The complete and fully searchable archive of ZYZZYVA’s 26 years of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and art is coming soon. We’re working hard behind the scenes to make the entire archive available right here, free of charge. In the meantime, we hope you’ll enjoy browsing through these selections from our back issues.

“Who” by Kevin Killian: ZYZZYVA No. 45

Kevin Killian author photoSan Francisco is mourning the loss of one of its greatest writers. Kevin Killian was not only a tremendous talent –– as a poet, a novelist, a playwright, an art critic, and more –– but one of the most gregarious and giving souls one could hope to meet. The following is his poem “Who” from ZYZZYVA No. 45 in its entirety:

Who, I didn’t love him enough
ninety thousand names for the government
to gamble on, to conjure, out of a hole
so big it could be only

Who said to me look at my lesions, no,
Kevin, really look, don’t look
at the stars
enough of your avoidance behavior

His body, in state, or tumbled through
a rinse cycle drying in the feathery wind
lint on your net, your intersticed
net, who
I loved so long but not enough

Who gave Steve Abbott the “AIDS Award
for Poetic Idiocy” seven years before he died?
(Ed Dorn)

Who, rather than waiting
seized his little liver in a
silver thimble, the man I mistook for a moulting
hen, I, reigning the roost, the big cock of 1983,
I
impenetrable safe of steel, those
tiny fingers made me look like a monkey

Who on the plush row
of velvet embroidery, Joni Mitchell sobbing
in the pew behind me, “I wish I were a river
I could float away on,” a thirst so deep
confession doesn’t cover it

I wanted him to live
to fill his throat with Mella, mella peto
In medio flumine, but who
was it told me
They are moving his body
into the memorable room of a long love

Who was the madman who took him back,
while we watched indignant such a man could go
in the front row with Lisa and Dan
watching David Wojnarowicz scream
his spittle on my chin
at the gay bookstore in San Francisco

marvelling at, comparing him,
who did this to me, that I
lived and did so little to be clear
always the quaint uppermost in my mind,
my mad strive for personality,
always the quaint peppermint misread
who

made the little tiger the big lamb on Sunday,
broke my will, gave me to the boy
following him down to the grave
holding back, something
ungiven

who launched this rocket into space,
that burst into earth, one death at a time,
its rockets a flare of red and pink pinspots,
livid bouquet in the night sky
over beautiful city
whose garden did I pick this death from?

Zing, zing, a phone insistent
as kismet, the fate that brought me to
a dark reply, hello, is Kevin Killian
home, I’ve got a message, and
who is this, I whisper into the phone,

who did you say was calling
for him, the straight black mouth
of the plastic phone,
I’ll see if he’s in
and who did you say, if you did say

and I don’t think you did say
who, who took me to this
date in my history, who made my
feet scatter like the burnt leaves of
the oak seedlings, while I walk to
the phone as though nothing
were happening,

under the sky, under the rain, in San
Francisco, home of the birds and the
sun and the big bottle of dilaudin and
morphine I gave to him Sunday
and leaving him, quietly, I closed

the door on my nation

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‘Little Key’ by Joshua Rivkin: National Poetry Month

April represents National Poetry Month, intended as a way to spread awareness and appreciation of poetry in the United States. To celebrate, each week we will be taking a look back at ZYZZYVA’s recent and distant past to share some choice selections. For our final installment, we present “Little Key” by Joshua Rivkin from Issue No. 103:

Joshua Rivkin poem Little Key

Hopes are shy birds flying at a great distance, seldom reached by the best
of guns, Audubon wrote in his journal thinking

not of the hawk or the wren but of course the sparrow. An animal throat
untwists the shadow of your name. Song replying to song replying to
song.

You stand in a clearing beside a frozen lake. Here, years ago, you found
a whale’s collarbone washed clean to shore, lightened by hard weather,
ounce less ounce, its castle walls cracked and caved

and consider this a warning we’re free to ignore about ravishing
possession or bodies in time. Think of lemons asleep on a windowsill;
think the isthmus of a man’s collarbone.

Hope, we say, and mean not bird but his call, echoing hill to tide, the
rattle, the relay, the soul’s ready radio. How many calls to count. You
could count and never stop. You could try.

Joshua Rivkin’s poems and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, VQR, and elsewhere. You can read more of his poetry in Issue No. 103.

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‘Lost Boy’ by Matthew Dickman: National Poetry Month

April represents National Poetry Month, intended as a way to spread awareness and appreciation of poetry in the United States. To celebrate, each week we will be taking a look back at ZYZZYVA’s recent and distant past to share some choice selections. For our fourth installment, we present “Lost Boy” by Matthew Dickman from Issue No.108

Matthew Dickman poetry Lost Boy

I’m standing behind the 7-Eleven
moving a crushed-up can around with my foot.
I’m maybe twelve blocks away
from the house I grew up in. I could walk
there right now if I wanted. See who’s living
there and if the house is the same or not the same.
There’s a streetlight washing across the cars
parked back here. Out of the little dark left over
by the light my older brother steps out.
He’s wearing boots and leather pants, a V-neck T-shirt
and a black overcoat. His hair is bleached
and slicked back behind his ears. Under his skin
I can see his veins, all of them, blue like a raspberry Slushy
is blue. Hey, he says, like you might say to someone
you don’t know but might be unsafe.
I’ve been waiting so long for this
but all I can manage to say is you’re supposed to be dead.
You’re supposed to be dead, I say.
I am, he says, but only kind of, and lifts the collar
of the trench coat away from his neck
so I can see the two puncture wounds, two holes kind of
dried up but shiny. Does it hurt?
No, he says, but I feel really sick all the time,
I keep crying and can’t eat anything, some of my hair has been
falling out but I don’t know why. But you’re alive!
I know, that’s why I’m here.
He looks up at the moon and it’s like he’s not looking at anything.
I just wanted to see you, he says, some clouds moving
slowly above us, I just wanted to see the person who did this to me.

Matthew Dickman is the author of the poetry collections Wonderland (2018), Mayakovsky’s Revolver (2014), 50 American Poems (co-written with Michael Dickman, 2012), and All American Poem (2008). 

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‘The Geology of Us: To be Responsible Citizen of Earth’ by Lauret Edith Savoy: ZYZZYVA No. 113

In celebration of Earth Day, we present Lauret Edith Savoy’s essay “The Geology of Us: To be a Responsible Citizen of Earth” from Issue No. 113 in its entirety:

Lauret Edith Savoy essay The Geology of Us

The following is based on a February 20th talk given at the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University, as part of the Institute’s “Facing the Anthropocene” project.

Like you, I am grappling with what it means to be a citizen of Earth. It goes without saying that we live in an unprecedented time. Human beings have become a dominant force in global environmental change, responsible for altering the world’s atmospheric, oceanic, and land systems. Each of us could make a long list: global climate change, an accelerating rate of extinction and losses to biodiversity, changes to global elemental cycles (such as nitrogen and carbon), and so much more.

In this country, though, disintegrated thinking and living—and a fragmented understanding of human experience—leave too many not realizing why any of this matters. Consider these words by biologist E. O. Wilson. He wrote, “Our troubles arise from the fact that we do not know what we are and cannot agree on what we want to be. The primary cause of this intellectual failure is ignorance of our origins.”

So let me offer a few thoughts that reflect on the Anthropocene in ways that may not often be considered—words that ask us to think about history and who “we” are. And to give you a sense of who I am, I’d like to tell you some of my own path to understanding, a path that began in childhood through an “alien land” and “land ethic” to my recent book Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape. As a young child I imagined I was a horse, a wild Appaloosa full of speed. I’d run fast—up and down sidewalks, around playgrounds and our yard—just to feel wind rush with me. But when the world moved beyond sense, I began to run from what I feared. Riots near our home in Washington, D.C. left burned, gutted remains of buildings I knew. The “so-called” war in Vietnam joined us at dinner each night as our TV aired footage of wounded soldiers, of crying women and children, of places with names like Khe Sanh, My Lai. Assassinations of men my parents
called “good men” meant anyone—my parents, my friends, or I—could disappear at any Continue reading

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‘Midnight, Talking about our Exes’ by Ada Limón: National Poetry Month

April represents National Poetry Month, intended as a way to spread awareness and appreciation of poetry in the United States. To celebrate, each week we will be taking a look back at ZYZZYVA’s recent and distant past to share some choice selections. For our third installment, we present “Midnight, Talking about our Exes” by Ada Limón from ZYZZYVA No. 94

Ada Limón National Poetry MonthThe sun is still down and maybe even downer.
Two owls, one white and one large-eared,
dive into a nothingness that is a field, night-beast
in the swoop-down, (the way we all have to
make a living). Let’s be owls tonight, stay up
in the branches of ourselves, wide-eyed,
perched on the edge of euphoric plummet.
All your excellencies are making me mouse,
but I will shush and remain the quiet flyer,
the one warm beast still coming to you in the dark
despite all those old, cold, claustrophobic stars.

Ada Limón’s most recent book is The Carrying: Poems (Milkweed). Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harvard Review, and Poetry Daily, among other publications. 

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‘My Madness is My Love Toward Mankind’ by Devon Walker-Figueroa: National Poetry Month

April represents National Poetry Month, intended as a way to spread awareness and appreciation of poetry in the United States. To celebrate, each weeek we will be taking a look back at ZYZZYVA’s recent and distant past to share some choice selections. For our second installment, we present “My Madness is My Love Toward Mankind” by Devon Walker-Figueroa from ZYZZYVA No. 112:

Devon Walker-FigueroaFor Nijinsky

People are mistakes and I
do not want to commit any. Opinions
are in me. God is in me. More
than anything, immobility is
an invented thing. I have two ends
and they are both on fire. Because I am alive,
I do not like the bygone centuries.
Because I am alive, swallows flee
at the sight of me. Exaggeration
is not in me, nor the will to kill tsars,
nor to live in the streets, nor to live
in men. (The war never stops
to think of me.) In order
to earn money, I will die
soon. I kiss my hands. I do not want
a scene, nor the death of senses,
nor any policy of wanting. I
eat meat, long for a streetwalker, and beg
the people, after I am killed, to start a war
in which I am the only casualty.
Cats scratch my soul and the stars
do not say good evening to me.
I shout Death! and stand
on my head so the public understands me.
They like to be astonished, ruin the Stock
Exchange and my nervous system.
I do not like their God. He loves me
only after I provide Him with the means
of existence. All over
the world, I flew an airplane and cried in it.
I smelled out the poor and pretended to be mad.

Devon Walker-Figueroa is co-founding editor of Horsethief Books. Her poems have appeared in Tin House, new England Review, The American Poetry Review, and other publications.

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‘Astray’ by John Sibley Williams: National Poetry Month

April represents National Poetry Month, intended as a way to spread awareness and appreciation of poetry in the United States. To celebrate, each week we will be taking a look back at ZYZZYVA’s recent and distant past to share some choice selections. To begin the month, we present John Sibley Williams’ poem “Astray” from ZYZZYVA No. 112:John Sibley Williams poem AstrayA neighborhood gone missing. Only
the torn electrical tape that held it
together remains of the cul-de-sac
where most of us learned to drive in
circles. No bedroom windows left for
songbirds to strike each morning or
streets made of tin foil or walls of
spring bees. I believed the conquest
of weeds was enough, the broken-
down pickup in a garage full of tools.
I believed in launching range wars
with pinecones from rooftops and
neighbors, if they answered, would
not answer with bricks. That old
humiliation of wolves slinking hungry
through suburbs, made pets. And
evenings when we practiced our
howling in unison. The empty church
on the corner lit up in cobwebs. No
flies swaddled for dinner or sorrows
to atone for. I hold this photograph
up to the wild it’s become. When we
were still in them, for what it’s worth,
our homes were already failing.

John Sibley Williams is the author of the poetry collections Disinheritance (Apprentice House) and Controlled Hallucinations (FutureCycle Press).

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“Summer at the Baltic Sea, 1958” by Kelly Cressio-Moeller, ZYZZYVA No. 110, Fall Issue

Summer at the Balctic Sea, 1958Kelly Cressio-Moeller is an associate editor at Glass Lyre Press. Her work has previously appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 101. Her poem “Summer at the Baltic Sea, 1958” from ZYZZYVA No. 110 is presented in its entirety below:

The sepia-toned man & woman
sit together in a Strandkorb
an arched canopy pushed back
their heads turned toward
each other eyes smiling
she wears a strapless swimsuit
her body leaning forward
arms mid-motion
as if brushing away sand
he wears a striped beach robe
one hand wrapped around
his raised knee on the footrest
the other holding the side of his neck
considering her measuring his words
in two years they will marry
forgetting seastorm days
no one remembers
who took the photograph
it does not matter
that it was captured at all
a wind-borne miracle
ephemeral as summer
her bare shoulders
glowing bright as amber
found along the strand

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‘Invisible Relations’ by Jenny Xie, ZYZZYVA No. 111, Winter Issue

Grape PopsicleJenny Xie is the author of the poetry collection Nowhere to Arrive (Northwestern University Press). Her latest collection, Eye Level (Graywolf Press), won the 2017 Walt Whitman Award, and is currently a finalist for the 2018 Pen Open Book Award. Her poem below, titled “Invisible Relations,” appears in ZYZZYVA No. 111.

There are no simple stories, because language forces distances. The days gummy and without drink. And a question stammers in the mind for weeks, one key aquiver on the piano. In the course of a day, your head will point in all the cardinal directions. It is good to wake and sleep, to scrape jars with spoons. Nights, grape popsicles sew sugar into your mouth. Police sirens clean the air and the TV burns out. Without your knowing, the unseen borders of your hunger are redrawn.

 

Far off, you are being stitched into a storyline in the smooth lobe of another’s mind.

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‘Carpe Diem’ by Lucia Berlin, ZYZZYVA No. 1, Spring Issue

Carpe DiemLucia Berlin was an American short story writer, who developed a small, devoted following, but did not reach a mass audience during her lifetime. She rose to sudden literary fame eleven years after her death, in August 2015, with FSG’s publication of a volume of selected stories, A Manual for Cleaning Women. ZYZZYVA published a number of Berlin’s stories during the Eighties and Nineties, and her work can be found in Issues 1, 4, 18, and 31. Below is her story “Carpe Diem” in its entirety from ZYZZYVA Issue 1.

Most of the time I feel all right about getting old. Some things give me a pang, like skaters. How free they seem, long legs gliding, hair streaming back. Other things throw me into a panic, like BART doors. A long wait before the doors open, after the train comes to a stop. Not very long, but it’s too long. There’s no time.

And laundromats, but they were a problem even when I was young. Just too long, even the Speed Queens. Your entire life has time to flash before your eyes and you just sit there, a drowner. Of course if I had a car I could go to the hardware store or the post office and then come back and put things into the dryer.

The laundries with no attendants are even worse. Then it seems I’m always the only person there at all. But all the washers and dryers are going-everybody’s out at the hardware store.

So many laundromat attendants I have known, the hovering Charons, making change or that haven’t got any change. Now it’s fat Ophelia who pronounces No Sweat “No Thwet.” Her top plate broke on beef jerky. Her breasts are so huge she has to turn sideways and then kitty-corner to get through doors, like moving a kitchen table. When she comes down the aisle with a mop, every- body moves, and moves the baskets too. She’s a channel-hopper. Just when we’ve settled in to watch the Newly-Wed game, she’ll flick it to Ryan’s Hope.

Once, to be polite, I told her I got hot flashes too, so that’s what she associates me with- The Change. “How’s it goin with The Change?” she says, loud, instead of hello. Which makes it worse, sitting there, reflecting, aging. My sons have all grown now, so I’m down from five washers to one, but one washer takes just as long.

I moved last week, maybe for the 200th time. I took in all my sheets and curtains and towels, my cart piled high. The laundromat was very crowded; there weren’t any washers together. I put all my things into three machines, went to get change from Ophelia. I came back, put the money in, the soap in and started them up. Only I had started up three wrong washers. Three that had just finished this man’s clothes.

I was backed into the machines. Ophelia and the man loomed before me. I’m a tall woman, wear Big Mama panty-hose now, but they were both huge people. Ophelia had a pre-wash spray bottle in one hand. The man wore cut-offs, his massive thighs were matted with red hair. His thick beard wasn’t like hair at all but a red padded bumper. He wore a baseball hat with a gorilla on it. The hat wasn’t too small but his hair was.so bushy it shoved the hat high up on his head making him about seven feet tall. He was slapping a heavy fist into his other red palm. “God damn. I’ll be Goddamned!” Ophelia wasn’t really menacing; she was protecting me, ready to come between him and me, or him and the machines. She’s always saying there’s nothing at the laundry she can’t handle.

“Mister, you may’s well sit down and relax. No way to stop them machines once they’ve started. Watch a little TV, have a Pepsi.”

I put quarters in the right machines and started them. Then r remembered that I was broke, no more soap and those quarters had been for the dryer. I began to cry.

“What the fuck is SHE crying about? What you think this does to my Saturday, you dumb slob? Jesus Wept.”

I offered to put his clothes into the dryer for him, in case he wanted to go somewhere.

“I wouldn’t let you near my clothes. Like stay away from my fuckin clothes, you dig?” There was no other place for him to sit except next to me. I wished he would go outside, but he just sat there, next to me. We looked at the machines. His big right leg vibrated like a spinning washer. Six little red lights glowed at us.

“You always fuck things up?” he asked.

“Look, I’m sorry. I was tired. I was in a hurry.” I giggled, nervously.

“Believe it or not, I am in a hurry. I drive a tow. 6 days a week. 12-hour days. Dig? This is it. My day off.”

“What were you in a hurry for?” I meant it nicely, but he thought I was being sarcastic.

“You stupid broad. If you were a dude I’d wash you. Put your empty head in the dryer and turn it to cook.”

“I said I was sorry.”

“Damn right you’re sorry. You’re one sorry excuse for a chick. I had you spotted for a loser before you did that to my clothes. I don’t believe it. She’s crying again. Jesus wept.”

Ophelia stood above him.

“Don’t you be botherin her, hear? I happen to know she’s going through a hard time.”

How did she know that? I was amazed … she knows everything, this giant black Sybil, this Sphinx. Oh, she means the Change.

“I’ll fold your clothes if you like,” I said to him.

“Hush, girl,” Ophelia said. “Point is, what’s the big deal? So what? In a hunnert years from now just who’s gonna care?”

“A hunnert years,” he whispered. “A hunnert years.” And I was thinking that too. A hundred years. Our machines were shimmying away, and all the little red spin-lights were on.

“At least yours are clean. I used up all my soap.”

”I’ll buy you some soap for crissake.”

“It’s too late. Thanks, anyway.”

“She didn’t ruin my day, she’s ruined my whole fuckin week. No soap.”

Ophelia came back, stooped down to whisper to me.

“I’ve been spottin some. Doctor says it don’t quit I’ll need a D and C. You been spottin?”

I shook my head.

“You will. Women’s troubles just go on and on. A whole lifetime of trouble. I’m bloated. You bloated?”

“Yeah, seems like I am bloated.”

“Her head’s bloated,” the man muttered. “Look, I’m going out to the car, get a beer. My head aches and I’m hot and I need a beer. I want you to promise not to go near my machines. Yours are 34,39,43. Got that?”

“Yeah. 32, 39, 42.” He didn’t think it was funny.

The clothes were in the final spin. I’d have to hang mine up to dry on the fence; when I got paid I’d come back with soap.

“Jackie Onassis changes her sheets every single day,” Ophelia said. “Now that’s sick, you ask me.”

“Sick,” I agreed.

I let the man put his clothes in a basket and go to the dryers before I took mine out. Some people were grinning but I ignored them. If I had paid any attention to the other people there, I might have abandoned my things and left. I filled my cart with soggy sheets and towels. It was almost too heavy to push and, wet, not everything fit. I slung the hot-pink curtains over my shoulder. Across the room the man started to say something, then looked away.

It took a long time to get home, even longer to hang everything, although I did find a rope. Fog was rolling in.

I poured some coffee and sat on the back steps. I was happy. I felt calm, unhurried. Next time I’m on BART, I won’t even think about getting off until the train stops. When it docs, I’ll hop up and rush down the aisle, will get out just in time.

Read more of Lucia Berlin’s work in ZYZZYVA by purchasing a Selected Back Issue and choosing Issues 1, 4, 18, or 31.

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‘Landscape with Doe Eating Where She Does Not Belong’ by Daniel Neff, ZYZZYVA No. 113, Fall Issue

Landscape with DoeDaniel Neff’s poetry has appeared in Ninth Letter and Pittsburgh Poetry Review, among other publications. He is the winner of the Academy of American Poets Prize. His poem “Landscape with Doe Eating Where She Does Not Belong” is appears in ZYZZYVA No. 113. You can read the poem in its entirety below: 

1.

A garden is a landfill without the garbage. Garbage is consciousness
without the humans. If there are no humans and no consciousness, where
are we? The premise is flawed: gardens and landfills both have garbage,
but a difference in definition of terms. My garden is a landfill and yet
the only garbage is myself. (Let’s not talk about me, what about you
and your—and you eat your braised fallow round and juniper berries—
self?) This is not what happened. I am just a kaleidoscope. The world
is symmetry through stained glass. A doe stands on her head in the
shifting colors and runs away from you. The ones you killed and the
ones you loved.

2.

You sit, wearing leather wingtips, and play the accordion. I place cayenne
pepper on the bib lettuce so the deer won’t eat it all. I weed the garden
and remove all the onions because nobody needs to cry. My knees
are different shades because I’m kneeling in the dirt. You say, dirt is
earth
. And the Earth says, I am dirt. Which is correct? And which am
I crying into? Cutting onions is not the only way to shed tears. I hide
my face from you.

3.

If a pane of a kaleidoscope’s stained glass is broken, who’s to say that I’m
not just looking into a mirror? At dinner, I cooked the fallow doe in a dry
sangiovese red wine for you. Speaking in slurred words, the wine told
me, I have to save your life, but I don’t like the air in here. Is a corkscrew
not a little like a guillotine? Of course not, you say. The guillotine cut
heads off, but it never pulled heads out
. I burnt the parmesan asparagus.
The candlelight hurt my eyes. I had to put glasses on, but the colors
just kept spinning and condensing. You leaned over to kiss my mouth,
but I couldn’t see anything but the candle fire. It doesn’t mean you’ve
avoided anything. My lips still exist without your touch. That’s ridiculous.
Artifacts exist only with acknowledgement from the audience.

4.

You called my garden a landfill. The fallow doe is silent and drinks
from the river. You want me to kill her. I am silent and cut asparagus
for dinner. In my basket I separate the radishes from the radicchio, but
basil is everywhere. Basil doesn’t grow in landfills, but it does flavor
venison. I wear it behind my ears. When I stand to look at the doe, I’m
not sure I’m not conscious. The doe says I am abstract and I am garbage.
You shot her. This is logical.

Read more great poetry like “Landscape with Doe Eating Where She Does Not Belong” by ordering ZYZZYVA No. 113 today. 

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‘Mama’ by Emma Copley Eisenberg, ZYZZYVA No. 113, Fall Issue

MamaEmma Copley Eisenberg’s work has appeared in Granta, Virginia Quarterly Review, American Short Fiction, and other publications. Her first book, The Third Rainbow Girl, will be published by Hachette Books in 2020. Her short story “Mama” appears in ZYZZYVA No. 113. You can read an excerpt from the beginning of the story below: 

My daughter’s new girlfriend is big. Big mouth, big breast, a tuft of hair so curly it looks permed. My daughter Beth has one girlfriend already, the pint-sized Tomboy who drops by every Easter and Christmas.

Mark my words, says Donna from black-belt class, looking over my shoulder at the picture on my phone as we change into our uniforms. This will end in clusterfuck. No one can have their cake and eat it, too.

There’s no cake eating, I say, they know all about each other, and everyone knows what they’ve signed up for. Very modern. Not so different from when you were going out with that postal worker while driving loops around the Baltimore harbor late at night with a student of philosophy, hmm?

Well, Donna says, folding her capris into the locker’s highest shelf.

On the mats, I’m paired with a ponytailed man who goes down easy with a swift kick to the rump. He looks at the ceiling. I look at him. For I also have questions. I am only human. Two girlfriends! What does one alone person do with so much love?

 

Beth calls while I am prepping dinner to say they will leave the city after work then drive east to us through Friday night traffic.

Can we go to Chincoteague? she says, the sounds of her hospital bleeding through the Baltimore end of the line. Cara really wants to see ponies, she says, and I need to make it up to her.

What “it”? I say, but she’s already off the line.

Despite having money now, Beth still lives in crappy rentals with roommates and without blinds and moves every year. She likes to create harsh conditions so she can be proud of having overcome them.

The dogs stand on the couch, white, fluffy twins, watching out the window for Beth’s boxy sedan.

A watched pot never boils, I tell them.

That’s not real, Mike says, ever the lawyer. It’s just a thing to say.

I reach for my practice sword on the kitchen island where I left it, wave it between Mike’s face and the television where men are sporting against a green background.

Careful, I say.

 

Cara beats Beth to the mudroom door and comes in first. She gives me a bear hug then rests her wide jeaned butt atop the washing machine. She wears a button-down shirt that looks too soft and rounded to be for business. If I didn’t know better, I would think: pajamas. Earrings that hang down but don’t match. I like her already.

Beth appears, loaded down with gear. Beth looks like an eight-year-old boy in a blazer, but more underslept. She rubs her eyes with the tips of her fingers. Her hair has gone gray above both ears, which gives her a distinguished look. She’s thirty and a doctor of lungs now. When she moves to hug me, the ring of keys on her pants make a clanking sound against the travel mug on her backpack. She hugs me a long time.

Mama, she says.

 

I’m parched! cries Cara, shooting Beth a look. I get it, the AC in Beth’s car is broken, has been broken. The Tomboy and I have long since given up nagging Beth to get it fixed. But in the context of this new girlfriend, everything seems possible again.

Oh for God’s sake, I say to Beth, I’m calling my guy, he can take care of it tomorrow.

And to my great surprise Beth just flops her shoulders. Okay, she says.

They have eaten sweet potato burritos already from Tupperware in the car, but they want to drink. Beth, Cara, and I sit at the round kitchen table drinking small amounts of whiskey from large plastic glasses. Mike sits in the living room with his back to us. The brown recliner’s springs crack every time he reaches for the can in the carpet.

I’ve always wanted to come to the Eastern Shore, Cara says to me. Ever since I was a little kid and I read that book about Misty, this pony who roams Chincoteague. She was wild and free and ate sea plants and took no shit. She could kill any of the other ponies no problem.

That’s like my Mama, Beth says, tipping her plastic cup in my direction.

Oh yeah? Cara takes her own face in her hands, elbows on the table, and wiggles her weight side to side in the wood chair, making it creak, like a soft bird in a nest, brooding. She is soft at the tops of her arms and in the middle where her shirt is tighter, where Beth and the Tomboy and I are hard. Her shirt is definitely a pajama top.

Yeah, Beth says. Mama’s a black belt now, can take down anyone in her class, even the men. If I were a strange man, I would certainly think twice about messing with her.

I have always wanted to fight, Cara says. I have always had the fight inside me but never has the outside world provided an opportunity for its expression.

Lucky you, Beth says.

Don’t listen to her, I say, she’s a bad example.

I used to get into fights, says Beth.

Understatement of the century I say. Then remembering, I add, Punchy cake, punchy cake, punch me in the face.

My guy friends in high school, Beth explains. We used to say that to each other. Then in college, I walked around campus at night just saying it, until someone did.

And then she’d call me and cry, I say.

I never cried, Beth says.

Read “Mama” in its entirety by purchasing a copy of ZYZZYVA No. 113 today.

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