Corey Zeller, 2014 Contest Winner

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They say a Chinese boy was stuffed into a small refrigerator in the kitchen of Shen Li’s Fortune Moon Restaurant because he saw something the owners didn’t want him to see. They stuffed him in it and played cards. They played with the sharp, quick elliptic of their shouting and smoke and the clucking of caged chickens and with the cook chopping vegetables among steaming pots and frying pans and chairs scuffing the kitchen floor and American money tossed all over and a colored joker card pinned against the forehead of one mobster laughing some oddly high-pitched laughing and banging inside the refrigerator, banging and banging, and a woman cook coming in to help prepare drinks for the mobsters saying “what’s that banging” to the other cook in Chinese and him saying “they put the boy in the refrigerator” to her and she feels her stomach drop out. She feels her stomach drop out because she knows the boy is blind so he couldn’t have seen anything at all but if she says anything at all they might stuff her in the refrigerator too. BANG, BANG. And she’s pouring drinks into lime-colored cups with cherry blossom trees hand-painted on them and she looks at the clock on the wall yellowed with years of cigarette smoke and cooking and god knows what else. She looks at the walls thinking about the boy in the refrigerator and how the bumps of paint on the walls look like faces. Like faces trapped permanently in the purgatory of white walls and how one afternoon she washed dishes alone and thought that the bumps of paint were really the faces of her ancestors watching her and encouraging her and telling her not to give up and throw herself off the bridge she walks over every night on her way home from work carrying brown bags of food to stuff her face with in her one-room apartment where she has nothing on the walls but a David Bowie poster even though she’s never even heard a song by David Bowie in her life. Even though her husband, still in China, would beat her for having a David Bowie poster which is probably the only reason she has a David Bowie poster at all. Why live in America if you’re not doing something your husband would beat you for?

And that’s how it always goes for her in America. Like just before she got to work. She’s sitting down unwrapping a sandwich she got from a vending machine at a shop by the bus stop. The bus that takes her to the other side of town where she still has to walk ten or twelve blocks to get to Fortune Moon. A chicken sandwich. She’s sitting down to eat it and while she’s eating it she sees some kind of red tendon thing sticking out of the meat and she’s trying her best to pick it out. She’s trying her best but it’s hard to pick it out and now her fingers have been digging too deep into the chicken and it makes her sick enough to throw it away. So she throws it away and also throws away the clear wrapping and the little, plastic tray the sandwich was in. And now she’s thinking of the people whose whole job it is to make little, plastic trays. And then she’s thinking of the people whose job it is to make the wrapping to cover the trays in. And then the people who inscribe the tiny, nutritional facts on the wrapping. And then the people who make the ink that the other people who write the nutritional facts on use. And that’s how it goes for her. She’s always hungry and sick at the same time here. She sees the thread of tiny things becoming bigger things. Big like the big, black women she has to ride the bus with every day. The ones who don’t think she speaks English. Who call her Lucy Liu.

Big. All the big, cursive lettering on their glittery shirts. Complaining about the Spanish guy hosing off the sidewalk. “Motherfucker,” they say. “These are new Jordans.” “Jordan.” “He played basketball.” “You know what basketball is?” “You speak English? “El Jordon-o play-o basketball-o, motherfucker.” And they stay that way the whole ride. Complaining. Their bellies hanging out of the tops of their too-tight jeans. The varying colors of their same-style sneakers. The black alphabets of names tattooed on their necks. Complaining. About men lost. About children crying. And then they get this look in their eye. They’ll be giggling and laughing and arguing with the bus driver and dancing in the aisle singing some new song on the radio like they do every day and then they’ll remember that she’s sitting on the back of the bus. “Lucy,” they yell at her in the back of the bus. “Lucy, you better be bringing us some sweet and sour chicken tomorrow.” And she looks up at them and smiles. “Yes,” she says back at them and that gets them laughing. “Yes, yes, yes,” they say. Squinting their eyes. Hysterical. “Yes, yes, yes.”

And she sits there staring out the bus window at the coke factory sputtering into a dark cloud of ashy smoke that’s been hanging in the horizon for days now. They’d been talking about it on TV. How they didn’t know what contaminants were in the cloud and the mayor and other people were threatening to close it down. America. She thinks of what her father would say about her living here when she pulls out the photographs she’d taken of herself at a photo booth in the mall. How each of the four pictures were the same. Exactly the same. And not once did she smile. Even with the electronic voice inside the machine telling her to get ready for the picture. She just sat there staring at the dot on the other side of the booth. Just sat there looking at the dot long after the booth was done taking pictures of her. And it seems to her now that she’s always like that. Exactly how the dead look in old photographs. How their expressions seem to know everything and nothing at all.

And when she gets off the bus her face hatchets the wind. She walks and walks feeling as if the trees are burning behind her. Incinerating. She walks and is tangled by the invisible ropes and masts of air. She feels floating. Feels jolted. Like a Chinese, Wonder Woman in her translucent jet. Fondling the see-through gears and buttons of her air ship. Like routes only the blind boy from work knows. The shortcuts he traces by memory. By hand. And she’s walking. Past houses where TV is the only window. Past an empty factory whose thousand some windows hold the whole orange weight of the setting sun. This longhand of light. How it seems to write the world slower at the end of day. Branches charred against the empty sky. With the algorithm of the sidewalks. With the cracks in their pattern. The sudden and quickly recovered trip over uneven concrete. Hiccups of graffiti. Old wrappers cutting themselves out of the earth like wildflowers below the broken eggshells of clouds. Clouds like old newspaper bunched into balls for a fire. Clouds and air. That walkie-talkie buzz of air obsessed with its own voice. The kneeling of stoops and lights. How glass seems to vanish with the clarity of nightfall. And the world turns oil-colored and in-between. Turns illegitimate and cardboard tasting. Turns like the red valentines of leaves in the broken wineglass wind. Turns marginalized. And she’s walking. Past an old fountain that’s covered in clear plastic. Past the trailer park that’s below the red-blue rollercoaster all the kids in town ride all summer long. Past chain restaurants with the space capsule of her heart floating far past the strain of gravity and into the frostbite colors of beyond. Past beyond. Because she’s always sick and hungry here. Always walking. Always walking with the percolating rhythm of the red-blue-plumed city. The flags hanging from doorways like pelts. Like old curses. Like lecturing parents who never let their pointed fingers fall down. Like a lone glacier floating further and further and further out into water and melting and melting and melting. Like her. Walking. How she’s suddenly wet. Melting. Wet thinking of the black man she saw playing classical music for a dozen or so elderly people outside the library one afternoon. His broad shoulders. His hands. A song she couldn’t recognize. How it made her imagine him grabbing her by the shoulders. Pushing her against the wall. With all those people on the computers inside the library. Asking questions. The way people used to trust each other. Trusting now in their favorite companion. Their electric talisman. How she still remembers the first computer she ever saw. How she had to wait for images. They’d start at the bottom or in the middle. They’d start and you’d have to wait. An image came feet-first. Waiting and modem sounds. And she’s waiting for an image now. An answer. She’s waiting and wishing she had a cell phone. Wishing she had a cell phone so she could pretend to talk on it. Pretend to talk on it the way the white girls do when they’re alone. When they’re avoiding someone. Because no one, no one, no one can see her desire. Because she’s walking. She’s climate-controlled. Automatic. With the crass sting of sweat in her eyes. With her memories like old, blue tins an old woman keeps her knickknacks in. Knickknacks made in China. Tins made in China. Everything made in China. America made in China. America, land of Chinese knickknacks. Land of the many hours she spent alone in her room crossing and uncrossing her legs. Crossing and uncrossing. And now she’s walking into Shen Li’s Fortune Moon. She’s putting her coat on the rack and getting ready for them. Their hands. How they bark “whore” at her in Chinese. And she’s walking to the kitchen and says “what’s that banging” to the other cook. He tells her it’s the boy. The boy is locked in the fridge. And a word forms. A word forms inside her like a bright, pink scar while she pours their drinks. And she’s turning to them now. And she’s ready. She’s stopped walking. Stopped moving.

She stops.


ART: Teri Frame, Line Kallmayer

FICTION: Matt Dojny, Jessica Halliday, Corey Zeller

NONFICTION: Brandel France de Bravo, Line Kallmayer, Ben Merriman, Nicole Walker

POETRY: Mary Jo Bang, Sam Cha, Ching-In Chen, Natalie Eilbert, John Estes, Jessica Fjeld, Margaret LeMay, Nina Puro, Lauren Russell, Dara-Lyn Shrager, Donna Stonecipher, Henry Walters, Kerri Webster, Betsy Wheeler

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