The Line

by Garrett Zecker


"He taught us about food — but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown."  - Barack Obama on Anthony Bourdain, June 8, 2018.

I knew I wasn’t right halfway through the sentence, “I haven’t known anyone directly that it happened to.” My girlfriend was silent beside me in the car. The specter of suicide and death can suck the air out of a conversation. “Well, except for Clark*. I forgot he was dead.” The specter du jour was the sudden and unexpected death of the chef and writer Anthony Bourdain.

My experience with Bourdain’s work mirrored a reality I was intimately familiar with. I slung drinks and barbecue on Boylston Street in Boston, and with every life change, I changed restaurants and moved further and further westward in the state. I plated pasta and uncorked wine, poured coffee and sliced pie, shook margaritas and shimmied chimichangas. There was an ‘I ate the worm’ club. There were t-shirts. Those years were humbling, exciting, exhausting. They were unsustainable.

When I first entered the industry, Bourdain’s book Kitchen Confidential had just come out. I took it out of the library. I devoured it, one of the first books that depicted my experience: chefs hopped up on coke to keep the plates flying, waiters and waitresses fucking on the bins holding food they’d serve to our customers, the horrors, the absolute horrors of rotting food behind the swinging doors, the constant opening and folding of restaurants, the dreams, the stress dreams, and the nightmares that accompanied what we all wanted to accomplish. Bourdain nailed it with his unapologetic, brutal, energetic presentation of it all. What’s more, Kitchen Confidential arose from a deal he got when he accomplished that single-random-slush-submission-to-fame New Yorker story that all writers fantasize about but few accomplish. His gritty, stained life was the life I romanticized about.

Bourdain was a virtuoso. He didn’t care what anyone thought.

I knew Clark from the gym. He was a kind, friendly man. We became acquaintances when we found out that we worked for the same school. He was a part-timer, and always sounded like he was hurting for money. We’d text each other occasionally, share writing. He showed me the photography he took with his flip phone. He’d confide in me a relationship he was having with a man who was married to a woman that never reciprocated his advances. He wouldn’t leave his wife. He confided his long legal battle with his landlord over affording his rent. Every Sunday he chopped firewood to earn money. His last six text messages were about earning enough money. He didn’t think school would ask him back to work part time in the fall.

A few months later, he was gone in a small fire he set as he was being evicted. Some friends organized a small memorial at a local restaurant to collect money for his funeral. Someone collected his remaining belongings, what wasn’t destroyed. We chatted about Clark’s thoughtful and selfless ways. Binders upon binders of his photography were recovered. He had an entire photography career in the eighties, taken not with a Motorola but on film. Beautiful pieces explored the body and nature. There were awards, magazine layouts. We were allowed to take some home to remember him by. Everything smelled of embers.

Clark was humble, but no less a virtuoso. From what I hear about Bourdain, he was just as kind, friendly, and true to those he loved.

Neither of these men’s stories are mine to tell. I only have one of their phone numbers and text messages still in my phone as if keeping them might evoke one last call or message from him. But they both brought me joy.

A chef's mise en place and prep area is called "the line," like war, like that thin knife's edge, so hard to see in in two dimensions. Sometimes, that line is so thin it’s invisible. 


*Some names have been changed for this story. If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).


by Garrett Zecker


I got my first and second tattoo two days ago. I'm thirty-six. Almost everyone's got an unremarkable tattoo story like mine. We go under the needle against the lifelong instructions of our mothers, our religious institutions, our adolescent philosophies. My rationale to refrain until middle age wasn't interesting. I simply couldn't commit to something permanently inscribed in my flesh. I lacked that critical something that makes others care for something so deeply permanent. 

I entered the anonymous New Hampshire storefront with my best friend Catherine. She asked if I knew what I was getting. Absolutely. Her eyes sparkled. On my wrist, I envisioned a waning gibbous moon at eighty-eight percent illumination. On my left forearm, the word תמשל. Steinbeck roughly translated 'timshel' to 'thou mayest' in his novel East of Eden. They both represented my moment of illumination and liberation. Catherine knew they were a permanent commentary on stepping into my new life.  

We filled out paperwork, exchanged identification, and went through a short interview with the artist. Catherine and I talked on a black leather couch while we waited. We flipped through a heavy iron-framed art catalog. A demonic smoking skull under a robe grabbed our attention, full breasts saluting the naked air. I suggested a last-minute change to this new artwork, and we laughed. I went to the bathroom. She was gone when I came back. I waited on the couch, and when she returned it was my time to get a tattoo. 

The artist was interested in תמשל. She scratched the ink into my dermis, concerned that I didn't know the meaning of the Hebrew word. "You'd be surprised how often they think it's our fault," she joked. "A guy came in and brought George the Mandarin character for 'sword.' He did the tattoo. An actual Chinese speaker came in later and told us the character said 'person.'"  

The artist's beautiful illustrations decorated her station on little pieces of paper taped to the wall. The simple text design she was inscribing on my arm made it feel more like I was getting paperwork stamped by a municipal clerk. The needles didn't hurt. My attention bounced between Catherine and small talk with the artist. She finished by applying ointment and a bandage to my new tattoos. I paid, tipped her, and we left. 

"I know you wouldn't have admitted it in the chair, but were you scared?" Catherine asked as we walked back to the car. 

"It wasn't as bad as I expected. Like striking a match against my skin." 

"Can I see what she did? I didn't get a good look from where I was sitting." 

I lifted the bandage to show her the 'timshel' on my left arm. She smiled. I lifted my bandage over my right wrist to show the dime-sized moon. 

"Want to see mine?" 

She pulled her sleeve up. A bandage over her right wrist. She lifted the little white pillow and revealed a dime-sized moon, a sliver of shadow on the right-hand side. While I was in the bathroom, a copy of the same moon was tattooed in the same place as mine. 

"That's –" 

"Yes." She said. I was quiet. "The night you became you. Your best self, along with my best self. This is us." 

"Us," I said. The us seemed so immediate, like it was always whispering to both of us and pulling us toward one another. 

We drove away in the windy January day, a disorienting diagonal sun low in the evening sky. 

The next morning, we made coffee together. The Mortified podcast played while we brushed our teeth and fixed our hair. We laughed as people read from their adolescent journals. This was our new selves, together. Laughing. We looked at our wrists side by side and kissed the moons together like closing a book. We kissed our lips together. 

Many people don't experience the most precious things getting under their skin. That sort of thing can take a lifetime...or thirty-six years, anyway. "

Passing By: Thirty-seven words and eight entries

by Garrett Zecker


I teach a workshop with mainly seventeen and eighteen-year-old writers. I recently assigned a short task: write your name and age at the top of the page, then write a piece about yourself using only the exact number of words of your age. I completed the task along with them. While I had twice as many words to work with, when I listened to them share their work I realized that I had little more insight than they did. Below, I have reproduced my activity and interspersed each line with an excerpt from a journal entry. These dated excerpts interlineate an experience from the ensuing years since I was my student's age. 

I keep journals 

April 5, 2000 (18) – I made an appointment to see a counselor. I will tell him about the last time I saw a counselor and that none of it really helped. It was all about talking about how the world treats me...but it didn't stop the world. 

I record an imperfect life 

November 29, 2006 (25) – Every day it seems I am looking at the work I am doing, the work to come, the payoff and potential rewards, and I think how I am twenty-five and do not want to be stuck with some of this or have to settle. 

Days, joy and torment, all words 

January 19, 2010 (28) – The clinic was at a library – a nice one – and I waited inside. 

Imagine, a manual 

August 30, 2011 (30) – I cried on stage in front of hundreds of people. It was a pure sorrow. A sorrow arisen from the show being over and so much of my life having passed and at joy. The joy of having had something so wonderful and amazing I helped create. Something beautiful and true with so many amazing people. 

"How To Be A Man" 

June 17, 2013 (32) – I am scared. I am an impulse. I am darting back and forth in a cage like a tiger. I am dying and I have never been happy. How much time do I have left? I'm a terminal case. What is the struggle for? What? 

Words fail often as my heart 

August 6, 2013 (32) - I remain frustrated, feeling like I am doing all the work, and thinking how resentful I am in ways that go all the way back to the beginning. The apartment. The jealousy of my friends. No need fulfilled unless I take care of it. Money. My brain starts despairing, thinking of ways of being satiated... 

My audience my mirror 

November 9, 2016 (35) – It's Carl Sagan's birthday and I really miss my friend. 

Books buried beneath the earth 

14 November 2017 (36) - I've needed to simplify. A lot. And I am trying and trying not to mess everything up, even at the expense of things I really, really want and need. And then I also want my heart to be quiet and still. To not be so anxious and mean and irritated at absolutely every last thing. 

From the Kingdom of Nigh

by Garrett Zecker


When I was sixteen, companionship came from the high desert. I never believed in the paranormal, the cryptozoological, or the conspiratorial, but between the hours of one and four in the morning, Art Bell and his program Coast to Coast AM quieted my manic mind. My brain ate it like junk food. Drifting in and out of sleep, I found order in the voices discussing nonsense. I never told anyone about my 'Scientific Method Comedy Hour' in the same way I never introduced my girlfriends to my family. 

It was September 9, 1997, my sister's thirteenth birthday, twenty years ago. Bill Clinton was president. I navigated high school. The world trade center stood. I wasn't married, didn’t have children, made copies, did my homework, and wrote. College was coming, and I was escaping. In hindsight, everything felt so optimistic amid the fear.  Mom had a stable of unemployed, listless, flighty dudes that needed saving. Her kids needed a father figure. There was irony in everything those days. Comfort was elusive in our dark house. Men, food, warmth, mom's sobriety. I built a terrified, helpless dread around family that carried through to today, and has made me aspire to be the reliable father my sister and I didn't have. It's probably why strangers have always felt more like family to me. 

I felt like I had to do everything I could to make it. I'd get home from working retail after school, enter my cold and lonely room to read and write into the late hours. I became an owl. I became skeptical. Alone in the dark with the computer off and my notebook finally closed, I turned on my radio and scanned the thin, crackling AM airwaves for familiar voices. Art Bell talking to a Phoenix city council member named Francis Barwood. He wanted answers about the "Lights Incident." I lay in the dark, listening strange. 

The next day, I got home from school and Mom's then boyfriend Frank was above the garage. I heard Howie Carr's tinny AM baritone droning aggressive right-wing political conspiracies. Legions of New England listeners tuned in for his vitriolic sermons. A man like Frank rattled off the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh like Polonius, so it was strange for Carr's contrary words to drift around his head. He stood in the middle of the unfinished room lit by bare-bulbs. His hands moved slowly, practicing Tai Chi. A cigarette hung from his mouth, a steaming cup of chamomile rested on the chair. The chatter from WRKO absorbed into the exposed fiberglass insulation, and he paused between poses to hit redial on the speakerphone hooked up to his private landline.  

On my way out the door to my retail job, he asked for a ride to the train station next to the Kinko's where I worked. He didn't drive. He offered me five bucks. He got into my red K-Car, the only car I ever loved, and we drove. A Better Than Ezra CD played in my discman, running through one of those tape-deck converters. Five minutes into the ride, he pointed to a turnoff underneath the overpass.

"Pull over here, for a second," he said.

"I'm running a bit late."

"I'm having a seizure. It'll be safer."

We stopped. His left thumb started. His hand started bouncing next to me on the bench seat along to the music. It bounced closer to my leg, my goddamn crotch. Was this a pathetic attempt at molesting me? I'd let a peer down gently, but my mom's fortysomething boyfriend wouldn't leave with anything less than a bloody mouth. Five minutes went by. Ten. The tremors abated. He said I could get back on the road. I asked if he needed anything. He was fine, and I was fifteen minutes late for work.

Twenty years later, Frank is dead. Surprisingly it wasn't the cherry-sized aneurysm they found in his brain. I don’t worry about the same things. I have control. I am certainly loved. But my past fears whisper at me with every decision. No matter how irrational, I am learning how conditioned, how inescapable they are. No matter how good things are, the gnawing paranoia of starvation nibbles away, the neuroses, anxiety, only obsessive work quiets my mind. So when it's time for bed, I find I can still quiet my mind by streaming Art Bell's old programs over Wi-Fi from a little pair of headphones in the dark.

Student Picks: Jonhston, Cataluna, Jansson

Laura Brashear-- People go missing every day and under different circumstances. When it makes the news, the audience takes pause and moves on. In his novel, Descent, Tim Johnston commands attention and opens the darkest fears in humanity’s hearts and minds. 

Eighteen-year-old Caitlyn is a star athlete about to embark on a new journey in life. Before starting college, her family takes a trip to the Colorado Rocky Mountains. During a morning run, she is abducted. The only witness is her younger brother, Sean, left only half conscious by the abductor’s vehicular assault. 

Johnston employs gorgeous prose to build empathy for his characters. He chronicles the three years following Caitlyn’s abduction. He captures the heartbreaking cycles of hope, desperation, and devastation, allowing the reader to fully experience the loss of Caitlyn and the breakdown of her family. 

“And in the far distance above the highest pines stood the snowy crags of the Rockies, fantastic in scale and burning in the lights of their own immensity.” Descent draws the reader into the dangerous beauty of the Rocky Mountains, maintains interest through the journey of the characters, and provides an ending that makes the journey worthwhile. 


Amira Shea--  In stressful times, I like to return to certain books for comfort, and Three Years on Doreen’s Sofa is a perfect example of literature as hot tea or a warm sweater. There is a familiarity to the setting, the cadence, and the subject; Lee Cataluna is an award-winning novelist, playwright, and journalist from Hawai’i. Her work is centered on the islands and presents characters that are relatable on both the macro and micro levels. You don’t have to live in Hawaii to understand Doreen, the take-no-shit mother trying to provide for her family, or Bobby, her half-brother/cousin, recently released from prison, whom she reluctantly allows to crash on the couch in question.

Cataluna uses Hawaiian Pidgin English throughout, which, similar to Junot Diaz’s use of Spanish in his work, gives the characters a palpable authenticity. From the opening sentence, “Fricken Doreen didn’t even stop the truck,” I knew this person. It’s told entirely from Bobby’s viewpoint, giving us an inside look at all of the factors that go into making poor life choices. Without delving into sentimentality or providing a tidy, happy ending, Cataluna still manages to provide a story that can make a tough day feel a little better. 

Garrett Zecker-- I recently read two titles by Swedish illustrator and writer Tove Jansson (whose Moomintroll has worldwide appeal). Thomas Teal's translation of Jansson's beautiful, utilitarian writing in Fair Play and Summer Book presents a captivating insight into human relationships.

Both books are written in brief, episodic vignettes. Fair Play covers the cathartic, rewarding, loving contentment that comes between two women sharing an apartment in later life. They bond over independent art projects, share their frustrations, and indulge one another with late-night VHS marathons - a definitive portrait of that one perfect relationship we all strive for, free from jealousy and longing - a love story of friendship. Summer Book is a bright novel of awakening. An energetic six-year-old girl and her wise grandmother summer on an island. We are witness to an awakening of place as much as the awakening of self and body. The Cat is a sublime commentary on the complexity of love and expectations in an allegorical tale of domestic husbandry. 

Jansson's sisterhood, independence, wild abandon, discovery, and true intimacy tempted me to finish them in one sitting. Her prose is a joy to read, simply because it's easy to see oneself in the mirror of her breathing stories. 

Building the Castle, Building the Rock

by Garrett Zecker


One traffic light blinks at the center of Orange, Massachusetts. I drive through the factory town after our writers group meeting. The tiny downtown echoes a history shared by all post-industrial cities in twenty-first century middle America. The environment changed many decades ago from a center of industry producing Minute Tapioca, New Home Sewing Machines, and Grout automobiles to a graveyard of beautiful, abandoned brick buildings.

This particular drive presents something quite different than the many other times I’ve passed through. I coasted over the bridge to the soft roar of the dam and barely notice some strange alterations that tip everything at a slight angle. The signage and windows have been refurbished. The Orange Pizza Factory became Castle Rock Pizza Factory. Pastel Buicks and Oldsmobiles from fifty years ago line the streets and sparkle in the lamplight. Everything is eerily different, as if the veil of today has been lifted to reveal a lost decade when the city's motto of 'the friendly town' was first coined.

I shift into a different town a half-century into the past. While everyone slept, crews dressed the city for a new television adaptation of Stephen King's fictitious New England town. The cast, aside from the principal roles, came from a casting call that pulled from the surrounding communities. The town hall and police station sport new facades showcasing the name of their downeast counterpart. My neighbors stroll the streets, simultaneously themselves and their doppelgängers, overlapped in dizzying double-exposure.

I remember the twelve-year-old me: twenty years ago and a hundred miles east. I’d venture up the stairs of the Tufts Library after exhausting their fiction collection in the basement children's section. I needed a new fix. I wandered the adult stacks. Approaching the shelf bearing Stephen King's recognizable name felt like an obligatory rite of passage. I chose the skinniest volume on the shelf, Carrie. I felt like I was getting away with something lurid as the librarian charged the book out to me, the metal 'Ka-Chunk' of the Gaylord Model C Book Charger punching my newly christened adult library card like a weapon. I read it in a night. I ignored my classes the next day in school, scribbling stories through my lessons. Stories of cruel parents, the private bloody mysteries of the girls in my class, and of the potential of delicious justice punishing every last classmate that ignored or treated me with even the tiniest of cruelties. In the ensuing years, like all eager young readers, I enthusiastically buckled down with the Torrances, adventured with Deschaine, stayed up with Ralph Roberts, and found justice with John Coffey and Andy Dufresne.

Driving through Orange's fully-immersive space built from the imagination of my adolescent literary idol is as magical as building my own fictional worlds. Both places are several places at once. The film crew of my mind overlays my familiar environments with an onion skin of words, just as those people I cherish are re-cast as bloodthirsty queens, cynical husbands, or expatriated poets in search of fame.

The realities we build in fiction are simply collages of our milieu, painted over with language and modified decorum. We only recognize the sets and the players slightly askew from the authentic on our disorienting dusk drive through a town just a few miles from our own. I find it hard to delineate the difference between the magic King wove in my young mind and the magic I feel driving through Castle Rock today. Both invoke a version of reality that speaks to me in time, place, and character, in a place that looks and feels a lot like home.

The beauty of the work we do, as writers, lies in the permanence of the version of our reality that we build. The world continues on its unpredictable path, but our written constructions exist at the same time. We close one eye to revisit the concrete version of a world that never existed.

By mid-winter, the crews and the signage will be gone. The people of Orange go back to slogging away at their lives with rugged determination. The classic cars return to the lot at Wilson's Customs the next town over. Yet friends will still pause and chat while managing a fat, overflowing ice cream cone from Miller's. The music and laughter from R.C.'s pub will still dance out the door and across the bridge. A man will drag on a cigarette and cough while another casts a line from his fishing pole. Maybe the patriotic bunting and cosmetic attention will last, and Castle Rock's shine will linger. But what I am certain will remain is the memory of the truth and magic that exists when we visit our fictions and meet this altered version of our neighbors and ourselves.

Garrett Zecker is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview low-residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

Photo by Diane Kane.

The Curriculum, The Canon, The Clock

by Garrett Zecker


There's never enough time to read the best books. We all know it. We all want time to read and think deep literary thoughts, but my reality is filled with the mundanity of appointment reminders for my eight-year-old’s orthodontist. I stowed the card in my pocket before dawn and I removed it with my keys well past midnight. I realized almost immediately that I couldn’t make it when I booked it three weeks ago. Nescio's Amsterdam Stories kept me company in the waiting room during his exam. Nescio had my attention, not the appointment date. This appointment is Monday, and the clock just struck Saturday morning.

We want to read the best books, the books best suited to improving our craft. In college we hammered away at ambitious collections, with a focus on thought and lenses of interpretation rather than the concrete nature of the unit tests that hounded our youth. After our formal education, only a few of us revisited these texts as an adult, and even non-writers have difficulty where to begin. At one time I wrote for an online service where anyone could pose questions to volunteers who had been screened as experts in their field. Many questions often began with, ‘I want to read the great books, but I don’t know where to start.’ There are as many great answers to that question as there are completely inadequate ones.

My approach has been to find well-curated lists, oftentimes featuring books I never would have picked up otherwise. I tick a new obscure book off the list, hit the public library, and open it. I learned to explore whenever I can, from listening exclusively to audiobooks when I drive to making sure I am always carrying a text for that three-minute wait at the coffee shop. Much like my habit of scribbling upon little scraps during those blank little moments of the day, I keep a curated book at the ready at all times. No matter the list, no matter the book, I train my voracious, never ending appetite for words like a tireless Olympian.

I've adventured through lists as notable as Modern Library's 100 Best and as controversial as the Esquire 75. The lessons on writing and close reading present in Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer opened an astonishing new list as book after book of notable prose passed by to culminate in an incredible bibliography as beautifully suited to wonderment as it is to modelling perfection. Each issue of The New York Times Book Review that arrives on my Sunday doorstep leads to a binary fit of rapturous longing and suffocating anxiety. How is it ever possible to even touch upon our exponentially-growing choices? What about old dog-eared favorites? Toward the end of his original thirteen-part television series Cosmos, Carl Sagan delivered a curious message about time and the canon. In an episode entitled The Persistence of Memory, in only ten or so paces he indicates the one-tenth of one-percent of the New York Public Library’s millions of volumes that it’s possible to consume in a lifetime. He concludes, “the trick is to know which books to read.”

The need for a book in my hand, a pen in my pocket, and my characters whispering behind my eyes have become as autonomic as breathing, but just as necessary. The orthodontist will always be there, but my writing won't without persistence.

Zweig's Blessed Freedom, Destroying Obedience

by Garrett Zecker


Stefan Zweig was arguably the most famous worldwide author of the early twentieth-century, and his resurgence in popularity in the last five years comes as no surprise. On the 75th anniversary of his suicide, new translations from Pushkin Press, The New York Review of Books, and Hesperus Press fill shelves. Scholars are fiercely debating one another on the value of his work. George Prochnik has delivered a sparkling new biography. New interpretations and adaptations pull Zweig’s work from obscurity, most notably Wes Anderson’s cobbling together of several of Zweig’s novels to create his masterpiece The Grand Budapest Hotel. Perhaps what is most surprising is the large number of American readers and scholars who remain unfamiliar with his work.

The noteworthy editions published by Pushkin Press of London have encouraged me to revisit his work. Anthea Bell’s translation of his Collected Stories capture Zweig’s fledgling development of a new twenty-first century voice. The pieces energetically catapult the purpose and form of story over his forty-year career from Romantic frame, through the verbose Victorian, and into an approachable metafiction we’ve come to expect from our contemporary narratives. But Zweig would encourage readers not to mistake the self-depreciating ordinariness of his work, so much so that I don’t doubt he would go as far as to enthusiastically promote the merits of Anderson’s film above his own writing. Still, his pieces read as if Sholem Aleichem’s oral histories were pressed through a Joycean sieve. He presents most of them in what was an already antiquated form, such as epistolary correspondence or frame stories. Rereading these works in 2017, I am reminded of his strangely protean political and emotional existence as a writer in exile. Zweig’s failure to identify with nation, voice, and allegiance is beautifully apparent through the existential angst present in the forty year development of work presented in this collection. Unfortunately, the very confusion that makes his work so powerfully unique is likely the same that led to his early demise thousands of miles from his crippled fascist homeland.

As twenty-first century writers, we find similar difficulty in balancing the many ways in which our sociopolitical identities intersect with those of our culture. Zweig’s aggressive honesty and self-actualization isn’t afraid to confront the intellectual and political (Mendel the Bibliophile), the emotional (Letter from an Unknown Woman), the sexual (Leporella), and the existential (A Summer Novella), and he does so in a manner that recognizes that exploring the wandering truth of oral-history style narrative is just as valuable to the message as it is to the structure of the story itself. Zweig’s form holds on to the human voice in a manner quite unusual for its time, and it provides a valuable model for capturing authenticity in today’s work. Piecing together a narrative from our disjointed world is no easy task. Zweig’s enthusiastic and innovative prose reminds us to capture the pacing of conversational voice, essence of identity, and living personal consciousness in our work. Zweig’s hurly-burly world was definitively different than ours in terms of our external conflicts, however his vibrant presentation of the human condition feels more relevant than ever.