Issues Archives

Volume 32, #1, Spring 2016

ZYZZYVA Volume 32, #1, Spring 2016

Issue No. 106 offers for your enjoyment more of the country’s finest stories, poetry, essays, and visual art:

Ariel Dorfman’s “Amboise”: A long-time couple’s trip to France, in which perhaps only one of them will return from.

Soma Mei Sheng Frazier’s “Clutter”: A riot of memories and thoughts pulls a stroke victim through the past and the present.

Lou Mathew’s “Last Dance”: Can a widower find it in himself to grant his annoying neighbor (who makes a mean tamale) a beseeched courtesy?

Ashley Nelson Levy’s “Auntie”: A teen daughter makes room in more ways than one for her mother’s dying friend.

And introducing our newest feature: author interviews and profiles. We begin with John Freeman on poet Kay Ryan.

Plus, nonfiction from Rivka Galchen (on ronin, Keanu Reeves, and having a newborn) and Andrew D. Cohen (Hemingway on the way to dropping off the kids at school), and fiction from Dallas Woodburn, Gregory Spatz, Ron Carlson, and the late Alan Cheuse (“The Burden”: on a boy’s first acquaintance with hard liquor).

Also, work from artists Stephen Albair and Jonathon Keats, and poetry from Ruth Madievsky, Paul Wilner, David Hernandez, Jeff Ewing, Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch, and First Time in Print writer Etan Nechin.

You can get a copy of No. 106 here, or order a subscription to ZYZZYVA and we’ll start you off by shipping you the Spring/Summer issue.

‘Stealth’ by Etan Nechin, ZYZZYVA No. 106, Spring/Summer

Just around the time of my tenth birthday, I got a gas mask. In fact, everybody did.

My dad and I went to the collection point to bring them home. He signed a few papers, gave his ID, and we picked them up from the woman near the exit. She was wearing a gray uniform that made her look tired and bored, and it probably was boring sitting in a classroom all day handing out gas masks to people she didn’t care about.

Each mask came in a big brown box that my dad told me not to open unless the guy on the news with the large tinted glasses said so, but as we came into the house he opened one of the boxes so we could all see it for a moment. It was black and big, had two large openings for the eyes and had a new car smell, only more personal. Then he stored the masks on one of the shelves in his large concave studio, tucked in with the glass, wooden palates, rocks, and tools. After that, we had some cake.

I wanted to be the one who put the masks away, but I couldn’t because I was barefoot and shards of glass were strewn all over. And besides, he told me a studio was no place for a kid, only for men. The other thing that defined that period of my life apart from getting a gas mask is that I truly believed that all people were artists: all men had large concaved studios where they would listen to the radio or have friends come over to sip mint tea with leaves picked straight from the garden and served in cracked porcelain cups that they found at the flea market at the end of the day when vendors just wanted to get rid of their merchandise.

All the men I knew were artists, and all the old women chain-smoked long-stemmed menthol cigarettes and cursed and gave out stale candies. I believed everybody was a painter or an actor, sculptor, stained-glass artist, and potter because those were all my friends’ parents and all the people I knew, or my parents knew, which meant I knew by association. I was never allowed to sit in the studio and draw or write or play with toys, only deliver messages from my mom, although sometimes she would just go out to the front door and yell, and he would yell back, especially around dinnertime.

Every day I would take the school bus from the village to the comprehensive school where I met a lot of kids whose parents didn’t live in my village, but for me they were artists nonetheless. My friend Dan’s father was an artist who grew bananas, and the mother of the girl I was in love with, Naomi, was an artist who spoke with other people about their feelings. And Nimrod, the kid with the green-gleaming football shirt, had a dad who was an artist, but nobody knew what he did or where he was.

At recess we would all huddle in the corner on the far side of the soccer field. It was getting to be winter so we collected old blocks and made impromptu chairs for our little gang. Shmaya would take out his heavy worn sticker album and show everyone his latest acquisitions. I didn’t have an album but I did have a bunch of stickers that I would put on my notebook or the tape deck that my Uncle David gave to me when he came to visit from the States.

The stickers came in packets of four, with a piece of gum that had the color, and taste, of an eraser. All around the school you would see them lying on the pavement, waiting to be stepped on by an unsuspecting teacher or student.

That day Shmaya revealed his biggest find yet—it was General Schwarzkopf, standing in front of large screens, adorned in medals, smiling bullishly. His complexion was a dead green due to the faded, cheap façade of the sticker and it reminded me of how Iraq appeared on TV.

“What did you trade for it?” Ruvie asked.

“Two Russian Mig 21s, a Reo truck, two English Tornadoes, and James Baker.”

“You overpaid,” Ruvie glazed over us with a haughty look of a savvy auctioneer, “by a James Baker.”

Shmaya looked straight at him, unimpressed.

“Yalla yalla. As of now, I’m the only one in this school with a Schwarzkopf, and I already have a two James Baker’s at home. AND, the last time I saw your album, you didn’t have either.”

Ruvie seethed. “Well, my brother’s friend has all the collection and he’s much older that you and he said he can get more. So I’ll get mine in no time.”

Observing their little sticker-arms-trade tête–à–tête, I wondered how much James Baker was worth in the United States, where my uncle lived, and if nobody would trade planes for him, what would people do with all those stickers of him.

Ruvie scurried off, stomping through the damp field towards the class on the other side. We flipped through the album which was filled with airplanes, generals, tanks and politicians but in the middle of it there was a large gaping hole, a void so big, it eclipsed everything else one could get—even Saddam Hussein.

It was the Holy Grail of the sticker collection: the American Stealth Bomber.

Shiny and sleek, its amorphous, polygonal shape divulged some of its mystique. A chimera-like entity, the missing Stealth sticker loomed over the album, oppressive in its absence. It was a real piece of art, like those black and red steel sculptures you see in public gardens. My mother called those sculptures “kinetic”—my mom was an artist who taught art to the kids at my school. She didn’t make art, instead talked about it in long stirring words that seemed to me as beautiful as the pictures in the art books strewn throughout her classroom.

In this piece of art there was an artist who flew the plane all the way from Maryland or Pittsburgh or Huntington, West Virginia to Baghdad, but nobody has ever seen one, Shmaya told me. He was talking about the plane, not the sticker, even though we scoured the skies—and the local grocery stores.

The next day, on the bus to school all of us was staring through the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of the planes flying to Iraq.

“I saw one!” Yoni yelled.

“It’s just a cropper,” Ruvie said.

“I’m pretty sure it was a Mirage,” Yevgeni said.

“I’m pretty sure you don’t know what you’re talking about,” Yoni retaliated.

The bus weaved its way across the field roads and dropped us off and we spilled like paratroopers from the door, jumping one by one on to the curb.

Nobody was still or silent during history lesson. The excitement of things to come was too palpable. We passed notes to each other, some were about the planes, some were about the fact that Sigal was now officially Yakir’s girlfriend, some were about how the lesson was boring and how Ms. Gilat always smelled like stewed lentils.

Napoleon and his army was nothing compared with a band of countries fighting in Iraq: America, England, France, Denmark, and Australia allied to topple one man.

Just as the ruckus was threatening to topple Ms. Gilat, the classroom door swung open and a man in a khaki uniform came into the room.

We all hushed up immediately.

“Kids, this is Sergeant Druker. He came to the school to go over what you need to do in case of a missile attack.”

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‘Hotel Bar’ by Ruth Madievsky, ZYZZYVA No. 106, Spring/Summer

Somewhere a dog is eating chicken bones
from a trash can, picking at
the gristle, the shards of bone
sharp enough to conquer
an intestine, and somewhere a liver cell
is dividing too quickly,
the palm of a hand
is meeting the face of a child
and I don’t know why that’s happening, why
the sound of flesh
against flesh is so satisfying,
the way taking off your bra
at the end of the day is satisfying, the unhook
and the exhale, the whole enterprise
pulled out through the sleeve
and tossed onto the bed or tossed
at the person in the bed,
and somewhere a person is in bed
with her mother,
who is crying because she can’t
lie in bed with her mother,
and somewhere a grandmother lives in a wall,
doing whatever it is
that people who live in walls do, and I wonder
if that’s similar
to what people who live
in the ground do, and how that’s similar
or different from what
people who are ash
do, and somewhere a man
who feels like ash all the time
is dragging a grocery cart
through the spice aisle,
and somewhere a woman
who fantasizes about leather
is pulling chicken bones
from a dog’s throat, speaking the shared
language of suffering,
all those silent syllables
flickering between them
like so many lightning bugs, like embers
from a fire someone’s boyfriend
is stoking
before returning to bed
and going down on the person in the bed,
whose body is like a hotel bar,
offering heat and darkness and
liquors that taste different
depending on the day, the time,
the person removing
the stopper, and somewhere
a woman is taking a break
from singing
into despair’s microphone,
and somewhere a man isn’t waxing the floors
of his self-loathing, his wrists
intact, the amber vial
still married to its childproof cap,
a song without words
on the radio, enough tea leaves
for a second cup.

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‘Amboise’ by Ariel Dorfman, ZYZZYVA No. 106, Spring/Summer

Somebody beat me to it, somebody else had killed himself first. That’s the first thing that I thought, God help me, when the loudspeaker at the Gare d’Austerlitz announced that train service had been interrupted indefinitely due to an accident caused by “une personne,” someone, male, female, old, young, no matter, someone of whatever sex and whatever age and who was not me had committed suicide on the tracks somewhere south of Paris.

Not that the announcement specified what sort of accident, not even a mention of suicide or even the location, but I knew right away, seated snuggly with Lucy in our second class compartment waiting for the train to leave the cold, grey station, I knew how it must have been, I saw the scene. I had imagined myself that very afternoon, that very evening, probably late at night when Lucy was asleep and I was all alone, and the oncoming train in Amboise rushing into the station and the last split second of saying you fool, you stupid fool—or maybe, if luck would have it, at last, at last, at last, whispering those goodbye words. Later, as the day progressed, we would learn more about the circumstances of the incident, I didn’t tell my wife that I had guessed the details of that death, I wasn’t going to give her even a hint of my plans or my dark thoughts, I wasn’t going to let her stop me, not this time. Even to say, it must have been a suicide, even that, would have alerted her.

Instead we chatted about the consequences of the delay: if the train was en retard for more than two hours we would miss the connection in Orleans, we would not arrive at Amboise in time to catch the 14:45 bus to Chenonceau.

“Maybe we can go somewhere else today, we’re already packed,” Lucy said brightly. “And then try again tomorrow.”

But tomorrow wouldn’t do. It would be raining—did that matter, rain, shine, does anything like that really matter if you’re going to kill yourself? Yes, it does, it did matter that the sun should be out in all its glory in Chenonceau—and as for somewhere else, it was to that chateau I needed to take her, that one and no other one, today and no other day. Tomorrow I wouldn’t be alive.

“Giverny,” Lucy said. “We’ll take the Metro to Saint-Lazare and go see the Monet gardens. And sleep there—my sister said there’s a cute little bed and breakfast just down the road from the gardens—and then tomorrow we’ll be back here at Austerlitz. By then they’ll have fixed whatever happened and Amboise will still be there and the chateau’s not going to move now, is it, your parents wouldn’t care which day we visit, right?”

I was too depressed to argue with her. It had taken all my strength to plot that day’s trip, all my cunning to keep the latest bad news from her for the last week, all my resilience to just find out each train and each bus and opening hours and closing hours and the right hotel at the right price, as if this were an ordinary outing and not the final one for me, and if we didn’t go today, if one more thing went amiss, just one more, I wouldn’t have the will power to go through with my death, that’s how disheartened I felt.

So I just sat there.

She waited for me to say something, anything, but I just sat there, smiled wanly, in what I hoped was a reassuring way.

She reached across the compartment and took my hand in both of hers and pressed hard and lifted each finger to her lips and gave each tip a kiss. I loved it when she did that. Loved it but couldn’t help thinking that my fingers still had, would always have, the smell of hospital and medicine no matter how hard I scrubbed my nails each morning. Not all the soap in the world …

“It’s going to be alright, Leo,” she said.

But it wasn’t. For the last week I had known it wasn’t going to be alright and the damn train was stopped and I was such a useless piece of dying flesh and had such bad luck that I couldn’t even manage to kill myself on schedule.

“I’m going to find out how long this will take,” she said.

“I can go,” I said, but I let her bustle off and stayed behind, nursed my energy like a fire in winter. Her French was not as good as mine, but she managed to charm strangers and bureaucrats as I could not. They didn’t seem to mind her accent or occasional grammatical lapses. Her smile, her open face, her eyes, her eyes.

For the tenth time that morning I looked at the information I had jotted down about the train and the bus and the chateau itself. Not that I needed to know much about Chenonceau. If there was one place in the world few people had heard of but that was marked in my memory and my heart from the youngest age, it was Chenonceau.

“What’s so special about it?” It was a question I had kept asking Mom, or maybe it was my dad, or at least that’s how I remembered starting each conversation about that chateau. “What could be so special that you decided to have a child there, that you decided that it was worth while bringing me into the world? In that one place of all places?”

“One day,” she answered, or maybe it was Dad, we spoke about it so often that all those conversations mingle in my mind like blood seeping into mud, “one day you’ll marry and then you must take your wife there. Promise me—une promesse solennelle—that before your time is over on this earth—” it must have been my mother’s words I’m remembering because she always spoke like that, operatically, with lyrical and precise French emphasis—“promise me that you will take her there, mon fils, to Chenonceau where both of us said, your father and me, we said it simultaneously, Leo, we told each other in the same breath, let’s have a baby, both of us, while we watched the river flow under the arches of the chateau.”

Chenonceau made you, she said, and not only because of that day when I visited it with your father. Chenonceau started you, that’s what she told me. Both of them seated in the garden—the larger one, designed by Diane de Poitiers, the garden with the fountain in the middle that she would never again see once her lover, king Henri II, died, and Diane was exiled by Catherine de Medicis—that’s where they had turned to each other, my French mother and my American father, with the Cher passing by silently and the cries of children in awe as they saw the Renaissance castle straddling the river and the overgrown forest behind it where salvation lay one moonless night years earlier and the fairy-tale setting, my mother and my father had chosen to fight despair and have me, or someone like me—and call him Leonardo if it was a boy and Leonarda if it was a girl, because they conceived me that night in the town of Amboise, thirteen kilometers from Chenonceau, Amboise by the Loire where Da Vinci had died, where his bones were buried in the castle overlooking the town.

A good place to die.

Except my timetable, the closing of the circle, had been screwed up by someone who had beat me to it, had taken his life—I imagined it to be a man, but younger than me—on the railroad tracks, no poison, no pills, no gunshot wound, no drowning, nothing left to chance, just let the locomotive and the steel do all the work.

“Come on, Leo, let’s go.”

Lucy was back with the news that someone had committed suicide in Choissy-le-Roi and the secours team was on its way. She had managed to wheedle out of the inspector on the quay his calculation that it would be at least three hours before any trains could depart. “I asked him if this is a frequent occurrence, and he shook his head and said more often than you would expect. Souvent, hélas.”

“Did he say anything more about who it was, sex, age, anything?”

“He didn’t say, maybe doesn’t know, maybe he’s just being discrete. But the point, Leo, is we can’t stick around here all day, just waiting. If your information is correct—”

“It’s in the tour book and I called and they confirmed and—”

“Well then, we should get going. Look, the Gare de l’Est is just across the river, fifteen minutes’ walk, I can pull the rollaway if that tires you out. We’ll take a suburban train to Crécy-la-Chapelle. I went there when I was an exchange student. It’s a lovely medieval town, with moats and canals, cobbled streets, great brie cheese made on site, and the Église Saint-Georges, everything untouched by time. Except it has all the modern conveniences. And it’s only an hour or so from Paris.”

“Isn’t that close to Disneyland?”

“Visitors get to Disneyland from the Gare du Nord, so we won’t be bothered by that sort of people.”

It was useless discussing the matter. She had made up her mind and the only way for me to change it was to tell her outright, listen, I’m staying here on this stupid train because I need to kill myself today, tonight, sneak out as soon as you’re asleep, and I can’t do it until I’ve kept my promise, taken you to see the chateau where my mom and my dad shared the imbecilic idea of having a baby, so please just sit here with me and make my last moments less miserable.

Out of the question. Instead, there I was, one of my hands in hers and the other rolling behind me our small black overnight bag, there I was, joining the straggling stream of despondent passengers who had come to the same conclusion, the day was fucked, the train was not leaving, time to make other plans, there I was, bowing to my fate, when Lucy stopped. “Wait, wait. Hand me the tickets. We need to have the inspector stamp them so they can be used again tomorrow.”

Another ten minutes while we waited for the man—he was clean-shaven, with eyes as friendly as they were small and wore his cap with satisfaction, pronouncing each word meticulously, with a slight melody—we waited for him to wrap up his conversation with a gaggle of voyagers who were demanding explanations, hoping that he was wrong and that the delay was temporary. He was very methodical, needed to stamp each ticket people deposited in his care, write something on the margins, consult his watch to verify the exact hour, minute, second, write something else.

“Let’s just go.” I nudged Lucy a bit. “Please. Let’s just get the hell out of here.” Now that everything was going sour, I wanted to escape the station, the site of my defeat—like a general who refuses to stay a minute longer in the building where he has signed his rendition.

“It’s our turn now, Leo.”

I watched her hands as they moved in the air like birds, remembered her hands on my back when I had been able to make love to her, couldn’t keep my eyes off those fingers, didn’t even realize it when the inspector had finished his stamping and signing and verifying, just felt relieved when one of those hands of hers took mine again as if I were a child and we shuffled off in the direction of the Seine and the Jardin des Plantes and the Gare de l’Est.

I needed a café crème, I needed it desperately—Clyde had said I shouldn’t, that coffee was really bad for me, but what did I care what was good or bad for my body, what debt did I owe to a body that had betrayed me with such malicious efficiency?, all doctors, including Clyde, should rot in hell—I could see the colorful awnings of the cafés opposite the Gare d’Austerlitz and Parisians already seated outside in the dapple of sunshine through the elms, we were almost outside the station when an announcement came over the loudspeakers.

Service was being resumed! Dans l’instant. Immediately.

We looked at each other, Lucy and me, we looked at each other just as my parents had done so many decades ago that golden afternoon at Chenonceau, we thought the same thought, we smiled at each other—my first real smile in a week—and wheeled ourselves around and rushed back through the station, hoping the train had not left, that the nice inspector would give us and so many others the time to clamber on board and be on our way.

It was only when we had breathlessly settled in our seats, this time side by side, not across from each other—they were still there, the seats, as if they knew we would return, as if to tell us that they had not given up on this trip!—it was only when the train had shuddered into a start and then a glide and then a heavenly whoosh, only then that I remarked to myself how bizarre that I should feel such exhilaration at the fact that I was managing to board a train that would allow me to kill myself, that I was happy because I was going to die.

“You see, Leo?” Lucy said. “You see how everything is going to be alright?”

“Yes,” I said.

“You see? If we hadn’t taken so long in leaving, if we hadn’t waited for the inspector to stamp our tickets, well, we’d have been on our way to the Gare de l’Est and Crécy-la-Chapelle. It’s like a little Venice and you’d have liked it, but I know you so much want me to see Chenonceau and Amboise and the Loire.”

“Yes,” I said, “I do want to take you there.”

We didn’t talk more during the hour or so it took to get to Orleans, merely basked in each other’s presence, the warmth of her body by my side, almost making me forget why I was going on this trip, what awaited me at the end of it.

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‘Who Will Help the Queen of the Rodeo?’ by Ron Carlson, ZYZZYVA No. 106, Spring/Summer

We hit a pheasant just outside of Myton. The ditches were choked with tall grass and he jumped up right into our windshield and bounced all the way across the road. He woke both the kids and left a lightning crack in the glass top to bottom. There was no traffic in the cloudy afternoon and I loped back and found him and wrapped him in one of the clean rags in the toolbox after showing him to Mickey and Doris. I had all the summer gear roped into the back of the truck, both bikes and some new lawn furniture along with our gear. We all felt bad, but he was a wonder. “Now, we have to cook him for dinner,” I told them. “Like a chicken.” I clipped one brilliant tail feather to the visor in the old Chevy.

“Should we pray for him,” Doris asked.

“Yes,” I told her. “We will.”

I had both car seats on the front seat and Mickey reached his hand out toward the crack in the windshield.

“It’s OK,” I told him. “It was broken last year, too, remember?”

The glass was unbroken about half the year. Mostly, I got it blistered with stars from the chip seal road work they did every summer on the other side of the lake. The town of Windchime was crazy for those pebbles. You could not go slow enough up there; there was always some character in his tool truck coming your way going forty.

We drove through Myton, past the old fort which is now a repair garage, and on through the desert to Givemore where we stopped at The Showtown for groceries. The big ranch town has a Kmart and a Walmart as you enter, but we always stopped at Showtown to get the first month’s groceries. It was owned by one of our neighbors up at the lake, Dalton Pace, who also was the butcher. Touring that old store was a once a year enterprise when we filled the cart over the top with great loads of every possible thing. Dalton was at the meat counter and saw us coming. “Up for the summer,” he said. “Good to see you.”

The kids looked at him leaning against the glass case with his bloody apron and I said, “It’s Mr. Pace from the log cabin.” His place was a deluxe log home always varnished brightly with a log outbuilding, a workshop I envied. There were always two or three ATV s in the yard.

“You twins,” he said. “Hi, kids.”

They stood there, students of the carnal display, and sometimes I worried about how measured and shy they were, but now Doris raised her hand in a wave and then Mickey waved.

“We’re going to get those fish this year,” I told him. “Aren’t we, kids?”

They weren’t sure, but finally they nodded.

I ordered up two books of his hand-cut bacon and several packages of the ground chuck and six rib eyes. I told him about our pheasant, and he used his big crayon to write out a recipe for me with cooking instructions and gave me a baggie of seasoning.

“We killed a bird,” Doris said, sober as the king’s magistrate.

“And he’s going to be delicious,” Dalton said. “Are you coming down to the rodeo tomorrow?”

“I want to go to the rodeo,” Mickey said. “I want to see the horses.” We had spent two hours last summer at the little tiny roundup at Windchime.

Dalton Pace fished in his shirt pocket and pulled out rodeo tickets and handed them over.

“Mindy is queen this year.” He smiled. We’d known his daughter since she was six or seven; he had three.

“Who’s the king?” Doris said.

“The king,” he laughed.

“I’m not sure there is a king,” I said.

“The parade’s at noon,” he told us, giving me now all our wrapped parcels, and a wrapped brick of dry ice for the cooler. “They’re having an auction at the old office in the afternoon,” he told me. “We’re moving to the new grounds; there’s a new building there. You may want to come over, Mike. They’re selling the typewriters and going to computers. A rodeo with computers. It had to happen.”

I started to roll away and the kids stood still judging the man. “I’ll see
you tomorrow,” he said. “Look for the clown in the red tuxedo.”

They stared, my little jury. “Say goodbye,” I said. I loved saying that because I knew there would come a day when my life would not need such instructions. You tell your children to say goodbye. You sit with them and their shoes and you say, “Other foot,” while they’re thinking something you’ll never know. I was saying “Other foot,” less and less.

I called Annie from the payphone in front of Grinders, the funky coffeeshop downtown, because it was one of her favorite places when we came to town once a week. She was still at the office and was hoping to clear the case she was working on by noon tomorrow and drive up in her car.

“Go through town and meet us at the rodeo,” I said. “It starts at seven.”

“Oh, I hope I can finish,” she said. “How’s everybody?”

“The adventure has begun,” I told her. “We’re having pheasant for dinner.”

She knew immediately what had happened. “Use the electric skillet,” she told me. “It has a lid in the drawer under the stove.”

“I miss you,” I told her. “We miss you already.”

“I should have been a teacher,” she said. “If this deal traps me in town one more day, I’ll regret it.”

“You should have,” I told her. “You could have figured out the Spanish American War better than I have. But you’re a magnificent lawyer. Teach those guys right and wrong.” It was an old joke about the paperwork associated with water rights litigation.

“Be careful driving up that mountain, and have a good time.”

“See you tomorrow, “I said. “Don’t bring your valise. We learned that last year.”

 

In the cab of the truck Mickey had climbed out of his car seat and was running his fingers along the crack in the windshield. I buckled him in and we drove up the old canyon highway through the red rocks and up into the pines, alert for deer in the gloomy afternoon.

The kids were sleeping when we turned onto the dirt track along the lake front and I crept through the forest there, all the new six-foot spruce and jack pine lining the road. The beetle had killed the old growth and now the forest was coming back. When I steered us onto the lane of our driveway it was grassy and the truck was silent as I parked the vehicle alongside the old woodpile.

I left the kids sleeping and went around and found three deer in the meadow. The grass around the cabin was tall and I could see two deer beds in the treeline beside the fireplace wall. The old heavy door worked easily and I propped it open and went in waving away the webs. It was a feeling every time, entering the old place, the fine smokey smell and everything where we had put it last August. I opened the back door and all the blinds and I rolled the mower out beside the house and turned on the electricity. I washed the wagon wheel tabletop and closed the fridge and turned off the taps. Going outside again to turn on the water, in the valve box I’d dug, I saw the truck door swing open and two little legs slid onto the ground.

“Dad,” Doris said. “Mickey’s still sleeping.” She came over to me taking big steps in the new world. “Well, we’re here again. Let the summer begin,” she said, princess of the manor. “Dad, look, look, the deer.”

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‘Last Dance’ by Lou Mathews, ZYZZYVA No. 106, Spring/Summer

The old lady next door is having a birthday and she thinks I should come to the party at the Community Center. That’s what they call the gymnasium at Coma Park now. It still smells like a gym to me. That old lady is turning seventy-five, and I guess that she thinks I should forgive and forget because she’s now old and venerable. That was the word her friend the priest, Amadeo, used to describe her when he invited all parishioners to her birthday party: “a venerable member of our congregation.” Socorro said she puffed up like a bird on a cold morning when the priest said that. What I say is that Anita Espinosa has been a cabróna for a lot longer than she has been old, and I would know. She’s been my neighbor for almost fifty years. She is three years younger than I am, but she’s always been older. When she and her husband, Lorenzo, moved next door, she and my wife, Josie, got to be friends, and I liked Lorenzo. I knew him better than his own wife did, and I still liked him. Lorenzo was a paving contractor and to get the city jobs he also had to pave the way with the politicians. He knew a lot of bartenders and whores, but he usually made it to Mass on Sunday and that was enough for Anita. She was religious, and Lorenzo pretended to be, so she thought they were happy until he died.

Josefina died long before Lorenzo did. A couple of years after Josie died, I remembered I was a man and I brought some girlfriends home and that was when Anita started causing me trouble. The old ladies at Cristo Rey started giving me the mal ojo and even at Las Quince Letras I heard about the chisme she was spreading about me. Then that Filipino priest, Amadeo, came up to me after Mass, right in front of everybody like I had asked for his help. He said he hadn’t seen me at church lately. I told him maybe he hadn’t been looking hard enough and then he asked me if I was experiencing doubts about my faith. I said, doubts? He said, yes, doubts about faith and life and was I in need of counsel. I said, no, not at all. I said that every day I thanked the God who had provided me with the fruit of the vine and the joys of women, which made him blush, so I knew for sure where that question had come from.

I talked to Lorenzo about it and he said he would talk to Anita but he never did or she didn’t listen, so our friendship dried up. The bad news she spread about me kept reaching my ears so I stopped going to church and planted a Eugenia hedge between our houses and let it grow up.

When Lorenzo died and they read the will it turned out he left some money to educate a couple of kids that Anita didn’t know about. She made some novenas and ignored her own greedy children who wanted to contest the will and then she joined the church full-time. It was sad. She was only in her fifties and still a good-looking woman, but she put on the black rebozo and mantilla and started to shrink. You could see the hump grow on her back, and her shoulders reaching up for her ears. I still said hello to her when I saw her at Lupe’s store or on the street, and I was always polite and friendly right up until the time she was going off to Mass about six in the morning and she saw my friend Socorro leaving my house on her way to work. Socorro is a good woman and a hardworking woman. She tends bar at Las Quince Letras and works the morning shift at IHOP because she’s a widow and has three kids, and sometimes out of kindness she also tends to me and that was her mistake according to Anita. Socorro nodded and said, “Buenos dias,” and Anita hissed and said, “Sinvergüenza!” That was like calling her a whore. I stopped being polite after that. I wouldn’t talk to her and I fertilized and watered the hell out of that Eugenia hedge.

The comforts of the Church for old women like Anita will carry them a long way, as long as they are healthy. But sometimes, the promise of heaven isn’t enough to overcome the pain of this earth. Anita started to feel a lot of pain in her bones and in her joints. I could see that pain when she hobbled down the sidewalk. I know that walk. I walk the same way. When the pain of the arthritis got too bad and the Church’s comfort wasn’t enough, she remembered what her mother and her grandmother had done and started brewing yerba buena and marijuana tea. I knew that because I saw the marijuana growing up in the middle of her corn. When she started brewing that tea, Anita almost became a real person again. She would smile once in a while and tap her feet to music and not go to church every day and she started to cook again.

That was the one thing she did better than anyone in Shaky Town, even better than Josefina, who was a great cook. She had a touch with tamales that couldn’t be explained. She did two kinds, pork in a red sauce with citron, and chicken with green chile and Oaxacan cheese and herbs, and both of them would float off the plate and into your mouth, they were so light and flavorful.

She started cooking them for the church and they would sell out so fast that Amadeo raised the price on them from two to an unheard of three dollars. They still sold out and fistfights started in the waiting lines, and then Jacob Silverman, the food guy for the L.A. Times, wrote about them. Anita got to be respected for those tamales and what I said to anyone who would listen was, good for her. Shaky Town didn’t need any extra prayers from old ladies, the ones we already got haven’t done much, but those tamales made a difference. Anita made them for the church still, but she did some catering, too, to save up money for her big birthday. I wasn’t going to church anymore but my niece, Dulcie, would buy tamales for me after Mass. Anita knew somehow. Maybe she looked through my trash out at the curb and saw her knot on the corn husks, or smelled them on my breath when I walked by her house, or someone from Kelsoe’s Roundhouse or Las Quince Letras repeated what I said about those tamales, but she knew and she started to tell Dulcie that Don Emiliano didn’t have to buy his tamales at the church, if he wanted some just to leave a note in her mailbox and she would leave them on the porch on Sunday. Because even if I hadn’t talked to her except to say buenos dias or buenas tardes in quite a while, I had been a good neighbor and a good friend to her Lorenzo.

Order your copy of Issue No. 106.

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In the Spring/Summer Issue

Issue No. 106 offers for your enjoyment more of the country’s finest stories, poetry, essays, and visual art:

Ariel Dorfman’s “Amboise”: A long-time couple’s trip to France, in which perhaps only one of them will return from.

Soma Mei Sheng Frazier’s “Clutter”: A riot of memories and thoughts pulls a stroke victim through the past and the present.

Lou Mathew’s “Last Dance”: Can a widower find it in himself to grant his annoying neighbor (who makes a mean tamale) a beseeched courtesy?

Ashley Nelson Levy’s “Auntie”: A teen daughter makes room in more ways than one for her mother’s dying friend.

And introducing our newest feature: author interviews and profiles. We begin with John Freeman on poet Kay Ryan.

Plus, nonfiction from Rivka Galchen (on ronin, Keanu Reeves, and having a newborn) and Andrew D. Cohen (Hemingway on the way to dropping off the kids at school), and fiction from Dallas Woodburn, Gregory Spatz, Ron Carlson, and the late Alan Cheuse (“The Burden”: on a boy’s first acquaintance with hard liquor).

Also, work from artists Stephen Albair and Jonathon Keats, and poetry from Ruth Madievsky, Paul Wilner, David Hernandez, Jeff Ewing, Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch, and First Time in Print writer Etan Nechin.

You can get a copy of No. 106 here, or order a subscription to ZYZZYVA and we’ll start you off by shipping you the Spring/Summer issue.

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