Karen Shepard: “Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When” from Tin House, Summer 2011

"Born to be Wild" by Marcia Petty, mixed media

People who don’t know better envy Zizi. She has a cool nickname and some guy who seems to pay the bills in a pinch. She dresses East Village-extreme (shredded leggings, careless boots, layers and layers); her bangs are Mamie Eisenhower, her complexion is Louise Brooks, her jewelry is vintage. She’s twentysomething. Her body is Japanese-teen, but dark chocolate and single-malt Scotch are an everyday thing….not even her guy has seen her cry.

I’ll be honest, if I didn’t watch way too much Project Runway, I’d have no idea what any of the above meant except the last phrase. But I’d know Zizi anywhere. She’s the girl who’ll never admit her life isn’t just too too every single second, no matter how clear it is to everyone else. Holly GoLightly, 2001.

Zizi is dealing with the death of her older, married lover on 9/11. He (he is never named, a wonderful choice) lives, lived, with his wife in the apartment above hers (which he bought for her, as a convenience). On 9/11, as the news starts playing, she opens her apartment door for no particular reason and finds Mabel, his wife, standing there. They watch the news coverage together. He was in her bed, in her, two hours before. Mabel doesn’t know who Zizi is, at least that’s what she says.

At the funeral (the casket is empty, of course, except for a suit of clothes, Mabel explains), a friend of his hits on her lightly. Her lover had sometimes brought over various friends of his so he could watch. “He wanted her to enjoy it. And so she thought of fucking his friends while he watched as swimming across a wide lake. She closed her eyes and moved below the surface in ways that suggested pleasure and power. Occasionally, she rose to the surface, opened her eyes, and turned her head to find him. And there he always was.” And afterwards: “‘What did I tell you,’ he’d say to his friend, taking his shoulder. ‘Was I right, or was I right?'” Sort of like letting your friend test-drive your car so he knows what great taste you have. This guy, Ray, was next in line. So why not. She calls him a couple of weeks later. It’s never stated that she’s performing with dead lover looking down (or up) from somewhere else, or if she’s auditioning a replacement, but to me it was pretty clear: this is her way of bringing him back. Ray says, “Poor Zizi. Spends her life being the tower, when all she’s ever wanted is to be the plane.” They exchange two sentences about their dead friend; his nonchalance “is like a wave receding to reveal the hard, wet sand that she already knew would be there. The effortless of his understanding and the indifference that accompanies it breaks her heart.” See, that’s the real down side of being the mistress: you don’t get much public sympathy when he bites the dust and you suddenly don’t have the hormonal rush to make up for realizing you’ve been treated like a commodity. Mourning the flawed is a central theme. Both Mabel and Zizi mourn their deceased, of course, but I think there’s another level, where Zizi mourns something in herself.

I’m skeptical of 9/11 stories but I’ve enjoyed many of them, including this one. It feels a little strange, being set in that month right after, when there was still so much chaos. But that’s Zizi, I guess. She manages to be pathetic and sympathetic at the same time, which intrigues me, because she’s nobody’s victim: everything that’s been done to her, she’s done to herself. I keep wondering, is the excitement, unpredictability and overall hipness of her life so wonderful it makes up for the hard, wet sand? Really, just what is the draw? That’s maybe where the story falls down: we get no satisfying explanation. There’s a phrase or two about Mom and Dad, but nothing that explains why someone would settle – no, arrange – for this kind of life.

I was looking forward to reading this story. I’ve read so much Jim Shepard, and now I had the chance to read his wife. I enjoyed it. While I was reading, I was involved, I wanted to keep reading, and I did a lot of underlining and sidebarring. On the surface, it’s pretty simplistic, but the imagery is powerful and there are some nice touches that go along with his lack of a name and the empty clothes in the casket. Mabel’s cat, which Zizi only hears now that he is dead (Holly GoLightly again?). The choice of music – “Should I Stay or Should I Go”, “Hello Goodbye” – echo this emptiness. At his funeral, Zizi is outside in the sun thinking of his favorite song, “We’ll Meet Again” when Ray introduces himself to her. I’ve been singing the song for two days now, and I have a strong desire to see Dr. Strangelove again.

One response to “Karen Shepard: “Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When” from Tin House, Summer 2011

  1. Pingback: Karen Shepard, “Girls Only” One Story #157, 12/1/11 « A Just Recompense

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