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QUIET LIGHTNING IS

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sparkle + blink 83
© 2017 Quiet Lightning

cover © Rohan DaCosta
rohandacosta.com

“Wendy Beside Herself” by Jenny Xie first appeared in PANK
“Here, There is a There”, “The Last Lullaby”, and “It Must Have
Been Edited Out” by Peggy Schimmelman first appeared in
Crazytown (Writing Knights Press)

book design by j. brandon loberg
set in Absara

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su bmit @ qui e tl i g h tn i n g . o r g
CONTENTS
curated by
Meghan Thornton + Olga Zilberbourg
featured artists
Rohan DaCosta | rohandacosta.com

PEGGY SCHIMMELMAN Here, There is a There 1
The Last Lullaby 3
It Must Have Been Edited Out 4
JENNY XIE Wendy Beside Herself 7
LOGAN ELLIS Hands Reflected 13
Mantra for the Cure 15
Standardizing 17
Interpretable Ruin 19
SANDRA WASSILIE Where a Hand Strikes 21
Bless All the Little Girls Sacrificed 23
LAURIE POSNER Unknown Man Shot in Boerne 25
16,000 Bones 26
Dear Delfina Flores 28
HADAS GOSHEN Hoarders 29
SHERRIL JAFFE Because of the General 35
The News About 36
Reframing the Picture 38
Bring Down the 39
It Was Hard 41
When Laurel Returned 42
Okay, It Was 43
The Whole Situation 44
Finally Out for a Walk 45
SARA MARINELLI Avon Afternoons 47
LISA PIAZZA we were girls 53
March 55
SIAMAK VOSSOUGHI Sea to Shining Sea 59
ANTHONY VEASNA SO Live and Let Die 65
FERNANDO MEISENHALTER My Kingdom for an Adverb 73
MATT LEIBEL Birthday 79
Roommate 80
Nothing 81
Everything 82
Epiphany 83
G IS SPONSOR
ET LIGHTNIN ED B
QU I Y
QUIET LIGHTNING
A 501(c)3, the primary objective and purpose of Quiet
Lightning is to foster a community based on literary
expression and to provide an arena for said expression. QL
produces a monthly, submission-based reading series on
the first Monday of every month, of which these books
(sparkle + blink) are verbatim transcripts.

Formed as a nonprofit in July 2011, the QL board is currently:

Evan Karp executive director
Chris Cole managing director
Josey Rose Duncan public relations
Lisa Church outreach
Meghan Thornton treasurer
Kelsey Schimmelman secretary
Laura Cerón Melo art director
Christine No production

If you live in the Bay Area and are interested in
helping—on any level—please send us a line:

e v an @ qui et light nin g . o rg
- SET 1 -
P PPPPPPPPPPP
P PP PP
H E RE, THE
R E IS A T H E R E
“…there is no there there.”
Gertrude Stein

but the there that there is
is beyond my pocketbook
and here comes the fox
with his dollar sign eyes
to jack up my rent yet again
so there you go
and here I am
packing twenty-five years
into those boxes there and
wondering if I’ll land
here or there
up, down or over there
or maybe way out there
beyond the last train stop
where, I hear
there’s an affordable there
and others who fled here
for there, where
the prettification army
occupying my here
hasn’t flushed out
the poor undesirables yet

1
but I’ll be homesick there
for here
because in my time, Ms. Stein
there was a there there.
I was here and I swear:
it was there.

2
THE LAST LULLABY

Selam and Adonay, hush now and sleep.
Boat man don’t like it when little ones weep.
Ahead, Europe waits to shelter and feed us—
to welcome us. Children, now listen to me:

nightmares can’t reach you out here on the sea.
Aziz and Rahwa, please hush now and sleep.
Visions of villages, ravaged and charred
will fade like ghosts, left to die on the water.

Eritrea, Gambia, Nigeria, Ghana
the souls of your slaughtered are singing to me.
Semirah and Hanna, hush now and sleep.
All boats list and lurch, there is nothing to fear:

with God watching over, rescue is near.
As we slip from the edge, slide into the deep,
Semirah, Hanna, Rahwa, Aziz,
Selam and Adonay, hush now and sleep.

P e ggy Sch i mme lman 3
IT MUST HAVE BEEN EDITED OUT

In that seventh summer, she haunted my dreams:
that evil stepmom of Hansel and Gretel—
more frightening to me, by far, than the witch
who roasted children for dinner. Even though

I had no stepmother, I reminded myself
and shivered as I shook off the nightmare.
But I had heard of divorce. And I knew about death.
Might my own mother die? Or maybe

she really would catch that Greyhound bus
hell-bent for Texas and grandfather’s ranch
as she had threatened before, to cry on his shoulder
and to curse my father, with his Friday night benders

and the wandering eye that I sometimes heard her
complaining about to her friend. Could it happen?
It didn’t. My dad crashed his car on my eighth birthday
and my mom, that same day, forgot

all about the whiskey, women, and that one bad night
when he slapped her and called her a whore.
She drove home the line about kind and hardworking
until it became our mantra, and

4
it was one whole year before she married again.
We rejoiced at her wedding, because once upon a time
the Brothers Grimm, while warning of ogres
witches and wolves, had failed to mention

the worst of the worst, so we were unprepared
we could not imagine—not even in the depths
of our darkest, most spine-chilling nightmares—
such a creature as the evil stepdad.

P e ggy Sch i mme lman 5
JJJJJJJJJ

W ENDY B
ESI D E H E R S E L F

Three years after Wendy Tsai loses her right arm
to a southbound Mustang on the Pacific Coast
Highway, she hears two reports ring out through her
townhouse in Costa Mesa, and upon answering the
door, she discovers that the arm has returned. It is
free of glass, the bone unfractured—it looks better
than ever, in fact: bronzed, oiled, coconut-y from an
island vacation. Where it ends above the elbow, flesh
has been cauterized into violet blisters.

—Surprise, sweetie, says the arm, fingers moving in an
arpeggio across the welcome mat. I came to wish you
a happy birthday.

—Thank you, says Wendy. Happy birthday to you,
too. She tugs on the hem of her extra large UC Santa
Cruz shirt, oddly ashamed to be caught with a flaking
banana slug across her chest. Her undergraduate self
bought it as sleepwear, but now it’s one of the few
shirts that still fit. She pivots to let the arm through
and says, I’m baking a tres leches cake.

—Need a hand? The arm skitters into the house,
nails clicking on the pale floorboards. The sound

7
reminds Wendy of the ancient, weak-hearted
Pekinese she rescued with her husband Daniel. He
never woke after the accident; the dog was put down
shortly after; and some days, Wendy prefers not to get
up, either.

Tufts of flour and baking powder dust the dark
Formica countertops in the kitchen. The arm sends
tiny avalanches of powder onto the checkered
linoleum floor as it parades around. Wendy falters,
detecting a density and brininess in the air. She
remembers the wind blustering through the open
window on their way to the Rusty Pelican that
night, how it unpinned strands of hair and fanned
them over her eyes like the languid tresses of a sea
anemone. She remembers switching off the radio,
resting her hand on his thigh, the dark tide reflecting
nothing.

—Sister, it feels good to be home, the arm says.

—Let me just finish up here, says Wendy. She lowers
the hand mixer into a froth of butter, sugar, and
eggs. Saved from conversation by its mechanic whirr,
Wendy appraises the arm, which is squeezing droplets
of vanilla extract into the bowl. She admires its bright,
muscular presence. A strange envy overtakes her—she
wishes she were amputated, preserved at thirty-one,
the type of woman who begs for the coastline en
route to dinner, the fact of her husband intact behind
the wheel. She says in a measured tone, You look like

8
you’ve gotten some sun.

—It’s all thanks to Bali, baby. This time last week, I
was riding an elephant through a tropical canopy
with a hunky islander named Budi at the reins. But
that’s nothing, the arm adds, wielding the spatula as
Wendy shakes in the dry ingredients. Try soaking in a
Nordic hot spring, snowflakes falling on the water—
you’ll start shedding the years faster than you can put
‘em on. I’m telling you: feels good to be unattached.

The arm taps the ring on Wendy’s finger. It says,
Speaking of which. Hasn’t this gotten a bit small for
you?

Wendy glances at the thin gold band, the austere
stone that they chose together. Pain gathers in
the stump of her right arm like someone gaining
consciousness from a kind dream. She reaches to
massage the purple suture. She says, grimacing,
Would you grease a pan for me, please?

—Whatever you say, sighs the arm, clanging a metal
pan on the burner rings. It runs a pat of butter across
the pan in quick sweeps, seeming contemplative.

Wendy maneuvers the mixing bowl against the
counter with her hip and stirs the batter. The past
few years have taught her self-sufficiency, but they’ve
also taught her how to stay home. Contorting to zip
and unzip herself, guiding the wheel by one hand—

Je nny Xi e 9
she prefers her private pains to these. She feels the
arm watching her with its eyeless gaze.

Then it bursts out, I can’t believe you’re baking. That
was always Daniel’s thing, wasn’t it? Remember the
lemon bars he used to make? Wowza! Well, maybe
you do, it adds, gesturing to the group fitness
schedule on the refrigerator door. It’s posted with the
words patience and horses from a magnetic poetry set.

Wendy has long since stopped going to her weekly
spin class. If only the room wasn’t outfitted with
so many mirrors, reflecting from every angle her
thick calves swinging over the pedals, heat rising
like a rash across her face. She’s embarrassed to see
her body labor over imagined hills, to see surprise
register on her classmates’ faces, and then their stony
determination not to look again.

She pours ribbons of batter into the pan, saying, I like
to feel close to him.

—It’s gotten a bit self-indulgent, don’t you think?

—That’s enough! Wendy winces, massages the stump.

—You’re not helping yourself, says the arm hotly,
lifting the pan and wiggling it to even out the surface
of the soupy cake. It points at Wendy with a buttered
finger: And as far as I can see, you’re going to die in
this kitchen.

10
Wendy heaves the oven door open, its hot breath and
her frustration coaxing sweat from her pores. She
doesn’t expect the arm to understand. It may have
gone cliff diving in Acapulco, toured the swamps
of Louisiana, but it hasn’t experienced the house
without Daniel, brittle as any wind-shorn tundra
under her bare feet. She’s about to express this, but as
she turns, the arm hops off the counter and saunters
out of the room.

—Where are you going? demands Wendy.

—Forget it, says the arm. It’s bad vibes in here. It
taps its fingers against the wall in farewell before
disappearing around the corner.

A thrill of anger sends Wendy after it, heels thumping
on the floorboards. I need you here, she hisses, though
it wasn’t true a moment ago. You don’t know what it’s
been like. She snatches the arm by its wrist. Surprised
by the heft and dimension of her severed flesh, she
hoists it in the air, tightening her fingers around its
wriggling cords of muscle. The arm strains and gropes
at air. Let me go, it squeals. Its tendons row over the
knuckles, small crustacean movements that remind
Wendy of an overturned crab with its pale plates
exposed.

She screeches, drops the arm. It thuds and rolls across
the floor before righting itself and scuttling away.

Je nny Xi e 11
—Wait! She lurches forward but suddenly crumples
in pain, reaching across her shoulder to clutch
her stump, which feels like it’s burning. No—not
burning—tearing, as if teeth of glass and metal were
stripping her flesh, splintering the bone. Wendy
moans, and something wet, something warm like
blood and salty like the sea, seeps through the empty
sleeve.

12
LLLLLLL
LLLL

H A N DS REFLECTE D

hire me the forest
the animal my mother
a mirror in the trees
my father a hive
of winged rubies look
deep at how I reflect
in the damaged color
of each one look
I’m hunched in the distance
shaking over &
over with an over
ripe orange pinched
between my teeth
chewing
carefully so
as not to demolish
the mausoleums tucked
beneath the cheekbones I’ve
inherited, so careful
with careful hands busy
rattling a gift to death
hoping to unfold
castle from construction
paper, won’t you at least

13
build me a bridge to mishandle?
I’ll meet you inside
my reflection
in the water beneath it
we can untie the ribbon
from a lullaby, watch
it unfurl loose like wet hair
over each awakening conversation
we can drink &
drink
&

14
MANTRA FOR THE CURE

unburned.

the sun could ruin its teeth on my skin, but why
won’t it fix my bleached heart?
bone-red balloon bobbing from my throat: what is
this lonely spasm in its cord?

untouched.

not all boys find redemption in chiseling
and etching themselves with one another.

I am posture curled into novels
I am a chimney with a raven
caught in its brick

you wonder how I get here
you wonder how I get here
you wonder how I’m made

uncured.

oh, you know black boys can run
the white-sneakered spit from their mouths.

Logan Elli s 15
oh you know black
boys can play basketball
torsos sneaker-marked
legs mangled in jerseys for hands that applaud
and go home to snap their blinds against
legs
sprinting through smoke in the dark street

skin.
scenery for what I cannot say.
skin.
I hear you.
skin.
is it easier for them to approach me knowing even my
fist is lightskinned?

16
STANDARDIZING

you’re a smart nigga.
most likely to succeed nigga.
diamond-studded grill in the gift horse’s
upper mouth.

bet you could tell a lie without
surrendering your mama’s insides.
bet you could spell onomatopoeia

backwards and sound would reverse for you:
rain pitter-pattering back into clouds, empty-
street footsteps sprinting back into
runaway Nikes.

you’re a smart nigga.
intelligent or some shit—triple-D battery
in the flashlight of a tornado warning.

don’t talk down to me.
if you so smart, why you stutter
your own name? why you pause when I
ask

which side you choose? my knuckles

Logan Elli s 17
are bruised white with you. the only black
you know is the charcoal
behind your eyes

18
INTERPRETABLE RUIN

To speak louder, he fixes a mesh mask over his
mouth. He can only store so much dynamite in his
forearms. His body a cathedral where no one goes
to pray: quiet, rupture. The way his peers talk about
him it seems he’s cornered in our minds—what is he
/ what does he want? His body: quiet as a cathedral’s
hips strapped to crumble, blood baton illusory as
flame. The way they see him you’d think he’s a spider
building prosthetic homes in long-forgotten eyesores:
run-down gas station, beneath flight of stairs for
lease. He lights a match in his cocoon, eager to see
what he’s becoming.

To speak, he stores dynamite in his body. Pray
quiet.
His peers talk in the corner of what does he want?
His body: strapped to illusory flame. The way you’d
think
a spider homes on eyesores: flight for lease.
He lights his cocoon, eager to become.

Logan Elli s 19
become: eager. his cocoon lit for lease.
flight on, eyesores; spider thought
illusory: body strapped in flame. what
does he want in the corner of prayer?
his body: dynamite stored
to mouth—fixed to speak.

his mouth speaks
his body. what does
flame want? prayer as
illusory thought sores.
his cocoon lit before
flight can become.

his mouth
his body
he’s sore
cocoon prayer
become
illusion

20
SSSSSSS
SSSS SS
SS
W HERE A H
AN D ST R I K E S

What nuance of movement will trigger
the pounding of a wall in the night
then the silence?
She sits on the edge of the bed listening.
Will it erupt again?
Will the neighbors now treading
back and forth upstairs
complain to the landlady?
How can she love him through this attack.

A reach to pull the blanket up
so many times pulled up to the chin
so many times the coda of the day
the gesture sleep has overpowered her
as they each fall from mutual caresses
into private turmoil
but this one maneuver this one night
bumps him in the nose and he says the eye
the eye going blind, the coddled eye.
How can he love her through this attack.

Whispering it is not her fault as he slips away
he slams the door out of the bedroom
and slams his hand on the wall outside.

21
A scream with each slam beyond words
blind to her, blind to the apartment
he is where a hand strikes him senselessly.
Is it back home in childhood or later in the street?
How can she love him through this attack.

When he gets into the bed hours later
his back to her signaling
don’t dare to talk
and when the aloofness lingers through the
morning
she wonders how long will
he be gone this time.

22
BLESS ALL THE LITTLE GIRLS
SACRIFICED
“They said they would only rape us. As if rape
were different than death.”
Mary of the Nuer Tribe, South Sudan

Sun shatters the sky
fox slunk through
holes in the wall
last night
fathers and sons
slaughtered

a mother pinioned
teeth at the throat
watched her girl
mauled
the first cry
strangled

a frenzy of feasting
never her girl a woman
beyond survival

a mother carried off
into the dark

Sandra Wassi li e 23
feel of a gun
in the vagina
a finger itches
to pull a trigger

the first pink faint
before it gathers
and clots the sky

24
LLLLLLLLLL
LLL

UNKNO WN MAN
S H O T IN B O E R N E

for the upstairs room above my parents’ flower shop
they’d lugged in the oversized couch from home
so my mother could sit knee by knee with the customer
flapping through the cool
plastic album of asters and lilies

Come spring a storm of boys blows in
lanky and loping and still
in track singlets, a little sheepish
about the corsage

maybe the way the band bites into a wrist or the gist
of pinkhood near a red cummerbund

I will never know about your prom
or couches you might have slept
on, impressing cushions with
your long—or short—
form

I will never know about the grand
parents you mourn or what flower to buy your
mom
or her name
25
16,000 BONES

How hungry would you need to be to eat somebody?

not spooned in brown butter or à l’orange but with all
the unintelligible
fats and maddening clefts

the tectonic ivory box knitted together at the plates;
housing every mean and tender thought. the heart.

there is every reason to believe they ate string sticks
pitch bark
bones and teeth and hide of oxen cattle rabbit horse rat
rot of rotting buffalo robe and the faces and paws of
their faithful dogs
before coming to this

Needless to say we saw Donner Pass on the way in.

But it is not only that. It takes practice to ask the
unspeakable.

All over Orlando, the city is burying its dead sons and
daughters today.

26
There are not enough lilies.

ahora te despiertas y tu cuerpo te pesa como si la muerte te
estuviera naciendo1

What is the weight of the self, the beloved, the
desconocido?

Off to the left of the Pass where the meadow’d gone
penny green
we saw a wedding couple embrace again and again for
the camera

Until the bride’s veil – flitting like Santa María in
an easterly off the coast of the Canaries – lifted,
twisted, fell

1
  text from Retrato de un Desconocido by Horacio Peña

Lau ri e P osne r 27
DEAR DELFINA FLORES

I can’t tell you how sorry I am
that they sandwiched you between “Corn Hill” &
3 sideways white kites

But you look like you’ve grown

Your head almost grazes the gold-grey crib
You’ve outgrown the rug and tablecloth dress
You’re older and more serious

83 people with your name. Most live in what is now
Oklahoma

28
HHHHHHHHH
HHH

H O ARDERS

In Manhattan, there are soot­stained boxes stacked
on boxes
The city council calls these “High Rise Apartments”
Where New York transplants, like me, bubble
wrapped
In uncertainty stand in so many rows like
Glass figurines on trembling shelves.

All day I hear the menagerie of neighbors move
Above and below me,
Vibrating floors with their dancing, fucking,
Clutching at one another with words shrill
As violinists practicing at midnight.

I’ve come to expect the waking
The darkening duet of voices
Hers an arpeggio of begging,
His a baritone, a heavy metronome of No’s
They punctuate the night and in the morning
I let the passing subway trains scream them clean

Rinse insomnia off on the platform
Tiled like a bathroom
It’s 9 am and the subterranean buskers

29
Are already slapping strings,
Open­mouthed folk songs so I drop a quarter
In the open hand of a hat,
Consider that Love

Is maybe just another tin cup
A longing  for a thin penny of affection we can
choose
To hoard in our pockets when we feel cheap.
The woman upstairs just wants
a clatter in the hollow of her.
We are all trying to fill ourselves with things.

My roommate, Rose, is seventy years old
And fills our “box” with literal things
Stocks hallways full of stories,
Newspaper clippings curling yellow on the walls
Obscured under piles of fur coats and dusty hats

Empty vitamin bottles and moth­- eaten umbrellas
Suffocate a room so full you cannot
See the floor or the mirrors as though she
Simply does not believe in reflection.

The city council would call Rose a “Hoarder”
Or a “Hazard;” I call her “Curating”
You can still move from one room to another
I explain to horrified friends
“It’s all in how you name things.”

Usually I am speaking to strangers.

30
It’s not that I’m crazy, or lonely
I’m a journalist,
I clip the wings off other people’s stories
And make them my own
Pin down the fluttering into something sturdy
Something that makes sense.

Some nights, I listen to the walls
And think if I could just whisper the right verbs into
the cracks
Like an incantation the neighbors would stop
screaming
But chewing words into sticky wads of gum
Can’t dutch boy the little holes in everything.

I’ve been told I always fixate on the holes,
The places where the
Narratives break. My editors tell me,
The ones most people call “boyfriends”
The men with red pens and strong wrists
The ones who added some things,
And took some things away.

The last one and I moved into a box
On the Upper East Side,
Positioned each room according to his taste
All minimalist angles and floor length windows
Gave so many chances to catch its subjects
In unattractive light. When did we become

The mirrors? Metamorphosed into panes of glass

Ha das Gosh e n 31
Capturing each move once shamefully preserved
For self til “Writer” became the written
Each word crossed out and critiqued.

Now I can’t stop self-editing.
Some people call this “Lying,”
But isn’t that just naming, really?
How we choose to tell the story
Maybe in poetry, pretending
She is a journalist
But they too are all just cobblers of stolen things
Calling men characters
Using pseudonyms when she quotes him
Referring to her and him in the third
Person like they were just glass figurines on
trembling shelves
Stacked one on top of another In a city
Where boxes swallow boxes compartmentalizing
Pretending what’s gone is just lost in storage.

When people ask why I live with Rose it is easy to
alter sounds bites; I found her online; She is
My subject of study; She is an article I am writing on
“Collectors” I Do not mention the reason I sat in
the kitchen at 4 am Bathed in a Craigslist glow
These nights, I clutch pillows with two white fists
Like Rose cannot unclench even broken clocks
We hold on to fractured objects Drag the mess of this
city back into our home.
I am not the first nor last to take refuge With Rose, I
am fairly certain now Every tenant she rents to

32
is just another something clipped A soot­stained story
taken out of context Folded in place so we cannot fly
up In a gust of wind clinging our arms flat Against a
brick wall Somewhere just trying to stay upright. In
the morning there are subway trains that sing to me
Cleansing the night of memories keeping me up, Of
arguments I tell others come from my neighbors The
station throbbing with life as I place dollar bills In
other people’s hats My own box, I fill with adjectives
Easily stacked like stanzas One on top of the other
like I am fairly certain now There must be some sort
of meaning in the space Between the words or maybe
Between the people Between each thrust and groan
I have pocketed so much weight To make up for the
missing body of a man but tell myself it is making
space for what is to come A springtime purge Rose
has never known and Yet when she looks up from
her Newspaper nest on the floor where she sits Cross
legged waiting for me to get home eating her Whole
Foods hot bar Out of an oily brown box she saves
in careful stacks for rainy days When she tilts her
face up and quips How similar we are, us two spry
chickens single together in this city In her Brooklyn
accent thick as Rye bread I simply smile back and say
I cannot disagree.

Ha das Gosh e n 33
34
SSSSSSSSSS
SSS
BECAU
SE O F TH E G E N E R A L

Because of the general emergency, Laurel had been
forced to watch cable news stations with commercial
breaks. She generally avoided being advertised to; she
couldn’t even bear pledge breaks on PBS. It had been
a long time since she had seen a television commercial,
and she was surprised by what was being advertised.
Apparently, many people were incontinent but
embarrassed about it, so there was a way for them to
have their supplies discreetly delivered. You wouldn’t
want to run into a friend in the line at Costco with
Depends in your cart. Then there was an ad for a device
that would allow people to turn off their lights with
their smartphones, obviously pandering to everyone’s
desire to have one’s entire life take place inside one’s
smartphone, their new pod, their geodesic dome
on Mars. Then there came an ad for an impotence
drug. Laurel wondered how many men actually were
impotent, and if this was why they were so angry,
especially the old white ones. People who had had
hip or knee replacement with faulty devices were told
how they could cash in. Apparently there were a lot
of people with rheumatoid arthritis that could buy
another drug. A lot of people had problems with
constipation, a special kind of constipation caused
by opioid addiction, but luckily there was a pill they
could get just for that.
35
THE NEWS ABOUT

The news about fake news dominating her news
feed from the New York Times, which she had taken
to reading compulsively since the election, was
making Laurel rethink her stance on objective reality.
There was such a thing, after all, and the other side
was flooding the world with propaganda that many
Americans were swallowing hook, line and sinker.

She had just opened an email from the New York Times
with the header that the articles were chosen specially
for her. This was odd, because the New York Times didn’t
usually act like this, but she scrolled through the
articles they offered to see who they thought she was.

First was an article about how to make a lemon tart.
This was odd, because she had absolutely no interest
in making pastries.

Then there was an article about Putin, and how great
he was for America. Laurel quickly scrolled to the
bottom of the article and saw it had been posted by
Breitbart News, the white nationalist platform of the
president-elect’s chief advisor. It was a fake NYT site.
She quickly closed it and opened the real NYT site,

36
newyorktimes.com, and began reading articles about
all the anti-environment oil interests who would be
dominating the new administration. She read faster
and faster, scrolling past the advertisements for
Chevron that were interrupting each story.

Sh e rri l Ja f f e 37
REFRAMING THE PICTURE

Reframing the picture was one method Laurel
employed to deal with her anxiety, but this method
had stopped working for her, for each way she tried to
reframe it the picture looked worse. In one version, the
country very quickly devolved into a police state run
by generals who oversaw the herding of non-white and
non-Christian citizens into private prisons and death
camps, and tanks rolled through the inner city, laying
waste. Billionaires meanwhile would be building their
colony on Mars as the earth melted and was left to
roaming bands of cannibals. Actually, that was all she
could come up with.

38
BRING DOWN THE

Bring down the patriarchy, Laurel thought, quietly to
herself. She wanted all old white men to die. She was
glad there had been several weeks of rain on Saturday
mornings so she hadn’t had to walk with Boris, and she
wasn’t sure she would ever walk with him again. She
knew it was good to try to listen and show respect for
the enemy, because they were just acting out because
of being made to feel dis-respected and overlooked, so
listening to them and trying to understand where they
were coming from was a good way to disarm them, and,
moreover, she wanted to understand what the enemy
was thinking so she could fight back, but she didn’t
think she was going to show any respect for Boris if
they walked together.

She scrolled through the guide on her TV to find Fox
news, thinking she should find out how they were
spinning things. When she tuned in, they were on
commercial break, in the middle of an ad showing an
obese blond white woman eating a steak, followed
by an ad for a resort. So far, no pill-pushing, but then
the news came on with an item about how Christmas
was being stolen by people complaining about overly
religious Christmas carols, and then a feel-good story

Sh e rri l Ja f f e 39
about how a white deputy saved a black baby’s life
with CPR and then said to the reporter, “They are so
resilient. Look at this little thing!”

Laurel flipped back to MSNBC. There was a
commercial for a painkiller in progress.

40
IT WAS HARD

It was hard to believe what was unfolding before her
face, what had been unfolding ever since the election.
An ad came on between news reports, for a patch full
of the stuff dentists give you to numb you that you
could wear on your back, every minute of the day, to
make sure you would not feel anything, especially
any pain, and then there was an ad for auto-immune
skin conditions, and then one for sport socks with
anti-odor protection. There used to be something
that Laurel did with her life before having all of this
constantly in her face. Then there was a human interest
story about a deer appearing in a city park, surely a
victim of climate change, followed by ads for AT&T
and credit card debt which could magically disappear
into a small stranglehold for life—guarantees, no risk,
and for people who are worrying they are losing their
memories, there was help at last, a pill.

Sh e rri l Ja f f e 41
WHEN LAUREL RETURNED

When Laurel returned to the program, a massive ice
sheet was about to break off, destabilizing the whole
Antarctic ice sheet. Laurel’s friend Isabella had an
abscess in her jaw, and Laurel’s own water heater was
leaking.

The plumber arrived. The water heater had a ten-year
warranty. It was exactly ten years old.

Laurel’s ninety-eight-year-old mother’s caregiver took
her to the emergency room to make sure she didn’t
have pneumonia. Old people who got pneumonia
frequently died. Laurel’s mother could actually die.

But she didn’t have pneumonia and she didn’t die.
Final score: Entropy, 3, Laurel’s mother, 1.

42
OKAY, SHE WAS

Okay, she was becoming an agoraphobic, watching
TV, reading the New York Times, Washington Post, the
New Yorker as well as trying to read a novel for her
book group during the commercial breaks. The book
did not make any sense. She couldn’t piece all of its
pieces together and did not think it was going to be
worth the effort. Who cared about any of these words?
And yet, now that the program was back on, she felt a
suffocating rage.

Sh e rri l Ja f f e 43
THIS WHOLE SITUATION

This whole situation had wreaked havoc with Laurel’s
whole sense of self, her private thought structure
inside her head. There was nothing inside anymore,
there was only outside. She had become an empty shell
invaded by an alien force.

Like in any disaster, there was a silver lining. She
stopped judging herself. You can’t judge something
that isn’t there.

44
FINALLY OUT FOR A WALK

Finally out for a walk, Laurel marveled at the reality
of the breeze, of the squares of the sidewalk extending
endlessly and still retreating.

Sh e rri l Ja f f e 45
46
SSSSSSSSSS
SSS S
AVON AFTERNOONS

Who remembers Luisa Maiello?

Every Saturday afternoon—puntualmente at three
o’ clock—she and her mother knocked at our door.
Sixteen years old, black braids tied with ribbons, a pink
puffy skirt exposing her legs, unshaved and straight
like sticks of a lolly-pop, with matching socks and
black polished shoes: she dressed like the doll she held
tight to her chest. A bambina in the shape of a woman,
with large breasts and il culo rotondo, the shadow of a
mustache trailing on her upper lip, a face like a cheese
grater—her whole body screaming to the world that,
despite herself, she was no longer a child.

I waited for their knock on the door like a drug, a small
weekly dose of company in my lonely afternoons. By
three o’ clock, I had the dishes washed, the countertop
and the table scrubbed to make sure I could flip
through the Avon catalogues in peace, without my
mother pestering me over my shoulder for house
chores. Luisa’s mother, a widow like mine, worked as a
rappresentante of Avon beauty products, going porta
a porta to make a living. But she didn’t use any, or
if she did they were wasted on her. She claimed she

47
preferred un look naturale: no make-up, no lipstick, not
even nail polish on her fingernails—niente di niente.
She boasted about her face creams, shower gels and
soaps, and an expensive French talc she sprinkled on
her skin day and night. But when I opened the door,
Signora Maiello and Luisa brought into my house the
smell of mold and camphor of the damp basement they
lived in at the border of town, near Naples’ cemetery,
as if—under their hopeless talc—their skin had soaked
up the scent of all the flowers withering behind the
cemetery’s walls.

The tallest woman in the neighborhood, Luisa’s mother
looked like a man dressed as a woman: un mascolone,
with short, greasy hair the color of ash, men’s pants
above her waist, the corners of her mouth soft and
hanging like a Neapolitan mastiff. She hardly smiled,
and when she did, I peered into her mouth to look at
her teeth: some fallen out, the rest black and small, and
I felt I uncovered the secret she kept behind her stern
lips. The Maddaloni girls next door, whose mother
received the Avon family at 2:30 pm, right before us,
said that it wasn’t true that Signora Maiello’s husband
had died, that he had left her and the daughter because
they were not femmine vere, that they were lesbiche; the
Maddaloni girls crossed themselves when they said the
word “lesbica,” because by saying it your mind wanders
about “The Dirty Things That The Lesbians Do,” and
you are already committing a sin. People said the same
thing of my father, that he didn’t die, that he left my
mother and me, and I never knew the reasons why. For

48
that I had sympathy for Luisa, even if the Maddaloni
girls said that she was sviluppata in her body, but non
in her head.

I let them talk, and wondered instead How is it
possible? How is it possible that Luisa had such
bad skin? That she didn’t cover her pockmarks with
make-up and foundation. Plus, she had eyebrows like
toothbrushes, and didn’t wax her mustaches. With
all those products and samplers she could get gratis!
You know, as if she were a butcher’s daughter being
vegetariana and throwing free meat to the dogs. I
wished my mother became una rappresentante Avon, so
that I could have all the beauty products in the world;
I would put a nice dress on and go with my mother to
people’s homes, drag her out of bed and her mourning
clothes.

I flipped through the catalogues, looked at lipsticks,
mascaras, eyeshadows and eyeliners, but I knew that
once I would be sviluppata too, I would not be the kind
of girl who wears make-up, like the other teenage girls
in the building. I would not put lipstick on or even
nail polish on my chewed fingernails. Nor could I ever
wear heels. That was what the girls did, the ones living
on my floor, the ones that when they stained their
undies for the first time were celebrated in the whole
building, and Signora Maddaloni told them that now
they could finally marry.

I did not want to marry, and I knew I had that in

Sa ra Ma ri ne lli 49
common with Luisa. She wasn’t like any of these girls.
She wasn’t like me either. I was four years younger, I
had little buds on my chest, and I had already stopped
playing with dolls. When she came for her Avon visits,
we didn’t speak much, and she would not let go of her
doll. This is why the Maddaloni girls, seventeen and
nineteen, whose breasts put together were smaller
than Luisa’s, called her “una regredita.” I didn’t know
the word; I would look at her doll, at her confetti dress
with matching socks, her hairy legs and bruised knee
caps, and understood what it meant.

Once, they told me Luisa took ice-cold bides to stop
her period, to stop the bloody truth that she was
indeed sviluppata—a girl made for a husband. I, instead,
was looking forward to my period; even if I didn’t
want to marry, I wanted the little buds on my chest
to blossom, I wanted to grow out of my skinny body
the way Luisa and all the girls around me had, bursting
with hormones and curves.

“How do you do it?” I asked her the next time she came
to my house.

I imagined her sitting astride the bidet and running
freezing cold water between her legs, but I wasn’t sure
about the rest. If the blood really stopped and didn’t
come out of her, where did it go?

“Lots of ice,” she explained. “Not ice cubes, but blocks,
capito? Not the ones you put in your coca-cola.”

50
She said she filled a large pot with water and put it
in the freezer. Once the water turned into ice, she
broke the ice with a hammer and placed a slab over her
tummy a few days before her period was supposed to
come. Then she filled the bidet with icy water and sat
there for hours.

“Does it work?” I asked.

“I haven’t had my period in four months,” she replied,
satisfied.

I didn’t know what would happen to her body, and I
was left with the same judgement the girls on my floor
had pronounced: Luisa was pazza; the blood stagnated
in her body and went all to her head.

Maybe that’s why she also had bad skin.

Suddenly, the Saturday visits stopped, and I didn’t
see the Maiellos again. Not in my house, not at the
neighbor’s, not around the neighborhood. I asked
about them for months, afraid Luisa might have died
or gone crazy and that all the blood she stopped from
flowing out of her body had clotted in her brain.

Eventually, having no news, me and the Maddaloni
girls forgot about the Maiello family and the Avon
beauty products.

Sa ra Ma ri ne lli 51
Years later, there were a mother and daughter selling
miraculous, rejuvenating facial creams on TV. They
became so popular they bought their own TV channel.
Everyone knew them. Their skin did not look good,
just very suntanned, but they made millions with their
TV sales. After a couple of years of success, they fell
from their throne of fame, and went to jail for fraud.
Then, I wondered if Luisa Maiello and her mother had
gone to jail for selling Avon products that ruined your
skin. That would explain why they had disappeared
without a trace.

But can you believe it?

Luisa and her mamma left Naples, and bought a house
in Los Angeles. Luisa has become a TV star, hosting a
show about unmarried women and their love life: Tell
it to Lou, on KTLA. She told me herself the other day, on
her visit to Naples for a few days. I did not recognize
her at all when she stopped me in the street: heavy
make up on, dark lipstick, plucked eyebrows, long red
nails, a dragon tattoo on her shoulder. She walked on
high heels con stile, unfazed by the whistles and horns
of the men she would pass, as if Naples’ streets were a
catwalk she could now crush under her feet. Madonna
mia, she had grown up. Married to herself and her
stunning womanly body. She bought me pizza and
beer, and smelled good like from another land.

52
LLLLLLLLLLL

W E W ERE GIRLS
for christine

those days
we lived
in quiet caves
n kickball games
laced our skates
to Dolly Parton tapes
built go-carts
n painted them pink
learned to slide
learned to slink

we rode
like smoke
under thick skies
n dry heat
down golden hills
n asphalt streets

on race day
we beat your brothers
down the hill
curving our craft
into the cul-de-sac

we rode so fast

53
I lost track:
houses trees lawns
passed

– time, too
we grew up

watching the world
turn
without turning

the world

54
MARCH
The
star

magnolia is

in bloom

again

each
year

at this

time

it
unfolds

its

petals

flimsy
white

in the

Li sa P i a zza 55
winter light

and I remember

the
part

of the

story

I never tell:

how
scared

I was
to leave

the house
after the baby

(and how scared
I was to stay)

how the

low tangle

of

56
branches

shocked me

with
that
first
flush
of
flowers
both
delicate

and

strong

Li sa P i a zza 57
S SSSSSSSSSS
SSS SS
S E A T O SH I NI N G S E A

She was quiet in the back of the car. Not rudely or
ungratefully. It would almost be easier if she was,
her father thought. It was like the issue was already
decided inside her. A twelve-year-old-girl, he thought.
Who would have thought that a twelve-year-old girl
could sit quietly in a way that would get inside him
like that? It was true that she was his own daughter,
but love was supposed to stay in a box marked father
and daughter. It wasn’t supposed to knock him down
like this. He kept his eyes on the road as he drove. It
was love that made him not give up though. He did
not give up in his belief that she would come around
to the land. He and Lizzie were the two appreciators
of beauty in the family. From the time she was little,
they could look out the window at snow falling for
longer than felt comfortable for Kate. He had faith.
He had faith in all those times of looking at the snow
together, in the way she would ask to go to a park just
to see a certain tree, in the way she would write poems
that were pages long in school. She would see the land.
She would see the land the way he did. Secretly it had
been one of the main reasons for the trip, a chance
for he and Lizzie to look out the window together
at length, even if she was sitting in the back with

59
her brother. Toby was more like his mother, bouncing
off of everything left and right, but he and Lizzie
could appreciate the beauty that came over time with
something vast and slow.

He had something for her, he thought. The California
coast. They were only a few hours away now. He
felt sure that something would happen to her like
what had happened to him when he had first seen it,
even though that had been in college. The particular
arrangement of ocean and rock and trees. She would
understand why they had driven all the way out from
Kansas City, why it was important that they reach the
ocean. She had already seen the Atlantic on the other
side, but seeing the Pacific would help her understand
who she was. From sea to shining sea. It was really
true. He did not think she would say what she’d said in
the Rockies, and among the arches in Utah. The coast
would be too much. The whole country was hers, he
wanted to tell her. In the same way that it had been his
when he had driven across it when he was young. But
he was more excited about its chance to be hers. He
was more excited than he had been for himself.

She would know when she saw it. He felt sure of it.
She would see it in the afternoon light too, it seemed.
The sun hitting the water at the end of the land. She
would see the way in which they were American when
she saw it. He hadn’t planned the trip thinking that
he wanted to give his kids a feeling of America, but
it had become more important to him as they drove

60
west. He hadn’t known how much he had inside him.
He hadn’t known how much he would feel something
that wasn’t so much a rah-rah patriotism, but a sort
of quiet and personal kind. The California coast. That
would do it, he thought. She wouldn’t be able to keep
up this thing she was on. He remembered how in his
youth his friends had been excited for L.A. and the
beach and girls, but he had been most glad about the
part of the coast where there was no beach, just those
cliff walls that went straight down, and an occasional
lonely cypress tree standing at the edge. As a young
man he couldn’t say that he liked that more than the
beach, but now he could admit it wildly, partly because
he had Lizzie to admit things wildly with. Only she
didn’t think it was wild. She thought it was normal. It
was normal to admit you liked an empty, lonely part
of the coast more than the beach because if she felt
something, it was true.

He owed her something for that, and he knew he owed
her something for the dreamy feeling of America he’d
gotten now near the end of it. But that didn’t mean
he should look past this thing she had going since
they’d started the drive. She could join in with him in
the feeling, the way she would join in with him over
snow. Didn’t she know those songs from school? He
felt sure they’d learned them there. Anyway it wasn’t
the rah-rah stuff he was talking about. He didn’t want
to be one of those families that tried to out-red-white-
and-blue everybody on the block on the Fourth of July.
It was an appreciation for the size and the scope. It was

Si a ma k Vossou gh i 61
the sense that something connected the diner they’d
stopped at in Sacramento to everything back home in
Missouri. And to all that empty land in Nevada. And
to all the places he hoped she would go to in her life.
Chicago and New York and places he never thought
about much like Seattle. They were all America. And
they were all hers. He was excited for all the ways they
would become hers. He wanted her to be able to look
back, some time later when she was a young woman
in Chicago or New York or Seattle, and say that she
learned something about America when her father
took the family on a road trip to California when
she was twelve. She was going to need it. It would be
something solid under her feet. To know that for all
the ways the country changed throughout its expanse,
she was American through all of it. She was going to
need it to know that the bigness of the country could
be represented in the size of her own dreams. That was
something he wanted them to know, that this was how
big it was possible to dream in America. There was a
reason it had taken them eight days and nights to travel
across the land. It was because of the size of the hearts
of the people who had come before them. They could
have stopped at so many places along the way. But
then they wouldn’t have reached the end, to the same
coast that had opened him up to the size of his own
dreams when he was young. She would know it when
she saw it. It was understandable that she wouldn’t
have a sense of it back home in Kansas City, where
there was no ocean to measure this kind of thing by.

62
And he began to get very excited for the sight of the
ocean, for the chance to present to Lizzie and Toby the
Pacific Ocean. The whole thing. It had to go from the
Atlantic to the Pacific. What were they supposed to
do? Were they supposed to not want to see how far a
thing went? Nobody did that. It was human to want to
see how far. It was as natural as when they tried to see
how fast they could run or how far they could throw a
ball. You had to go to the edge. The Pacific Ocean was
their edge. It was theirs all the way from Kansas City.
They would know when they saw it that it was theirs
and it had been waiting for them all this time.

They came up over one last hill. He knew they were
close because he could smell the sea. It was even better
than he thought. They came to the top of the hill and
they all looked out at the sea in silence. He felt too
happy to be proud. The happiness spread past him to
his past and to his future, to his family in the car, to his
country, and to life.

He looked at Lizzie in the rear-view mirror.

“What do you think?” he said.

“It’s beautiful,” she said. “But I still wish it was Indian
land.”

Si a ma k Vossou gh i 63
AAAAAAAA
A AAA AAA
AA
LI V E A N D L ET D I E

“Everything I did, I did for my country,” Toby’s father
would mutter, half-asleep, his eyelids weighed down
by another day of overheated car radiators and smog
check fumes. Blaring from the television would be the
sounds of car chases and gun shots and James Bond
seducing another vixen draped in fabric about to be
undraped. Yet his father’s muttered words would
always overpower the antics of Pierce Bronson, even
Sean Connery, and definitely Roger Moore. The words,
and all the other mantras that fell out of his dazed
father’s mouth, seemed to emanate from deep within
his subconscious, so deep it was entirely foreign, some
place Toby could never access.

Other than the adoption of a capitalist mindset, Toby’s
father had done his best to resist the temptations of
western culture. For the first decade of Toby’s life,
his father never let the old-school muscle cars or the
bikini shots of Darryl Hannah dislodge him from
his cultural roots, which firmly gripped the not-so-
distant past of rice fields and salty dried fish as if they
provided the only sustenance he would ever need.
He had stood his ground against the American way
of excess and oversized portions at the Cheesecake

65
Factory, while wave after wave of scratch-off lottery
tickets, and trips to the casinos up the I-5, and nights
spent at the local strip club where girls bounced their
asses onto the faces of old men, had swept away most
of his father’s fellow refugees, leaving those pink-eyed
fools struggling to keep their families afloat.

His father, that resilient old fool, deflected every
potential threat to his grease-stained wealth like a
stone-faced Jedi monk. But after years of breathing
through a Buddhist temperament thick enough
to suffocate the actual, chain-smoking monks, the
resistance began to erode. The crashing waves left
pores ready to take on whatever society wanted
to project. What came, to forever linger, to Toby’s
bewilderment, was James Bond.

“When he is of no use anymore, there will be no gain if
he lives and no loss if he dies,” his father would chant,
reciting some faraway quote, falling asleep to all the
James Bonds of the screen kissing all the damsels of
the world.

***

Who knew the origin. Maybe the other Cambodian
mechanics introduced Toby’s father to the world, urged
him that these films were what masculine, American
men watched. The James Bond series encapsulated a
perfect combination of non-homoerotic fight scenes,
of witty innuendos that made sex and alcohol posh

66
and respectable, of classy women to lust after without
messing with one’s karma at the roulette table of
reincarnation. Or so those rascals might’ve implied.

Or maybe something about an undercover spy saving
the world struck some chord deep within their past,
compelling Toby’s father to play the films whenever
possible, on a continuous loop. Maybe watching
James Bond grab Honey Ryder’s waist with one hand
and battle a flame-throwing tractor with the other
allowed his father’s repression of the regime, the
killings, the piles of skulls, to sublimate into a healthy
dosage of endorphins. Whatever it was, though, it had
thoroughly fucked with Toby’s head.

Every morning had been accompanied to the music
of James Bond saying bankable quotes such as “I’ll do
anything for a woman with a knife” or “I’ve always
enjoyed learning a new tongue.” Toby had dressed
himself for school as his father re-watched James
Bond telling Andrea Anders he didn’t recognize her
with clothes on. Breakfasts had been swallowing rice
porridge as James Bond was attacked by the judo moves
of Pussy Galore, who James Bond charmed by the time
the school bus arrived—this whole scene almost akin
to eating cereal while watching The Today Show, except
the blonde women flew jets.

Afternoons had been solving trigonometry questions
in the waiting room of his father’s car repair shop
as James Bond dismantled a warhead and prevented

Ant h ony Ve asna So 67
Kamal Khan from nuking the world. His house had
been the melodies of his grandmother’s Buddhist
chants and the sounds of James Bond fake punching
bad guys all intermixing into a soundtrack of peace
and zen and ass-kicking. Family dinners had been his
mother complaining about her schizophrenic sister as
James Bond somersaulted from a speedboat or a plane,
or from exploding speedboats and planes.

And late nights, after Toby ran out of doodles to draw,
had been Toby studying his father watching James
Bond—the curvature of his overworked posture,
the mysterious mantras he muttered half-asleep,
how the glow from the television made him nearly
unrecognizable. These nights were Toby trying to
make sense of anything, anything at all.

***

One night Toby snapped. One night Toby left his bed,
saw the television entertaining no one, and, like a
poltergeist had ensnared him from behind the cathode
rays, found himself climbing into his father’s beat-up
recliner, seduced by James Bond seducing another
woman.

The television was playing Live and Let Die and
overheating, its fans whirring in defeat. Toby noticed
how mechanical Roger Moore, in his first performance
as James Bond, seemed, how forced every raise of the
eyebrow appeared. He watched as Roger Moore, using

68
a stack of tarot cards, tricked the psychic Solitaire into
sleeping with him, causing her to lose her fortune-
telling abilities.

Toby tried to compose himself in the manner of his
father, just as Roger Moore tried to fill in the shoes
of Sean Connery. He tried to see what his father saw,
tried to catch every bit of dialogue. Still, all he thought
about were the stacked tarot cards, the implication
of a debonair, anglo man manipulating fate and
fucking the power out of a woman in a film riddled
with stereotypes, with Caribbean dictators and black
gangster pimpmobiles and scantily-clad bombshells.

Unable to shy away his thoughts, Toby retrieved his
notebook and pencils. He paused the film and began
to draw, determined to capture every inch of mise-
en-scéne, every nuance of Roger Moore’s handsome,
velvety face. When he finished drawing, he fast-
forwarded the film until he discovered another
scene with the potential of a hidden meaning, of a
punctum that would unlock the murky depths of his
father. Then, he rendered the scene on his off-white
paper. And so on, Toby continued to oscillate between
drawing and searching. He continued to watch the
films as only intermittent, freeze frames, trying to
reproduce in graphite exactly what his father saw in
James Bond. Soon, Toby lost himself in a whirlwind
of insomnia, drawing and searching, searching and
drawing, and so on.

Ant h ony Ve asna So 69
It could have lasted weeks, months. For all Toby knew,
it could have all been one single night, an eternity of
hallucinating to James Bond jammed into six hours of
darkness. But however long it lasted, Toby was always
aware of this: his obsession with his father’s obsession
was leading him absolutely nowhere.

***

His father put a stop to it, the nonsense. He turned
off Thunderball right when James Bond was about to
outmaneuver a bunch of sharks, sat Toby down, sat
himself down, and said, “Oun, snap out of this.”

Toby—the sleep deprivation eating away at his
cognitive functioning, the obsession with James Bond
eating away at his soul—stared blankly at his father.

“Why are you doing this?”

“I just…I just wanted to understand what you feel, I
think.”

His father, almost nonchalantly, responded, “Never
have I wanted you to feel what I feel. I would not hope
that for my son.”

“What should I have done, then?”

“You should have asked me.”

70
Startled, Toby had never thought a concept as simple
as that was an option.

“Well, why do you like James Bond so much?”

His father raised his hand to his chin, and, like he
had pushed a button that replayed all his memories
alongside every James Bond film, mulled over his son’s
question.

“Well, James Bond is a spy, you know. His identity does
not matter. The thing that matters only is what he
does for his country. That is what James Bond is. He is
someone who puts himself to use.”

His father, expression that of a man in a reverie, or one
who was thinking about the day’s profits, placed his
hand on Toby’s shoulder.

“The only true worth a man has are his actions. At least,
that is what I hope coming to America. I hope that
what I do, how much use I have, makes more difference
than where we come from.”

Something about his father’s words hit a nerve.

“Ba, can you answer another question?”

“Yes?”

“What is…” He hesitated, contemplating whether

Ant h ony Ve asna So 71
completing his sentence was a good idea. “The saying,
‘When he is of no use anymore, there will be no gain if
he lives and no loss if he dies,’ what is that?”

“Where did you hear that?” his father asked, obviously
disturbed by the saying, obviously unaware that he
ever muttered those words in America.

His father seemed so distraught that Toby was
compelled to say, “I heard it at school.”

Shifting in his seat, his father answered the question.
“It is a saying from Pol Pot. They said it to us while
beating us in the rice fields.”

And for sometime after, they stayed there, sitting in
silence, father and son, both only aware of how broken
the other was.

72
F FFFFFFFFFFF
F FF FF
FF
FF
M Y KING D O M
F O R AN ADVER B

It’s my first day as a Spanish instructor.

“There is no need to know grammar to teach a language,”
the supervisor says.

“Oh,” I say.

“We all speak our native language anyway, don’t we?
And we don’t know its grammar. We just speak it.”

“I will prove this to you,” he says. “Tell me what no is.”

“No?”

“Yes, no.”

I have no idea what he’s talking about.

“Well, no is no, I guess.”

“Yes, but what is it?” he says, “a verb, a noun, an
article?”

73
“It’s a negative,” I offer.

“Yes, but grammatically, what is no?”

I panic. First day on the job and I’m already flunking
the test.

“I don’t know,” I say.

“See?” he says. “You don’t know. Hardly anyone knows.”

I’m a bit relieved to be in the majority for once.

“No,” the supervisor says, “is an adverb.”

“It is?” I say, duly impressed.

“People use the word no all the time, don’t they?” he
says. “Even though they don’t know what it is.”

“I see.”

“You have used the word no, haven’t you?”

“Yes, a few times,” I say.

But the truth is that I’ve had a hard time saying no. I
couldn’t say no to my girlfriend, which is how I ended
up here, in the States, living in San Francisco with no
money, desperate for a gig, hoping to teach Spanish
for seven bucks an hour, eight if I make it past the

74
probationary period.

“See?” he says. “You don’t need the grammar to teach a
language.”

Unable as I am to say no, I assent with my head.

I leave the office feeling like a fraud, a grammar-less
immigrant, posing as a teacher, working in a rundown
building in the financial district with windows so
cruddy they probably haven’t been cleaned since the
Eisenhower administration.

I grab my teaching materials, go to the classroom, to
my first student, a pale man with glasses who says he
wants to learn a lot of Spanish vocabulary.

“I want to meet pretty Latina women,” he says.

“Sounds like a worthy goal,” I say.

“I want to learn lots of words, so I can talk to them.”

“Have you taken Spanish lessons before?”

“I’m from the Midwest,” he says, as if that should
answer my question.

“The Midwest,” I repeat.

“Yeah, it’s horrible,” he says. “Everyone there looks like

Fe rnando Me i se nh a lt e r 75
me: pale, boring, all the same. Not like California. This
place is like fireworks compared to Indiana, and there
are plenty of pretty Latinas around.”

So we go over words and expressions he thinks apply
to women, such as French-kissing, mating like rabbits,
and the missionary position. The man has a solid
memory, quickly absorbing everything.

“Está caliente,” he says. “She’s hot.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” I say.

“Why not?” he asks.

“Because está caliente in Spanish means she’s in heat.”

“Oh,” he says. “I’ve got to write this one down.”

He repeats terms in Spanish over and over until he’s
able to say them like a native. I congratulate him on
his rapid progress.

“You’re a fast learner,” I say.

“I’m motivated,” he says.

After class I meet with the supervisor again.

“The student loved your class,” he says. “He said you
taught him just the vocabulary he needs for his job.”

76
“What kind of job does he have?” I ask.

“Accounting,” the supervisor says. “He’s such a
gentleman.”

“Sir,” I say. “I don’t think I can do this, I don’t have the
training.”

“Nonsense,” he says. “You have a university degree.”

“A degree from the Third World,” I say. “Good only for
cleaning toilets.”

“Nonsense,” he says. “The student requested you. I need
you here. Or do you have a better offer?”

I don’t, so I remain silent.

“See?” the supervisor says. “This is the perfect job for
you.”

“I suppose,” I say.

“Welcome then to the International Languages Success
School,” he says. “You’re officially a member of our
team.”

He smiles, and his resolve gives me a strange feeling
of hope, a glimmer only, but such glimmers are all we
have, they are the only guide we possess to finding our
way through the obscurity of this world.

Fe rnando Me i se nh a lt e r 77
I decide to give this job a shot. I shake the supervisor’s
hand and we close the deal. I have my doubts, true, but
also I have never been good at saying no.

78
MMMMMMM
MMMM

BIRTHDAY

I was trying to be a better friend to myself. But then
I forgot my own birthday, and I held a grudge against
me that lasted for a year. On my next birthday, I threw
a party and bought myself an expensive pen—but
it felt like the kind of impersonal gift you get for a
distant relative. “You still don’t get me,” I said, “but at
least you’re trying.” I chose to see this as progress. Baby
steps, I told myself: baby steps.

79
ROOMMATE

To save on rent, I allowed my younger self to move in
with me. I envied him his energy and relative youth, but
had no desire to trade places. We mostly led separate
lives until we fell in love with the same woman, which
got awkward. Eventually, she left us both to be with
my much older self. After that, we chased younger and
younger versions of her until finally, we grew into the
man she’d wanted me to be, all along.

80
NOTHING

“I’ve got nothing,” God said, when asked to create a
Universe for His “Build a Universe” night course at
the Community College. So he created a Universe of
vast, infinite emptiness, and His instructor gave Him
a C for the project—either because he took mercy
upon God, or just didn’t care that much. God built our
current universe in a follow-up class. It was better, but
still kind of half-assed, and He got a B minus.

Mat t Le i be l 81
EVERYTHING

I ordered an Everything bagel. It ended up tasting like
literally everything: garlic, poppyseed, celery, Cornish
game hen, rock candy, mango, the Moon, hypothermia,
pencil lead, memory, Sangria, twilight, etc. I didn’t like
it, so I ordered a Nothing bagel instead: the perfect
light, low-carb snack. Sure it was flavorless, non-filling,
and non-existent—but it was still the best bagel I’d
eaten outside of New York.

82
EPIPHANY

-Hon, have you seen my epiphany?

-Not lately. Did you leave it in your last story?

-I’m not sure that story had an epiphany.

-Well, how about this one?

-Yes, there should be an epiphany in this story. That’s
what I’m looking for.

-Oh… I may have thrown it in the wash.

-How many times have I told you epiphanies need to
be drycleaned?

And then it dawned on him—suddenly, like a bolt of
lightning—epiphanies need to be drycleaned.

Mat t Le i be l 83
- march 6, 2017 -

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