Jeff Vande Zande, '96

Jeff Vande Zande's poetry has been collected in two chapbooks, Transient and Last Name First, First Name Last. His poetry, short stories, and essays have appeared in more than 30 small-press magazines and anthologies, including Passages North, College English, Crab Creek Review, Fugue, Midwest Fly Fishing, and Our Working Lives: Short Stories of People and Work. In 1999, two of his poems were nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

VandeZande is also poetry editor and managing editor of The Driftwood Review, an annual literary magazine in its sixth year dedicated to publishing Michigan writers exclusively.



Below Zero

Below Zero

The weatherman maps out the sources
of another cold snap, another storm.
I picture the small flame inside the furnace,
a blue flicker above a whisper of gas

like my father the morning he drifted
home after a double shift of plowing
county roads and slipped
into the basement to stoke our coals.
Twelve years old, I watched from the bottom step,
his bent silhouette delivering cord wood
out of the blackness into the smoldering embers.
Stomach hollow, he fed the fire
until the room glowed.

Johnny, the snow just wouldn’t end, he sighed
and then closed the door, disappeared
without forecast, left me grasping
for the banister, eyes unadjusted
to the sudden darkness, until even now,
forty years later, I stumble out of bed,
follow a flashlight down two flights,
and rummage for the owner’s manual,
wanting to be ready
in case the pilot light goes out.

She Chose to Wade

In late October, good swimmers fall
into Lake Superior and freeze
into their drowning. Still,
anxious college boys,
in the spirit of tribes,
dive from the Black Rocks
into her cold and shout their names
to the world.

My mother, instead, waited
until early spring,
just after her graduation,
when half a degree keeps the water
from going back to ice.
From the beach in South Marquette,
she chose to wade.
With her back to us
she became sexless,
hips beneath the surface.

My dad and I watched from the sand.
Far past the break wall, a long resource boat,
heavy with iron ore, seemed frozen,
until my dad pointed out the distance
between it and the lighthouse growing.
Mom dipped her arms to the wrist,
slowly to the elbow,
then to the shoulder.

I asked my father how steel could float,
but he only sighed, Isn't she beautiful?
His hands holding my fingers shook
as though preparing dice for a throw.
What was being gambled?
She dropped slowly to her knees
into blurry visions of blossomed clams,
and when she rose
from the water dripping, she
turned and returned
a reborn she, the pronoun
Adam gave wonders prior to Eve.

Toddler Classes

Waist-deep in the community
pool, I adjust my grip
on my son's slick skin.
We're both here because he's
on the far edge
of eighteen to thirty-six months.
They won't learn to swim
the instructor tells us,
a sweet girl
from the local high school's
swim team, someone's daughter.
We just want them to enjoy
the water. Has her father seen
her lately? What does he
really know anymore?
Sixteen and she's already
directing a shallow end
of shivering adults: Parents
blow bubbles, too, she says
or Hold them behind their necks,
or Let them know you're there.
Front floating above my hands,
my son can't stop smiling.
While the others are only kicking,
he's already groping his arms
into something like a dog paddle.
The instructor floats by,
tells me he's probably ready
for the pre-school classes.
I want to tell her
that I just got here,
that I'd like to stay
for awhile with my fingers
snug between the ripple
of his ribs, my hand nearly
covering his chest.
Above my other palm, though,
I feel the pump and pedal
of his comical little legs.
He's ready, she says again,
and even as I shake
my head, I can feel the way
he sometimes makes the water
work for him, as though,
if I'd ever let go,
he'd start to swim away.

Alternate Weekend: Eclipse

Moon and sun on cardboard,
shadow of a circle
overshadowing a circle of light,
our son’s pinhole projection,
a recollection
of the way we had lived,
filtered and in silhouette,
never risking blindness
to witness how we had crossed
each other,
ritually returning to a darkness
that will not now return to light.



Reasonable Men

a short story


omeone is coming up the driveway. Out from under the hood, frayed timing belt in my hand, I turn and see a man from up the street. Dress shirt and tie—kind of thing I’d only wear to a funeral. His sleeves flap around his arms, and I guess that whatever work he does he doesn’t have to use his muscles. His face is angry, and he moves like he’s going to plow right through me.

“Hey . . .” I start, but he plants his hands into my chest and shoves. “You sonuvabitch!” he shouts.

“What the hell?” The back of my head sizzles where it bangs against the hood. I steady myself. If he shoves me again, I’m not even going to teeter. Then I’m going to knock the little fucker’s teeth down his throat. I’ve been in fights with guys a helluva lot bigger than him. He starts telegraphing a punch. I’m ready to block it and drop my right fist into his breadbasket. Then a whimpering from the street distracts both of us. The guy turns around. I could put an arm around his neck and rabbit punch his kidneys for the next two days. I know this guy’s never been in a fight—not a real one.

“Daddy, don’t fight,” a little boy cries from a bicycle.

I recognize him immediately. Two hours ago I’d had him by the neck. I’d held him off the ground and shook him.

* * *

My ex-wife had dropped our son Billy off that morning. Some kids came over and asked to play with him. They’re a little older than Billy, but I let them play in the backyard because I’d built a great swing set with two slides, blister bars, and a canopied sandbox. I like to see kids enjoying it.

Popping the hood an hour later, I heard Billy crying—kind of screaming that brings images of broken bones, missing fingers, deep puncture wounds. I never moved so fast. In the backyard, Billy lay crumpled in front of the swing set. The other kids were frozen. Boy at the top of a slide. Little girl on a swing. Another boy, not far from Billy, was holding Billy’s red hat in his hand, the one with the earflaps. Dad gave Billy that hat. Just last week I’d put the hat on Billy and it fit perfectly. The old man had given me a hat just like it when I was a kid. He died last month.

I checked Billy. Nothing seemed broken. No blood.

I looked at the other kids, but they hadn’t moved. The boy was still holding Billy’s hat. Something took hold of me. Both of my hands closed around his neck and I picked him up. His little legs dangled.

“Little bastard, you little bastard. What the hell did you do? What the . . .” I was in enough control to see his eyes go out of focus. I set him on the ground. The other kids were gone. After he got some air, the boy started to cry nearly as loudly as Billy had.

“Now you know . . .” I had started to say, but he got up and ran. I held Billy until his short, quick breaths died down. The hat lying on the grass reminded me of my father. He taught me everything I know about fixing things and about being a man. He didn’t believe that a man should cry. Eventually Billy fell asleep.

* * *

Now the little boy is back. His father can’t get him to go home. “All right, then you tell him what you told me,” the man says. “Look . . .” I start to say, but the man puts a finger in my face and tells me to shut up.

I do.

“Tell him,” the man says.

“The hat . . .” the little boy begins, everything pretty broken up with sobbing, “I had the hat . . . I was holding it . . . Jenny was swinging . . . Billy walked in front . . . she hit him with her feet . . . accidentally . . . knocked him down . . . knocked his hat off . . . I picked it up for him . . . I didn’t hurt him.”

The news sets me on the grill of my car. “I just thought . . .” I start to say.

“You just thought what . . . you could kill my kid for taking a HAT?”

I see the punch telegraphing again, but I don’t even roll with it. It lands against my cheek like a two-by-four and knocks me to the ground. When I look up, I can see the way he’s holding his hand. He’s not going to throw another punch.

“If you ever touch my kid again, I’ll kill you,” he says and starts down the driveway, still cradling his fist.

His son is in awe of him, and I guess that this is my apology. The boy will always have this memory and know that his dad is a real man. This will be the day daddy knocked out the roofer from down the street. Eventually, they’ll move -- nobody stays in the neighborhood for long. The story will go with them. Then I’ll be faceless, probably bigger, more threatening, a wrench in my hand.

It will get around, but I’ll be able to explain it to friends. What was I supposed to do? Tear this guy apart in front of his boy? Nobody will doubt that I could have knocked his dick in the dirt, and they’ll have to respect my reasoning.

Using the car to get to my feet, I can feel my cheek throbbing. Then I hear something near the house. It’s Billy at the screen door. He’s up from his nap, but he’s crying. “My daddy, my daddy,” he sobs.

I remember hearing something about five marking the age that kids begin to hold onto their memories. I turn and charge down the driveway at the guy in the street. The first punch lands on the back of his head.

Agora gratefully acknowledges the following sources: Birmingham Poetry Review for "Below Zero"; College English for "She Chose to Wade"; Crab Creek Review for "Toddler Classes"; Karamu for "Alternate Weekend: Eclipse"; and Parting Gifts for "Reasonable Men."