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Volume 27, #3, Winter 2011

ZYZZYVA Volume 27, #3, Winter 2011

Here’s what’s in the Winter 2011 issue of ZYZZYVA. New fiction from Andrew Foster Altschul, Jackie Bang, Katie Chase, Karen Joy Fowler, Faith Gardner, Herbert Gold, Adam Johnson, Josh DuBose and Patrick McGinty. Poetry from Joseph Di Prisco, Melina Draper, Kascha Semonovitch, Dean Rader, Floyd Skloot, Amber Flora Thomas, and David Wagoner. Essays by Gary Soto and Carter Scholz, and a play by Barry Gifford. Featuring art work from Reid Yalom, Michael Brennan, Carson Murdach, and Susan Seubert.

Final Letter from a Crossing Guard

This is about us and not Jim, but this next part is important, Jeffrey. It’s four days until Halloween and a month before you turn six. You’re asleep down the hall in your little raft of a bed when Jim turns to me in our big one asking what would happen if I were struck by a car. He wears white athletic socks to bed but slips them off before sleeping, hooking them off around his heel with a big toe so they float at the bottom of the bed. When I change the sheets Wednesday morning there’s a half dozen socks down there, like the squiggles of that gray toy brain you love taking apart on the rug. I pretty obviously mean the socks look like my brain. Or what Jim’s worrying has done to his.

I am leaving Thursday. Have already left, actually, and am writing like this so you know what happened.

When Jim is kind enough to share these thoughts about a car ending my life, I say there’s nothing nicer than a husband and wife reading silently together in bed. The bed is more like two canoes than a raft. I’m reading a good book about decision making, the vaguely clinical kind of which I’ve read many: white cover, black font, no gimmicks. They don’t tend to work. Jim holds a newspaper. His therapy is on Tuesday afternoons. Tuesday nights: therapy recaps in bed. And so:

How was it?

We never accomplish anything.

Did you exercise today?

I did.

Good. It takes 21 days to form a habit.

I got the spiel too, Linda.

Leading us to: what if you got hit by a car, which is the one reasonable thing he’ll often say given my profession. My “medication roulette” concerns him, he says. Along with other standard problems in our marriage this has led Jim to become somewhat depressed and me to become somewhat happier. He’s salty that I no longer want to be needed in the variety of ways Jim needs me. I’d rather meet simple needs like making a sandwich or taking a pill, manageable things I can do with my hands. I’ll miss my Lincoln Elementary students, who only need me to raise a stop sign. They call me Mrs. S because they can’t say Salamacchia. The name is a nice blend of salad and macho and chia and I encourage you to keep it, Jeffrey. I call Jim “Mr. Salamacchia” to turn him on, which I do around ten on Tuesday night. By 10:10 or so we get in our canoes.

The meds just mess with me.

I know, Jim.

I wish they didn’t.

I know.

Then when I’m in the right frame of mind, like tonight, it’s just been … too long.

I understand.

You know what’s really messed up? When I’m trying to not come I think of my parents in caskets.

Please don’t do that.

And what if I’ve code-switched it, and when my parents die I get a hard-on?

Don’t think of your parents in caskets.

It’s too late. I’m going to be aroused at their viewing. I’m going to need porn at my parents’ funerals.


Sometimes I write down our conversations from memory. I read them aloud to remind Jim how funny he is. But Jim’s counselor called to scold me. My psychiatrist says counselors can’t do that. Crossing guards get union benefits through the municipality and Jim works as a sales rep from home with shit benefits, which is why his shrink is shitty. We recently switched Jim to someone better. She’s going to have quite a project on her hands at next Tuesday’s meeting and if she’s good, she’ll see that Jim needs a fresh start.

So now Wednesday morning, Jim dressing to take you to school, his sock brain at the bottom of the bed and me unfolding new sheets before work:

What do you have planned today?

I have some calls.

How about an early lunch?



We don’t have groceries.

Can you go to the store, Jim?




Where I work matters to me. My intersection is a perfect cross where north-south Woodman meets east-west Kennedy. Stop signs at each entrance. Woodman is yellow brick and Kennedy is skillet-black. Pavement beats brick where the streets overlap, which I call Bermuda since the square between four crosswalks is, technically, placeless. On the Northwest corner is the oldest tree in the county, a maple with a knotted, bubbled trunk, aircraft-carrier large and majestic, birds bombing off its many-limbed runways that stretch three-quarters across the intersection and red-orange leaves tumbling overboard, big as my standard-issue handheld, scarlet stop sign. The crossing stripes are perfectly laid rectangles of white so natural that they don’t seem painted on so much as grown. I park the car just south on Woodman so as not to clutter the intersection, then snack on a Lexapro. The yards I pass are the same manicured green because it’s that kind of town. I love fall. Spiders are suctioned to first floor windows, pumpkins flank doors, that kind of town. I walk up Woodman crunching the crusted-over leaves fallen from the S.S. Bermuda. Nothing beats crunching a fallen leaf. I still practice the marching band roll-step from high school, where you plant your heel and roll the outside of your foot down into a flat position. I haven’t had an orgasm in years but crunching leaves is a better release anyways and is certainly better than anything I produced through coitus or on my alto saxophone.

By the way, I left you the jazz collection in the closet. It’s underneath your in-progress Spider-man costume.

Jim and I make love to those records but now Marsalis and Davis and Coltrane make me sad. It’s that odd multi-tiered sadness over the dissolution of things you fall for in high school jazz band and later rediscover with your husband. When they fall from you, it’s not one but many memories that tug your breasts down a bit. I roll-step one more Wednesday-morning leaf and it’s the last panic-free bit of the day.

The kids generally cross from 8:30 until 9:00, when school starts. It is 8:15. Here comes Bobbie Sue and her jean jacket. She’s in fifth grade and will be the first student at the crosswalk after school, too, so she can run home to start her homework. She runs from northeast to northwest over Woodman with a stiff forward lean, pushed forward by the enormous pack of books and pulled ahead by homeroom, tilted like one of those big-ramp ski jumpers. Five minutes later, a pack of kids approaches the crosswalk from the southeast as a car comes from the south. I extend my stop sign at the car just as another comes from the north. I stop the new car with a bare palm, each arm extended, one north one south, freezing the cars while the children cross from southeast to southwest over Woodman. Another car comes from the east on Kennedy and I stop that too. So: three cars, from the north, south, and east, a pack of students crossing along the southern point, and now stragglers are coming from the northeast looking to get to the northwest. And the southern group still needs to come from southwest up to northwest. I make eye contact with each car, hold them in place, and wave the kids along. But Sam Butler has stopped to tie his shoe in the stripes of Woodman’s northern crosswalk.

The drivers look at me as though I’ve taught him these manners, as though I have the motherly impulse. Listen: I do not feel as if I would suffer unduly for you, and I haven’t felt that way since your shoulders pushed through that awful slash above my bladder. I could have been a dumpster mom pretty easily. And the thing is: the perception of being a dumpster mom is worse than what I’d actually feel if I was a dumpster mom. Leaving a shrieking child in an oversized metal bin would not bother me. What would just end me is if as I walked away someone saw me. I’m obviously also talking about leaving Jim now and combining a number of my other issues. There was discussion of electroshock at one point. None of this is about you.

Sam finishes with his shoe and darts down the sidewalk to his gang moving their little legs along Kennedy’s northwest side. They make a nice group. There are still three cars at three stop signs who have been waiting an unreasonable amount of time. I am still standing out in the street watching the boys. Was I thinking about the boys on the sidewalk and how tomorrow, starting with the after-school shift, it’d be open season on them without a crossing guard? Was I thinking about whether I’d have time to finish your Spider-man outfit in time for both Halloween and my departure? I was certainly not thinking about the cars. The north one honked, then east. The driver to the east, obviously looking south only, shot across the black strip without so much as a glance at north, whose punchy honk caused east to make a much-too-late swerve as he barreled on, not enough to send the car off-road but enough to make a crossing guard spot the kids twenty yards up ahead on the Northwest sidewalk and think: mercy.

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Terra Incognita

Limestone wafers shelved like moldering books,
splintered centuries pressed into the continent’s lip.
Look, this colonia quaffed blood, ingested gristle, guts, and bone.

Into the mouth of the river the vessel drove before her bows two billows of liquid phosphorous.
Looking back, the crest of every wave was bright. The water, shook in a tumbler,
shot sparks. He found butterflies that clacked, their sound

similar to that of a toothed wheel passing under a spring catch.
And what of the stories he heard of the
marvelous property of certain rivers, which had the power of changing small bones into large …

Of uprising Patagonia and Banda Oriental–where he found gigantic sloth
and armadillo-like animals entombed, a lost Pachydermata the size of a camel–
Don Carlos Darwin observed, Formerly, it must have swarmed with great monsters.

As the ancient map suggested.


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The Bull

From the picture on this postcard you’d think the setting sun floats atop the Caribbean longer in Cozumel, Mexico than anywhere else. Me and MJ had been in the Mercado looking at traditional Mexican wares—sombreros, serapes, switchblades—when a hunched back senora in a red headwrap trespassed my personal space, crowding me against an adobe wall. She put this postcard in my face. Her fingers were gnarled twigs and she smelled like mud. Her eyes cursed me as she moaned an incantation en Espanol that ended with the words twelve dollars U.S.

“I can’t believe you paid that much for a postcard,” MJ said.

“Worth every peso,” I said. “That lady is an oracle.”

Even in the four days that we’ve been on our honeymoon my Spanish is improving. You have no choice, sometimes you just have to make a decision about what these people are saying. Today has been my best day because I’ve gotten six out of fifteen conversations right, I think. It’s obvious when you make the wrong choice. All conversation stops and the staring is longer than usual. It turns out the bus driver didn’t want me to urinate through the open window. Regrettably, my midstream pinch at the town center strafed an innocent family in a handsome cab.

I’m drinking again. It’s made the trip more fun. How can you be in Mexico on your honeymoon and not have at least a Corona? Or an El Sol or a Pacifico or a Tecate or a Dos Equis lager and amber? It wouldn’t be right. We’ve all seen the commercials, that couple lounging on the beach, sharing a lime. They have these little beer bottles down here, too. I heard another American refer to them as pony bottles which makes sense. A pony is a small horse, but a horse just the same. The pony bottles go quick. You can drink a lot of them and not feel a thing.

My sunburn is violent and bubbling. It’s because of the nap we took in those chairs on the beach the first day. I passed out with my hat over most of my face. The sun raped every other part of my body from the chin down. The reflection off the pile of pony bottles under my chair might’ve made things worse.

MJ is miffed at me. Right now she’s getting a massage from Hector Vasquez. He’s the concierge at our hotel. Also the tennis coach, the scuba instructor, the chef and pilots the para-sailing boat. His English is impeccable. There’s nothing the man can’t do. He free-dove thirty feet to the ocean floor while MJ and I stood on the pier watching through the clear Caribbean water. He looked like a lean brown merman as he glided up and broke the water’s surface, whipped his long hair back, opened his mouth and pulled out my wedding ring.

“I didn’t even know I dropped it,” I said. MJ crossed her arms and walked away. Hector pulled himself onto the pier and handed me the ring.

“Thanks,” I said. “God…you have the longest eyelashes I’ve ever seen.”

A half hour later I tried to apologize to MJ. She was pouting and mad.

“I can’t believe you could be so careless,” she said.

“It’s the diarrhea,” I said. “I’ve lost five pounds since we’ve been here.”

“God, you’re disgusting.”

The travel book says to avoid the water, as well as too many fruits and vegetables. Something about bacteria that we’re not used to in America that will make you sick. One mango couldn’t hurt, right? It tasted like paradise exploded in my mouth. I imagined tiny angels having orgasms on my tongue, ate two more and had a mango salad the next morning for breakfast.


This postcard features The Temple of Kukulkan, the most famous pyramid at the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza. The tour guide said this temple is in the area of fourteen hundred years old. When our tour went on break, I snuck around the back of the temple to take a leak and busted the tour guide smoking a joint. He passed it to me. I took a big hit and had a monster cough.

“No fucking way these things are fourteen hundred years old,” I said.

“Si, pendejo,” he said. “They are.”

I got super high. As the tour continued, the notion that the Mayans could see us wandering around their once great empire in Velcro fastened Tevas and too tight Bermuda shorts made me laugh. A fat lady asked the tour guide a question. She pronounced Chichen Itza as Chicken-Eatya. Then she dropped her corn-on-a-stick in the red dirt and I lost all control. The tour guide started laughing, too, which made us both start to cry. We sat down on the steps of The Temple of Warriors, gasping for air, holding our sides, composing ourselves and then losing it again whenever anyone asked what was so funny.

The rest of the our group milled around on their own. MJ stood in front of us, her arms crossed.

“I can’t believe you’ve been smoking pot,” she said and walked off. When we stopped laughing he sold me a dime bag.

MJ went straight to the room for a nap. She’d given me the silent treatment the whole way back from the ruins. Hector Vasquez stood at the concierge station in a partially buttoned guayabera, reading an English language text on emergency field surgery.

“Hola, Hector,” I said. “Como estas?”

“Bueno, Señor. E tu?” he said.

“Thank you. Listen, Hector, can you get me a reservation for two at a really nice restaurant tonight? Something romantic.” He smiled at me.

“Si. I will take excellent care of you.”

“God…you’re teeth are snow white.”

Hector got us a table at Playa Azul (Blue Beach), one of the nicest restaurants in Cozumel. A Caribbean breeze circulated through open windows and gave my blisters goose-bumps. MJ looked gorgeous in the white linen dress she bought at the Mercado. When the moonlight hit her dress just right you could see the outline of her legs leading up to her ass. Everyone else could, too, which turned me on.

The maitre d’ led us to a corner spot overlooking the Parasio Reef. A white orchid hung from an urn on our table, the only one in the restaurant and a huge stroke of luck considering this is MJ’s favorite flower. She smelled the orchid and looked at the ocean.

“I can’t believe we’re married,” she said.

“You look edible,” I said.

For dinner I had the grilled swordfish with mango salsa. MJ had crab enchiladas with a verde (green) sauce and we drank two bottles of the 2004 Don Miguel Gascon Malbec.

It’s the most relaxed I’d seen MJ since the day we met at Shady Place Rest and Readjustment Center. As the facility nurse, she did my intake interview, reading questions off a page.

“Any diseases or family history of disease?” she said.

“I’m afflicted by your red hair and the freckles on your shins,” I said. “It runs in my family.”

Thirty days into my court ordered sixty day reeducation we met again for my status interview. She read questions from a different page.

“Have you or anyone else noticed an improvement in your physical well being?” she said.

“Only now that I’m sitting this close to you,” I said. “Can’t you feel this?”

She locked the door to her office and let me kiss her shins and give her an orgasm with my mouth. We’ve been together ever since.

Shady Place discharged me with honors. MJ called me three days later.

“I can’t believe you graduated,” she said. “We have to talk.”

I remember thinking she was going to breakup with me. On the drive to her apartment I came up with two speeches. One that started with, ‘Well, fuck you. I’m better than this anyway,’ and another that started, ‘Please, dear God, don’t break up with me.’ I’d gauge the mood before deciding which to use.

She sat on a green, floral print loveseat when I arrived. She touched the cushion next to her. It smelled like cat piss. I sat down and a broken piece of rattan stabbed me in the calf.

“Well, fuck you. I’m better than this anyway,” I said and grabbed my calf. It was bleeding.

“What?” she said.

“Please, dear God, don’t breakup with me.”

MJ got me a towel for the blood and applied pressure. She told me that she wanted me to marry her, that she needed me to marry her, that I had to marry her, which threw me. Sometimes I wasn’t even sure she liked me.

“Are you pregnant?” I said.

“God, no,” she said. My calf was throbbing. It hurt bad.

“Yeah, okay. Let’s do it. ” I said.

She grabbed the phone and called her mother, told her that I asked her to marry me and that she’d said yes. I went to minor emergency and got a tetanus shot and a butterfly bandage.

After that she stressed about the wedding, the reception, her dress, bride’s maids, invitations, flowers, seating arrangements, deejay’s, first dance song, catering, rings, her mother and everything else. The night I found her crying in the apartment, a swatch of lace in each hand, I suggested that we forget all this trouble and just go to the courthouse to get married. She locked herself in the bathroom.

“I can’t believe you’re trying to ruin the best day of my life,” she said.

When we were done with dinner at Playa Azul we decided to walk down the beach to get back to the hotel. Our feet sank in the soft sand at the water’s edge. As we approached the hotel, MJ was awash in moonlight and I couldn’t take it anymore. I stopped and pulled her to me. Her breasts were in my face. I cupped one with my hand and kissed her crab enchilada scented cleavage. She took a sharp breath because of her hiccups. We tumbled to the water’s edge, me on top of her, and made out. The water lapped at our legs and receded and lapped again like it wanted in on the action.

My hard-on flapped. MJ made snow angels in the sand. I walked my hands up her dress, pushed two sandy fingers inside of her and jabbed her clit with my thumb. Then the ocean thrashed behind us.  I craned my neck and used MJ’s breast for support.  Hector Vasquez stood ankle deep in water, wearing a Speedo, not four feet away, a scuba mask resting on his forehead. He had a spear-gun in one hand and the fingers of his other hooked through the gills of a young Blue Tip shark. The shark struggled. Hector scratched his chest with the spear-gun.

“Hola, Hector,” I said.

“Buenos Noches, Señor. Señora,” he said. MJ hiccupped.

“You fish at night, Hector?’

“Si. That is when the sharks hunt.”

Back in the room MJ and I had the hottest sex ever. It’s the first time she’d ever had multiple orgasms with me. I had a hard time coming because of all the wine. Whenever that happens I think of the person I hate the most having sex with MJ. Leo fucking Campbell, the fuckhead that always cheated when we raced BMX. It works every time.

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The Winning Crowd

I like football best on television, in my own house, not at a sports bar where drinkers lift their eyes, the color of salmon eggs, when the crowd roars. I appreciate the ease of going to my own refrigerator, assessing what to eat and what to drink, and returning to the television, a Samsung, to watch what’s there to watch—wow, players in the air, no, players injured on the ground!

Then again, I don’t like TV football at all. I abandoned the gladiator spectacle years ago when I discovered there were more commercials than playing time, and discovered that the audience on Sunday (and Monday and Thursday) was young and crude, with faces painted in team colors—or for the Igors of Raiders Nation, sporting silvery spikes, shrunken heads, and fake (or real?) vomit. For some, every game is Halloween.

When my buddy David calls and says, “Let’s get stupid,” what he really means is let’s uncork a bottle of wine, preferably Napa Valley red, and watch football players do their high-paid magic on television, then ask each other, “What’s the score?” We’ll eat a deep-dish Zachary’s pizza, maybe get our veggies in the form of a Caesar salad, contemplate the meaning of life, then gaze up at the TV and ask, “Who’s playing?”

While I don’t really follow football, I have noticed that the crowds have been dressing down for years—slack jerseys hanging over wobbly guts and baseball caps worn backward or sideways but never as they should be. When David got tickets to the last game of the season, one between the San Francisco 49ers and the Carolina Panthers, I decided to turn the sartorial tide, me against 40,000 other fans. The game itself didn’t matter—both teams were out of the playoff picture—but I intended to dress to the nines.

The drive over the Bay Bridge was smooth and the parking pricy but equally smooth. A young woman wielding a lit wand waved us into our parking spot. We got out, both David and I complaining goodheartedly about the cold. The sky was gray as cement, the wind blowing off the bay, seagulls crying above. A plastic bag, white as a gull, filled frantically with wind and was puffed away by the gusts.

But I wasn’t concerned about the weather. I had planned my wardrobe carefully, going item by item through my closet—actually, a mirrored armoire with cubbyholes for shoes and a secret drawer for cufflinks. I was wearing a relatively new purchase from Adam of London, a tastefully designed wool suit that’s chocolate colored, with very faint pinstripes. In another life, I might have been one of the Rolling Stones, circa 1965, when English band members dressed in three-piece suits, totally mod, totally groovy. And my shoes? Polished black leather high-tops, mirror bright at the tips. My hat? A black felt Borsalino, with a feather in its band. It would insulate my brain and conceal my receding hairline—a nice touch.

But you wouldn’t have noticed my suit because it was hidden beneath a long, maroon overcoat made by my wife in the late 1980s, when shoulder pads were all the rage and, in this case, nearly as big as pillows. The thick wool falls to my knees and, because of its heft, wearing the coat is a workout in itself. The buttons are football-shaped, made of polished walnut. The label inside says, “For my Sweetie.” That’s me, and there I was meandering through the parking lot, thirty minutes before kickoff, receiving stares from all the tailgaters—would-be jocks, or former jocks, or just fans out for a good time.

“Dude! Dude!” a bearded chap shouted. “You look hella strange.” He was holding a beer in one hand, a flaccid hotdog in the other—the frankfurter, I noticed, was nearly slipping from its holster of a bun and had a little yellow dot of mustard at the end.

“Go, Niners,” I offered with a clenched fist, ignoring his taunt. I gave him a peace sign, and a grin as I ducked through the smoke wafting from his hibachi. I could endure any insult to my attire, by far the sharpest within miles. And, hey, I might have said, “Look! Gold cufflinks on the T.M. Lewin 100 percent pima-cotton shirt I bought in London.” And over the weenies you’re flaying on the grill, I could have touched my scented throat and added, “Only the best—Le Male cologne.”

I shared more peace signs, then double-barrel peace signs, as I passed row after row of tipsy party goers, and bore with dignity the stares, the quips, “Oh, check out Grandpa,” the sound of beer cans crushed in wrench-like hands (what had I done?), and even a shower of peanuts.

“You’re causing trouble,” David smirked.

“True,” I agreed, dusting my sleeve of a clinging peanut. “A well-dressed man will do that.”

At my age (late fifties), you seldom get a chance to cause trouble, unless you lean on your horn and yell at another driver, “Hey, butt-face, use your turn signal!” Then speed away, eyes in the rearview mirror. Or unless on a lovely Saturday you are pulled over for rolling through a stop sign, and furrow your brow and mutter as you sign the ticket: I’m a naughty old man.

We made our way through security, where I had to unbutton my coat for a quick pat-down and permit security’s peek into my paper bag—two turkey sandwiches prepared by my wife, along with two Fuji apples, two bottles of water, and a small vial of antibacterial hand sanitizer. The bottled water was confiscated—no liquids allowed.

David had bought our tickets through Goldstar, an online retailer that offers 50 to 70 percent off the list price. We like a bargain; we like our entertainment cheap. But our seats were located in a section far from the action, and at such an angle that we were guaranteed stiff necks by halftime.

“Follow me,” I told David, who was shelling a couple of the peanuts he’d caught during the last barrage. I led the way to the lower level, now and then touching the brim of my hat as some fan smiled and pointed at me, the ambassador of good taste. One of the vendors, a young guy with a bluish tattoo on his neck, stopped his sales pitch. Excited, he sang, “You a hit man! You a hit man! Like in the movies, huh!”

“Young man, you have me all wrong,” I answered, slipping my right hand into my coat pocket. “I’m nothing more than a 49er faithful.”

The vendor shaped his hand into a pistol and I played along, my own hand rising pistol-shaped from my coat pocket, the trigger of my thumb pulled back. “Put yours back, buddy,” I warned, “and just walk away slowly.” He smiled and moved along, the bags of peanuts dangling from his fist, evidently unwilling to risk an encounter with this O.G.


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Self Portrait as Wikipedia Entry

Dean Rader was born in Stockton, California during the Summer of Love. His sorrow is his own. He believes in star-sting and misnomer; he carries a toy whistle in his pocket. American by nationality, he was conceived in a Fiat near the Place du Châtelet. If asked, Rader will lie and say he doesn’t remember it, but his lazy eyes and hunched back give him away. His left pinky finger, broken from basketball, has never healed, which he attributes to the caesura of distance and longing. His heart, the size of a normal man’s heart, has been used as a model for a forensic mannequin. As a young boy, he once carried a small package to the river, but it was the wrong address. If asked to describe the river, he quotes van Heisenstadt (“die grenzen des wasser nicht vom errinerung”). Rader is not the little cricket. He is not a scissors for lefty. His soul, the size of a tiny condom, slides quickly onto time’s blind spot. In 2004, he was asked about time’s blind spot but responded only that “time, like a bandage, is always already wound and unwound.” Once, as a student in college, he grew a third sideburn. Darkness, his maquette, darkness, his morning coffee. Rader’s father studied to be a mortician; his mother was a therapist and, not surprisingly, Rader pursued both. His head, matted with crude sketches of benches, nipples, and flower petals is roughly the size of the Place du Châtelet. Strong at math from an early age, he helped develop what has come to be known as the Osaka Postulate, which proves that the square root of asyndeton is equal to the inshpere of trespass, skin-spark, and elegy. As for his own spiritual beliefs, Rader is silent, though one of his recent poems, entitled “The Last Day of 34” suggests an influence of Simone Weil (“community is work. // For all I know, God may be in both. / For all you know, God may be both) and Luigi Sacramone (“We want so much. // We only believe / in what we ask for”). Considered neither the lip blister nor the noodle wrenc, Rader has emerged, at least somewhat, as the repetitio rerum. In more recent work, he denies this (though indirectly) citing instead his commitment to interlocutory boundaries (bornage) through what he calls the “phatic interstice.” At present his voice, the pitch and timbre of a young girl’s, asks only for Tang. Consumed by his charity work with the NGO Our Uncle of Instrumentality, he has stopped writing entirely. When questioned about this at a 2007 fundraiser, Rader quipped, “Let my words say what I cannot.” Since then, a fragment of an unpublished poem attributed to Rader has started appearing on the Internet:

Line up and line out
says the moonwhittle.
Loss is the ring on our finger, the bright gem
compassing every step as we drop down.
Believe in what you know and you’ll go blind.

Experts doubt its authenticity.

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Melinda, Doing Her Best

“I think she’s a bad person,” said my friend Fred Hirsch, his face creased into lines of grief, failure to sleep, defeat. A graduate student with a decent job coming up, he was too early for those etchings and purplish bruises.

The person under discussion, Melinda Hopkins, seemed like a fairly standard California and Stanford beauty, except for the shy way she had of not meeting the eyes when you looked at her. The population tended to look at her. Flaxen hair with almost no wave in it; tennis shorts on campus or, for more formal occasions, white tennis dresses; an unusual smoldering thing going on in those eyes that did not meet mine and, according to stricken garrulous Fred, did not meet his, either, as he loomed above her or squirmed beneath her. He said she had a talent for computers, was working on advanced programs for import-export purposes. Even when she made love, or a kind of love, looking into the eyes of others, it was a distraction from her interior life. “Bad, bad person,” Fred repeated.

“She did harm to you, maybe,” I said, a true buddy, “but that’s because you chose to fall. Let yourself get done to.”


“Hey, come off it. Let’s just say what kind of person she is has yet to be determined. Just, far as you’re concerned, it was a bad deal, okay?”

Closing out my buddy duties for the spring quarter.

Melinda, graduating on one of those glorious June days, kissed her dear ones goodbye, kissing Fred and then turning to me with the same lightning brush against the mouth.

Her father lived in Belgium (sometimes she saw him during the summers); her mother was an actress in New York. It wasn’t convenient for her parents to show up for graduation ceremonies. “They’ve been there, done that,” she explained. “Anyway, Mom is an ingénue, working at it in New York, still the ingénue.” She was smiling more than just at one corner of her mouth, enough smile to assure Fred and me that she saw the humor in her mother’s career. “But she’s not forty yet—well, maybe—so why shouldn’t she play twenty-two-year olds?”

I asked Melinda if she was interested in acting or modeling, and she said they were fifth and sixth on her list of interests, after sheep-ranching in Australia, running garage sales, knitting multicolored skull-caps for Hassidim, and—her serious talent—writing computer programs. “But that’s lonely sometimes,” she said. “So maybe I should get into the ingénue business, like Mom.”

Clever Melinda seemed to have some humor or at least irony. Sad young people often develop this as a useful device.

“I’d like it if you stayed in Palo Alto with me,” Fred said, ever the hopeless nerd. “We could get married?” It was a question. He wanted me as a witness.

She wouldn’t tell him where his idea could be found on her list of career alternatives, but she puffed out her cheeks in a throw-up gesture. She didn’t like it when Fred talked dirty to her, and as to tenure with an untenured professor — hadn’t been there, didn’t want to do that.

“I’m sure Stanford is a fine school with an excellent reputation,” she said. “And I love the architecture, too, all those beige buildings, that time in the computer lab, those rich kids with their fathers living in Belgium or someplace.”


Folks like Fred and many other young men tend to judge people by what they do, inadvertently or advertently, and what they look like, and how they happen to lock into the guy’s dreams. Fred made a mistake to set his sights on this high I.Q. campus belle with the programming talent; she was too much for him, her wildness searching to waste something more than a Fred. Personally, of course, well-warned and prudent, all I wanted to do was follow her to the ends of the Earth.

Instead, when Fred and she stopped seeing each other, and I was no longer on campus either, I lost track of Melinda. She ducked. She disappeared off my screen, but I imagined she was still on her own.

And then I heard she was in prison. It shouldn’t make a difference, but I especially disliked the idea of somebody like her doing time. The charge was smuggling cocaine in her luggage on a flight from Ecuador; what did she think, that the dogs and the narcs couldn’t meet her eyes and therefore would spend all their time trying to get Melinda to look at them? That they would spend their strength sniffing at her and not noticing that she was a mule? That a flight from Ecuador was safe because it wasn’t a flight from Colombia?

Her karma was that of a winner, not a loser?

Her Colombian boyfriend had given her such guarantee. “Just carry this, Me-leen-da, and you get twenty thousand nice ones and I get whatever the market turns out to be. I also am taking a chance, my sweet.” He, of course, took another flight.

The market held firm, so in general he won. Coke sales are more reliable than other forms of retail.

On the other hand, a tipster with problems of his own gave her up, so in specific Melinda lost.

The friend who called her Me-leen-da decided to head someplace where there was no extradition treaty with the U.S. to avoid all the time-consuming legal hassles. As to Melinda, sorry about that. Sheet happens.

Fred had given me the news and a few years later told me she was getting out, maybe hadn’t been raped by the matronly truck-driver population of her federal prison, and now what should he do? Surround her with caring, pay for therapy, woo her with his kindness into a new life program that might also include Fred?

“Stay away,” I said.

“Can’t,” he said (wailing).

“Then why are you asking me?”

As it turned out, it was I who had the chance to avoid contact with this bad-luck Melinda, formerly of Stanford University. She called from San Francisco, where I live, and said: “Beached here, man.”

Yes, I would take her to dinner. Probably I also wanted to see what twenty-two months in a federal prison looked like on this fresh-faced, shy-eyed young computer programmer.

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Enter Harlow

Those who know me now will be surprised to learn that I was a great talker as a child. We have a home movie taken when I was two years old, no soundtrack, and by now the colors have bled out—a white sky, my red sneakers a ghostly pink—but you can still see how much I used to talk.

I’m doing a bit of landscaping, picking up one stone at a time from our gravel driveway, carrying it to a large tin washtub, dropping it in, and going back for the next. I’m working hard, but showily. I widen my eyes like a silent film star. I hold up a clear piece of quartz to be admired, put it in my mouth, stuff it into one cheek. My mother appears and removes it. She steps back out of the frame, but I’m speaking emphatically now—you can see this in my gestures—and she returns, drops the stone into the tub. The whole thing lasts about four minutes and I never stop talking.

I’m prettier as a child than I’ve turned out, towheaded back then and dolled up for the camera. My flyaway bangs are pasted down with water and held on one side by a rhinestone barrette shaped like a bow. Whenever I turn my head, the barrette blinks in the sunlight. My little hand sweeps over my tub of rocks. All this, I could be saying, all this will be yours someday.

Or something else entirely. The point of the movie isn’t the words themselves. What my parents valued was their extravagant abundance, their inexhaustible flow.

A few years later, Mom read us the old fairy tale in which two sisters return from the well speaking in flowers and jewels (the younger) or toads and snakes (the older.) The image in my head then was from this same movie, of my mother reaching into my mouth for the glassy stone, my words falling from my lips as gems.

Still, there were occasions on which I had to be stopped. When you think of two things to say, pick your favorite and only say that, my mother suggested once, as a tip to polite social behavior, and the rule was later modified to one in three. My father would come to my bedroom door each night to wish me happy dreams and I would speak without taking a breath, trying desperately to keep him in my room with only my voice. I would see his hand on the doorknob, the door beginning to swing shut. I have something to say! I’d tell him, and the door would stop midway.

Start in the middle then, he’d answer, a shadow with the hall light behind him, and tired in the evenings the way grown-ups are. The light would reflect in my bedroom window like a star you could wish on.

Skip the beginning. Start in the middle.


So the middle of my story comes in the winter of 1996. By then, we’d long since dwindled into the family that old home movie foreshadowed: me, my mother, and, unseen but evident behind the camera, my father. In 1996, ten years had passed since I’d last seen my brother, seventeen since my sister had disappeared. The middle of this story is all about their absence, though if I didn’t tell you so, you wouldn’t notice. By 1996, I was no longer at home myself. Weeks went by in which I hardly thought of them.

Leap year. Year of the fire rat. President Clinton had just been re- elected; it would all end in tears. Kabul had fallen to the Taliban. The Siege of Sarajevo had ended. Charles had recently divorced Diana.

Hale-Bopp came swinging into our sky. Claims of a Saturn-like object in the comet’s wake first surfaced that November. Dolly, the cloned sheep, and Deep Blue, the chess playing computer program, were superstars. There was evidence of life on Mars. The Saturn-like object in Hale-Bopp’s tail was maybe an alien spaceship. In May of ’97, thirty-nine people would kill themselves as a prerequisite to climbing aboard.

Against this backdrop, how ordinary I look! In 1996, I was twenty- two years old, meandering through my fourth year at the University of California, at Davis, and still maybe only a junior or maybe a senior, but so thoroughly uninterested in the niceties of units or requirements that I wouldn’t be graduating anytime soon. I had no particular ambitions beyond being either widely admired or stealthily influential—I was torn between the two. It hardly mattered, as no major seemed to lead reliably to either.

My parents, who were still paying my expenses, found me aggravating. My mother was often aggravated those days. It was something new for her, analeptic doses of righteous aggravation. She was rejuvenated by it. She’d recently announced that she was through being translator and go-between for me and my father; he and I had hardly spoken since. I don’t remember minding. My father was a college professor himself and a pedant to the bone. Every exchange contained a lesson, like the pit in a cherry. To this day, the Socratic method makes me want to bite someone.

Autumn came suddenly that year, like a door opening. One morning I was bicycling to class when a large flock of Canada geese passed overhead. I couldn’t see them or much of anything else, but I heard the jazzy honking above me. There was a tule fog off the fields and I was wrapped inside it, pedaling through clouds. Tule fogs are not like other fogs, not spotty or drifting, but fixed and substantial. Probably anyone would have felt the risk of moving quickly through an unseen world, but as a child, I had a particular penchant for slapstick and mishap, so I took the full thrill from it.

I felt polished by the wet air and maybe just a little migratory myself, just a little wild. This meant I might flirt a bit in the library if I sat next to anyone flirtable or I might daydream in class. I often felt wild back then; I enjoyed the feeling, but nothing had ever come of it.

At lunchtime I grabbed something, probably grilled cheese, let’s say it was grilled cheese, in the school cafeteria. I was in the habit of leaving my books on the chair next to me where they could be quickly moved if someone interesting came by, but would discourage the uninteresting. At twenty-two I had the callowest possible definition of interesting and, by the measure of my own calipers, was far from interesting myself.

A couple was sitting at a table near me and the woman’s voice gradually rose to the point where I was forced to pay attention. “You want some fucking space?” she said. She was wearing a short blue T-shirt and a necklace with a glass pendant of an angelfish. Long, dark hair twisted messily down her back. She stood and cleared the table with one motion of her arm. She had beautiful biceps; I remember wishing I had arms like hers.

Dishes fell to the floor and shattered; catsup and cola spilled and mixed in the breakage. There must have been music in the background, because there’s always music in the background now, our whole lives soundtracked (and most of it too ironic to be random. I’m just saying.), but honestly I don’t remember. Maybe there was only a sweet silence and the spit of grease on the grill.

“How’s that?” the woman asked. “Don’t tell me to be quiet. I’m just making more space for you.” She pushed the table itself over, swung it to one side. “Better?” She raised her voice. “Can everyone please leave the room so my boyfriend has more space? He needs a fucking lot of space.” She slammed her chair down onto the pile of catsup and dishes. More sounds of breakage and a sudden waft of coffee.

The rest of us were frozen—forks halfway to our mouths, spoons dipped in our soups, the way people were found after the eruption of Vesuvius. “Don’t do this, baby,” the man said once, but she was doing it and he didn’t bother to repeat himself. She moved to another table, empty except  for a tray with dirty dishes. There she methodically broke everything that could be broken, threw everything that could be thrown. A saltshaker spun across the floor to my foot.

A young man rose from his seat, telling her, with a slight stutter, to take a chill pill. She threw a spoon that bounced audibly off his forehead. “Don’t side with assholes,” she said. Her voice was very not chill.

He sank back, eyes wide. “I’m okay,” he assured the room at large, but he sounded unconvinced. And then surprised. “Holy shit! I’ve been assaulted!”

“This is just the shit I can’t take,” the woman’s boyfriend said. He was a big guy, with a thin face, loose jeans and a long coat. Nose like a knife. “You go ahead and tear it up, you psycho bitch. Just give me back the key to my place first.”

She swung another chair, missing my head by maybe four feet—I’m being charitable; it seemed like a lot less—striking my table and upsetting it. I grabbed my glass and plate. My books hit the floor with a loud slap. “Come and get it,” she told him.

It struck me as funny, a cook’s invitation over a pile of broken plates, and I laughed once, convulsively, a strange duck-like hoot that made everyone turn. And then I stopped laughing because it was no laughing matter, and everyone turned back. Through the glass walls I could see some people on the quad who’d noticed the commotion and were watching. A threesome on their way in for lunch had stopped short at the door.

“Don’t think I won’t.” He took a few steps in her direction. She scooped up a handful of catsup-stained sugar cubes and threw them.

“I’m finished,” he said. “We’re finished. I’m putting your shit in the hallway and I’m changing the locks.” He turned and she threw a glass that bounced off his ear. He missed a step, staggered, touched the spot with one hand, checked his fingers for blood. “You owe me for gas,” he said without looking back. “Mail it.” And he was gone.

There was a moment’s pause as the door closed. Then the woman turned on the rest of us. “What are you losers looking at?” She picked up one of the chairs and I couldn’t tell if she was going to put it back or throw it. I don’t think she’d decided.

A campus policeman arrived. He approached me cautiously, hand on his holster. Me! Standing above my toppled table and chair, still holding my harmless glass of milk and my plate with the harmless half-eaten grilled cheese sandwich. “Just put it down, honey,” he said, “and sit for a minute.” Put it down where? Sit where? Nothing in my vicinity was upright but me. “We can talk about this. You can tell me what’s going on. You’re not in any trouble yet.”

“Not her,” the woman behind the counter told him. She was a large woman, and old—maybe forty—with a beauty mark on her upper lip and eyeliner collecting in the corners of her eyes. You all act like you own the place, she’d said to me once, on another occasion, when I sent back a burger for more cooking. But you just come and go. You don’t even think how I’m the one who stays.

“The tall one,” she told the cop. She pointed, but he was paying no attention, so intent on me and whatever my next move would be.

“Calm down,” he said again, soft and friendly. “You’re not in any trouble yet.” He stepped forward, passing right by the woman with the braid and the chair. I saw her eyes behind his shoulder.

“Never a policeman when you need one,” she said to me. She smiled and it was a nice smile. Big white teeth. “No rest for the wicked.” She hoisted the chair over her head. “No soup for you!” She launched it away from me and the cop, toward the door. It landed on its back.

When the policeman turned to look, I dropped my plate and my fork. I honestly didn’t mean to. The fingers of my left hand just unclenched all of a sudden. The noise spun the cop back to me.

I was still holding my glass, half full of milk. I raised it a little, as if proposing a toast. “Don’t do it,” he said, a whole lot less friendly now. “I am so not playing around here. Don’t you fucking test me.”

And I threw the glass onto the floor. It broke and splashed milk over one of my shoes and up into my sock. I didn’t just let it go. I threw that glass down as hard as I could.

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Get Lost

Homeless Dude living in the alley across the street has found a creative way to keep warm. It involves a blowdryer and an industrial outlet near the dumpster. Dude spends half his day blowdrying himself. His dirt-gray tennis shoes with the toes sticking out, his shredded MC Hammer pants revealing a scabby pair of knees, his torn Hawaii sweatshirt with what I hope are ketchup stains all over the front. Being the friendless clinically depressed loser I am, I spend most of my free time watching him from my breakfast table three stories up.

“Dude,” I tell him on my walk to the bus stop Monday morning. “You’re seriously going to kill yourself if you don’t stop it with the blowdryer.”

“Why’d I kill misself?” he asks with a gap-toothed grin as he blowdries his armpits. The alley stinks like singed clothes and ancient sweat and the garbage bins he calls Home.

“Because it’s October, and the rain starts soon—” “Gotta cigarette?”

“No.” A lie.

“Gotta quarter?”

“No.” Another lie. I clutch my messenger bag tighter.

“I ain’t gonna kill misself.” He points the blowdryer at me, hot and nasty.

“Stop,” I say, pulling back my hair, which is everywhere.

“Warm, ain’t it?”

“Smells like burning.”

“I ain’t gonna kill misself,” he shouts louder. I hear someone from my building slam a window shut. “Wanna know why?”

“I need to get to work,” I tell him. I turn and walk up the street and regret the conversation.

“Cause I’m invincible!” he screams after me. “I’ll be invincible ’til I die!”

“Sure thing, Dude,” I say under my breath.


I can barely make rent lately. I’m a professional dogwalker. It was kind of my life dream to start this quote unquote business. My best friend Candy wants to sing the blues and I want to exercise pooches. We all have our calling, my father would say. He works for God. White collar. Black suit. He sends his regards in the form of a card once a month, cards with comic dogs on them. I miss him like hell.

I moved from Weed this past May with Candy, best friend since before my memory begins. We came to S.F. to pursue our dreams. There are a lot of nightclubs and restless canines in this city. But snap, I’m talking overnight, Candy fell in love with a man and eloped with the man and soon got impregnated by the man and left me alone in this crappy Tenderloin apartment where I can barely make rent. This was two months ago. I’ve been wandering around this stupid city with all these flashy signs and high rise apartments and hipster haircuts, wandering like a zombie with several dogs on several leashes. Confession: Candy left behind a pillow and I hug it to sleep at night. I never turn the light off, either.

I recently turned twenty-one and got drunk and sat in the back of a dark bar and listened to Candy sing a bunch of Dinah Washington and Nina Simone covers. I wore a fabric flower in my hair and cried into my greyhound. It didn’t start out that way. I was going to surprise her, but then the drunker I got, the more ridiculous I felt, and the more ridiculous I felt, the more I cried, and the more I cried, the more I drank, and the drunker I got. And the cycle, it repeated. Luckily she didn’t notice me. It was crowded. It was dim. I slipped out the back while she sang “Lover Man.” It’s been a month since she bothered to drop by the TL apartment and she hasn’t even invited me to see her new place. His place. I blame my clinical depression on Candy.


Oh I still call her, though, and inject fake-happy into my voice and act like everything’s just the best fucking thing in the whole world.

“Hi, Frankie,” she says. “I only have a sec. I just got my ultrasound!”

We squeal. I am sitting at my breakfast table scribbling out a crossword puzzle with an ink pen. “How big is it?”

“Smaller than a finger!”

I draw a finger on my finger. “Wow, just a tiny little worm! What else have you been up to? It’s been days.”

“Things have been just so crazy. Jack’s parents came into town last week, total whirlwind. We just finally got the place clean again.”

I imagine some fancy apartment, one of those skyscrapery buildings that make me nervous with a view of all the bridges and the freeways and the sea of downtown lights. “When do I get to see it?”

“Like I’ve been saying: girl time, soon. I’ve just been so nauseous is the thing.

I draw a baby on an envelope on the table. It has one eye.

“Did you get my birthday present?” she asks. She sent me a package in the mail even though we share a zip code.

“Yeah.” Pink fisherman’s hat. I love it. I wear it every day. “I’m wearing it right now.”

“Well, I hope you had a good birthday,” she says. I draw flames around the one-eyed baby.

“Yeah.” I wish I could tell her I heard her sing on my birthday, and that she sounded like velvet with a voice.

“Okay, well, hope you’re good.”

“I’ve been super busy,” I say, looking at my calendar, which I realize  is still on last month’s page: the dachsund. I flip it to the beagle and sit back down.

“How’s the apartment?” she asks.

“Same. You know. Watching the nonstop adventures of Homeless Dude through the window.”

“How is Homeless Dude?”

“He’s got a blowdryer and he spends his days blowdrying his smelly ass—”

“Jack’s home! Jack, honey, me and baby are hungry, do you want to make us a sam-wich?”

“To keep warm,” I say, not caring she’s not listening as I tear the envelope with the burning baby on it into tiny bits. “Dude does it to keep warm.”


Sometimes I browse dating websites and look at men and women and imagine dating them. I imagine waking up next to them with bedhead, I try to picture the smell of them. I shut my computer. I dated before, but that was back in Weed, where I knew everyone face to face, customers at the pizza parlor or friends of the family or whatnot. Here the people are closer and everywhere on the streets, but there are oceans of awkwardness and strangeness dividing us. If I could, I would live with a hundred dogs. Back home, dad has six golden retrievers. But here Candy picked the apartment that explicitly said no pets in the lease. And now she and Jack live with The Awesomest Dog in the Universe, a blue-eyed husky named Major Tom she sends me picture texts of. Cute!!! I text back while writhing alone in my jealousy. I walk rich people’s pooches in the urban tree-spotted streets of San Francisco. I dream my best friend moves back in with me and we share a bed, I dream I kidnap dogs. I’ve forgotten how to smile back at strangers. No wonder I’m suicidal.


On my twenty-first, I walked home drunk in my silver dress, crying my eyeliner down my rouged cheeks. Men woowooed at me out of car windows. Drug dealers offered me a sniff. I passed Homeless Dude curled up asleep with the blowdryer beside him and stopped by the corner market for a pint of Smirnoff and a small OJ. I said to myself, if the guy behind the counter doesn’t say happy birthday to you, then you’re going to go home and kill yourself. And guess what? He didn’t even check my ID or smile back. He looked at my chest and yawned and handed me my change. Little did he know my life was in his latex-gloved hands.

Clearly I didn’t kill myself that night. But I googled suicide and read about it for several drunken hours. Did you know that, worldwide, 30 percent of people commit suicide through the ingestion of pesticides? I found that really interesting and then spent some time Googling pesticides. I looked at firearms online and read about the proper way to slit one’s wrists. I was planning on taking a cab to the Golden Gate Bridge to jump, but ended up passing out on the couch and drooling all over my laptop instead. I’m glad I didn’t jump off the Bridge. It would have been too melodramatic and clichéd. I’m still looking for the best way to die.


Today the sky looks gray and ready to turn teary so I open my window to yell at Homeless Dude. I’m eating a PB and J and worried about electrocution again.

“Enough already,” I say. “Don’t you see the clouds?”

“What?” he screams up at me. “You talkin’ to moi?

“I think it’s dangerous, what you’re doing.” I shake my half-eaten sandwich for emphasis.

Whatchu just call me, bitch?”

“I didn’t call you anything—”

“Shut the fuck up, both of you,” yells a man from an upstairs window.

“Fuck you,” I yell upwards in his general direction, and it feels good.

“Fuck you,” Homeless Dude screams, brandishing his blowdryer.

“Fuck all of you,” I say. Feels less good the second time, but still good.

I slam the window shut. Make a mental note to self: say fuck you more often. Maybe call Candy and say, Hey, fuck you, Candy.

And that’s the extent of my human interaction today. Saturday. Day off.

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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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