthings worked and what I could expect when I arrived at the game. It was obvious that over the years he had given his agate spiel to dozens, if not hundreds, of stringers. Before I left the office, he advised me to interview as many players as possible.

“They love seeing their name in the paper,” he said. “They’ll cut out your article and keep it the rest of their life.”

Throughout the fall, I spent my Friday nights doing postgame interviews with neckless seventeen-year-olds. “I don’t know what to say,” said one quarterback, pimply and nervous. “I threw it and he caught it.” I loved telling people that I was a sportswriter. It didn’t matter that I was making forty dollars per story and living in my parents’ garage.

After a few months, I became a full-time news assistant, and quit all my other gigs. This was 1998, a million years ago. The sports desk was still arranged in classic horseshoe fashion, copy editors on the rim, copy chief in the slot. All the young news assistants sat off to the side, typing agate and game summaries into an atex mainframe terminal, with its ominous black screen and baroque command functions. Editors handed me proofs and I sent them down to the basement printers via pneumatic tube. I can still hear the “whoosh.”

During the evening lull, I wandered around the sports desk, hoping to bump into the front page columnists. These were the august men I wanted to learn from and emulate, but they were rarely in the office. Instead, they got to fly around the country, covering the Dodgers and Lakers and writing long features about whatever they wanted. One columnist, Scott Gilroy, was in his late twenties. He had a full head of hair and dressed in a rugged and stylish fashion—jeans, boots, corduroy blazer. In the little headshot that appeared next to his byline every week, he exuded an air of hip nonchalance, as if he had arrived on the front page not through effort, but through the irresistible force of his charm and talent. Someday, I imagined, I would be that guy, but in the meantime I was forced to hang out with the ghouls on the copydesk.

They yelled at me to clean up my copy and write better ledes, but mainly they just wanted to get my stories on time so they could slot them and move on to more important things. “Just hit your fucking deadline,” said one guy. “That’s all we care about.” As professionals, the copy editors upheld strict grammatical standards and displayed in their headlines a seemingly inexhaustible genius for pun and alliteration. Suns Scorch Lakers. But as men, they were greedy, flatulent, and depraved. They subsisted on beef jerky and Mountain Dew and they gambled on everything. Through the night, as scores came in from across the country, they’d scream at the television, exhorting underdogs to cover the spread. One night a rim editor looked up from the newswire and pumped his fist.

“Yes!” he cried out, and everyone looked at him.

“What is it?” someone asked.

“Mel Torme just died!”

“So?”

“I had him in my dead pool,” he said. “I just made two hundred bucks!”

Order a copy of ZYZZYVA Issue No. 100 here.

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Normal Problems: ZYZZYVA No. 100

mailFor a long time, the town killer didn’t kill. It touched you to see him try so hard. After all, it was you he was doing it for. You could tell he missed it, deep down. But he hung in there, as best he could, right up until the very end.

“I could love a reformed killer,” you told him on your third date. “But not one that’s actively practicing.” You were sitting on the back patio of the vegan restaurant he’d suggested. The air outside was springy and cool. Twinkle lights had been lovingly strung through an olive tree that grew in the center of the courtyard and branched out above you.

The evening, just like the first two you’d spent together, had been nearly perfect. The killer was well mannered, thoughtful, and fun to be with. It had been years since you’d had a really good date. And here were three. Right in a row. Perfect up until the moment when he told you what he did for a living.

Now when the killer reached across the table for your hand you yanked it back automatically. “I’m sorry,” he said, slumping down. “I should have told you sooner, but it’s not an easy conversation to initiate.” He stared at his plate where all that was left of the vegetable tagine he’d ordered was a steaming lump of kale. “I just like you so much.”

“Look,” you said, softening. “I like you too. A lot. But you have to quit killing if we’re going to see each other again.”

“I want to.” A weak smile lifted on his face. “But I’m really good at it.”

It was true. Seven years of killing in the same mid-sized college town and the man had never been caught or even brought in for questioning. On the drive to the restaurant on your first date, he’d bragged that he’d never gotten so much as a speeding ticket. He obviously had a weird sort of gift. Of course, the fact that he was handsome probably didn’t hurt. The killer had beautifully behaved hair, a real movie star jaw, and eyes that said trust me. This wasn’t a guy who would have had to do much convincing when it came to getting girls in his car. They probably flagged him down from the roadside. They probably begged him to let them in.

A dreadlocked waitress came and cleared your plates. You shrugged and dragged a shaky finger around the rim of your wine glass. “Everyone has their line in the sand,” you said. “I guess this is mine.”

The killer nodded solemnly. Then the waitress came back with the check and stood there blinking like a lighthouse until the killer handed her a credit card.

You left the restaurant that night feeling depressed. The first three dates had been so promising and though it was still new, the weight of this loss felt disproportionately large when measured against all your other failed romances. It was hard to meet a nice guy, you reasoned. And you had been lonely for so long. You hadn’t been lying when you’d said it. You did like him.

You didn’t expect to see the killer again after that, but apparently he’d been lonely too, because the next night he turned up at your front door, holding a gun.

“Are you going to kill me?” you asked.

“What?” he said, confused. You stared at the gun he was pointing at you. “Oh!” he said, realizing. “Noooo.” He laughed his big handsome guy laugh. The killer took your hand, and lay the gun downon it as though onto a silver tray. “I’m turning this in to you,” he said. The gesture felt so large, you half expected him to kneel down in front of you. The gun was cold and heavy atop your outstretched palm. Your wrist shook a little underneath it. “No more killing,” the killer said. He crossed his heart boy-scout style and kissed you deeply. That kiss! It was like finding a secret window in your childhood home. It felt new and old at the same time.

The gun was just a symbol of his promise, of course. The next day the killer brought over a whole bag of stuff—seven kinds of knives, climbing rope, crowbars, and a carton of Marlboro Reds.

You held up the box of cigarettes. “You smoke?”

“Not anymore,” he said, pulling you close. When he kissed you for the second time, you noticed that his breath was full of a clean, minty kind of hope.

 

The first time you made love to the killer you were surprised. He didn’t slap you or try to choke you out or even pull your hair. In fact, he was downright gentle. When he came, the dark pupils of his eyes widened and dampened with so much emotion you had to look away.

“It wasn’t what I was expecting,” you confided to him after. You were lying in bed, naked.

Your killer laughed and kissed the top of your head. “That’s what I do,” he said. “Not who I am.”

“Not anymore,” you corrected him.

“That’s right,” he said, spooning you. “Not anymore.” You lay that way for a long time, curled into each other like two organs, while the moon crawled quietly up your bedspread. You fell asleep and dreamed you were wading into an ocean of spaghetti.

In addition to being a killer, the killer also turned out to be a gourmet cook and a strict vegetarian. He made you elaborately healthy meals every night—ricotta-stuffed squash blossoms with an heirloom bean cassoulet, spiced quinoa timbales on a bed of braised greens. You lost weight on this new diet and your chin acne finally cleared up. If you were always a little hungry, it didn’t matter. You felt like a Halloween pumpkin, scooped clean and lit up from the inside.

One night, over a brown rice stir fry, the killer told you of his plans to build a pair of raised beds in your backyard. “I want to plant an organic vegetable garden out there,” he said. “So we can eat the food we grow.”

The killer was like this. Unafraid of the future. He said the words “we will” at least once a day.You had been with other kinds of men before. The kind who tell you that your eyes are like two pictures of Alaska but when you say let’s go to Paris next summer, all they can say is, “You should!”

No one had ever offered to build you a garden before. “That sounds nice,” you said, smiling into your rice bowl.

Three weeks later, the killer moved in.

 

Order ZYZZYVA No. 100 ($14) here.

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The Dead Ones

ZYZZYVA Issue 100You came to say goodbye to her because she was your mentor. Years earlier she had given you something precious, and precious things need their recognition. Instead you sit in her kitchen with its flat Californian light washing in while her husband’s energy pulses most talk out the window. He sidles from around the counter to be with the two of you. How often he has stood beside her talent, you wonder, the way each mate in a partnership does, helping to uphold the myth, her husband a mystery now uncloaked. You recall those moments in her work in which lady characters enjoy their satisfying flirtations: a Mexican shop clerk, a gas station owner. The lipstick applied before she went out. The local gas station owner, an appreciator of Portuguese wine, in vivo, has told you of his appreciation of her, whether it was for that quick intelligence or those miniskirts that managed to survive the sixties in Berkeley along with her Jackie O. hair. A legacy of beauty: by chance you realize, hearing the husband’s name, that years ago you took classes with her daughter, long ago, dancing for the first time and all of you at that pubescent cusp.

The daughter with her long flowing hair had seemed to occupy a calmer moment, a different century. One couldn’t forget such calm. While the husband, father of that flowing-haired girl, mate to that wry mentor, is unforgettable from the other end of the spectrum, small with restless eyes, standing while performing an intake of the vitals, manic at the apparition of you, the former student. He has heard much of you, he says, she passed you the baton, right? While talking, he peels and eats in quick succession three hard-boiled eggs.

The eggs matter. He needs the fuel, being a doctor heading to see clients. They will talk to him about their problems in neat forty-five minute segments. Or is it fifty? For each of those segments his ears will remain, in theory, open while his mouth closed, hiding the impatience he stuffs down with those eggs.

He’s a psychiatrist, she tells you, or maybe a psychologist? A psychoanalyst! She lands on the right profession and is triumphant. The flag plants on accuracy.

In other words, her memory is failing. It had failed, it would fail more. What had been charming ellipses and cutoffs in her prose style now are permanently imbricated in her psyche.

She has forgotten much, a wave of her hand says, but the dry humor remains intact. She takes you to a dusty backroom, she the beautiful teacher, her legs stockinged filaments leading you to a library squeezed in between other domestic needs. My study, she says, and in that spot she has something to tell you, something about horror and loss, what she keeps calling her own good-bye party. As she tells you about it, you hear how much she lives in an echo chamber of recall, and how deeply each echo pierces her anew.

 *

Call mentorship a form of death in life. Why? Because our mentors show us that we must feel the quicksilver shooting through our veins. This is the one life we have! Make use of it.

In a neat back-to-back, two dominoes facing out, you can also say death stays our ultimate mentorship. Then the question remains: must we carry the hearts of everyone until our heart, like a ship crowded with the memory of those who have left, eventually also sinks like they all did? Or could memory itself act as a buoy?

There is a black chair with the impress of his body still upon it. As he faded, he liked to sit there while a party took place. The music played louder while he became more of a phantom, inhabiting his skin and bones as if all the better to shrink from them. Occasionally, indignities overcame. With a helper, he had to excuse himself until eventually he excused himself altogether from the greatest indignity, which is living when you can no longer move. Otherwise the chair still sits there: same creased worn spot where the wrist lay, same grease on the reading-lamp’s swivel-switch, same poetry books he favored, the translations on the facing pages, helpful unlike the music of all those parties. Now all of it explains nothing, as phantom as his body, the memory alone speaking in dream-tongue, polyglot but inscrutable.

Order a copy of Issue No. 100 here.

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Labor Poem No. 10, Emilio Fonseca Construction I

The flagstones or stepping stones, one mushy tire.
The house. The loaded wheelbarrow, you almost
have to. If you slow, the flagstones, the dirt
path. The slope on which, the slopping concrete.
Or it pushes you. To run, handles, and strain.
The house sits. To get momentum, you almost.
Two wood handles, one mushy tire, the stepping
stones over the dirt. The slopping, the stately
stucco house that pays. Or it pushes you
back down. The wheelbarrow loaded with wet,
the two wood. Almost have to run. The dirt
path, the slope on which, the flagstones or stepping
stones. To get momentum. One mushy, two
wood, the slopping. The house that pays. And strain.

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In the Spring & Summer Issue

In our newest issue, we gather contributors past and recent:

Rebecca Solnit’s “Grandmother Spider”: A meditation on the paintings of Ana Teresa Fernandez and the ways women are made to disappear from history.

Daniel Handler’s “I Hate You”: The story of a souring young man at a birthday dinner with old friends in Oakland. (The party is over.)

Elizabeth Tallent’s “Mendocino Fire”: The peripatetic life of a young female tree-sitter, raised, and perhaps forsaken, in the wilds of the forest.

Katie Crouch’s “To Bloom, to Burst, to Blaze”: An essay on Sylvia Plath, and a haunting failure of friendship set in the days of the first dot-com boom in San Francisco.

Erika Recordon’s “Normal Problems”: The tale of an otherwise perfect mate turning over a new leaf for his love … no more murdering women.

Glen David Gold’s “The Plush Cocoon”: In which the best-selling novelist recounts a short-lived childhood in a beautiful house full of amazing objects, and a dark past his young mother tries to keep at bay.

Also, fiction from Héctor Tobar (falling asleep is the hardest thing for a successful Mexican contractor in Los Angeles), Ron Carlson, Michelle Latiolais, Scott O’Connor, and artist Paul Madonna. Nonfiction from Jim Gavin (on the education of a high school sports stringer), David L. Ulin (why magical thinking gets us through plane flights, if not life), Edie Meidav (“What is the story of death? The first is that death creates stories.”).

And new poetry from two former U.S. poet laureates and early ZYZZYVA contributors—Kay Ryan and Robert Hass—as well as from Dan Alter, Valerie Bandura, Noah Blaustein, Christopher Buckley, Michelle Patton, and Austin Smith. Blueprints from artist and author Jonathon Keats on how to mechanically slow down time for entire cities, and incredible photographs of California on fire and in drought by Jane Fulton Alt and Bill Mattick.

You can get a copy of No. 100 here, or order a subscription to ZYZZYVA and we’ll start you off by shipping you the 100th issue.

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