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‘Mrs. Sorry’ by Gabriela Garcia

ZYZZYVA Volume 35, #2, Fall 2019Below, we present Gabriela Garcia’s short story “Mrs. Sorry” from Issue 116:

The first time I see her, she is buying cold cream. What she wants, she says, is a moisturizer that doesn’t feel heavy, doesn’t sit on her skin like so much weight. I lay out her options: whipped argan oil, cold-pressed and refined; our new micro-beading exfoliating lotion with gentle 7 percent alpha hydroxy; the best-selling hyaluronic acid-plus-B-vitamins gel with all-day-stay technology, patent pending. Her red fingernails tap the counter as she slides a credit card with her other hand. She buys all of them.

A few days later I see her across my booth in the shoe department. She comes once a week, during the day, like so many other women. She wears Balmain jeans. I know about Balmain jeans from a Kid Cudi song. She wears red-soled heels and carries a snakeskin handbag. Looks like she smells of Chanel Nº 5, no, something even more expensive, that Jean Patou thousand-dollar bottle with ambergris from sperm whales and eight thousand jasmine flowers. I make ten dollars an hour, but I’m so close to wealth its lexicon roots in me. The woman reminds me of my mom when I was very young. The woman reminds me of my mom if my mom had been wealthy. You’re simply and unobtrusively classy, like a Céline bag, I say to her in a daydream.

My boyfriend is a pharmacy technician. For months he’s been slipping Roxicodone pill by pill in his socks. Easier than anyone would think, he says. I’m afraid of addiction, I’ve seen what it did to my parents.

But he’s slipping from me, and we’re starting to live in two worlds. Our relationship tastes of hillbilly heroin, itch, comforter covers tucked to the chin. Live this with me, he says one day, and I crush a tab and snort it. It feels like we are sitting by the ocean wrapped in towels, and when he holds my hand it feels warm and slippery like a velvet jellyfish or maple syrup. I wait for him to say he loves me but he doesn’t.

The woman’s husband comes around Christmastime. By then I’ve been high every Friday, and it’s a Saturday after. After is slow and sad, a vessel sucked dry. The woman’s husband is handsome, with legs too spindly for his body, like a gazelle in a suit. She walks him to my counter and says he needs a cream for his dry skin but nothing that smells flowery. Then she walks away to browse shoes, and I tell the husband about our line of men’s products in blue-black containers that suggest sailorly conquest and rapacious strength. I’m sorry for my wife, the husband says, she sounds so dumb sometimes. I do not know how to respond, so I say do you use a daily antioxidant to battle signs of premature aging. He frowns and walks away. I place a hand on the cold glass counter and picture it cracking under my weight. I am thin and wispy like a bowl of feathers, like crumpled paper tumbling in the wind. Nothing cracks in my presence.

At home, my boyfriend sleeps. All he does now is sleep. I make dinner and set the table but he does not wake. I curl beside him on the couch and say hello I am home but he does not wake. I lay my head over his chest and listen to his heart beat beat beat and I kiss his chin. Love me, I whisper. Look how happy we are, I say.

The next day the woman is back with her husband. He holds her bicep, his knuckles red but not cracked like my boyfriend’s. I know his hands would be soft in mine. Hers, too.

I thought you bought a moisturizer yesterday, the woman says. She fiddles with the ring on her finger. I thought yesterday I brought you— We didn’t come here yesterday, honey, the man interrupts.

No, we did—I mean I think we did—and I said you didn’t want anything flowery, the woman says.

Honey, the man says, the fact that you keep imagining these things is really starting to worry me.

He smiles at me and the smile is so warm I imagine a stone that sloughs the dead skin from my body.

I am so sorry, the man says to me, and I want his hand gripping my bicep, too. When he buys the cream in the blue-black container, he does what no one has ever done for me—hands me a tip, fifty dollars. You’re beautiful, he says, and his wife looks away.

The woman still comes alone during the week. But now I notice what I hadn’t before. Her eyes are red-rimmed like my father’s when he was dying of cirrhosis of the liver. Her hands tremble each time she picks up a shoe to inspect it. She is forgetful and often buys the same product she bought a day before or returns something she already has. She apologizes so often I begin to call her Mrs. Sorry to myself.

I don’t see the husband with her again until after the holiday season, until after my boyfriend loses his job. I see them together the week my boyfriend is caught by his boss. He paces the whole week yelling and throwing things. He is afraid he’ll be arrested. Two days after his last dose he is sweating and shaking and curled like a fetus on soaked sheets until his friends bring him a syringe of real heroin and he is okay again. It is the beginning of the end for me but I don’t know this yet. We are headed to hell hand-in-hand but I don’t know this yet. I just know the husband with his wife standing before me and the husband says, she doesn’t want to get an eyelift even though I tell her she looks awful with all those wrinkles. He tells me I’m pretty again and says, give her something that will at least make it better. I lay out the options on the counter and the woman looks from one bottle to the next and her eyes begin to water and I beg her in my head please don’t cry please don’t cry please don’t cry. She doesn’t cry. She doesn’t buy anything. The next day when they show up again she’s wearing dark Jackie O glasses and try as I might, I can’t see her eyes.

I thought I came here, she says, her voice shaking. I thought I— She doesn’t want to get an eye lift even though I tell her she looks terrible, the husband says.

My hand is shaking and her hand is shaking and all I can think is a syringe doesn’t really hurt that much, it’s just a pinch.

When the woman walks away, the husband hands me a blue-black container in its package and says, Also I would like to return this.

I say, You didn’t buy that here. We don’t sell that here.

Yes you do, he says, I see it right behind you on that shelf. I have the receipt, he says.

You didn’t buy that here, I repeat. And I know I’ll be fired and I know that neither my boyfriend nor I will have a job and I know that he will never love me and I know that he will end me but I feel like a truck, I feel like a boulder at the edge of a cliff, I feel like I could crush everything beneath my weight. You didn’t buy that here, I say. I will not accept this, I say.

Gabriela Garcia’s novel, Of Women and Salt, is forthcoming from Ecco/HarperCollins. You can read her work by purchasing Issue 116 from our Shop page.

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‘Hangover 1.1.2019’ by sam sax

ZYZZYVA Volume 35, #3, Winter 2019The following is sam sax’s poem “Hangover 1.1.2019” from Issue 117 in its entirety:

Like a hammer swung into antique champagne flutes
Like a family heirloom traded for a Twix
Like a red dictionary dropped from a replica famous bridge
Like a robe made out of skin that, turns out, is your skin & oops you must wear it
Like the man who lives in your occipital lobe slowly whittles a sad stick and sighs
Like a headwrap made of crane flies
Like a framed section of your brain hanged in a museum
Like a school of hungry kids all banging their forks & knives at once

Maybe that’s all a bit much

All i’m trying to say is last night i drank
Attempting to celebrate the end of a terrible year
In preparation for an even worse one

& despite the coming & current devastations
The Private & public executions of the soul
The laws passed to unstitch the eyes from camera phones
—still we managed to assemble some friends
to drink clear liquors & eat factoried chickens.

& a part of me loves it, this morning
how this is a pain of my own making

this throb—a diamond lodged in my head

sam sax is a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Sanford University and the author of Bury It (Wesleyan University Press), winner of the James Laughlin Award, and lives in Oakland. You can read more of sam sax’s poetry by ordering Issue 117 from our Shop page.

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‘Hospitality’ by Michelle Latiolais

ZYZZYVA Volume 35, #2, Fall 2019Below, we present an excerpt from Michelle Latiolais’ essay “Hospitality” from Issue 116. You can read the essay in its entirety by purchasing the Issue from our Shop page.

If a diner had to ask, for escargot tongs, or for the tiny fork for prizing out the snail, for a napkin, or more of the delicious butter from Normandy, we had failed. To be asked to bring the pepper mill…but a table already had their dinner salads…hmm, no. One brought the pepper mill to the table beneath one’s arm, salads balanced along wrists and forearms. What course came next, what items would be needed for the consumption of that course, these were first laid down, ready to be put to use, the bone dish for the trout, the deep bowl for mussel shells. Any need that we could anticipate, we did, setting down the sugar and coffee spoons, a small pitcher of cream, long before the French press pot arrived at the table. It was rather perverse psychology, certainly contrary to hospitality, to bring something to the table and then to make the diner wait for whatever was needed for them to eat or drink this item. Excitement was in the table prepared for them to partake, ready and waiting, and then the course set down, perhaps turned a bit to make sure it was presented, meat closest to the diner, for their ease with fork and knife, and the rest, say potatoes and various vegetables or purées at the top of the plate nearest the middle of the table. If it were a steak that had been ordered, or roast duck, the more serious knife with a serrated edge had been laid down beside the dinner knife long before these entrees arrived. Tending to a table of diners was a readiness, a quiet vigilance, not an afterthought. We were taking care of them. It wasn’t servitude; it was care. Our eyes were always taking a table in, assessing its condition, its needs, its direction, and usually this from a comfortable distance, gauging also the conversation, the tenor of the table, what was happening there—without exactly listening—looking for pauses, feeling the vibes, easy or demanding, tense or jolly, or was there a clock on the meal, a show or the opera to be gotten to, or were people there for an evening out, dining, perhaps a conversation needing time and some ease within which it might unfold … within which it might get to the more difficult aspects.

One did not talk at a table, or approach speaking to the table already, interrupting the conversation. If you had a question, something that needed to be settled, that hadn’t been settled at ordering, then one approached and waited for a break before asking, waiting to be acknowledged, looked up at. It wasn’t some sort of servile deference; it was common politeness not to just talk at or over people.

We watched. We listened. We brought lovely food to people, much of it simple. It was theatre. We had a great time. We made a lot of money, too, and we made it because we were good at something, something exquisite really, something vital to how food was presented and consumed. Our chefs trusted us. Their plates left the pass-through perfectly appointed and garnished and they arrived at the table looking that way, and they were presented for the work they displayed, work done for that diner expressly. How busy the restaurant was—and I worked in two restaurants that were always busy, Au Relais in Sonoma and Le St. Tropez in San Francisco—did not matter. A sloppy plate was a sloppy plate, and to set that down at a table was a bad reflection on you as much as on the chef; we didn’t do it. Some drop of sauce, some mound tumbled from its placement, the plate was set down and neatened. If it was worth doing, then it was worth doing well. I don’t ever remember resenting any of this, or finding it silly, or unimportant. How could caring for people, making sure they ate well, how could that ever be ironized, ridiculed, and we didn’t. But we were not pretentious about it, either, and therein lies a difference, a great one. Pretentiousness versus care, and I do draw distinctions, though I am assured of ridicule from a crew that already thinks I’m trafficking in pretention, caring in any way about any of this. They are wrong, of course, and there will always be those who run the horses through the garden, who clap their buds on the shoulder, angrily happy in their brutality. Of course. And I assure you they were not cared for at some formative time in their lives.

Assholes. Sure. We were good at waiting on them, too. We drew distinctions. An asshole’s first time dining at Le St. Tropez, an asshole handled well, might mean a customer for life, “a regular.” We were good at creating regulars; our incomes depended on regulars, the restaurant depended on regulars, we weren’t stupid about our work, its ur source, and so grumpy people being greeted by the host or hostess, being seated, their unsmiling faces casting about the restaurant, “What is this place? Why’s it so popular? Is it going to cost my child’s first year of college?”—we could see these faces, faces not quite ready to have a good meal, a good time, an easy time. I knew to bring our delicious bread and butter to the table, sometimes a bowl of radishes and salt, I knew to get some food down in front of tables like this, to get their blood sugar up, though we didn’t use those phrases, the pseudo medical, the pseudo scientific—we just thought, oh, they’re hungry. We said to the busboy “stick a roll in it.” And it was amazingly true. A complete raging asshole fed just a bit of bread often calmed down immediately and was civilized the rest of the dinner. We knew that person needed to be fed, to be taken care of a little, was just hungry, a venial sin, not a cardinal one.

Then there was the asshole who’d gotten talked into French food, lordy! and was so out of his depth, so uncomfortable, so insecure in his role as diner, male diner, that he had defaulted to difficulty. We knew when to say, “May I show you a wine that I think would go beautifully with your veal and duck, a wine that won’t break the bank, too. We had a bottle at family dinner,” and sometimes the man would ask, “Oh, you all eat together,” and the exchange would become familiar, familial, as though the couple were dining with all of us, at home. There were so many ways to put a diner at ease, particularly one footing the bill, one already uncomfortable with that prospect, one refusing to enjoy this experience because the bill loomed, and loomed large. We were all just an evening’s tips away from the sidewalk ourselves; we understood a diner like this, and any whiff of inflating the bill, or nudging it up, well, that would undermine all of our good work, would ensure that man and his wife never graced our doorway again.

In many ways, eating out at a good restaurant was the working man’s luxury, and when Le St. Tropez did better during the recession than it had ever done, we all realized that a good meal out was at most a hundred dollars, or a few hundred dollars; it wasn’t a fur coat, a yacht. Almost anyone could afford that, and we loved these diners because we became their luxury, their trip to Hawaii, their relaxation, their trip to Europe, an evening of a different culture.

Unreadable assholes, or assholes who seemingly were constitutionally that, well, you waited their table in the most blameless, impeccable manner; it was on them, and you made sure it remained on them. Our owner was good about this, too. An impossible customer was an impossible customer; did we really want him or her back anyway? After all, if someone can’t be pleased no matter what you do, or how well you treat them, then perform exquisitely, but deduct the prospect of appreciation. Chalk it up for what it is, an impossible situation. Forget about them. If those customers came back maybe it was because a restaurant’s staff had performed anonymity and that’s what the customer sought, or the staff had treated him or her well no matter how badly they had behaved, and that alone could be the test, whether or not you’d let them control your behavior. We didn’t; we were consummate professionals, as we’d often joke later … and they were consummate assholes.

Our chef at Le St. Tropez was known for his paté, and it was delicious, and once, a man, holding a cigarette in his hand as he spoke to me, complained about the paté, that he didn’t think it was well flavored or salted enough, or some such cavil. How hard it was not to say, well, you’re smoking and pretty much all you can taste is your cigarette and the sugars of the slurries the tobacco was cured in. Shut the fuck up! Harder still not to tell the chef, who had been known to appear in the restaurant holding a chef’s knife in his hand, toweling it off as though to have it immaculate before plunging it into someone’s heart. It was all great fun, and it was all very serious, too. Every bit of a diner’s experience had been thought about, had been prepared for, and to have petty and wildly idiosyncratic grousing brought everyone down, even if we had serious aesthetic resources by which we could rebuff a complaint. Nothing got struck from the record, went unheard, went un-discussed or un-thought about.

Michelle Latiolais is a professor of English at University of California, Irvine. The author of several books of fiction, her most recent novel is She (Norton). In Issue 111, she was interviewed by Matt Sumell. You can read her essay “Hospitality” in its entirety in Issue 116

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‘The Rough Beast Takes a Painting Class’ by Alexandra Teague

We present Alexandra Teague’s poem “The Rough Beast Takes a Painting Class” from Issue 115 in its entirety: 

The surface of American society is covered with a layer of democratic paint, but from time to time one can see the old aristocratic colours breaking through.
—Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

The teacher says white is not truly a color,
containing as it does, all wavelengths of visible light.

She says the Rough Beast’s claws might be useful later
for scraffito—to scratch back through to what’s beneath:

cyan and magenta; Goldman-Sachs and Donald Trump.
The teacher says Trump is not a color. But everyone knows

he’s on the wheel between Versailles-mirror-hall and rosebush
with limp orange petals and a shitstorm of thorns. All the brushes’ bristles

are made of his hair. It’s hard to keep the paint from clumping.
The Best Color Wheel is segregated into swaths—no way to spin it

like a Twister spinner: blueviolettangerinecharcoalforesttealyellow.
No way to step on two colors with the same foot at once.

The teacher says there is no color called Keep Out,
although the Beast has seen it. In pointillism, the world

sieves into so many tiny dots—a thousand points of light—
until it’s hard to tell which dot amid the swan boat dot

parasol dot lakes with a golfcourse dot is democracy.
She shows battleships dazzle-painted in Cubist camouflage:

black and white angles and stripes like a flotilla of zebras.
This was supposed to confuse torpedoes. She doesn’t say

if the lesson shows the limits of deception or imagination.
She arranges a still life to keep everything still: a peacock’s

hues simmered down to two glimmering feathers, a skull
resting loudly by a fruitbowl. No one would eat a Cezanne apple,

she explains, meaning people want realism more than truth.
Good apples do not complain about the light that hits them.

Alexandra Teague is the author of the novel The Principles Behind Flotation (Skyhorse) and the forthcoming poetry collection Or What We Call Desire, to be published by Persea in May. You can find her poetry in Issue 115

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‘Session Drummer’ by Tommy Orange, ZYZZYVA No. 116

ZYZZYVA Volume 35, #2, Fall 2019This holiday, we present Tommy Orange’s short story “Session Drummer” from Issue 116 in its entirety.

I’m on a train and it’s Saturday so I don’t have to work, but when I’m not working Saturday I’m usually working. I mean it’s work only because I get paid and need the money, but it’s playing drums—like a drum set in a studio. I’m a sometimes session drummer working mainly at this studio in West Oakland where people know me as a good enough drummer to call when they need a good enough drummer for a usually mediocre album project. What I do for a living, as they say, is to wash windows. I wash building windows no one else wants to clean at the risk of falling to their deaths at fall-to-your-death-high heights. The pay is actually pretty good, because of the risk that a cable could potentially snap and I could fall to splat. I like the sky on glass better than I do the sky—I like to make it shine. I don’t need the money I get for drumming, but it’s nice to get extra money especially ’cause I’m always helping out my dad. I don’t like to think or talk about my dad and that is maybe precisely why I always do.

Sometimes when I’m looking out the window of a train I’ll find myself sort of accidentally narrating in my head about human behavior and activity like some fucked up anthropologist and it’s really sad, but I don’t usually catch myself doing it until it’s too late.

The year’s just hours old and everything feels new and not in a good way. Christmas just passed and I spent it with my dad and his wife for the first time. I guess we have our shit together enough to feel okay celebrating together and not fighting; to be able to afford gifts, to care enough that each one of us cares enough to get together at all. I had the thought over the holidays that this new administration is like the ghost of America’s Christmas past. But then I thought America is not Scrooge and probably won’t have a change of heart anytime soon anyway. And then I had the thought that America is Scrooge and will have a change of heart sometime soon probably?

It smells like piss and new-car on this train, with a faint trace of cigarettes, bourbon, and burnt rubber, or condom rubber, or both; all of them are there in the smell that I smell just now as I pass an especially sinister-looking man on the second to last train. He’s white, like poor-white, and desperate-seeming enough to be entirely untrustworthy, he says something about it being his birthday that I ignore and he just stares hard at me like he’s trying to force something out of me, like with his dark eyes under thick dark brows, he’s trying to move further in, past the surface of my face, as he watches me watch him, loving that I’m, if not scared, then at the very least acutely aware of his presence.

* * *

I get to the studio late ’cause my dad called me when I was almost there and told me some shit about his wife that made me stop in my shoes. Is that a saying? No, sorry, it’s that I stopped dead in my tracks, but my shoes are what stopped, with my feet wearing them and me looking down amazed that I’m surprised he’s once again lost it.

“She took all my clothes and gave ’em to the homeless,” my dad had said. I didn’t know what to say so I didn’t say anything. “She took all the money I keep under the mattress I was gonna pay you back with so now you’re gonna have to wait a little longer.” I didn’t want to have to tell my dad that if he had enough money under his mattress to pay me back why did it go under the mattress in the first place and not to me.

“She’s off her meds,” he said. I’d loaned him $2,000 to get a new used car after he told me she’d taken his car and refused to give it back. This was before the holidays when all of our problems seemed to disappear. The thing about my stepmom’s supposed mental health problems is that they’re not hers but my dad’s. I play along like he’s living with a criminal, like he’s the victim, because when he gets to where he gets to it’s the only way. I’ve known his wife, Carol, long enough to know she genuinely has his best interests in mind. I genuinely don’t know why she stays with him. Or I do know—hate that I know—and don’t want to know because of how much it’s related to why I keep caring about him. Abusive people can be charming is something no one likes to admit. Carol’s one of these white women who worships Native American men even while these men like my dad knowingly take advantage of the fact that white women like my stepmom worship them.

My parents split when I started high school. The non-fight over custody hurt. Meaning my dad didn’t fight to have time with me. The strands that connected us to any shared sense of reality had been coming looser and looser over the years, way before he was accusing my stepmom of shit I knew was some kind of crazy sabotage related to his being particularly self-destructive via a most likely undiagnosed bipolar diagnosis. I’m maybe like him in ways I can’t see. That’s the fucked up thing about not seeing: you don’t see what you don’t see, or you see what other people don’t see when they don’t see, but never your own.

* * *

Producers—like directors and doctors—are control monsters. Have god complexes. I like the guy I’ll be playing for today. His name is Dennis. He’s an old white guy who always wears a beret and actually pulls it off. Normally I don’t like berets on anyone unless it’s in a black-and-white picture. Or if they’re from another country and I’m seeing them in a movie. Dennis is pretty old or looks that way anyway, and once you get old enough you can wear any kind of hat you want.

They’re all smoking a blunt on the sound engineer’s side of the glass. I’d hit it once then come onto this side of the glass to sit on the throne. That’s a fancy name for a drummer’s stool. I’m trying to get this dream I just remembered to go back where it came from. Something about a giant robot made of arcade machines. We were in a battle against people from the City. Eating heads gave the robot power. I was helping the robot lure people close enough to him that he could suck their heads into his vacuum arms bloodlessly, which would make his glow get brighter, and he’d grow a little. I felt good. We were winning. We were getting stronger. We needed more heads. I don’t know or care what the dream means right now ’cause I’m about to play. But here it sits with me on the throne, heavy like an impossibly shaped crown on the top of my headphoned head which hears all the nonsense they’re talking on the other side of the glass.

* * *

The session goes well but it’s a little boring because they keep punching in guitar licks where the producer doesn’t think the timing’s quite right. It’s an indie rock band full of white guys not as good as session players who care about making a good album more than they do playing on it. All I pretty much do is watch the producer watch the lead singer, watch the session guitarist, Eric, who’s very good, and black, unable to listen to the vague directions the producer keeps giving him about hitting it right. You don’t hit guitar licks. You might rip, or shred, or some other apt verb—that verb you do on the guitar—but you don’t hit. Finding out the band’s name is the worst part of my day: Radical Enjambment.

* * *

I get back on the train headed for my dad’s apartment over in San Leandro. I didn’t tell him I’m coming. I know he’d leave if I told him I was coming. I see his call coming in and intuit he wants to know where I am. I know he knows I might be coming over.

“Hey, son,” he says, casually like he’s happy I answered for reasons related to wanting to hear my voice when I know it’s because he wants answers from me related to whether or not I’m coming over.

Hey dad sorry I can’t talk right now, I text like I’m busy, which will make him think I’m occupied somewhere and most likely not headed to his apartment. The weird thing about mental illness, or whatever you want to call it, is how you can end up closer to a parent more fucked up to you than the one who loves you better because of having gone through shit and coming out together—if you can.

* * *

I’m at eye level with the J15 on his front door. I don’t knock because I know him. He’ll not answer. There’s an eyehole and he’s an asshole. He’ll see me and say no to us having an encounter today, no to my knock. He’ll not come to the door to even say it, he’ll say it by not having to say it. He’ll be somewhere far off from where anyone should rightfully be. Shit’s fucked up for some people and has been for long enough to where it will feel normal to the point of comfortable for people who have had to get used to it. But I do knock only I duck and move to the left of the door where he can’t see me from the eyehole or his front window. When the door opens and he pops his head out to see both ways I get up like I was tying my shoes and make sure he can’t close the door by stepping through it. The house is a mess to say the least and to say the most would be to say it both smelled and looked like puke.

“Where you been?” is what my dad asks me sitting shirtless and pantless but with yellow-white worn underwear—sitting but maybe more leaning—on his couch. “You haven’t been here,” he says to me like he’s saying, You don’t know me.

“I’m not here about money,” I say.

“Everyone’s here about money,” he says.

“You know what I mean,” I say.

“You don’t is something we won’t talk about,” he says.

“Dad she’s not against you,” I say.

“She keeps taking everything,” he says, then stands on the couch like that’s something someone should do when they really mean to mean something.

“You’re the one, Dad. You’ve always been the one,” I say.

“You know you don’t know, son.” This thing he says as a statement seems at once entirely true and false at once, because I do know that it always comes back to him and what he does to us—we, the anyone forced to explain that it’s we who love ourselves wrong, and not him when aiding and abetting his madness.

“All I’m saying is get it together, if not for you then for us,” I say, and I don’t know exactly who I mean by us.

“Everyone always thinks they have it more together than we do,” he says.

“Who do you mean by ‘we’?”

“Who do you mean by ‘us’?” he says and steps off of the couch and goes to the fridge for a bottle of sparkling apple juice.

“You’re off your meds,” I say as a statement but mean as a question.

“What are yours?”

“I’m here to tell you it’s okay about the money, I don’t need it,” I say.

“Who does?”

“Dad you’re not treating me right. I’m gonna go,” I say.

“But who does need money,” he says.

“I work for a living. I wash windows way up in the air where the sky shows brighter than when I look at it in the sky. And I do other stuff to make a living. I play drums. They pay me to do that, too. I didn’t live the life you lived but I lived one inside of the one you lived. I know you may not hear this even as I’m saying it but I’m saying it because I know things said can live longer than the span of their sound in the air,” I say. His back is to me, he’s bent into the fridge looking for something or not looking but hoping something will come from inside the fridge he never could have thought to look for.

“I work for a living,” he says. I walk to the front door and I grab hold of the knob. I drum my fingers on the knob from pinky to thumb with the pinky meaning the highest note I hear in my head and the thumb the lowest. What I’m drumming is what I’m feeling and I don’t know exactly what it means. I’m waiting because I know he was just repeating something I said and not actually saying something, and because I know he likes to have the last word.

“You haven’t lived the life I’ve lived inside the life I’ve lived, son,” he says. And he walks out of the room meaning to me it’s already been time to go.

* * *

In the car I keep flipping back and forth between listening to music and the radio and podcasts then going to the silence of my loud head about my dad and how much he or I could possibly know about each other at all. I get to a red light and it seems to stay red forever. It keeps staying red. While it refuses to change I think about the future past and present as the same dreaded thing to think about. The light stays red and I don’t even know where I’m going or why. All I know is that I’m here red waiting for green, and my dad is at home and we can’t possibly understand ourselves or even anything.

Tommy Orange is the author of the New York Times best-selling novel There There (Knopf), a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize. You can purchase Issue 116, which features his story “Session Drummer,” via our Shop page.

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‘A Special Kind of Freedom in Failure: A Conversation with Jim Gavin,’ ZYZZYVA No. 116

Jim Gavin Interview Excerpt
Jim Gavin’s fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Zoetrope, Esquire, Slice, The Mississippi Review, and ZYZZYVA. Based in Los Angeles, he is also the creator of the critically-acclaimed television series Lodge 49, now in its second season. You can watch Lodge 49 on AMC every Monday night at 10pm. Issue 116 features a Q&A with Gavin, an excerpt from which appears below:

OSCAR VILLALON: As a prose writer, as somebody who conceives of narrative through the written word, how did you go about recalibrating your sense of telling a story for a visual medium?

JIM GAVIN: I have a dumb theory that “style”—as in the thing that defines a writer’s voice and relationship to language—comes about through an entirely negative process. You figure out what you’re bad at, and you avoid it whenever possible. The things I suck at include getting inside a character’s head, describing thoughts and moods through metaphor, constructing anything that might resemble a plot…the list goes on. What’s left for me is dialogue. That’s where I feel comfortable, and until a character speaks I have no idea what I’m doing.

Any sustained piece of writing I’ve done has started with a line of dialogue; I’ll hear a line that somehow defines the character entirely and I’ll write toward that. Only that character would say that line in that moment in that way. Everything starts there and it must hold true for every character on the page.

Another big thing for me: I want to entertain. I have nothing profound or original to say about anything, but I think I can keep some tension on the page, make you invest in a character, make you laugh, and make you at least want to know what happens next. So my “style”—all the things I avoid doing—happens to translate well to TV. As a television writer, my ears are more important than my eyes. I have to hear the voice of the characters and the dialogue has to have a rhythm that’s true to the character. Once that’s in place, the script goes to the director and cinematographer, who use their eyes and brains to translate the story visually and geometrically: frames, camera moves, etc. I will sometimes write those things in, but on set my main job is to make sure the tone, in terms of sound and delivery, is clicking along.

Most important, of course, are the actors who have to capture all of it—sight and sound—in one fluid package. Our amazing cast makes it look easy, but it’s an insanely difficult thing to do, and it has to be done under the pressure of the moment. Watching all of these elements come together is a special joy.

OV: To your point about dialogue, more than one writer has said how important it is that prose sounds “right” to the ear, in the same way, I think, that the words out of a character’s mouth sound “right,” too. I’m thinking here of Philip Roth’s writing, especially the Zuckerman books, and how one critic called Roth one of the great “talkers” of fiction.

Do you find yourself calibrating dialogue differently now that you’re familiar with how the show’s actors have conceived of your characters?

JG: The whole first season was written before we cast, so our actors could absorb much of the world and their characters right from the beginning. The joy of working with great actors is that they always elevate lines and moments. There are gestures, pauses, little spins of emphasis that I could never conceive of when writing it. Writing the second season was much different because I did have our actor’s voices in my head, and I could write toward that a little. Lodge 49 has a distinct tone and from the beginning all of our actors have been tuned into it and they amplify it beautifully.

OV: How would you describe that tone? To me it’s something like what Geoff Dyer wrote in his book Broadsword to Danny Boy to describe Clint Eastwood in Where Eagles Dare: electric lethargy.

JG: That’s not a bad description. I think much of the tone comes out of the fact that our characters are not aspirational. Dud’s been described as a “slacker” when in fact he’s someone who had a job and vocation that he liked for most of his adult life and it’s been taken away from him. Our characters don’t ask much from life and find pleasure in small mercies like a good donut.

You can read the interview with Jim Gavin in its entirety in Issue 116, now on sale. 

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“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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