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The Slippery Nature of Nonfiction: Q&A with Jackie Bang

Jackie Bang (photo by Ahmed Freundlich )

Jackie Bang’s story “Silver Mailbox,” which appears in the Winter 2011 issue of ZYZZYVA, is either a heavily fictionalized piece of nonfiction or a heavily factual piece of fiction. Or perhaps something else. The story of a Washington couple — the Miner and the Collector — and the recently-arrived infants brought into their brood, it’s a stylized piece of writing that leaves you eager to learn of the fates of these strange but compelling people. We talked to Jackie Bang via email about her story and the larger work of hers from which it’s taken.

ZYZZYVA: “Silver Mailbox” is the first story from a work-in-progress of yours. Could you tell me more about this larger work?

Jackie Bang: Yes, “Silver Mailbox” is currently the first story in True Tales of the Incognito Circus, a nonfiction book I’m working on that hopscotches between my humble beginnings and my humble now; it is an anti-memoir (a memoir that challenges the general rules and expectations of memoir), a book that gives equal consideration to the faux-horror film Gremlins and to the origins of certain Mormon doctrine. I think aside from this humility (i.e., the being-poor aspect) what binds all these stories together is the recognition that absurdity might as well be grace.

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The secret to perfect crust is to touch it as little as possible. Jill washes her hands and then gathers the dough into a ball, rolling it out on the countertop. The dough presses into cracks in the old laminate, and she hopes it’s not picking up too much grime. She bought the marble rolling pin special for today, along with eight little aluminum pie tins and child-sized aprons, printed with strawberries and trimmed with eyelet, like something from the 1950s.

“How very Martha,” Liz joked, when Liam tried one on over his dinosaur underpants. “Why I need a skirt to cook?” he asked. He has never seen either of his mothers in an apron. Jill doesn’t wear one to cook, and Liz doesn’t cook.

For Liam’s fourth birthday, he wants a baking party. He loves to help Jill in the kitchen, flinging oily salad greens onto the table, lunging for onions as she’s slicing them, punching at the blender before she has secured the lid. The kitchen wall is splattered with dried pesto and smoothie. He is gaining independence, she reminds herself, borrowing a technique from a parenting book that advised reframing criticism in a positive way. Stubborn becomes determined; whiny is insistent; annoying is spirited. According to this book, children model what they see, echo what they hear, and perform to expectations. Jill and Liz have high expectations for Liam, although of course he can be whatever he wants. At the moment, he wants to be a bus driver or Batman, insisting he does too know who Batman is, although they don’t have a TV and he’s never been exposed to violent cartoons—not like the ones Jill used to watch as a kid, a relentless chase of predator and prey.

She surveys the kitchen, checking to make sure everything is ready for the preschool onslaught. She has rolled out the crust and cut it into circles, so the kids can press it into the little pie tins. The cinnamon, sugar, and butter have been pulsed to a crumb. All that’s left is to peel and slice the apples, which she’ll do at the last minute so that they don’t brown.

It’s hard work, giving little kids the illusion of being in charge, having to do everything for them while allowing them to think they’re doing it all by themselves. For a moment, Jill regrets having insisted that she didn’t need help with this party, sending Liz off to the med school library to study for finals. “It’s just eight kids,” she said, “Hardly brain surgery.” This is their new joke, now that Liz is a resident in neurology. “It’s the least I can do,” she said, meaning, at least I can do this. The truth is, Jill prefers being alone with small children. Only when she is by herself with them can she be herself with them.

“Is it time for my baking party?” Liam says, seizing her by the legs and peering up at her, flushed with anticipation. For the past two weeks, ever since he placed invitations in each of the cubbies at preschool, he has climbed into their bed every morning, asking, “Is it my party today? Why it’s not now yet? When’s it going to be now?” With expectations that high, Jill feared that he was bound to be disappointed, but Liz pointed out that so far, even when things don’t live up to his fantasies, he doesn’t seem to realize it. He’s still innocent like that, still their sweet baby. She leans down to lift the hem of his T-shirt, which says, “Boys Can Too Wear Pink,” planting her lips on his sticky belly. Before they had Liam, she found kids a little repellent, in a way she remembers like a fact but can no longer feel. Nothing about him disgusts her, not really, not yet. She wonders if it ever could.

The buzzer sounds and Liam bounds to the front door. All of the kids seem to spill in at once—Beckett and Kai, Oscar P., Oscar M., Jasper and Penelope—dutifully greeting her, hiliamsmama, before relinquishing wrapped presents on the hall table and chasing after him down the hall to his bedroom, or rather the room that is half his bedroom, half her office. One-quarter her office, if she’s going to be honest. Ten percent and shrinking.

Penelope’s mommy—her name is Nicole, Jill reminds herself—asks to use the bathroom, and Jill wonders if she should invite her to stay for coffee. She runs through the list of what she knows about this woman. Nicole is an endodontist (how is that different from being a dentist?), and a rabid Giants fan; she boasted that she didn’t take off the team shirt for the two weeks they played the World Series, although mysteriously it never seemed to get dirty. Her daughter, Penelope, is Jill’s favorite kid in the class, almost freakishly good at everything she tries, a butch three-year-old with the face of a middle-aged woman and a will of steel. She and Liam are best friends, when they’re not at each other’s throats. A toddler power couple.

Nicole trails after her daughter into Liam’s bedroom/Jill’s office. This morning, Jill got out a Mexican oil cloth, patterned with baskets of fruit, and laid it over her desk, covering it with finger paint and construction paper and Play-Doh, before changing her mind and putting everything away again, instead setting up a stack of the books she’s researching for her dissertation—some by her former grad school classmates—their intriguing titles facing out. She was aware of herself creating a still life: Woman as Scholar. Sometimes, at the preschool drop off, she sees the other mothers eyeing her in her yoga pants, and worries that they think she’s some kind of lady of leisure, some desperate housewife. Liz thinks it’s hilarious that she cares at all what “the other mommies” think, but Liz is going to be a brain surgeon. She never has to drop Liam off at school.

“That’s so cute,” Nicole says, smoothing Liam’s quilt, each square made from a vintage flour sack. “Where did you get it?”

“Actually I made it,” Jill says, not sure whether to be proud or embarrassed of her little craft project. She remembers piecing this quilt while Liz lay on her side in the last trimester of her pregnancy, on bed rest due to high blood pressure. Jill wanted to finish the quilt by the due date, but Liam came three weeks early.

“You’re such a good mom,” Nicole says.

“Thanks,” Jill says.

“I wish I had more time to make cute stuff.”

It’s hardly a criticism, but Jill feels prickly nonetheless. She wants to set the record straight, establish that she doesn’t spend her days doing needlepoint. For the past five years, she has been working on a dissertation on captivity narratives in early American literature, an irony that’s not lost on her. There is no expiration date on when she can file, but neither is anyone waiting with baited breath. Every few weeks, she opens the document entitled “work in prog,” and skims a few pages, marveling at how fluid and unfamiliar the language seems. She can’t remember having had those thoughts, shaped those sentences. They talk about “Mommy brain,” but Liz is the one who gave birth to Liam, the one who was flooded with hormones, who could have used this as a justification for slacking off, not that she ever did. Liz may be the biological mother, but somehow Jill became the wife.

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Savior Gal

There once was a baby born in a shoe, wedge, open toe open heel, Florida
balmy breezes, monsoons, then a single wide white trashed trailer, inauspicious
plastic laundry basket her manger in that backwater Bethlehem.

She grew out of place fast, had the twins, bought a rip-off Gucci bag
in Times Square, raised her kids in its deep pockets, leather and fringe,
no bondage buckles, ‘til they were grown and unemployable. They slept days,
trolled the nasty nights, kept their St. Christopher medals, she’d given, hidden.

She couldn’t find her post trauma Viet vet in the dark in the handbag,
but she threw him a PBJ every day. He left no crumbs. She’d had a baker’s
dozen boyfriends—leather, jeans, cigarette-burned tweeds. Done,
she got her testosterone fix from football nation and the bottom drawer,
but when Mr. Goodwrench got his gadget up her what’s it, she tossed
that rotating spinning vibrating chrome-plate piece of unholy.

She began blond, then blond on blond became a gray-root halo.
Something about her…They come to the diner because they want
to be near her, slinging hash, waitressing—old men “Hel-lo, Mr. Universe,”
women “Sunday got ya sweetie? Have biscuits. Two buck miracles.”

She brings home tips, puts them in the coin purse, curls up
around it, sleeps in heavenly peace (repeat) sleeps in heavenly peace.

She dreams—She’s on an empty city street, she knows if she waits long enough
the circus will come to town, and it does, clowns tumble out, and one clown
helps her find the joke, and she dies laughing,

and she speeds Wherever, in a big white truck like Daddy did—windshield
swipes, hound, chains, painted flames—wearing this cute black T, “Live fast
die pretty,” Garden of Eden tattooed on her inner thigh, no serpent this time
only apples amen.

Elizabeth Robinson is a retired elementary school teacher who lives in Phoenix, Oregon. “Savior Gal” is one of her two poems in ZYZZYVA’s Fall issue.

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The strike began.  He went to the lobby with the intention of arranging a taxi to Patan Hospital, but none, said the concierge, were available. Literally, none. So thoroughly unavailable that, if you wanted to leave the country, you had to walk to the airport. And, in fact, a lot of people were doing that, with hired porters carrying their luggage. Nepal was shut down—no banks, shops, cars, trucks, no goods coming in or out of Kathmandu, nothing happening, nothing moving. “How long is this going to last?” he asked the concierge. “I have somewhere I have to go this morning.” But the concierge just shrugged and smoothed his eyebrows. “Outside is not good,” he warned.

He took matters into his own hands. His ex-wife, a journalist — technically she was still his wife because they hadn’t signed divorce papers yet — had been traveling in the remote east when the car she was a passenger in veered into a bus, killing 3 people and injuring 16, and now she had twenty screws in her pelvis. Her spleen had been removed, but there was concern about tetanus. Erring on the side of caution, he was going to have her transferred to a Level One Trauma Center in Delhi, and that was why he had to get to Patan this morning. Strike or no strike, he was headed there to fill out paperwork and start things moving. In other words, unlike a lot of the Hyatt Regency’s guests, he wasn’t in Nepal for a trek in the mountains, a rhododendron tour, or a bird watching expedition — but there was no point in telling the concierge this. So instead he found the “business center” — three battered Dells around a corner from the reception desk — and Google-mapped the shortest walking route to Patan. Seven-point-eight kilometers — five miles. Two hours at most. With a bottle of water, a hat, and sunscreen, walking would be his answer to this strike. He printed out the map, got his water, hat, and sunscreen from his room, returned to the lobby with these things in hand, and, waving at the concierge, left.

His map, he soon found, was misleading. He wanted, first, to get to the Ring Road — a straight shot, according to Google — but in truth the indicated route, beyond the immediate pale of his hotel, was a maze of muddy alleys full of flies, dog shit, mangy curs, garbage, and — most immediate of all — poor people. The area was called Boudhanath, and according to his guidebook it was full of Buddhist monasteries. Sure enough, he saw monks walking around. The big point of interest in Boudhanath was its gargantuan stupa, which, according to the guidebook, contained relics of the Buddha. That explained the many shops — right now, all with metal roll-doors down — under signs indicating that they sold things for tourists, like Buddha figurines, prayer rugs, prayer flags, incense, postcards, and thangka paintings. At the moment, though, they sold nothing, because of the strike. Instead of selling goods and wares, the merchants were sitting around, and so was everybody else, except for a few kids playing cricket in the street because — for once, he realized — there were no cars and trucks to stop them, except that on occasion someone blasted through on a motorcycle, taking, he supposed, a political chance. Young guys, reckless and cavalier, always with a passenger, sometimes two. As soon as they passed, things fell quiet again. It was a hot morning in early May — dogs asleep in the shade, garbage reeking. And beggars everywhere. Some were lame and sickly, immobile and imploring, but most were urchins who trotted along next to him trying to look and sound more pathetic than they were. Not that they weren’t pathetic. Half-naked, unwashed, they naturally and inevitably plucked at your heartstrings. But still, he wished they wouldn’t tap his hip eight thousand times in a row while saying “Sir, sir, money, money,” or otherwise, in their half-intelligible ways, pleading their insistent cases. He didn’t think of himself as uncharitable or unkind, but this — this insistence — this was too much. Not the proper context for giving, not the right way, too many unknowns, too invasive, too ambiguous. He decided to pretend these child-beggars didn’t exist, that he didn’t hear or see them, but that was even more infuriating, because it embroiled him, now, in self-examination, and in pondering the conclusion he was rapidly coming to — that you couldn’t win in a case like this. That no matter what you did, you were wrong.

Beset this way, he came to the Ring Road. The Maoists had taken control of it, he could see, by clogging the intersection. In red shirts and bandannas they milled with restless zeal, listening to a speaker exhort them through a bullhorn. Except for a few motorcycles, some oxcarts, bicyclists, water trucks, and a couple of ambulances, the Ring Road was, for the moment, pedestrians only.  In a way, that was lucky; he wouldn’t have to dodge cars. Trying to look full of confidence, bold, he crossed the Ring Road and pressed on toward the hospital. Now his way felt clear and unimpeded. He’d left the tourist zone of Boudhanath behind, which meant fewer beggars, con men, and touts. Once, he saw an air conditioned bus coming at him with a large sign on its windshield reading TOURIST ONLY, as if that was a talisman that could thwart tossed rocks. As far as he could tell, the sign was working. The bus seemed to have carte blanche despite the strike. But then he saw that, behind the bus, there were two Jeeps full of soldiers in blue camo fatigues. They had weapons in their hands and slung across their shoulders. On he walked, with sweaty duress, bulling past the frowns of red-shirted teen-agers, some of whom brandished long, thick staves. Troops had taken up positions. Some kept watch behind sandbagged outposts, while others stood or crouched in the shade, or bounced past in fast-moving, canopied carriers. Well, it wasn’t his business, whatever was going on. None of this had to do with him. But then he came to what his map called a river — mud, plastic bags, garbage, shit — and the road he was on became a bridge blocked by Maoists. Fortunately they were letting pedestrians cross, except that, when he tried to cross, a caramel-skinned and gaunt, tense teen put a hand on his chest to check his progress. They stood like that, facing each other, the Maoist with his imposing stave, he with his sunscreen, water bottle, and hat. While other pedestrians passed in droves, the reality of his circumstances gradually became clear to him: he had to go back, he couldn’t cross.

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Lost Coast

He wasn’t difficult to find. For a time, in the small little world I inhabit, he was everywhere. These days all you need is six songs and some blog traffic to make people believe you might be a homespun genius, a blessed saint, a prophet of the unconscious. I got his number from his record label — press connections and called him up.

“Well, fuck me, Walt.” His Midwestern twang was mixed up now with a California drawl. “It’s pretty fantastic to hear from you. I mean, shit, I was just thinking about you the other day. How the hell you doing? You doing good?”

“Not as good as you. You’re blowing up out there, aren’t you?”

“Aw, man, just a run of luck.”

I went on about how great the EP sounded, practiced in my art of inflated praise. He begged off, talked about his collaborators and how the spirit of the old lighthouse they’d recorded vocals in had infused the tracks with something somehow ancient, a kind of lonely vigilance.

“Shit, come on out!” he said when I mentioned I might be heading out west for a few days. To check out the SF scene, I said, maybe write about it for the website. “Stay with me and my girl. We’d love to have you. Man, it’s been too long. I can’t believe it, you and me, making it in the same business! This is cool. This feels really right to me.”

I knew that he was just about to start recording his first full-length album. I said I didn’t want to disturb him during the creative process.

“The first full-length anyone will actually hear,” he said, laughing at his own expense. Meaning all the rest had been ignored, but now that he was trading on his past, his story, he was finally getting some attention. “Nah, Walt, you gotta come stay with me and Vanessa. I’ve told her so much about you.”

Meaning, he’d told her about John.

“I’ll check into a hotel. Don’t want to put you and your girl out.”

But, then, just at the last minute, just as I was getting on my flight at O’Hare, I called him again, asked if I could crash after all. I hadn’t even booked a room, but I lied and said my reservation had gotten lost in the system. Keaton faltered for a moment, then said, “Sure, man, crash with us.”

That’s when I knew it would all go my way.


Keaton Wilding, the County B Submarine EP. On the flight, I listened on repeat, ten times or more. Stereogum: “An astonishing debut. Wilding’s tormented past gives staggering depth to songs that, on first listen, seem like simply more blissed-out California pop.” Popmatters: “Wilding assembles a ramshackle cast of San Francisco musicians to craft a sound that seduces and sucker-punches. If Brian Wilson and Syd Barrett had a love child, he would be named Keaton.” All the most fickle websites and magazines, the “tastemakers,” were falling over each other to herald his arrival. Only the site I wrote for, on which all the reviewers are anonymous, had tried to stem the tide: “Capable, but shallow. The kind of bleary-eyed confession that wears itself out quick.”

We were from the same small town. Keaton was two grades behind me. I’d known him through John; the two of them, along with their friend Mason, were hardly apart. I remembered Keaton playing Snowdaze, our winter talent show. Dressed in Birkenstocks and a ball cap, cradling a Taylor acoustic, he sat at the front of the school cafeteria and covered some god-awful song by Phish or String Cheese Incident or August Rawling Band, one of those jam bands still carrying the sputtering torch of the Dead. Keaton and John were always driving off to Alpine Valley or the World to see those late-night spectacles: thirty thousand people, each in their own private dream, twirling and weaving to twenty-minute guitar solos. It was the drugs, not the music, that snared John. And the drugs came from Keaton.

Keaton hit the last chord of the song; the cafeteria echoed with applause. At the senior table, my friends and I smirked — that bullshit stoner music was laughable to us. Back then I was way ahead of the game. All I listened to was free jazz, Bulgarian women’s choirs, Charles Ives, and the Residents (the early albums).


Keaton and his girl lived in an apartment way out by the beach. “We’ve got the best view in town,” Keaton said as he led me out the bedroom window and up a narrow ladder to the roof. He lit a Parliament, leaned on the railing, and stared out in the direction of the sea. You could only hear the waves. It was too foggy to see anything other than the tops of a few frumpy sand dunes.

“Vanessa apologizes. She’s over in Oakland with the guys from Silent Partner. She’s doing some woodcuts for their album art and a few show posters. You should review them. Their new record is gonna be rad.”

“I heard their last one, Deadly Silent. Reminded me of Secret Machines.” Not intended as praise.

“They’re such sweet guys, too,” Keaton went on. “They’ve really helped me out along the way. We’ve played a bunch of shows together.” He ground out his cigarette on the railing and turned to me, and for a brief moment we met eyes and I saw in his a question — What are you doing here?

We went back inside. He got us a couple beers and flopped down on the couch. The sandals and ball cap were gone, replaced by threadbare cords, a faded Members Only jacket, and, the latest in affectations, a pair of boat shoes, no socks. Clothes chosen as a parody of clothes. He still wore his hair long, but sheathed now in a week’s worth of grease. The Taylor was gone from sight; in the living room, the beat-up Fender Jazzmaster pictured on the cover of the EP hung from a peg. The burden he carried was more proudly displayed. It was there in every gesture, the way he narrowed his eyes when he took a drag, sighed when he cracked a beer. No more Keystone Light, the swill he, Mason, and John used to drink driving around in Mason’s Jeep. Out here it was Tecate with a wedge of lime.

“How’s it going with the website?” he asked me. “You digging it?”

“It sure doesn’t pay the bills.”

“You probably get a ton of free music though.”

“Everyone gets free music these days,” I said.

“Don’t I know it. That kind of shit doesn’t bug you until you get a record deal. I quit my day job,” he confessed, seeming embarrassed about it. “It’s cool, we’re more or less getting by. But it kind of puts the pressure on. To, you know, ‘succeed.’”

“The EP is doing great.”

“Yeah.” He laughed. “Man, we didn’t have a fucking clue what we were doing with that one. I mean — ” He hesitated, suddenly unsure of himself in a way that made him almost unrecognizable to me“I was so fucking fried the whole time. What the hell were we thinking recording in a lighthouse?” He sighed, popped another Tecate. “So, we’re booked for this session at Hyde Street Studios on Friday. Want to come with?”

Come with. He still had a little of the Midwest in him.

“I wouldn’t want to get in your way.”

“Nope. Come on down. It’d be cool to have you there.”

Maybe he thought I’d write about it for the website, get a little early buzz going. Maybe he wanted me there as a reminder of John.

“I’d be honored,” I said.

We drank beer and listened to records. For all the specialized knowledge we had in common, we ran out of conversation quickly, now that business had been taken care of. I said I was getting sleepy. Jet lag. He made up the couch for me. Just before he turned in, he made himself some peppermint tea. He said it helped keep his vocal cords loose.


I descend the staircase. Stand out in the street, trembling. A finger of fog drifts toward me, passes through my body. Am I alive? The Jeep “submarines” under the truck trailer. We speak, it seems so real. Didn’t I tell you? Don’t go with them. A foghorn sounds, very far away. Then I feel him, I feel him. He’s there, at the corner, waiting where the murk meets darker night. I quicken my pace. He grows more distant, a patch of dark gray against the dark. Headlights brush past me, a wall of air; I brace for the collision. Don’t go. Don’t go. And then the lights come on.

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Can you surrey? Can you picnic?
Surrey down to a stoned soul picnic…
And from the sky come the Lord and the lightning.

-from the song “Stoned Soul Picnic” by The 5th Dimension

They hit the streets, those
Single gents spilling out of the cleaners
All partnered up & promenodding
Escorting their dainties.

O You Shirtwalkers!
Drop her, she’s just a thin wire of feigned domesticity
Nothing but a clothes hanger.
The press and starch of your city life
Is blanding your manly.

Don’t you see me passing?
I want to slap my hands against your plackets &
Pop your buttons one-by-one.
Bite my canines down onto your stays &
Pull them full out of your collar.
(I promise you’ll not go floppy.)
I want to spill myself all over your chest like the reddest marinara.

You Over-Laundered Shirtwalkers!
Don’t you crave a whiff of underarm piqued?
It’s nature you’ve forgotten.
Can you surrey?
Can you picnic?

Don’t you know I want to be your little chicken pot pie?


Jeannette Allée is a Seattle poet and writer. Her work has appeared in The Best American Poetry series, Iowa Review, Field, and The Believer. “O SHIRTWALKERS!” is one of her two poems published in ZYZZYVA‘s Fall issue.

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Starting Over

I can’t not keep coming back
to this place that’s not a place,
its pepper trees, olive trees, lilac,
narcissus, jasmine, here with me
and mock orange and eucalyptus
and working words that fill in others,
an earthquake-enlivened rose bush,
pollarded plane trees and sycamores,
and cypress flat-topped by sea wind.
Here are Interstate concrete,
desert dust, hardpan,
here are cobblestones
and woven bricky streets,
Death Valley’s salt flats,
here are red granite domes
that cool at night and groan.
They are here. The imagination
rushes toward the world
in fear of forgetting anything:
witness and invent, it says,
and stay in motion in every
invented place. It tells me,
here you are the nothing
that is this place,
and all places are you,
none of them yours to keep.


W. S. Di Piero, who lives in San Francisco, is a poet, translator, and essayist. His latest works include the essay collections When Can I See You Again? (Pressed Water) and City Dog (Northwestern University Press). His forthcoming book of poems is Nitro Nights (Copper Canyon). “Starting Over” is one of his three poems published in ZYZZYVA‘s Fall issue.

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Sight Lines

My mother has hardly any baby pictures of me, and when I once asked her why, she waved her hand vaguely and said I looked funny. Opening a shoebox, she pulled out a handful of small black-and-white photos with pinked edges. There I was, wispy-haired and dimple-kneed, your basic baby, except for the eyes. My eyes turned inward, especially the right one, as if trying to focus on a spot on the bridge of my nose. Or maybe as if they weren’t ready to see what was out there.

I had known, of course, that I was born with crossed eyes. Because of my crooked eyes, I not only look different, I see differently. And there are some things I don’t see at all. This dusty box of old photos was another reminder of what has been hidden from me.


About two percent of newborns have strabismus, meaning one or both eyes aren’t aligned. The muscles that control eye movement and position are imbalanced, so the eyes can’t focus straight ahead. Most strabismic children are born with inward turning eyes, also called esotropia. This is a problem.

Normal vision is “binocular” —both eyes focus on an object or scene, and each eye takes a two-dimensional picture from its perspective. Because of the spacing of your eyes, each picture is taken from a slightly different angle. The brain fuses the two images to create an image that, when interpreted by the brain, seems three dimensional. This fusion, known as stereopsis, creates depth perception.

With strabismus, both eyes take a picture, but because the pupils are off center, so are the images, and the brain can’t fuse them. This means that the brain “sees” two separate images. To avoid seeing double, my brain learned to suppress the picture from the more inward turning right eye.

When I was about a year old, the doctor had my parents put a patch over my left eye. The idea was to strengthen and straighten my right eye by forcing it to work on its own. It wasn’t a cute little pirate patch, but a big Band-aid colored one, secured to my forehead and cheek by a couple strips of white tape. (There aren’t many photos from that time either.) The patching didn’t succeed, so a year later I had surgery. My left eye straightened out pretty well, but the right one shifted from its inward gaze to a position slightly upward and to the right of center.

Without straight eyes, and despite many years of eye exercises as a child to force my right eye to cooperate, I never developed binocular vision. My brain continued to pay attention only to the image from my stronger left eye. I say stronger because it was straighter, but in fact, without glasses, my left eye was about 20/1000. My extreme nearsightedness was made worse by astigmatism—blurriness caused by an asymmetrical cornea. Even with glasses, the vision in my left eye is not very sharp.

* * *

It’s the first dance with the boys’ camp and I want to be pretty. I am twelve, with slim tanned legs and long straight hair, but all I see in the mirror are brown, thick, cat-eye glasses. So tonight I leave my glasses in the cabin and blindly follow the other girls into the dining hall decorated with crepe paper and lanterns. The boys stand awkwardly on one side of the room and the girls on the other. Now a boy is walking toward me—I think—or is he headed toward another girl? He passes her and comes right up to me and asks where I’m from. Up close I can see he’s really cute, with tousled brown hair and spirited eyes. Emboldened, his buddies cross the divide and crowd around me. I am in the center of a group of eager boys. The cute boy asks me to dance, Jim Morrison is singing “Come on baby light my fire,” the room is a blur except for the boy now looking into my eyes. I am Cinderella at the ball: when it is over, I will be able to see again, but he will ignore the girl in the cat-eye glasses.

* * *

Although my right eye sees remarkably better than the left (20/50), my left eye still does all the work. I think of my right eye as a passive participant in my vision; it registers what’s on the right side, but if I want to actually look at something on the right I turn my head so my left eye can interpret it. If I close my left eye, the right eye sees pretty well, but it moves slowly, tires quickly and reads at about the pace of a second grader. Eye doctors never bother to give me a corrective lens for my right eye, because it doesn’t matter.

What I see can perhaps be described as what others see when viewing a movie or photograph. But while my brain can’t perceive depth the way most people’s brains do, I do have some depth perception. My brain (everyone’s brain) uses many cues to judge depth, such as how fast objects move in relation to other objects or how they shift as I move my head. The scientific terms that describe monocular depth perception cues are evocative: kinetic, parallax, distance fog, converging at infinity. The words almost seduce me into thinking these tricks create for me a fully three-dimensional world. In fact, some scientists and doctors believe that people with my type of vision—monocular, one eyed—are only at a disadvantage when seeing things close up.

* * *

Mrs. Powell, my sewing teacher, frowns at me. I lick the end of the kelly green thread and try again. I hold the needle close to my face and slowly bring the thread toward the sliver of light at the needle’s eye; my eyes burn from the effort of focusing. The thread brushes past the needle like strangers passing on a narrow sidewalk. The other girls are sewing rickrack onto their aprons with tidy little stitches but I haven’t started because my needle and thread are in two dimensions and the needle is like a reflection, never exactly where I expect it to be.

* * *

I have always wondered about what normal people see. Take stereoscopes. When I look through one at, say, a photograph of the Eiffel Tower, I see it with my left eye, and I think it looks just like the real Eiffel Tower. When others look through the stereoscope first with one eye, and then with their two normal eyes, they say the Eiffel Tower is suddenly three-dimensional, poised in the space around it, real in a way that a two-dimensional photograph is not. Real is also the word my husband used when we saw a 3-D movie recently. To me, it looked like any other movie. So if the three-dimensional world is real, does that make my world unreal?

A few years ago I read an article suggesting an answer to that question. It was about a woman with strabismus and monovision. She had a type of strabismus in which neither eye is dominant; instead, the brain shifts rapidly between the image from the left eye and the one from the right. She began intensive vision therapy to train her eyes to work together; within weeks she achieved stereovision. Her descriptions of what she sees now versus what she saw with monovision are like the difference between seeing the world in color instead of shades of grey. Objects stick out in space, everything is more textured, sharp, colorful, nuanced. When she goes for a walk, each flower, each leaf she sees seems to stand out by itself. When it snows, she feels as if she is among the snowflakes instead of looking at a flat plane of falling snow.

Vision therapy won’t work for me because my right eye can never be strong enough to get my brain’s full attention: I will never walk inside that snow globe. Reading that article was like reading a travelogue from someone visiting a beautiful country I know I’ll never get to see. It’s a land of stunning vistas, glorious colors, gorgeous sights — but my passport is no good there. For the first time, I understood the enormousness of what I was missing.

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Second Wind

The white of the ocean’s foam-froth is said
to contain all colors, while the sea’s green-blue depths
are composed of the colors our ancestors could
not bear. Or could not bear to let go:
the story varies with the source.
And the shadow that lies on the sea is cast

by no flying or orbiting thing, but by
the ocean floor where it blocks the light
from the sun at the heart of the earth. These things,
however they might terrify, are nonetheless
true. I will hold you through the shivers
and terrors. I will kiss the unholy curve
of your neck. I will try to take your mind

off the shadow. It is the shape of a tree.
There is the brusque sound of the branches as they
caress the wind. Its black silhouette
against the calamitous sunset. The darkness
that lives at its core. What the leaves know
and do not tell the roots. And what the roots know.


Troy Jollimore‘s first book of poems, Tom Thomson in Purgatory, won the National Book Critics Circle award for poetry in 2006. He is an associate professor at California State University, Chico. His most recent book of poems is At Lake Scugog (Princeton University Press). “Second Wind” is one of his two poems published in ZYZZYVA‘s Fall issue.

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Lust for Life

We live on East 12th Street, across from a Catholic school where little boys play kickball in suits and ties. Eli says they’re straight out of a Truffaut movie; the way they look like little men, the way the teachers drag them from the playground when they get into fights. Eli knows everything about foreign movies. If he really likes one, he calls it a motherfucker. The other night we saw a total motherfucker about a couple who give themselves a big going away party but then the money falls through for their trip to Africa, so they hide out in their apartment embarrassed to tell their friends that they never left. We’re kind of like them. I mean, we’re not exactly hiding out, but our apartment is our little sanctuary, where we can pretend to be the only people in New York. A tiny, lit window amid fifty others in a giant brick building. With our cat, Myshkin, silhouetted behind the iron security bars.

Eli and I are sitting at that window right now, looking down at pigeons fighting over a pizza box. We’re playing our favorite game: What Would You Miss Most If You Were Dead?

“I’d miss the sound of the radiator clanging,” I say.

“But how about when it first comes on, in October, and you think about the long, grey winter with your face stiff and freezing and your ears feeling like they’re going to snap off,” says Eli.

“I like the winter because you don’t see those huge cockroaches in the street anymore.”

Eli rubs my arms up and down with his hands. “I like when they disappear because I know they scare you and I don’t like to see you scared.”

“It freaks me out to think of them swarming somewhere underground. Or stuck together in a giant frozen clump just waiting till it’s time to come out again.”

As I talk, Eli takes my hand, extending my arm like a skinny, white twig. He kisses the bruises. He got mad at me last night for scratching our new Iggy Pop album and pushed me. Not really hard, just a little shove. I mean, I sort of fell back against the wall, but I was wearing stilettos. Now Lust For Life skips and crackles, repeating the words “torture film” over and over, until one of us moves the needle. And no matter how cheap they sell records at Crazy Eddie’s, buying a new one means less money for the phone bill. Which we don’t plan on paying anyway.

“I’m sorry Jane-face,” he whispers. He always calls me that, and I don’t know why I like it so much.

“I’d miss you being sorry.”

He murmurs something like, “I’d miss you missing me being sorry,” and carries me to the mattress, which covers most of the floor of our one and only room.


It’s grey outside and I’ve overslept. Eli has already left for his job at the used bookstore. He always comes home mad because no one there likes him. He’s been trying to organize the employees into an “anarchist union.”  He posts notices for meetings in the stockroom, to which no one shows up. Instead, they laugh behind his back and call him “Irate Eli.” I know this, because my friend Ellen was there on Eli’s day off and heard them talking. They were saying that only a retard wouldn’t know that “anarchist union” is an oxymoron. They don’t understand that Eli has something a little fucking deeper in mind. It has something to do with “dismantling the power pyramid.” Maybe Eli tends to go on and on about it. And no, it’s not my favorite side of him, but basically he’s nice to me. Except for when he isn’t.  Even then, it’s not like he’s completely mean.  So he slaps me in the arm, big fucking deal. And anyway, I’m no doormat. I hit him back. It’s called passion. He always apologizes for starting it and acts really sweet for at least a couple of weeks. Plus, he’s an amazing cook. Add to this the fact that he’s five years older than me (I’m 20), with blond, curly hair that dips over one of his liquidy blue eyes, writes perfect imitations of Frank O’Hara poems, and always wants to be with me. That’s the real draw. He’s my first serious boyfriend and he loves the righteous shit out of me. And he isn’t one of these losers who’s afraid to say so. In short, he’s a motherfucker.


I’m late for my acting class at the Lee Strasberg Institute. I put on whatever clothes are lying closest to the bed. Eli and I are the same, skinny size, and so it doesn’t matter who wears what. He’ll say, “Buy us a pair of pants today,” or “Look, I got us a Lydia Lunch T-shirt.” I pull on our black pants and wrinkled bowling shirt covered in cat hair. I run my fingers through my hair, stiff with gel and hair dye. Eli is proud of my bright red hair and tells everyone He Loves Lucy.  A black swath of eye-liner and I’m out the door, in the street, the freezing air blowing tears sideways out of my eyes.

I run up the stairs of the steam-heated school, peeling off my coat, scarf and gloves as I go. Students are draped over chairs; their heads hanging backwards, arms limp at their sides. The teacher walks around testing everyone’s relaxation level, picking up arms and letting them drop. An arm that stays suspended in space: BAD. Complete floppiness: GOOD. She gives me the raised eyebrow (I have been late many times before) as I slump backward, letting everything hang. Eventually I feel a hand around my wrist, and my arm being raised. Her grip tightens. Christ, here we go. She’s looking at the bruises. I want to go, “OK, show’s over,” when she finally drops my arm, which is now so tense it feels like a crowbar. Here at Strasberg, they say relaxation opens the emotional floodgates. It’s the first step in learning how to cry. Real actors can cry the way I can only do at the movies, or in the bathroom with the door locked. That’s why I’m here, to learn the fine art of weeping. That’s what makes you great. That’s what gets you a job.

But I also have other plans. I’m not like the girls in my class, running around with their doctored-up headshots, trying to look like Jaclyn Smith. I’m going for something darker, more real. Just yesterday I caught sight of my reflection in a window, and I thought, “Shit, yes!”  There I was, walking by a building covered in peeling Richard Hell and the Voidoids posters, and everything about me, my hair, my clothes, looked art directed. Like I had sprouted up from the street like an indigenous element of the urban terrain. But I’m not totally alone. The one person in the whole school who gets me is Ellen. I knew it the moment I saw her black, chopped off Louise Brooks haircut. She and I talk for hours about the work we plan to do. We’re in the thinking stages of a movie that will be truly revolutionary because it has no plot. Imagine, a movie where nothing happens. Only the sound of footsteps on glass. Wow. I just thought that part up.

The lights go on.

“See you Friday,” the teacher says.

We all sit up, groggy. I put on my father’s overcoat from the ‘50s and my black beret. Ellen comes up.

“Walk me to the train.”


We hit the street and it feels a little warmer, because now it’s snowing which takes the edge off. The sky is pearly pink and things are quiet; the Ukrainians sprinkle salt on the sidewalks in front of their tablecloth/samovar/Easter egg shops.

“So, how’s Irate Eli, the master of all things evil and sundry?”

“Fuck you. He’s being very sweet. I mean, very, very sweet.”

“Let’s go have a beer.”

“I can’t. Retour D’Afrique is playing at the Quad.”

“Haven’t you seen that like fifty times?”

“Yeah, so what? It’s Eli’s favorite movie.”

“Oh, well. In that case, forget it. I mean, I’m just so sorry. What would Eli do if he couldn’t watch Retourdefuckingafrique on a continual loop for the rest of his life? What time does it start?”


“It’s six-thirty. I dare you to come in and have one fucking beer.”

We’re standing outside the St Mark’s Bar in a clutch of skinny German kids and various punks and New Wavers.

“OK, but you’re buying.”

Ellen pulls me in to the bar. I see people I know: a directing student who once filmed me walking down Wall Street in a bathrobe at 4 a.m. Two French girls who slept on my floor for a week. And tons of regular customers from the restaurant where I work.

“Hey, waitress, where’s my soy burger?” says one of them.

“I reserve the right to refuse service to anyone,” I yell over the noise as Ellen orders the beers.

Before I know it I’m looking at two empty Heineken bottles. The directing student is making fun of me for studying method acting instead of experimental theater. I’m screaming over the jukebox, saying he’s full of shit, what about real motherfuckers like Brando? He buys me a shot of Don Julio. I bet him the next round that I can cry on cue. Everyone at the table is suddenly interested; they watch me as I stare off into space, conjuring up a dog that I once saw get hit by a car. The room begins to blur, when I notice the clock on the wall. It’s 8:30.

I throw a crumpled up five on the table and stand up.

“Shit. I have to go.”

Everyone’s yelling something, but at this point I’m banging into people on my way to the door. Then I’m huffing out little clouds of frosty air, running the four blocks home, slipping in the snow as I go. I get to our building and walk up to the fifth floor. Eli isn’t home. Myshkin rubs against my legs and follows me as I throw off my coat and flop down onto the mattress. The room is undulating in a nauseating way and I lie there, focusing on a tiny dot on the wall. The cat purrs, the radiator bangs, and I pass out.

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Love Story, with Cocaine

Maarit’s father had given her a dog because he hoped it would provide her with something to do. It was true that Maarit did not have much to do, though she always felt busy, which was, perhaps, a natural consequence of waking up daily at 3:00 P.M. Most of her activities involved spending her father’s money. That her father’s solution to this would mean Maarit necessarily spending more of his money (on dog food, on dog toys, on dog hospitals and dog vacations) was typical of him. Equally typical was Maarit’s decision not to say so. She was his youngest, most glamorous, and most difficult daughter, and she knew that a large part of her father’s toleration of her lifestyle depended on her maintaining its hair’s-width acceptability.

The dog, a greyhound Maarit instantly named Mimu, came to her fully grown, or nearly so. He moved with snakelike grace, his coat was a rich thunderhead gray, and his eyes were little expressive bogs of brown. There was, however, no way around the fact that there was something plainly wrong with Mimu. He shivered constantly, for one thing, and was a reflexive biter of such determination that Maarit removed Mimu’s muzzle only when serving him supper. Soon Mimu’s most spectacular behavioral quirk emerged: attacking strangers.

His first victim was an old Russian woman, whose mauling occurred within Toompark only a week after Maarit first laid her hand upon the hard, skully part of Mimu’s brow. The old Russian woman, in Maarit’s mind, sort of asked for it by dint of attempting to pet Mimu as she passed by. One might think that a leashed, muzzled dog would be incapable of inflicting much damage. But Mimu’s previous custodian had not thought to trim his nails in some time–if, indeed, ever. By the time Mimu had the old woman on the ground (Maarit pulling back on the leash with every one of her 105 pounds), he was raking her chest and arms with a catlike avidity. It was a cloudy weekday evening; the park was virtually empty. Taking note of this, Maarit helped up the speechless and pretty badly bleeding old woman and without another word allowed Mimu to drag her back to her apartment in the Old Town. For several days she stayed away from Toompark.

The second attack was trickier, emotionally speaking, in that it involved a child who was walking with his mother along Toompark’s edge. Again it was early evening, the champagne-colored sun dissolving behind some trees. Mimu just bolted at the sight of the boy. The leash in Maarit’s hand went from a dense fabric cool to searingly hot in the space of half a second. Maarit let go, endured the endless seconds in which Mimu approached his target, and watched with fascinated horror as Mimu launched himself at the boy like a gorgeously living torpedo. Mimu was muzzled and Maarit got him under control quickly enough; crystal-eyed shock seemed to be worst of the boy’s injuries. When Maarit tried to slip away, the boy’s hysterical mother followed her. When Maarit began to run, so did the mother. Maarit surrendered to her fate, and–nodding, apologizing–gave the boy’s mother a fake cell phone number and fake address.

Unbeknownst to Maarit, the woman knew who she was: Maarit’s father, a businessman whose business he chose to describe publicly only as “business,” was often in the tabloids. The next day the woman showed up at her apartment–another gift from her father–with two frowning policemen. (The woman had been provided with Maarit’s address by a dry cleaner they both shared, a breach of trust so severe that Maarit seriously considered taking legal action.) When Maarit was asked by the policemen if Mimu had had anything to do with an attack on a Russian woman a few days before, she hesitated a moment too long. They seemed to know her eventual, emotionally riveting denial was a lie, and there was some vague talk of putting Mimu down. Her father, who had key allies among the city’s constabulary, took care of the matter, and even gave Maarit money for a dogwalker. Maarit hated this taciturn flunky, and after a few weeks paid the dogwalker twice what her father was paying him (three times what her father was paying him, actually, given that it was all his money) to stay away from her. From there she went back to walking Mimu on her own.

The next person Mimu attacked was also in Toompark, this time in the middle of the afternoon. The only reason it happened was because Maarit allowed herself to be distracted by the wolf whistle of three Russian men evidently enjoying a midday vodka blowout. (Maarit, who was not Russian, would have sooner slept with Mimu than a Russian.) When Maarit, whose post-independence command of Russian had faded to a few lush profanities, turned to tell the men to go fuck their mothers with a broken broomstick, Mimu bolted. His victim this time, thank God, was a man. By the time Maarit had Mimu under control (a very relative concept with Mimu, true), the man was, somehow, laughing as he got to his feet.

He was an American, around thirty years old, and had long and shinily unclean brown hair: the haircut of someone who did not worry about haircuts. His face, though, was clean-shaven and kind, if not particularly remarkable. He was wearing a black V-neck sweater (which had spared his arms the brunt of Mimu’s claws) and jeans whose knees where, thanks to Mimu, whorled with Milky Way-shaped grass stains. Maarit, who lived for a time in Cambridge before flunking out, had always been fascinated by the masculinity gap between the English words “guy” and “man.” Before her was a guy. To her frequent emotional sorrow, Maarit was most often attracted to guys. She was not attracted to this guy. She did, however, like the fact that he was daring enough to pet Mimu, whose down-turned head was so narrow that his dark black nose resembled the dot beneath an exclamation point. To Maarit’s surprise, Mimu did not resist the American’s touch or even growl.

“What name?” he asked Maarit in her language, which he obviously spoke only in brain-damaged form.

She told him, in English.

“What does it mean?”

“Nothing,” she said. “It’s his name.”

He lowered into a squat to look Mimu in the eye. “Mimu the mean,” he said. Apparently this gratified Mimu, who seemed to relax a little, even going so far as to sit, his head lifting in that arrogant greyhound way. The guy looked up at Maarit, squinting. “And what’s your name?”

She told him.

He smiled. “All the girls’ names here are so pretty.”

“Do you want something?” Maarit was annoyed now.

He shrugged. “Everything I want, I’ve got.”

At this, Maarit tried not to smile. Displays of confidence, even when boldly affected, were one of her weaknesses. “You talk like an idiot.”

“I’m not a tourist,” he said. “I know who you are. We actually live three doors away from each other.”

She did not respond. If this was a line, Maarit would give him nothing.

“I’m in eight Rataskaevu. Top floor. You’re twelve. No idea what floor you live on.”

“Top floor.”

“Aren’t we both fancy?”

She started away; the guy stood. “Hey,” he said, keeping pace beside her, “your dog attacked me. The least you can do is join me for a drink. My name’s Ken.”

“You want to drink in the afternoon?”

“I often drink in the afternoon.”

She looked at him. Her decision wheel spun around inside her and stopped, decisively. “Where?”

“Eight Rataskaevu happens to have an excellent bar.”

She laughed. “I am not going to your apartment.”

“I’ve got other things there. Fun things. Fun things for fancy people.”

She said nothing, slightly and suddenly afraid of him now.

He sighed, picked a piece of grass from his sweater, rolled it into a ball, and flicked it away. “Look. You’re friends with Jaanus Kask, right?” He looked around, as though invoking this name had been potentially unwise. “I know him, too.”

Jaanus Kask was someone Maarit saw fairly frequently, though he was hardly her favorite person on this earth. She liked very much what he was able to get for her, though.

“I don’t like doing coke alone,” he said.

Funny thing: neither did Maarit.

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Houdini at 40

Handcuffed and head down in the tank
two and a half minutes behind
the black velvet curtain, deadbolts
across the opening and nothing
but the sound of water filling my ears, I discover
myself on the verge of a possible mistake.  This is to say

I meant for Anatole to leave me bound this time round;
the longer the lapping occurs in my head,
the closer I come to the governance of happiness.  I am truly
singing in here, not drowning but singing, and if only you

could hear me strumming in this little ocean
of sleep, you would know this is my real gift; to sleep
through the séance of my life, awakened only
by the cleverest of parlour tricks—waxy eggs sliding
through ear canals and leaden pencils
pulled through long fingers.  There is nothing
that disarms me like milk-cans full of pennies

and your heart, nothing that unlocks me
like disremembering the dead who tell heaven
through blue flame, nothing secretly more disheartening
than the idea of an afterlife that means I will have to live

on beyond the chains of this one, clasped and traveling
from one watery cylinder to the next, proving myself again
the prince of air.  If cuffed and spun long enough
will I forget how you forgot how to
kiss me that night, how your mouth

is still the dark space my hand slips into before pulling
the blinking yellow canary from the crushed velvet
of a gentleman’s top hat?  If I let the burble of water
that asks to be my breath back into the pockets of lungs,

can I have you back again, telling me over pans of apple betty
skate blades on the frozen Danube

and a girl’s magic is cutting men’s hearts to lace?  Anatole
slips the bolt, unbraids the clank from my hands, the coil
of what I know I can escape from.  I flip myself
rightside up, dripping like a newborn,
ready to pretend I have willed myself alive.


Heather Altfeld is a lecturer at California State University, Chico, and the board chair of Blue Oak Charter School. She is at work completing an untitled manuscript of poems. “Houdini at 40” appears in ZYZZYVA‘s Fall issue.

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