Design by Kather­ine Messenger

Span­ning the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry and the begin­ning of the twen­ty-first, Michael Zapata’s pow­er­ful yet whim­si­cal debut is a tes­ta­ment to literature’s abil­i­ty to tran­scend genre, gen­der, reli­gion, and race. 

After her par­ents are killed by Amer­i­can Marines in 1916, Adana More­au leaves the Domini­can Repub­lic for New Orleans — where she even­tu­al­ly writes a much-laud­ed work of sci­ence fic­tion, Lost City. In 2005 Chica­go, Saul, an Israeli immi­grant, comes into pos­ses­sion of the book’s unpub­lished sequel.

As past and present con­verge, Zap­a­ta paints a por­trait of an Amer­i­ca filled with refugees — from pogroms, inva­sions, and nat­ur­al dis­as­ters like Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na — who share a lega­cy of exile. He also shows how their lost worlds can be bridged through sto­ries, which form immutable bonds between the tellers.

This excerpt, fea­tured in the 2020/2021 issue of Paper Brigade, is set in the 1930s and por­trays one such friend­ship. When Adana’s thir­teen-year-old son, Maxwell, makes his way to Chica­go, he meets a Jew­ish boy who promis­es to help him find his father.


I don’t know what I’m doing here, Maxwell said to him­self after he’d been search­ing for his father in the mar­ket for two weeks. He said it at night in the alley next to the Jon­a­va while try­ing to fall asleep on the piece of card­board. But by then he had already twice seen the Jew­ish boy who had told him not to leave the city yet.

The first time was dur­ing a par­tic­u­lar­ly cool morn­ing when Maxwell was look­ing through an old geom­e­try text­book at a book­stall. The Jew­ish boy, who was a full head short­er than Maxwell and who had black curly hair and long wiry arms, was inspect­ing a milk crate full of old mag­a­zines and talk­ing con­fidently to the own­er in a gut­tur­al for­eign lan­guage. Then, for some rea­son unclear to Maxwell, the Jew­ish boy turned to him, smiled (an awk­ward elec­tric shock of a smile), and told him in Eng­lish he was hav­ing a hell of time that day look­ing for were­wolf sto­ries in old issues of Weird Tales. He’d already been to three oth­er book­stalls that morn­ing, to no avail. The first one he had ever read was a novel­la enti­tled The Were­wolf of Ponkert by H. Warn­er Munn in the July 1925 issue, and this led him to the short sto­ry The Were­wolf of St. Bon­not by Seabury Quinn in the May-July 1924 issue.

Some months lat­er, in the April 1926 issue, he found an un­expected were­wolf sto­ry by C. Franklin Miller enti­tled Things That Are God’s. Then, fol­low­ing this log­ic, he also found The Wolf-Woman by Bas­sett Mor­gan in the Sep­tem­ber 1927 issue. After scan­ning a few more issues in ref­er­ence to both were­wolves and women, he real­ized with some melan­choly that he had come full cir­cle, more or less, with The Werewolf’s Daugh­ter by H. Warn­er Munn, a nov­el in entire­ty span­ning three issues in 1928, from Octo­ber to Decem­ber. The year 1929, he observed, was sus­pi­cious­ly absent of were­wolves, and he sus­pect­ed that this had some­thing to do with the pale and preda­to­ry men of Wall Street who had caused the Pan­ic and were prob­a­bly were­wolves them­selves and now try­ing to hide the fact, but he didn’t have proof, at least not yet.

After the boy stopped talk­ing, he let out a deep sigh of resig­nation, waved good­bye to the shop own­er and Maxwell, who was by then a lit­tle stunned, and left.


The sec­ond time Maxwell saw the Jew­ish boy was a few days lat­er, when he went to a gro­cer on West 14th Street to look for his father. It was get­ting dark, but Maxwell could still make him out stand­ing under the glob­u­lar lights of a del­i­catessen next door. He was wear­ing a large sand­wich board with the words Only the Best on the Plan­et.

When he saw Maxwell, the boy waved him over. Then he took off the sand­wich board and took out a cig­a­rette to share with him. Since Maxwell didn’t know what to say, he nod­ded and took the cig­a­rette. The boy smiled and, with­out skip­ping a beat from a few days ear­li­er, start­ed to explain that since the last time they’d seen each oth­er he’d vis­it­ed the edi­to­r­i­al offices of Weird Tales on 840 North Michi­gan Avenue, where none oth­er than Mr. Wright, the edi­tor of Weird Tales, had told him that there was a very good rea­son for the omis­sion of were­wolves in the 1929 issues, a rea­son he couldn’t just tell any­body off the street, but one that could still in all like­li­hood be root­ed out from a dime nov­el pub­lished that same year called The Were­wolf of New York City by Mar­garet Bok.

It was a blood-soaked and uncan­ny dime nov­el that had tak­en him near­ly two days to find, if only four hours to read, and which was about a soli­tary wealthy banker who, at night when the moon was bright and full, meta­mor­phosed into a were­wolf and prowled ten­e­ment build­ings of the Low­er East Side look­ing for unsus­pect­ing, new­ly immi­grat­ed, and impov­er­ished vic­tims, all of which not only proved his the­o­ry cor­rect but also gave an entire­ly new his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance to the Pan­ic of 1929.

I don’t believe in con­spir­a­cies all the time, Joe,” he said, but I had to tell someone.”

Maxwell and the boy passed the cig­a­rette back and forth.

So, Joe,” he said, what brings you here? You need any more math books?”

Maxwell told the boy that he was look­ing for his father. I was sup­posed to meet him at the Jon­a­va, but I don’t where he is,” he said. Then he added: I think I’m going to go home.”

Where’s home?” the boy asked.

New Orleans.”

The boy took one final drag of the cig­a­rette before snuff­ing it out on the curb. He then put the cig­a­rette butt in his front right pock­et. Shit, Joe, don’t leave just yet,” he said, final­ly, I’ll help you look for him. Meet me at the book­stand tomor­row morning.”

Then they said good­bye, but not with­out first intro­duc­ing themselves:

My name is Ben­jamin Drow­er,” the boy said, what’s yours?”

He told him it was Maxwell More­au, after which the boy said, Like the mar­ket and the doc­tor. Got it.” They shook hands and went their sep­a­rate ways.

All of this Maxwell recalled as he tossed and turned on the piece of card­board in the alley next to the Jon­a­va, unable to sleep. What was it about the boy that made Maxwell tell him about his father? Was it his short height, his vague for­eign­ness, the fact that, unlike any­body else in the mar­ket, he had talked to Maxwell, or even the sud­den impres­sion that, like an impos­si­ble per­pet­u­al motion machine, he had nev­er stopped mov­ing? And he won­dered again: I don’t know what I’m doing here, should I return to New Or­leans? is there an unopened let­ter from my father wait­ing for me there? would I even know him if I saw him again after all these years? Final­ly he grew tired of all the ques­tions, and he focused instead on the unequiv­o­cal shapes of a geom­e­try prob­lem float­ing like dust under his closed eye­lids, and fell asleep.

By the time Maxwell went to the book­stand the fol­low­ing morn­ing, Ben­jamin was already there wait­ing for him. Wan­dering the mar­ket, they ques­tioned ven­dors like detec­tives. Had they met a man named Titus More­au from New Orleans? they asked. Had they met any­body stay­ing at the Jon­a­va look­ing for work? Had they seen a man writ­ing let­ters or read­ing the sky? Had they heard any rumors about some­one called the Last Pi­rate of the New World? Etc. etc. To which some of the ven­dors looked askance, and to which oth­ers sim­ply said, Some men might have a name like that,” or Lots of men from the South here,” or Lots of peo­ple from every­where here.”

In any case, the ven­dors, many of whom Ben­jamin knew per­sonally, knew noth­ing. Two or three times, he fell into heat­ed ar­guments with the ven­dors in the same gut­tur­al for­eign lan­guage Maxwell had heard him speak ear­li­er. Maxwell didn’t ask what lan­guage he and the ven­dors were speak­ing. But lat­er, Ben­jamin explained to him, a lit­tle frus­trat­ed, that it was next to impos­sible that nobody in the mar­ket knew any­thing, but the prob­lem was that the ven­dors thought and often spoke in Yid­dish, a lan­guage that, at least accord­ing to his father, a tai­lor orig­i­nal­ly from Vites­bk, suf­fered from a sense of Weltschmerz, which was the melan­cholic sus­pi­cion that there was nev­er enough knowl­edge or real­i­ty to go around.

Lat­er still, as they sat on a curb in front of the del­i­catessen on West 14th Street, shar­ing a sticky bun Ben­jamin had pur­chased and watch­ing the coral sun­set as it swirled above the mar­ket stands, Ben­jamin asked Maxwell where he was staying.

I was stay­ing at the Catholic orphan­age,” he said, but I snuck out.”

Why’d you sneak out?” asked Benjamin.

They’re Catholics,” he said, they wouldn’t let me leave.”

Ben­jamin laughed. Then he told Maxwell he had an idea.

Fol­low me,” he said.

They hopped the met­al bumper of a street­car head­ing west and then anoth­er head­ing south. They passed through sev­er­al neigh­bor­hoods and a park with worn-out tents sur­round­ing a steadi­ly burn­ing fire in a steel drum. Some min­utes lat­er, they hopped off the street­car and walked a few blocks west until they reached a lime­stone build­ing. Out front, a group of old­er boys stood talk­ing with two mid­dle-aged men wear­ing black suits and black hats, one of whom, Ben­jamin whis­pered to Maxwell, was his rab­bi. As they walked by, an obsti­nate silence descend­ed inex­plic­a­bly over the quartet.

They entered the lime­stone build­ing and climbed five flights of stairs until they reached a locked door to the roof. Benja­min took out a key and opened it, and they walked out­side. The sky was black and the lights of the end­less city were like thou­sands of incan­des­cent anemones float­ing on the sur­face of a black sea. At the far end of the roof stood a small stor­age shed. Inside was a book­shelf, lined with dime nov­els and old issues of Amaz­ing Sto­ries and Weird Tales, and a sin­gle, spot­less cot in the cen­ter. On the cot was a wool blan­ket, a flash­light, and a black skull­cap, which Ben­jamin picked up and put in his back pocket.

Some­times, when I want to get away to think or read,” said Ben­jamin, smil­ing, I come here. It’s a reg­u­lar god­damn Babylon.”

________

In the morn­ings, after rye bread and cof­fee, Maxwell and Ben­jamin returned to the mar­ket to search for Maxwell’s fa­ther, but there was still no sign of him. They went to the police sta­tion, but the police were dis­in­ter­est­ed. One slug­gish, pock­marked offi­cer told the boys that everybody’s old man went miss­ing at some point and then half-heart­ed­ly asked Maxwell a few ques­tions and filled out a yel­low form. Anoth­er offi­cer just shrugged and told Maxwell that unless he was great­ly mis­tak­en, he would nev­er see his father again.

Some­times, as they searched, Maxwell felt fever­ish. He thought it was the over­whelm­ing sense of aim­less­ness that made his body burn, but lat­er he under­stood that the sen­sa­tion was anger at his father for desert­ing him. After­ward, more often than not, they left the mar­ket and took El trains to neigh­bor­hoods that were vague­ly rem­i­nis­cent of for­eign coun­tries. At sev­en or eight, just before dusk, they’d take the street­car back.

Some­times, as they searched, Maxwell felt fever­ish. He thought it was the over­whelm­ing sense of aim­less­ness that made his body burn, but lat­er he under­stood that the sen­sa­tion was anger at his father for desert­ing him.

On no few occa­sions, they end­ed their days on the rooftop, where they sat with their feet dan­gling over the ledge, shar­ing a half-smoked cig­a­rette, fid­dling with a cheap radio kit. Some­times, with the air of failed detec­tives, they recount­ed the events of the day and the search for Maxwell’s father. Oth­er times, Ben­jamin talked non­stop about the peo­ple who lived in his neigh­borhood, which he had nick­named the Isle of Pale (after the now defunct Pale of Set­tle­ment in the also now defunct Russ­ian Empire). He told Maxwell about the rab­bi who ran a coun­ter­feit syn­a­gogue; the young woman from a shtetl out­side Kiev who had once walked from Kiev to Istan­bul and who now nev­er left her apart­ment build­ing but could still be found every win­ter night, like a sleep­walk­er, on the rooftop across the street bun­dled in a black cloak play­ing a vio­lin; the alder­man who once walked the streets with the infa­mous anar­chists Emma Gold­man and Ben Reit­man; the Ortho­dox gro­cer whose favorite thing to say in Eng­lish was mod­er­a­tion in all things, includ­ing mod­er­a­tion, in short, about all those Jews for whom, accord­ing to Benjamin’s father, a para­dox was every­thing.

Once, as even fur­ther illus­tra­tion, Ben­jamin told Maxwell a joke that his father had told him. A poor man from Kau­nas be­seeched God every week for char­i­ty. Every week God lis­tened to the man’s tales of woe and doled out gifts that, lit­tle by lit­tle, improved the man’s con­di­tion. One day, God, who was real­ly quite busy dur­ing those trou­bled years, appeared and said to him, Lis­ten, you know I will con­tin­ue to help you every week. You don’t have to con­vince me any­more. A lit­tle less cring­ing, a lit­tle less moan­ing, and we would both be happier.”

To which, mat­ter-of-fact­ly, the poor man said, My good YHWH, I don’t teach you how to be a god, so please don’t teach me how to be a human.”

Maxwell enjoyed lis­ten­ing to Benjamin’s sto­ries and, speak­ing truth­ful­ly, one might call him Maxwell’s first friend. Each day, it became a lit­tle hard­er for him to leave the city, and Maxwell spent more and more time with Ben­jamin, whether search­ing for his father in the huge mar­ket and its sur­round­ing neigh­borhoods or smok­ing and talk­ing on the rooftop over­look­ing the Isle of Pale.

Chance or fate or the old mad pirate’s Caribbean dev­il had it that Ben­jamin, too, was the first and only per­son Maxwell ever told about A Mod­el Earth. One August day, while Maxwell was look­ing through Benjamin’s back issues of Amaz­ing Sto­ries and Weird Tales in the rooftop shed, he dis­cov­ered the open­ing chap­ter of his mother’s nov­el Lost City in the June 1929, Vol. 13, No. 1 issue of Weird Tales. At first, since he hadn’t known any­thing about the excerpt, which was titled The Domini­cana,” he was tak­en by sur­prise, and since Ben­jamin was work­ing that day at the del­i­catessen, he had no one with whom to share his sur­prise. Instead, he read the excerpt of his mother’s nov­el three times. Each time he wept.

Lat­er, when Ben­jamin returned, he told him:

My moth­er wrote this.”

Ben­jamin took the issue and read the name of the author.

Adana More­au is your moth­er?” he said with aston­ish­ment. Then, after a long pause, he added, What a huge god­damn coincidence.”

To which Maxwell replied that there were no such things as coin­ci­dences and that rare things like this hap­pened in the uni­verse all the time.

What rare things?” said Ben­jamin, even more perplexed.

As dusk fell and they shared a cig­a­rette, they tried to decide which rare things could be mis­tak­en for coin­ci­dences or vice ver­sa and were unable to agree. Lat­er that night, Ben­jamin told Maxwell that the only thing to do at that point was for him to read Lost City. Maxwell agreed that this was the best solu­tion, and he lent Ben­jamin the copy he had brought with him from New Orleans.

The next morn­ing, at the kitchen table, Ben­jamin told Max­well that he hadn’t slept all night (or maybe he had slept a lit­tle and dreamed that he hadn’t, he couldn’t remem­ber). He said it re­ally didn’t mat­ter if coin­ci­dences exist­ed or not because Lost City was a great sci­ence fic­tion sto­ry. He stressed the word great. Max­well said he didn’t know the dif­fer­ence between a great sci­ence fic­tion sto­ry or just a good one or even a ter­ri­ble one. Ben­jamin said the dif­fer­ence lay in pos­si­bil­i­ty, in the pos­si­bil­i­ty of the sto­ry and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of the lan­guage in which the sto­ry was told. Imme­di­ate­ly he began to cite exam­ples. He talked about Mary Shel­ley and H. P. Love­craft, he talked about Yevge­ny Zamy­atin and E. E. Doc” Smith, he raved about Aldous Hux­ley. He said he had read all those authors and that Adana More­au was their equal or maybe, in some ways, she was even bet­ter. Then, natu­rally, he asked Maxwell if his moth­er had writ­ten any­thing else.

Max­well said he didn’t know the dif­fer­ence between a great sci­ence fic­tion sto­ry or just a good one or even a ter­ri­ble one. Ben­jamin said the dif­fer­ence lay in pos­si­bil­i­ty, in the pos­si­bil­i­ty of the sto­ry and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of the lan­guage in which the sto­ry was told.

Yes,” he said ten­ta­tive­ly, she wrote a sequel called A Mod­el Earth, but she destroyed it in a fire just before she died.”

Did you read it?” asked Benjamin.

I did.”

Can you tell me about it?” he asked with some hesitation.

For a few sec­onds Maxwell said noth­ing and only stud­ied his face. Then he nodded.

As they wan­dered the mar­ket that day, which was plunged in fre­net­ic late-sum­mer activ­i­ty, Maxwell told Ben­jamin the plot of A Mod­el Earth from start to fin­ish. What lit­tle he couldn’t re­member, he made up. When he was fin­ished, Ben­jamin start­ed pac­ing the already over­crowd­ed side­walk in excitement.

Is it good?” asked Maxwell over the din of the market.

Ben­jamin stopped dead in his tracks, looked Maxwell in the eyes, where he was cer­tain there were still a few traces of A Mod­el Earth to be told, and said, You know the answer to that already, Joe. It’s bet­ter than good and you need to write it all down again. You have to fin­ish the story.”

Maxwell thought about it for a moment and then shook his head.

You have to under­stand. It’s still pos­si­ble to get it all down. It has to exist again. Oth­ers need to read it.”

Just then, Maxwell saw his moth­er sit­ting at the kitchen table with a type­writer, her long cof­fee-col­ored hair form­ing the swirl of an Ara­bic numer­al on her back as she bent her head down, her gaze fixed on the man­u­script, typ­ing to a rhyth­mic beat that matched his own heart, a small heart beat­ing in the chaos of her final days.

I can’t,” he said.

For sev­er­al nights, Maxwell had ter­ri­ble dreams in which time was reversed and his father was his son, and his grand­fa­ther was his grand­son, and great-grand­fa­ther was his great-grand­son, and so forth, through the entire line of his African pirate dynasty, until the end was the beginning.

Some­times, to calm him­self after he woke, he drew geom­e­try prob­lems from mem­o­ry on a small note­book until he could fall back asleep. Oth­er times, he woke shak­ing and was over­come by the irre­sistible urge to go out­side and walk.

After anoth­er week with no leads, Saul point­ed the boys to an arti­cle in the Dai­ly Illus­trat­ed Times that he thought could help. The arti­cle was about a moth­er, who, in 1919, had gone to Paris in search of her son. He had joined the Allied troops in 1914, but dis­ap­peared short­ly there­after. The woman didn’t find her son. How­ev­er, years lat­er, while liv­ing in an apart­ment near the Mai­son de Vic­tor Hugo in Paris, a sol­dier-turned-gro­cer who resem­bled her son, who had near­ly the same high fore­head and burn­ing cobalt blue eyes, brought her a bag of veg­eta­bles. He had fought in the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­i­an ranks and had lost his moth­er dur­ing a British tank assault. In some ways, the woman he saw resem­bled his deceased moth­er. She had the same dark hazel eyes and near­ly the same laugh, high-pitched and ten­der, a laugh that could be heard through the wheat fields of his small vil­lage as a child. Upon see­ing the sol­dier, she laughed and called him son in French. Upon hear­ing the woman’s laugh, the sol­dier called her moth­er in Hun­gar­i­an, and entered the apart­ment, which sud­den­ly felt as famil­iar to him as the fiery green waters of the Danube.

But how can this help us, tateh?” said Ben­jamin when his father was fin­ished. The peo­ple in this sto­ry are delusional.”

It has noth­ing to do with delu­sion, Ben­jam­i­nas,” said his father, it has to do with for­get­ting, and then remembering.”

Like an amne­si­ac? Still, this does not help us, tateh,” said Benjamin.

Yes, it does,” his father said. After I read the arti­cle, I went to the offices of the Dai­ly Illus­trat­ed Times and con­vinced the reporter, a man who is clear­ly inter­est­ed in miss­ing peo­ple, to help us look for Maxwell’s father.”

How did you con­vince him?” asked Maxwell.

I told him your father is a pirate,” he said with a smile.

Michael Zap­a­ta is a found­ing edi­tor of MAKE Lit­er­ary Mag­a­zine. He is the recip­i­ent of an Illi­nois Arts Coun­cil Award for Fic­tion, the City of Chica­go DCASE Indi­vid­ual Artist Pro­gram award and a Push­cart nom­i­na­tion. As an edu­ca­tor, he taught lit­er­a­ture and writ­ing in high schools ser­vic­ing dropout stu­dents. He is a grad­u­ate of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa and has lived in New Orleans, Italy and Ecuador. He cur­rent­ly lives in Chica­go with his family.