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From the Vault: Vanessa Veselka

Yesterday brought the exciting news that Portland’s own Vanessa Veselka is this year’s recipient of the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, which “honors an exceptionally talented fiction writer whose debut work—a novel or collection of short stories—represents distinguished literary achievement and suggests great promise.” The talented debut novel in question is Zazen, which Tin House had the great fortune to publish an excerpt from in issue 41.

Congratulations to Vanessa, whose latest effort appears in our fall issue.


I WENT TO WORK YESTERDAY and a guy I wait on said he was leaving.  He said everyone he knew was pulling out.

“Canada is just not far enough.  Mostly Mexico.  A bunch to Thailand.  Some to Bali.”

He always orders a Tofu Scramble and makes me write a fucking essay to the cook.  No soy sauce in the oil mix, no garlic, extra tomato, no green pepper.  Add feta.  Potatoes crispy and when are we going to get spelt.  He holds me personally responsible for his continued patronage.  I hope he dies.  I’d like to read about it.

My brother, Credence, says people who leave are deluding themselves about what’s out there.  I just think they’re cowards.  Mr. Tofu Scramble says I should go anyway, that it’s too late.  I want to but I can’t.  Maybe when the bombs stop, or at least let up.  Nobody thinks it’ll stay like this.

When I was in yoga yesterday this girl started crying.  Raina, who teaches on Mondays, went over and put her hands on the girl like a faith healer.  She closed her eyes and let the girl cry while she breathed.  Everyone was watching like they were going to see sparks.  I was, anyway.  I would have liked that.  The girl calmed down.  Raina talked about being okay with how you find yourself on the mat and I thought, There’s no one here who’s okay with that.  If you took the roof off we would all look like little gray worms, like someone lifted the rock: too close, hot, bent, and wet.  Well, maybe not hot, because of the mud, but that’s still what I thought when the girl was crying.  I was glad it wasn’t me.

Credence says that if half the privileged white marketing reps in my yoga class voted for something other than reductions in their property taxes, something might actually happen.  I’d like to see something happen.  Something big that wasn’t scary, just beautiful.  Some kind of wonderful surprise.  Like how fireworks used to feel.  Now, I’m worse than a dog.

Still, there’s something true in that yoga manifestation thing, because I feel different when I believe different things.  Only I don’t know how to go back to feeling how I did, because I can’t re-believe.  When the first boxmall church went up in the blackberry field I wanted some kind of rampant mass stigmata with blackberry juice for blood.  It didn’t happen.  It’s not going to.  They win; they just roll, pave, and drive over everything that’s beautiful: babies, love, and small birds.  On summer nights with the windows open I hear joints cracking like crickets.

I wake up sometimes and feel the nearness of something but then it’s gone and I’ve started to wonder if it was ever there.  Lately, I’ve become afraid that the feeling I used to feel, like something good was waiting, is what people mean when they say “young” and that it is nothing more than a chemical associated with a metabolic process and not anything real at all.

Last week I waited on Mr. Tofu Scramble.  He had a date at lunch and they both ordered blackberry smoothies, vegan.  I thought about slipping his date a note telling her that he was a big old cheese eater when she wasn’t around.  But who am I to stand in the way of love?

I went into the kitchen and pulled a five-gallon bucket of tofu out of the fridge.  It’s kept in water and stacked in soft blocks.  With my dirty hands I scooped out the tofu and threw a handful into the blender, little white clay hearts.  Then I filled it to the brim with blackberries.  I pressed the “chop” button on the blender because it’s louder and takes longer, and in more than a second those blackberries ravaged the little white hearts and turned them dark as a bruise.  I left the blender on and it took over the restaurant.  Everyone tried to ignore the noise but the more they did, the longer I let it run.  There should be some price to pay for all of this ugliness, especially the pretty kind, especially the kind you don’t always see.

Mr. Tofu Scramble looked around and I thought, Yeah, that’s right, it’s you, you Big Old Cheese Eater When She’s Not Around.  His cheeks reddened and his jaw shifted side to side.  He started to look so much like a little kid staring down at dirty candy that I turned the blender off.  It’s not all his fault.  It’s not his fault he’s in love and wants quiet blackberries.  It’s just not his fault.

Even Credence fell in love and got married, although I think he secretly wants a medal for falling in love with a black woman.  Our parents were so proud.  Now, if I could only move in with some sweet college-educated lipstick-dyke bike mechanic they could all finally die happy.

I’ve lived with my brother and his wife for a year now.  At first I thought that because Annette was black, I wasn’t ever supposed to get mad at her.  It was like living with an exchange student who spoke English really well.

“Jean-Pierre, what do they call baseball in France?”

“Annette, do you like macaroni and cheese?”

“Daisuke, how is the rebuilding going?”

Credence has a missionary belief in community organizing.  He says “grass-roots” like Bible-thumpers say “Jesus.”


I go to all the stuff he organizes.  He’s really good at it.  We stopped a Wal-Mart from opening once.  For about a minute.  It took seven moths of door-to-door organizing, leafleting, town meetings, petitions, land-use hearings, senators, phone calls, cold free donuts, sermons to the choir in the rain with balloons whipping around our faces in the wind while we chanted and people drove by in heated sedans, looking confused, taking pictures, and sending them out to everyone who couldn’t come to the rally.  And it worked.  For about a minute.  It’s hard to do the same thing twice.  It’s hard to feel the same way you did, especially when you really want to.  We just set Wal-Mart back a couple of months on its timetable.  Chipped teeth, flags, crosses, and white sugar.

I decided to move in with Credence and Annette during Wal-Mart’s grand opening.  Annette’s pregnant now but they said I could stay until the twins are born and maybe a little after that.  They gave me their attic, which has dormer windows and a leaky skylight.  When I go to sleep I stare up through the glass and pretend that none of us are here.

I started collecting maps and putting them on my walls.  Gift-shop maps with sea monsters on them and beveled, unfamiliar coastlines, cold war maps with the Soviet Menace spreading like leprosy.  Or pink on a slapped baby’s cheek.  Red China.  (I could never slap a baby.  I don’t know how anyone could.)  Maps of Pangaea and Gondwanaland from back before the seams pulled apart, when we were still all one big continent—Deep Time, where each slap on a baby’s cheek dissolves into silt.  The silt turns into stone and we can tell time by comparing the rates of babies getting slapped.  Vio-stratigraphy follows the laws of superposition—one thing follows another: a map of the Trail of Tears, bike maps, subway maps, and one I drew when I was twelve and wrote “Della’s World” in scented marker at the top.  Historical, geological, topographical, ideological, and imaginary.  I was trying to figure out if culture is just geology.  Maybe Rwanda was caused by mountain-building.  And the Russo-Japanese War by glacial till.  Maybe you need pirated rivers in the headlands before you can have a Paris Commune.

Then I found the picture of a person burning.  He had set himself on fire.  It was in Czechoslovakia the year the Russian tanks tolled back in.  I closed my eyes and saw a giant Lenin in stained glass, falling in pieces of colored light around him while he burned.  I heard dead empires singing and saw ashes between cobbles.

He learned it from Buddhist monks who sat, still as well water, and burned like novenas.  Like the one I found in the photo later, the one where the monk is sitting in the intersection on fire while cars drive by and people watch.  Everything around him is blurry because it’s moving but he’s not.  He is absolutely sharp because he is absolutely still.  Every detail of his robe, his eyelids, and the oil from the smoke is absolutely clear.

I told Credence about it.

“On fire?” he said.

“On fire,” I said.

“They don’t move.”

“Della.”  He looked at me like I was doing it on purpose.  “Della,” he said, “their bodies would make them move.”  His voice thinned and the pitch climbed like when they were kids.  “It’s biological,” he said.  “They wouldn’t have any control over it.”

“They do.  They sit there.”

“Have you seen it?”

“In pictures.”

I see them in my sleep.

“Pictures aren’t movies,” he said.

“They don’t move,” I said.

“On fire.”

“On fire.”

My eyes burned.

“Sitting and meditating,” he said.

“In zazen.”

“It’s moronic,” he said.

“It’s the purest form of protest,” I said.

In my head I sang the song of my childhood.

Eyes bright, jaws tight, Della cries most every night.

IN PRAGUE, under the gaze of the castle that looks like the one in Snow White, it took him three days to die, because he wasn’t trained to sit there.   It was more like what Credence said.  He had to move.  It was biological.

I started reading eyewitness accounts because I figured that if you can’t trust some hand-me-down, unverifiable, anonymous hearsay, what can you trust?

There were more of them than I thought.  There was one yesterday.  He set himself on fire to protest a recommendation from a subcommittee to legislate a 3 percent quota in alternate grain production.

There were Americans, dancing around like sparklers on the Fourth of July.  There were Basque Nationalists, German priests, and Taiwanese publishers.  One entry in Wikipedia said, “Kathy Chang self-immolated to protest ‘the present government and economic system and the cynicism and passivity of the people.’”  And underneath, the afterthought, “MIT student Elizabeth Shin may have committed suicide in this manner.”

One self-immolator was described as disgruntled.  Following other names were comments like “supposedly for the same reason.”

I started putting them up on the walls too.  I bought a bag of fortune cookies and raided the fortunes.  On the back of each I wrote the name of the burned in black, underneath their lucky numbers in red.

Jan Palach Your warmth encourages honesty at home: 718253741.10 . . . Thich Quang Duc Magic will be created when an unconventional friend comes to visit: 816223141.24 . . . Elizabeth Shin Your future is as boundless as the lofty heavens: 811283645.15 . . . Norman Morrison You will be reunited with old friends: 615213840.12 . . . Kathy Chang Your nature is intense, magnetic, and passionate: 712293644.27 . . . Alice Herz Truth is a torch that gleams through the fog without dispelling it: 511243642.24.

I taped the fortunes to pins like flags and stuck them in the maps.  Each city that inspires immolation gets a tiny white flag to flutter.  Tiny little surrenders.  Supposedly, the heart of the Vietnamese monk from ’63 never burned but shriveled.  It is held hostage (kept safe as a national treasure) by the Reserve Bank of Vietnam. Tiny liver hearts.  I pinned them to the walls.

CREDENCE CAME in one day, looked at the wall, and said he thought it would be good for me to work in a more positive environment.  I don’t know why he thinks watching Wal-Mart crush impoverished communities and cheering like some demented Cubs fan when one structure snaps more slowly than expected isn’t a positive experience.

Strain snap, snap (the sound of a structural integrity falling).  Strain snap, snap (a framework for resistance built on signatures and rides to the nearest ballot box).  Strain . . . strain . . . (screaming fans) . . . snap!  Pause.  Strain snap, snap . . . (oh, but it was great for a second) . . . snap, snap, snap . . . The architecture of the new revolution in Popsicle sticks which now spread like matted straw before us, each tawny reed a darling to its own mother, who can now buy a full set of patio furniture for less than the cost of a box of tampons.

Credence also suggested I sign up for yoga classes.  He offered to pay.  I knew that Credence offering to pay for yoga classes was a sign of the box-mall apocalypse.

“Hey, everyone, how about some yoga classes for Della and blackberry smoothies all around?  Today, I’m feeling it, I’m feeling the Rapture.”  Credence waves magnanimously.  A seal breaks and fire pours out.  Joint-cracking crickets search house to house, guided by lucky numbers in red.  Every time they find a human on fire they read them their fortune and ask where they were born outside the country.  No?  Just checking, sir, you understand, we have to ask.

It was also decided by Credence and Annette that it would be good for me to restrict my job search.

“Maybe just to restaurants,” Annette said.

“Or even just vegetarian restaurants,” said Credence.  “Nothing too fast-paced.  Maybe something run by a collective.  You know, with art on the walls or some kind of theme.”

I got the job at Rise Up Singing through Credence.  He dated a cook there a few years back.  It has a “we all work in hell but that’s okay ‘cause we don’t have to take out our piercings” kind of theme.  The walls on the side of the building are the color of egg yolk and there’s a mural of neighborhood black people enjoying gentrification.  I bet that was one big Popsicle-stick snap.  SNAP!  Toaster prize: one mural honoring multiculturalism on egg yolk.  Y’all eat soy, right?  Annette, do you like macaroni and cheese?

The owner’s name is Franklin.

“I like to think of myself as a coworker with lots of experience rather than a boss,” Franklin said.

I like to think of myself as boss more than a slave but mostly I prefer not to think about it at all, because when I think about it, I can’t stop.

“Okay,” I said.

Coworker Franklin lowered his voice and leaned in a little.  “We are mostly vegan but we want to be friendly and welcoming to our meat-eating friends so please bear that in mind.”

I saw Annette’s face looming black and carnivorous.  Try to be friendly, don’t make eye contact, back away slowly.  Make macaroni and cheese.  Side dishes are nonconfrontational and potentially evocative of a Southern heritage.

Down the street from Rise Up Singing, where the yoga studio is now, there used to be a store that sold custom-cut foam.  In the window it said, “FOAM” in foam.  One thing following another, law of superposition, whatever is on top was last: idea, foam store, large letters spelling foam in foam.  Perfect.

The last time I was at the foam store they had a huge bas-relief foam flag.  It was spray-painted everyone’s favorite colors.  I think this is how the conversation must have gone—

Foam sculptor: No! No paint, never!

Focus group hired to address image problems in transnational neighborhood: You might want to consider it, so people at the bus stop know it’s a flag.

Foam sculptor: Fuck the people at the bus stop!  I am an artist!

Realtor: Nice flag.

I assumed that discussion of the dignity of simple, cream foam had raged before and come down to whose vision of the future was going to win out.  All I wanted to know was, was it tactical or strategic? Stractical. Trategic.

Sometimes after work I stand outside the yoga studio and watch my class through the window. The teacher dims the lights and everyone moves in amber. They flicker like votives when she walks back and forth in front of the glass and I think that’s what we will all be one day, insects in sap, strange jewels.

I go in the evenings because the bombs are worse at night and I get scared. My favorite teacher is Raina. She talks a lot about “holding your own space” no matter what is happening and I have been trying to do that. She likes to start class by having us move our gaze as far as we can to the right and then the left so that we’re “not just slaves to what’s in front of us.” I’m starting to think that’s the only way to see things, out of the corner of your eye, or maybe for no more than a second. The longer an image lasts in my head, the harder it is to believe, especially when it repeats. I saw a window full of televisions on fire once and I still see it, faintly outlined, behind everything.

I found a rat dying by the pantry last week at work. I had opened the restaurant. When I got there it was still dark out. I turned the light on in the pie case and it lit the whole room. I wiped the special from the night before off the board and made coffee. The world outside was blue. I filled coffee filters with grounds for the rest of the day and stacked them in baskets by the tea and backup sugar, then went to get bread from the back. In front of the pantry I found a little brown rat. It was holding itself still and waiting. Its fur glistened and its paws were tucked in close so that its belly bulged out from the sides. I wondered if it, if she, was pregnant like Annette. I got down on my knees and slowly leaned over so I could see her face. She didn’t move and didn’t look at me. Her breath quickened and she looked straight ahead. I felt her fear like a wave of nausea.

“Franklin puts out poison. I think he thinks it’s more humane than traps,” said the morning cook, who had come in behind me on her bike. “Let’s take her outside, okay?” she said.

We scooped the rat up with a dustpan and the cook led me outside through a garden along a path toward a back fence. The sun was just hitting the green wet vines and red tomato skins. I passed a cluster of sunflowers. Behind them, stretching along the fence, were rows and rows of dirt mounds with tiny homemade crosses sticking out of them.

“This is where we put them,” she said.

I looked down a row of dew-covered twig crosses drying in the morning light.

“When the health department comes we pull the crosses out and say it’s squash.”

She took the dustpan with the rat on it from my hands and laid the pregnant rat in the furrow between two graves and left some cheese beside her.

“We’ll bury her later. She’ll probably be dead by the end of the shift.”

The rat settled into the furrow of earth and tucked her paws underneath again. She put her nose down and shook. I pushed the cheese closer but the rat didn’t move. Again, I felt her fear come like nausea.

Pregnant Rat Your thirst for knowledge will impress your enemies: 563882981.23. Rumors of a heart unburned and preserved in mud, buried inside a cage of ribs (kept me safe as a national treasure). Basta! Rat Golgotha, Presente! All around me were small snapping sounds that only a mother rat would hear and maybe only if the air were very still.

Mr. Tofu Scramble says anyone who’s going to leave the country should go now. He’s leaving next week.

I imagine the people who leave turn to pools of light when they’re over water. Circles of phosphorescent green appear and light up the Black Ocean, then dissolve into silt and the silt turns to stone. We can now tell time by comparing the rates of people leaving—one thing always follows another—a timeline of events leading up and to and away from the central event, which in this case the event of leaving.

I’ve started making up African and European e-mail addresses and sending off poems:

the first rain falls;

even the tiny liver hearts want

a little white surrender

If one doesn’t bounce back, it’s a good day.

Right after I found the rat I got lost in the field behind Target. I started thinking that it has to end somewhere. I wanted to prove that all this has an end, and to find the edge of that place, so I started walking. The sky turned green and pink and the sun set behind the neon parkway. Fast-food chains lined up like prisoners, because everyone’s got to eat and they won’t kill you while you’re feeding them, because we all know the quickest way to a man’s heart is through his fear of dying and no one’s afraid of someone dressed as a margarita saying, “Hola!” or a Chinaman in a mall.

I was working on a map of the parking lots surrounding the box-mall church when I got lost. I wanted an aerial view of the carnage and as I walked the crickets chirped and the blackberries rustled. There should be a price to pay for this kind of ugliness, especially the repeating kind, especially the kind you always see. A small death for the design-theme terra-cotta, for linking colonies of dentists, realtors, nail salons, and diet clubs together, a small death.

I came to an intersection and started to cross. The light changed and I ran forward because if I ran back I’d never get across, but I couldn’t get all the way there either. I reached the median as a brilliant stream of white lights sped by. I felt the wind spun by tires cool my eyelids and I closed them. I stood on the narrow cement strip until I could feel the wind on both sides of my face but one always comes after the other, because you have to account for the distance crossed by the cars on the other side of the intersection: swoosh, ONE MISSISSIPPI, second swoosh, and it’s opposite, an identical relationship inverted, following the law of superposition, one thing follows another—green light, car, swoosh, car, swoosh, red light, and it all depends on where you stand. One person’s red light is another person’s green light. One person’s box-mall-church convenience is another person’s blackberry massacre. Then it was silent and all I could hear were crickets.

When I finally got to a road I recognized I saw a bus. I talked the driver into letting me on for free. I tried to tell him that I wasn’t a vagrant, that I was a cartographer, but he was just glad I wasn’t black.

The bombs started when I was still a mile or so from home. I was close to Raina’s house so I made the bus driver stop and let me off, and ran as fast as I could. Right as I got to her porch a large blast hit somewhere nearby.

“Raina,” I yelled and knocked on the door.

Another bomb hit and I felt the rumble in the ground.

“Raina, it’s me, Della.” I pounded. “Della from Monday-night yoga.”

The door opened. I heard music coming from inside. It sounded Egyptian. Raina stood there with her hair down. She was wearing an antique slip made of light-blue satin that was trimmed with lace and fell to the floor. She had black eyeliner on and a sequin pasted next to her eye.

“Della,” she said, like she was surprised.

“Can I come in?” I asked her. My chest hurt from running and breathing in cold air.

“Yes, yes, of course”—and she opened the door for me—“I only have a few minutes. I’m having dinner with some friends.”

Several people in the other room glanced over their shoulders at me and went back to talking. A couple on the couch was feeding each other chocolate. In the foyer was a table with candles on it, a bowl of tabbouleh, and some wine.

Raina asked me if I wanted some water and I said I did and when she went into the kitchen I left.

I went to a park and stayed up all night listening for bombs that didn’t come.

When I got home Annette was sitting in the living room, wearing her robe with the tea roses on it and twisting a thin braid around her finger.

“You know, Della,” she said, “nobody needs this. Nobody needs one more lousy thing to think about or one more bad thing to happen in a day. I know I don’t.”

My hands are swollen and covered with blackberry scratches from the field behind Target and she’s right. Nobody needs this. I don’t. The two little belly fishes don’t. Two little belly fishes, two sweet little liver hearts. I see them shimmer and dart quickly, bronze and fluid on the periphery.

Today, in class, I am sitting still like Raina says. The bombs are going off and they are nearer now. But I don’t move. I don’t move at all. I hear someone scream and my legs are starting to cramp. I can feel the heat rising. I make myself stay. I still myself. It is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

I burned an ant with a magnifying glass once when I was little. It moved when it caught fire, because it wasn’t trained to sit there. The straw it crawled on, its very own Popsicle-stick palace, blackened and burned. And you have to sit there or it doesn’t count, but it moved. That’s how I knew it was alive; that’s how I knew it was wrong. Little ant? Little ant? And me crying all night long with ash on my hands. Matted straw. Grassroots. Hallelujah. The malls are open, the borders are flooded, the capital is burning, and I have finally committed to hormone-free meat even though it’s more expensive. It’s the purest form of protest. Bullets aren’t as bad as bombs, because there is no fire. If you had a glass bowl full of gum balls and you dumped it out on a dance floor it might sound like that. Like this. Because there’s no difference between here and there. But then there never was for me.

“Prepare for you Shavasana,” Raina says and dims the lights.

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(36) Comments

  1. Nana Darkoa says:

    I loved this story…even though its hard for me to explain why. Maybe its the way the story rambles, or the writers use of language…in any case this was a nice break in my working day.

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