Issues Archives

Volume 30, #2, Fall 2014

ZYZZYVA Volume 30, #2, Fall 2014

Featured in our Fall issue: Fiction from Soma Mei Sheng Frazier, Emily Fridlund, Earle McCartney, Ricardo Nuila, Peter Rock, Elena Mauli Shapiro, Matt Sumell, and Vauhini Vara. Poetry from Kelly Cressio-Moeller, Joseph Di Prisco, Jeff Ewing, John Freeman, Casey Fuller, Troy Jollimore, Genevieve Kaplan, Alyse Knorr, Simone Muench, Dean Rader, Katie Peterson, and Charles Harper Webb. Nonfiction from Jim Krusoe and Jill Logan. Art from Ana Teresa Fernandez and Shaena Mallett.

‘Traffic’: 2015 Best American Essays Notable, Issue No. 101

I can’t remember exactly how old I was—I’m guessing eight or nine—when I first learned that my father had killed a child. The actual event, if I can call it that, took place before I was born, I think, but I can’t be absolutely sure. In any case, it wasn’t until I was in primary school that my mother mentioned it, almost in passing. After that, when it came up now and again, it was never as a shameful thing or a crime, but always as an example of the unfairness of the world: a parable about traffic safety and greedy parents. The boy, the story went, had been lurking behind a parked automobile and, just as my father was driving home from work, dashed out in pursuit of a rubber ball with such little regard for his own life that my poor father never had a chance to stop. This would have been before, or maybe during the Second World War, and somehow that came into it as well.

The child died, though I was never told the details, only that afterward his parents had the temerity to take my father to court—criminal or civil, I’m not sure which. In the end, my father was found not guilty because of his car’s skid marks that, I was told, showed he could not possibly have stopped in time. Or maybe they showed he had not been traveling that fast in the first place. In any case, it was the skid marks, along with a good lawyer, that kept him out of jail, and clearly, this child’s parents had been monsters for thinking that a man as nice and as good as my father was would somehow strike their child on purpose.

And so it happened—although I certainly never connected these two things—that shortly after I first heard this story I started running out into traffic. Not traffic, exactly, but in front of single cars, like a bullfighter dodging a bull, on a narrow highway near my house. I would hide behind a bush, and then, when it was too late for the driver to hit the brakes, jump out and run straight across the road, as close to the car as I possibly could. Sometimes I did it alone, but usually with a friend who could watch and describe the expressions on the panicked drivers’ faces, because I was too busy trying not to be hit. If I were hit, though, the knowledge that it would be their fault was a powerful attraction. And so, over the space of about a month, one summer I got into the habit of doing this two or three times a week, until one driver, after an especially close call, turned his car around, pulled up and yelled at us, at me. He was red-faced and trembling and furious, his eyes nearly popping out of his head, and I was scared to see anyone so angry; I quit then and there.

But there is one more piece of information to this story, one other fact I’m not quite certain about, but which I almost completely believe is true, one that nobody ever spoke of. Namely, back when I was a child, there were a lot of places people called “neighborhood bars,” where men would stop after work to have a couple of shots, down a few beers, and talk. The places were—to use a curiously modern word—spots for them to network: to hear of jobs, of cars for sale, of houses for rent, or just to talk about current events and share complaints. By those standards, my father was a good networker. I don’t think I can ever remember him coming straight home from work without the smell of whiskey on his breath, and there were countless nights I remember my mother complaining as the supper she’d prepared was left out cold, waiting for his return until nine or ten o’clock.

In other words, my father was an alcoholic, although in those days the only way I ever heard the word applied was to men like my Uncle Louie, who, my father said, “couldn’t handle the booze.” Which was probably true enough, because after Louie joined Alcoholics Anonymous he used the meetings to build a network of his own. Louie networked himself into such a career as to leave the rest of our family standing open-mouthed in awe. Louie had a racing stable, a country house, and his kids went to private schools—all unheard of in my world. At least until the day they found that my uncle was a criminal and had used his position of trust, the one he had established through countless AA meetings, to steal the company blind.

But my father could handle the booze; he kept his job even though many was the night or morning I would hear him in the bathroom vomiting, something I took to be the price of being an adult male. These were the days, and maybe still are in some quarters, when, at least for a certain class of people, the first thing you did when a guest walked through the door was to offer them a drink. Then people would reply, “I thought you’d never ask.” Those were the days that drunk-films—W.C. Fields and The Thin Man—were considered charming.

So I’m as certain as I can be that my father had been drinking the day he killed that child. That would explain, for one thing, why the boy’s parents felt they had a right to make their case; some witness or another had undoubtedly smelled the liquor on my father’s breath. That would explain how the whole thing got as far as an actual trial, and maybe it would also explain why my mother, a legal secretary, kept slaving at her job in the firm that had defended him, even as my father complained about her bosses being pigs.

And it would also provide the answer as to why my father kept on drinking for years after his family and his doctors told him he had to give it up. To quit would be have been for him to admit there was something wrong with alcohol, and therefore when he’d struck the child that he’d been wrong. That would have been more, I think, than he could have borne. So instead of quitting, when I got a little older, he would encourage me to take a sip of a ginger ale-and-rye highball, or beer, or wine—though he wasn’t much for wine—to “keep him company.” We were co-conspirators, in a way, and then afterward, for many years, for nearly twenty of them, it was the alcohol that kept me company.

I’ve noticed that in America no one admits to being old, and I can’t blame them. The old are just repositories for loss, or worse—endless and self-congratulatory memories. When it comes to my choice of reading material, or even watching, I much prefer stories of the young caught up in their first flashes of excitement, or about the middle-aged in the first dawn of disillusion. Still, I find plenty in old guys like myself to listen to, mostly in the locker room of the local Young Men’s Christian Association (three out of those four names untrue). In that context, I’m happy to report my fellow oldsters seem to have learned little, or if we have, we sure don’t speak of it. So at the Y, the guys in the locker room talk about sports or food or nothing much at all, but certainly not how they have lived their lives in blindness, and not how the person they thought they were and the person they turned out to be is different. I don’t blame them; it’s not a subject for mixed company. And as for my part, I ask myself: do any of them need to know that while I lived much of my life thinking it was one kind of book—an adventure story, I suppose—it was already a sad history, one with whole pages torn and missing, with sentences, some mercifully and others not, illegible?

My father, my own son, and I have this in common: we are all dog lovers. My son was raised with dogs his entire life, and I’ve kept dogs for at least fifty years. But what strikes me as strange about my father and his dogs is that right until the end of his life, his animals would often get away. Sometimes a gate would be left open, sometimes there would be a hole in a fence that should have been mended but wasn’t, or, walking out of the house to check his mail, my father, who should have known better, would leave the front door wide open. And then his dog would be running down the street, into traffic, with my father shouting after it, sometimes catching up to it, and sometimes not. Sometimes, arriving too late, he would watch it killed.

Or such is my conjecture.

You can order a copy of Issue No. 101 here.

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‘A Daughter’s Letter to Tamsen Donner’: 2015 Best American Nonrequired Reading Notable, Issue No. 101

Tamsen Donner died in 1846, a member of the ill-fated Donner Party entrenched in the snow in the Sierra Nevadas. Thirty-six members of the party succumbed to starvation, exposure, or other afflictions. In the end, little is known of how Tamsen Donner actually died. She may or may not have been murdered by another member of the group. She may or may not have been cannibalized.

Dear Tamsen,

I write to you now because my mother is gone, because you were the reason for the trip to California, because of the king crab legs my mother ate at the Outback Steakhouse just north of Las Vegas, because of a pinecone.

Perhaps I should address you more formally, as you would have been accustomed to back in your century. Mrs. Donner. My dear Mrs. Donner. But I am tempted to call you Tammy, even Tam. Tami? Your full name, Tamozine, is not one we still use. It went out of vogue along with bleeding and leeching. Tamsen sounds more like the name of some queer woman in a song that old men whistled on their way to the outhouse—a song about a frozen woman who was missing her toes, perhaps because some hungry traveler ate them.

I took a road trip to visit your grave. My parents went, too, because my mother wanted to see San Francisco, and my father wanted to see Yosemite. I was doing some research for a novel I wanted to write, a fictionalized account of your story, and I wish I could say the trip was for you specifically, but the truth is that I wanted to take a road trip anywhere, to get away from the life I was living, a life that no longer felt like my own. Maybe you understand. It’s like there’s a river inside of you, a river that changes size and force at different points in your life, but all the time, deep down, you know what direction it runs—and you know that, at some point, you’ll jump in.

I’m sorry to say that the Donner party jokes abounded on our trip, from my mother and me in particular, because we like that kind of wittiness and because it was something to do between stops at Denny’s and IHOPs on the drive from Oklahoma to California. It’s not that we were particularly cruel—most people in my time would have done the same. Those jokes are just too easy. Cliche even. Honestly, and this may be the worst part, they’re not even funny anymore. I wonder about that—about how much time must pass before you can joke about tragedy. I can’t imagine ever joking about my mother.

 

Grief can eat a person up. OK, not funny, but see what I mean? The puns are hard to avoid.

 

I hope it brings some comfort that the winter you died is still the worst on record. They say that the snowdrifts were twenty feet high—about the same height as if the members of my family were to stand on the others’ shoulders. And they say that there were nine separate blizzards that year. I try to picture you in that cabin, counting things to pass the time: the number of eyelets on your boots, the stitches on the hem of your dress, the lines across your palms, the number of faces you remembered from your childhood.

Here’s another: Overheard at the site of the Donner Party: “What a great piece of ass!”

 

I tried to imagine the sleet whipping your face—stinging—that pins-and-needles feeling that affects your feet when you sit on the toilet too long or when your boots pinch your feet too tightly. That sensation is called paresthesia, but you wouldn’t have known that. I like to think you would have had a folksy word for it, a word that made it OK for you to talk about it, made it somehow more comfortable—a word like harkey bumps. I thought about these things as I sat by my living room window, watching the snow pile up around me during those Midwestern winters—the winter before the trip to California, when my husband was gone for work, and the winter after the trip, when I was living with another man.

 

Also overheard at the Donner party site: “Thanks for the mammaries.”

 

From the first day of the trip my father was a challenge. He’d had a bout of depression that year, and my mother had done her best to suffer through it with him, to get him off the medication that was causing the depression, and to see him through to better days. But she needed a break. She’d asked to come along with me on the trip—quite unlike her—but then my father wanted to come, too, and then it was the kind of thing where you tell yourself, “My parents aren’t getting any younger. I’ll be glad we did this together.” I was thirty-five. She was sixty-six.

My father talked about the Acoma Indians as we drove, and I thought he was mispronouncing Acoma but I didn’t want to correct him. I saw a sign for Winslow, Arizona, and mentioned the Eagles song. Neither of my parents responded. Eighty minutes later, when we actually passed through Winslow, Arizona, my father said, “Hey, Winslow, Arizona. That’s in an Eagles song.” Then my mother told him to turn up his hearing aid, but instead he began humming, There’s a girl, my lord, in a flatbed Ford.

My father wears the hearing aid because years of dentistry have left him hard of hearing with a ringing in his ears. He’s easily frustrated when he can’t hear something he wants to hear, but sometimes I think that he mostly likes the silence. When I was in kindergarten he had a midlife crisis, so we moved from Oklahoma to Oregon because it was supposed to be one of the safest states to live in in the event of a nuclear Holocaust. Unlike you, Tami, we didn’t have to trudge upmountain with oxen—we just rode out with my grandparents in a Ford conversion van, stayed one winter, then went back to Oklahoma. I am happy to report that all members of our party survived the trip, although we left our Golden Retriever, Sir Copper Fields Rogue, with a friend somewhere in Grants Pass, presumably safe from neutron clouds.

I know that your family took a lot of the blame for what happened, and I can commiserate only by saying that, on a much lesser scale, my family is also quite notorious for bad family trips. We once went to Ruidoso, New Mexico, for Christmas, and my father turned onto an uncleared road where our minivan got lodged in a snowbank in the median, stuck like a pig in a doggie door. We had to walk uphill to my uncle’s cabin, carrying our luggage, which for me included a suitcase and a Brother word processor (it was this thing that typed, after the old way of typing, but before the new way of typing). Anyway, by the time we got there, my fingers were numb—far past the harkey bumps stage. My mother instructed me to hold them under lukewarm water, but my father told me that I should put my hands under his armpits to warm them. As you know, areas that get the largest blood supply stay warmest—armpits, chest, genitals. I knew my father was probably right (again, as you know, things like that come instinctively in such times), but I told him I would rather die than stick my hands into his armpits. So instead I used my own armpits, and after a few hours my fingers were comfortably returned to the dexterity necessary to play Nintendo with my sister. (This would be the equivalent of knitting in your day.) That was when I was in high school.

 

What did one Donner say to another?

Can you give me a hand?

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In the Fall Issue

Issue No. 101 offers for your enjoyment more of the country’s finest stories, poetry, essays, and visual art:

Vauhini Vara’s “We Were Here”: Betwixt the fancy turkey meatballs and Ava Gardner (no, not that one) dying down the hall, there exists in an apartment building all that could ever matter.

Matt Sumell’s “Gift Horse”: Break into mom’s house, make sure you see Grams at her nursing home, and please, please try to keep it together.

Soma Mei Sheng Frazier’s “Mr. Chompers”: Honey, the single mother asks her hypothetical husband, why can’t it be enough that her young daughter’s smart? Why does she need her to be smarter?

Jim Krusoe’s “Traffic”: The author tries to fit the puzzling memories of his parents, his father’s drinking, and the accidental death of a child into some kind of truth.

And a portfolio from artist Ana Teresa Fernandez, whose featured paintings and photographs document scenes from performance art.

Also, fiction from Earle McCartney (a family farm gets unsettled by the constant presence of the teen son’s girlfriend), Ricardo Nuila (on a doctor’s spectacular crack-up), Elena Mauli Shapiro (the repo men come to take away a home), Peter Rock (incorporating the photography of artist Shaena Mallett) and Emily Fridlund.

Nonfiction from Jill Logan (“A Daughter’s Letter to Tamsen Donner”), and poetry by Kelly Cressio-Moeller, Joseph Di Prisco, Jeff Ewing, John Freeman, Casey Fuller, Troy Jollimore, Genevieve Kaplan, Alyse Knorr, Katie Peterson, Charles Harper Webb, and the Frankenstein Sonnets of Simone Muench and Dean Rader.

You can get a copy of No. 101 here, or order a subscription to ZYZZYVA and we’ll start you off by shipping you the 101st issue.

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