Take another look at her: the woman at the bar.

Sitting alone atop a barstool, fingers tracing the stem of a margarita. Blue dress, full, rounded shoulders, tall. She’s a paradox: You’ll remember her for her singularity, and yet her singularity cries out for metaphor, bows to the truth of things that are other things. The tension of her figure against the blue fabric is a suspended orchestral note—rich, dissonant, ever-hovering above resolution. Her smile—teeth, winningly disheveled, free of the eugenic tyranny of orthodontia—is a stand of birches, castle ruins.

Her name is Rosalina. And she has come here on vacation: Las Olas Místicas seaside resort bar in Acapulco, Mexico, January, 1980: the first scene of this story.

When this kid strolls up to the bar and sits down next to her.

An American. Mousey pageboy hair, tight jeans and a red softball jersey hugging his torso, which is narrow and suggests the constricted airways of an asthmatic. His head looks small behind his overlarge glasses. He can’t be older than fourteen.

Settling onto his barstool, he signals the bartender before he turns to her.

He smiles.

On the far side of this kid is another, smaller kid, clambering noisily onto a stool. If it weren’t for his platinum blond pageboy hair and the gap between his two front teeth, the second kid would be a dead ringer for the first.

“How are you?” the first boy says, allowing a beat to pass while the woman looks him over. He leans toward her, extends his right hand. “My name is Winnie Budzinski. Lovely to meet you.”

Jason Zencka

Jason Zencka has worked as a newspaper reporter in Wisconsin and a criminal defense investigator in Washington, D.C. Currently, he teaches high school English in Minneapolis. He received his MFA from the University of Minnesota, where he studied with Charles Baxter and Julie Schumacher. “Catacombs” is his first published story.

Hannah Tinti on “Catacombs”

On my first trip to Rome, I visited the Capuchin Crypt, beneath the Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini. Inside those underground caverns I discovered a true Momento Mori—thousands of skeletons of Capuchin monks, deconstructed to form elaborate frescoes and decorative arches—as well as a sign that read: What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be. The monks, I was told, would pray in the crypt every night before going to sleep, among the vertebrae and femurs and skulls of their brothers. When I first read Jason Zencka’s “Catacombs,” I was reminded of the beauty of that cold, dark place—not just because of the reference to the catacombs and tunnels that the narrator, George, travels to over his life, but because of how perfectly this story captures the mysterious places our minds create and then wander through, when dealing with the loss of someone we love. “Catacombs” breaks so many rules of fiction, slipping through time, playing with point of view, deconstructing its own narrative voice, and yet somehow through this process, it sets its finger exactly on a difficult truth—the guilt of those of us left behind, so desperate to commune and connect that it leads us to find solace and beauty in fragments, whether they are pieces of bone or memory. That this is Jason Zencka’s debut publication makes “Catacombs” all the more special. Please read his Q&A to find out more about this remarkable story, and in the meantime, join me in welcoming a talented new writer to the literary stage.

Q&A by Hannah Tinti

HT: What was the seed of this story? What was the first thing you wrote?
JZ: I started “Catacombs” four Christmases ago. I had picked up Junot Díaz’s story, “Ysrael,” and the first few paragraphs got me thinking about brothers (I have two) and about a vacation my family once took to Mexico (like George, I come from a family of mostly frugal, middle-class Midwesterners, and the vacation, so unlike all our others, always struck me as out-of-character for us). Well, pretty soon the music playing in my head was drowning out the story I was reading, so I put down the book and started scribbling notes. Over the course of a few days, I sketched much of the story—strings of images from the first scene, fragments of dialogue from the man behind the taquería, the last paragraph, and various other “hinge” paragraphs—moments of the story that I believed would set it into motion or throw it productively off course. From the beginning, I had a sense of how I wanted the story to feel, and I kept chasing that feeling as I wrote the first draft. Then I spent the next few years of revision trying to figure out what I’d done.
HT: This story breaks so many “rules” of contemporary fiction, from shifts in time to direct address to playing with perspective and point of view. Was this intentional, or just how the story came out when you wrote it?
JZ: Yes and no. I liked the formal challenge of building a car (a mystery story) and then promptly removing its engine (telling the reader, Sorry, Winnie won’t return, no mysteries being solved here, kiddos) and then seeing if I could still maneuver the thing across the finish line. But mostly no. The “rule-breaking” aspects of this story—the direct address, the implied POV shift, the tense changes, the flipping of the bird to the story’s stated plot—that was all more or less “how the story came out.” During the long revision process, I thought a lot about why these idiosyncrasies worked, and what I had to do to make them work better. But the story’s basic structure, such as it is, mostly came as a result of bouts of daydreaming during which I tried to ask as few questions as possible.
HT: The loss of Winnie clearly breaks something in George. Why did you decide to tell this story from the perspective of him thirty-five years in the future, rather than closer to the action?
JZ: To my ear, this story is 1 percent action, 99 percent remembrance. Winnie’s disappearance is so painful to George I’m not sure he can look at it directly anymore. And yet he can’t really look away. So he curates a space in his memory from which he can tend to his fear and guilt and pain—obsessively, magically, hopelessly. “Catacombs,” the story, is George’s catacombs—a labyrinthine hiding place he’s hollowed out in his own mind, a scab he can’t stop picking, an act of self-injury that masquerades as self-soothing. “Take another look at her” the story begins—it sounds like an invitation, but for George, it’s an imperative. He’s caught in a mnemonic Moebius strip, replaying a reel of warped memories as a way of maintaining a sense of control over his grief. In this sense, “Catacombs” is less a “remembrance” than a ritual, but a dangerous, intoxicating ritual that’s devolved into a compulsion. George can’t handle remembrance—that would require a greater acknowledgment of his own powerlessness. The most we can hope for from him is that he briefly meets our gaze before turning away and disappearing into his private world.
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
JZ: In that last scene of the story, George remembers Winnie saying, “Goodbye, ball,” as the two of them watch their ball float out to sea. For a while, I had Winnie and George saying “damn” at this moment, but almost immediately, I became afraid that my use of this word would literally damn me to hell. Yes, you read that right. I have pretty serious OCD, and obsessive, irrational phobias like this are a near-constant companion of mine. It’s not unusual for these thoughts to interfere with my work, but with “Catacombs”— perhaps because the story is about someone trapped in the flypaper of his own magical thinking—this background noise was louder, and harder to ignore. I wanted to make the choice of treating this story as an object that I was consciously shaping, rather than as a totem I was in constant danger of violating, but this decision wasn’t always an easy one. Now, the actual writing and revising of the story? That was just work—slow and seemingly endless work, but doable, especially as I had a lot of help from great readers—in particular Florencia Lauría, Charles Baxter, and you, Hannah!
HT: Have you spent time in catacombs, like George? What is it about underground spaces that captures your imagination?
JZ: I was a classics major at St. Olaf College, and while I was there I did explore the underground tunnels that span the campus. And at the Cementerio de la Recoleta in Buenos Aires, I overheard someone telling the anecdote that appears near the end of the story. But catacombs are George’s obsession, not mine. Having that said...the use of obsessive, ritualistic, or magical thoughts as a maladaptive way of mitigating my own crushing feelings of guilt and anxiety? Yeah, that’s definitely in my wheelhouse.
HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
JZ: Do you think it’s completed, Hannah? You really mean it? I wrote a first draft in the winter of 2012-2013, then let it cool for maybe a year before doing a serious revision the next spring, in 2014. The next year I dusted it off and did another serious revision. Same thing the year after that. Then it got picked up at One Story and I revised again. And there were who knows how many minor tweaks and amendments along the way. It’s an obsessional story about an obsessive, written by an obsessive. Really, the only way I’ve been able to live with the idea of letting it out of my grasp long enough to put it in print is by telling myself that next year, I can always take out a fresh sheet of paper and commence taking the whole thing apart again.
HT: What are you working on now?
JZ: I have a habit of playing hooky from whatever I’m “working on.” So last summer I sketched the broad contours of a novel, got a glimpse of its characters, their tics and their obsessions, some of the book’s leit motifs, its structure and its underlying conflicts, and then I immediately opened a new document and wrote a chapter from that book’s sequel. So, naturally, I’m doing that now. Writing the sequel to my unwritten novel.
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
JZ: The best, or my favorite? My favorite bit of advice probably came from my mentor, Charles Baxter, in a seminar he was teaching at the University of Minnesota. He told us something like, “There comes a time for every writer when she needs to be able to say, Fuck you—I’m writing my stories.” I left that class feeling giddy and liberated. Although I will add that in my own life, the number of times this advice has been directly applicable is smaller than what I’d initially hoped for, which was something like several times each day. But if you mean the best advice as in, the six words that, when uniformly applied, do the most to make each of my stories better? Well, that’s different. In that case, I’d quote Julie Schumacher, my other mentor at the U of M, who could be counted on to read a story draft and tell me, “Great work. Now cut ten pages.”