Creative Nonfiction

Zen, Miles Davis, and the Dysfunctional Japanese Family by James Roth

Zen, Miles Davis, and the Dysfunctional Japanese Family

By James Roth

Several years ago on Tuesday afternoons I took a train from Akita to Noshiro, on the
northeastern coast of Japan, to teach an English conversation class at the regional offices of
Tohoku Denryoku, a power company. Akita, a city with a population of a little less than three
hundred thousand, is the capital of the prefecture of the same name, and Noshiro, the second
largest city, has a population of about sixty thousand.
This is rural Japan, an agricultural region famous for its rice. The slogan for Akita
Komachi, the local rice, famous throughout Japan, is “The rice that beautiful women are
raised on.” The abundance of clean water and lack of a scorching summer sun contribute to
the quality of the rice, while the lack of sunshine during the winter months, locals believe,
contributes to the fair complexions of the women; hence their beauty. (This winter darkness
also might have contributed, in the eighties, to the highest suicide rates in Japan, mostly
among the elderly, who moved in with their children and saw themselves as a burden on the
family. The government has since then addressed the problem, and the suicide rate has
When I was going to Tohoku Denryoku to teach, I was new to Japan, and the trip
offered me the opportunity to experience the country the way Westerners in Tokyo, Osaka,
and Kyoto rarely do, if they travel to the Tohoku region at all. The train was diesel electric

and passed fields of rice that stretched to the edges of the western horizon before rising up
into the hills, where there were stands of pines, vegetable gardens, apple orchards, and little
black ponds in which women floated around in wooden tubs harvesting something from the
surface. What, I had, at the time, no idea. Now and then the train passed a Shinto shrine
tucked away in the pines. They were all rather austere and weather-beaten; paper, like tails
from a kite, hung from the tori. Crossing the tracks now and then were narrow lanes that
flowed along the contour of the land with the naturalness of a mountain brook.
After passing through this bucolic countryside for about a month, I decided I would
like to do more than experience it as a painting that swept past the window of the train once a
week. I bought a road bicycle. On weekends I went cycling. On several occasions I headed
north, using the rail-line as a reference. (At this time there were no GPSes.) This means of
navigating had its surprises, always pleasant ones, such as heading up a valley on a paved
road, only to find that it came to an end at a hamlet of traditional thatched roof farm houses, a
rare sight even in rural Akita prefecture.
Once I stayed on the highway near the rail-line and entered the village of Yamamoto,
north of Noshiro, and area that was unfamiliar to me, but the village was not. It was like
others I had ridden through: simple homes of wood with corrugated metal roofs, flower and
vegetable gardens out front, and along the main street a bicycle shop and several liquor and
tobacco stores, which often outnumbered the supermarkets. There was usually one
supermarket, one bank, and one post office.
In Yamamoto a Buddhist temple in the middle of town caught my attention. The
shadows of cedars on the temple’s grounds cast very dark, cool, and inviting shadows. A
flagstone pat led through the cedars to the entrance of the temple, passing under an imposing
wooden gate in which there were carvings of figures that had frightening expressions–jagged

teeth and fiery eyes. I had no idea what any of this represented, only that it had nothing to do
with any religion I was familiar with. This piqued my interest, the satanistic motif–at least to
me–and I proceeded along the path, coming to the temple’s entrance. The doors were open.
My ignorance of objects related to Buddhism made me think think that I was seeing
things imbued with great spiritual importance: a brass figure of the Buddha surrounded by
flames, incense burners, a bell hanging from a thick rope, scrolls, a taiko drum, and
photographs of deceased priests. The one thing that was immediately understandable was a
wooden box at my feet that solicited offerings.
Just then someone broke the mystery of it all by calling out, “Hello!”
Standing off to my side was a man about my age—mid-thirties, dressed in jeans and a
Los Angeles Lakers T-shirt. His hair was cut short, Buddhist priest style.
“The temple is very beautiful,” I said.
He shrugged modestly.
“What does all this mean?” I asked.
He smiled. “All religion have relics,” he said. “Doesn’t the Catholic Church?
Meaning? Why explain it? My name is Yamamoto.”
We shook hands. He had an unusually strong handshake for a Japanese man, who
seem to think a firm grip is rude.
“So the town is named after you?” I said.
He let out a cynical laugh. “Yes,” he said. “My ancestors are from here for many
hundred years.”
I had no idea if he was joking or being truthful. “You’re cycling?” he asked, looking at
my tight, Lycra shorts. “Why don’t you take a rest in my home? My wife prepare for you
fresh melon.”

I could hardly resist this invitation, both the melon and the chance to see how a
Buddhist priest lived.
He showed me past a well, where some plastic buckets were lined up on a stone
wall—there seemed to be meaning in this, too—and we came to the entrance of his home,
which was attached to the temple. Like so many Japanese homes, it was a sprawling,
patched together building, two stories, made of sea green fiberglass siding, a red metal roof,
and some wood trim. It looked like it had been added onto about every ten or fifteen years.
“Please,” he said.
I stepped into the genkan—an area where shoes and umbrellas are kept—and took off
my cycling shoes and stepped up onto the tatami mat floor. The floors of Japanese homes are
all six or ten inches above the floor of the genakan.
Yamamoto showed me down a long corridor to a living room which opened out onto a
garden. In the garden there was a small pond in which koi of various colors swam and pines,
maples, and cherry trees. In a corner was a large, moss-covered stone. A pleasant gurgling of
water was coming from the flow of water into the pond. The garden was so Japanese. It was
if what I’d imagined a Japanese garden was had actually merged with the reality of one, a rare
event, the merging of the two.
“I like your garden,” I said.
“That!” he said. “Have you been to Kyoto?”
I told him that except for changing planes in Tokyo I hadn’t been out of Akita
He looked at me in disbelief. “There are gardens in Kyoto. Akita is a country area,”
he said, a bit disdainfully.
“Akita is all I know,” I said, “And I like it. It hasn’t been invaded by tourists.”

“Stay here for a few years and you not think that,” he said. “I have to live here. I am
my father’s son. I must living here.”
We were now at a table, sitting on cushions, called zabutons. He rapped his knuckles
on the table, and a moment later a woman in a white apron appeared at a door that led, I
assumed, to a kitchen. Seeing me, she knelt down on the tatami and bowed forward, almost
touching her forehead to the mats.
“My wife Kumiko,” Yamamoto said.
I’d thought that she was his housekeeper. I smiled; she wouldn’t meet my eyes, only
responded with a restrained nod.
Yamamoto said something to her, and she rose, brushing off her knees, and returned
to the kitchen.
He then proceeded to tell me about himself. He’d spent several years in Los Angeles
teaching Zen Buddhism. On Friday and Saturday nights he’d played jazz trumpet at a club in
Malibu. He stood and went to a nearby chest and returned with a photo of himself playing the
trumpet in a smoke-filled night club, the outlines of some Western faces appearing like
ghosts behind him.
Kumiko entered the room again carrying a tray, on which rested a large bottle of Kirin
beer and two small glasses. She set the tray on the table. Yamamoto took the beer and glasses
and filled them and pushed a glass toward me.
“Please,” he said.
“I’m cycling,” I said. “Tea is fine. And some melon.”
“Oh, yes,” he said. He said something to Kumiko, and she brought in a plate of
watermelon, the rind cut off, the melon cut into star shapes.
At that moment a boy of about six or seven burst into the room and went to a TV

which was in a corner and turned it on, picked up a PlayStation console and began to play
Grand Theft Auto.
“Yoji,” Yamamoto said, “my son. He play while he is young. One day he be priest.
Every day old people prepare for death. I be tired of this. We drink.”
He drank some beer; I did too, to please him. “Can you explain Zen Buddhism to
me?” I asked.
“You know Miles Davis, ‘Kind of Blue’?”
I said I did. It was my favorite album. I’d discovered a jazz club in Akita called Rondo
and went there now and then to listen to jazz, played on CDs.
“You know ‘So What’ you know Zen,” Yamamoto said.
Listening to “So What,” I always thought it was the only piece of music I could listen
to continuously for the rest of my life. Each time I listened to it, it was as if I was listening to
it for the first time.
“So is that how you taught Zen in L.A.?” I asked, “by having your students listen to
‘So What’?”
“Sometimes we meditated, but . . . better to listen to ‘So What.’”
He tossed down the remainder of beer in his glass.
“Are you married?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
“You should be married. Every man needs a wife. You see how my wife take care of
“I’ve noticed,” I said.
“You probably not cook for yourself.”
“I cook,” I said.

“Yes, you American.” He chuckled to himself. “A man should never enter the
kitchen,” he said.
“It’s difficult to cook if I don’t,” I said.
He hadn’t understood me—or was intent on ignoring me—and proceeded to drink
some more beer. Kumiko came into the room with another plate of watermelon cut up into
stars. She seemed to me to be an Akita beauty—her complexion was pale. She was gentle.
Yamamoto finished off the bottle of beer, and Kumiko raced off to the kitchen to fetch
another bottle. She poured the beer into his glass and he drank. She returned to the kitchen,
and she she had he said, “Kumiko is too small.” He cupped his hands over his breasts. “I like
American size.” He pushed his chest out. Then he got up. “I toilet,” he said.
He walked off, and Kumiko came into the room and sat at the table with me. “Thank
you for the melon,” I said.
“You’re welcome,”
She glanced over at Yoji and said something to him in a scornful way, and Yoji said
something back to her without turning his attention away from the screen. “I don’t like this,”
she said. “Children playing video games.”
“Your English is quite good,” I said.
“I studied at university in Tokyo.”
In the brief moment before Yamamoto returned, I imagined my entire life with her,
she was that magical and enchanting. I was new to Japan and eager to to start a new life
there. And then Yamamoto returned.
“I must go,” I said, and stood up.
Yamamoto, Kumiko, and I went back to the genkan, and I put on my cycling shoes.
We said our goodbyes. Kumiko and I exchanged fretful glances.

Five minutes later I was on my bicycle, riding through a dark forest of pines, hearing
the Miles Davis group play “So What.”

Photo by Eriks Abzinovs on

James Roth, an English Language Fellow in the U.S. State Department’s EFL Program, is a writer of fiction and nonfiction. His work has appeared in several magazines and journals. His first novel, “The Opium Addict,” is forthcoming. He has taught in Japan, China, Jordan, and Zimbabwe.

Creative Nonfiction

Freckles By Jocelyn Jane Cox


By Jocelyn Jane Cox

I nestle into the covers beside my mother at naptime. I hold her arm in front of my face to examine her skin.

“How many do you think you have?” I ask.

“Oh I don’t know.” She laughs. “Hundreds? Maybe thousands?”

“I think millions,” I say with awe and proceed to count them.


At work one day, I notice that my shirt, bag, notebook, and umbrella are all patterned with polka dots. I chuckle about this and show my work bestie.

“I might need to do an intervention,” she jokes and I nod in agreement. But we both know I won’t change my style.

I don’t wear polka dots, squint at the stars, over-use ellipses, marvel at the pointillists, or crack unseemly amounts of pepper onto my food in honor of my mother’s skin. Or I don’t think I do, anyway.


“Life is complicated,” I tell my son, long after she is gone. “There are a million ways to think and a million ways to be. A million different things can happen, including a million things you don’t expect, and most of them are okay.” Most of them.

He holds my arm up in the sunlight, my sleeve falling back to my elbow, and, just like I had, he proceeds to count.

Photo by Eriks Abzinovs on

Jocelyn Jane Cox holds an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. Her memoir-in-progress, Zebra Party, is about losing her mother on her son’s first birthday. Her essays, short fiction, and humor have appeared or are forthcoming in Slate, Brevity Blog, Roanoke Review, Penn Review, Belladonna Comedy, Slackjaw, and Five Minutes. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives near Nyack, NY with her husband and son.

Creative Nonfiction

Impressionist Art By Jennifer Ly

Impressionist Art

By Jennifer Ly

nothing good starts in a getaway car
I’m still trying to figure you out. I still talk about you in bars, to strangers that I’ve just met because my friends are sick of hearing of you, a man I barely knew but left his fingerprints pressed against the skin of my neck, the impression of your impression of me slid permanently on how I would look at myself in the mirror for years to come, even when I’m sure you don’t remember how it felt when we kissed. When we first met, I was just out of a job and lingering around the edges of an existential crisis, four years of my life gone into a career I no longer wanted and the foreseeable future mired in the shadow of a looming pandemic, September 2020; in hindsight, that winter would be the worst of my life, dealing with your ghost, my grandmother’s loss, a friend’s suicide, the mounting death toll from COVID, the dark, sweeping depression that felt like years. I would not be the person I am today without that winter, but I wish I was. I want to go back to who I was, before you.

the water filled my lungs
The first piece of writing I ever got published was about you. You were one line in a piece about my ex-boyfriend, that guy I told you about, but I still think about that line all the time when I write anything else. That piece is the last time I’ll ever write about him,
but I still find you in every single page of mine, all my insecurities bled over the still image of your face, blurry, I forget what you look like, I look you up on Instagram every time to remind myself. I wonder if you ever read it – if you recognized yourself in that one line, or if that moment simply lives with me, forever, and never even graces your
mind. I have to write about you to get you out of my mind. Some version of you must care.

all the kingdom lights shined just for me and you
Sometimes I worry that the guys I’ve dated will find out I’ve been writing about them on the internet, but then I remember that most guys I date don’t read. When we first met, you told me that you’d been reading some self-help books, finance textbooks, one fiction book your ex-girlfriend gave you that you haven’t had the heart to start or to throw away. I thought that was romantic. Now, almost two years later, I realize that it was a warning sign, flashing bright red, and I closed my eyes against the sight, let the afterimage of you burn itself into my mind, flicker and burn in the darkness. I’m over her, though, you said,
or maybe I imagined you said – her picture is still on your Instagram, baby girl is the caption, and I wonder about her, now, what she’s doing, if she wants her book back.

the world moves on, another day another drama
When I started writing, at 11, I began with fanfiction. I used to be ashamed of this – pretended that I didn’t know what people meant when they talked about shipping, about Tumblr – but these days, I wish I was that person again, that I hadn’t squashed her down
into the hidden corners of myself and of the internet. I want to love something that much again. I want to watch a show and wonder what-if and dream of scenarios between characters, in alternate universes, in songfics, where lyrics would be randomly incorporated through the story, would they still fall in love if they were in high school
instead of a magic boarding school, would this group of friends still find each other if they were in space instead of an ancient Japanese land, would they kiss this time and not break each other’s hearts? My definition of love keeps shifting as I grow older – no longer all-encompassing, but now it’s that my boyfriend texts me before he goes to bed, handing me my preferred mug even if he didn’t have to – but I think the foundations are found in the fan-fiction I read and wrote growing up, oh, love is two people falling in love because they want to, they choose to, and in each story I tell, I make it happen. Even ours. Even though you didn’t want it.

i want to wear his initial on a chain around my neck
You said once, after it all, I used to date a writer. I wasn’t aware that we’d been dating – you specifically told me that we were not dating when we were together – that was something you reserved for other girls –

we tell stories and you don’t know why
When writing about you, I think of how a colleague jokingly or seriously, I couldn’t tell, said to me once that I was writing about my exes so much that I was turning into Taylor Swift. It’s not that serious, I said, but then I started to wonder if Taylor Swift was taking it seriously or if she stares at herself in the mirror and wonders what that boy from 2020 thought when he saw her, and tried to put that feeling into words, despite knowing that she’ll never really know and it’s all conjecture, and at this point – what does it matter what he saw when he looked at you, besides the fact that it meant something to you, that
you could put pen to paper and immortalize how you felt in that moment, that fall, that time? Let it go, my colleague said, let them go, as if I haven’t. Sometimes I think of you and wonder what you look like when you think of me, if you ever do, and wish I was able
to paint, or draw, immortalize the way I can still imagine you between the pages. It is a sickness and an antidote and I’m not sorry, you live on here, you live.

Photo by Eriks Abzinovs on

Jennifer Ly is a Vietnamese-American writer from Los Angeles. Her work has been featured in Hobart, the Daily Drunk, and others.

Creative Nonfiction

My Heart Is Good and Yours Is, Too.

My Heart Is Good and Yours Is, Too

By: Laura Eppinger

Last week I turned in the keys to my old place so we could move in together. Time to let your one-bedroom go, too, but first we’ll have to liberate it. Let’s just say, you keep a lot of clutter.

It’s not like I haven’t seen your bathroom packed with more skincare products on one shelf than I’ve purchased in all my life to date. I snap on rubber gloves so we can get to the bottom of it all, make sure your floors are lemony clean. You look down at your feet, embarrassed.

There was a time I’d gag or call you messy piggy. I’ve been a rotten girl with a mean streak. I don’t joke or judge right now.

Thus far I thought the only way to keep love alive was to look the other way. But now I’m holding a furry glass in my hand, and pitching it in the trash instead of trying to save it. Who knows how many months it’s been since you poured yourself a Monster and drained it?

I stare directly at this neglected bachelor pad. It’s time to get to work. Your playlist makes me swoon: Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against the Machine, Smashing Pumpkins. You sigh like you’ve tasted something sweet when “Perfect Drug” begins.

You attack the kitchen, ensuring every chopstick is wrapped with its mate. I linger while your back is turned, to hear you chiming in. I sing along too, in wonder and recognition.

So I take the bedroom, sweep up an impossible amount of hair (while I don’t keep enough to gather a ponytail). There isn’t a crevice without your DNA; it’s peeking out of the fibers of the yellow rug, wedged into corners of board game boxes, and lacing the weird arches of your PC-gaming chair.

I joke: you’re lucky I don’t practice that kind of magic, because I could use your hair and make you do anything I wanted.

You can do that anyway. Just ask.

But I’d kneel to kiss every goddamn Magic card. (It would take days, your decks seem endless.) Every spike in Gundam armor, every Pony figurine. Of course you are not your stuff, but I want to touch all the things you touch, every manga cover with its teal lettering.

Trust me, I am surprised to find love at 35. The weight of all that time. After the slow creep of decades of men who made me wilt. After inviting vampires in through my window, knowing I was worth less than the dirt of their graves. After the burn of diet soda in the throat, a rebellion of stomach lining. After all those cigarettes stained my teeth, the hunger in a ruined mouth. 

Here I stand, left to rediscover my own skin. I loved songs about toxic love before I’d even been kissed. Did I use them as a blueprint? 

The parched years are over. My vampires, all staked.

I cradle the next stack of DVDs, tuck them into a box for storage, then zip ribbed sweaters into plastic bags. The stitching is ordinary, the stitching is safe.

But here is a new thrill: desire without compulsion.

I’ll ask you later if you’ve read that recent interview with Trent Reznor where he sips green juice and beams about being a dad. But not now—in this moment, we’ll stick with the beat.

We hear: I got my heart but my heart’s no good. We’ll sing it but not live it.

Our hearts are healthy as yolk, wholesome as ginger in rice.

My heart is good and yours is, too.

Laura Eppinger (she/her) is a Pushcart-nominated writer of fiction, poetry and essay. Her work has appeared at The Rumpus, The Toast, and elsewhere. She’s the managing editor at Newfound Journal.

Creative Nonfiction

Wheel of Fortune

Wheel of Fortune

By: Denise Berger

I saw my former boss on Wheel of Fortune. Contestant Number 2. I happened to look up when Pat asked, “So what keeps you busy?” He immediately lit up with responses “Oh! Cycling! Hiking! Skiing…” I didn’t even catch the whole answer, I was so amazed to see him. Not just that he was on TV. I was amazed because there wasn’t even a hint of the ailing body that was so central to the man I knew.

By the time I worked with him, he spoke as though part of his tongue was either missing or enlarged. People reacted to him with the benevolent condescension reserved for the disabled. Sometimes he just powered right through, the force of his will taking over, cheerful and exuberant as when he appeared on Wheel of Fortune. Clients and coworkers would tilt their heads in to hear better and, without realizing what happened, they would be in his swirl. Other times he avoided conversation. His body held pockets of stiffness, not necessarily in the joints but at random intervals.  And there were odd angles, as if there were a rusty wire running through his skeleton. It must have been torturous to be trapped in that body, to be treated as a diminished being even as his own essence refused to be diminished. 

Interestingly, his mannerisms remain unchanged; those are what I recognize right away. His brows arched in a state of surprise. The Muppet-lipped smile that seems like he might not have any teeth, although his teeth are right there. The hearing aid. The bounce in his step, even when standing in place. The broad waves of his arms, conducting an unseen orchestra as he speaks. And the satisfaction, the split second swelling of his chest, as he beams just beyond Pat when the answer is complete. 

Then I see his name. Mike. Check. And it’s “Great American Cities Week,” from Denver. Check. He told me about his house in Colorado, somewhere in the woods where his porch light had to comply with dark sky regulations. 

I can’t believe how vibrant he is. The whole show is focused on him, spinning the wheel as a full-body experience; he isn’t really exerting himself, he’s just so excited to be in the present moment, his joy unaffected whether he guesses right or wrong. His hair looks like silken thread, pulled into a small gray ponytail just above the dent where his head meets his neck. I wonder why he chose to dye it black at work. 

I check the guide on my TV. Episode is from May 2016. Filming had to have been around February. I met him in November the following year. I could sense what he’d been like before. He had all these stories — about inventing things, about sneaking into the USSR through Finland with a woman he met in a Helsinki bar, about driving all night to his dying mother in Arizona… He knew the Sunday morning lineup on Classical KUSC. He’s someone I could have loved. 

At my interview he asked me to describe a fantastic day, and to tell him how I knew when I had done a great job at something. Every word I sent to him landed. 

I’m rooting for him to go to the bonus round. Even by game show standards he has an energy that leaps off the screen. I want to see who he has in the audience. I want to know about him, to spend time with him.

I think of when my mom came into the showroom, how he hugged her exclaiming, “Oooooh, you’re Denise’s mother!” and practically spun her in the air. He gave her an employee discount on the clear sparkling candlesticks she got for Shabbat. There was no mention that when I was growing up, our house did not have Shabbat candles on Friday night; our house took spiritual cues from the ACLU. He had no idea that when we learned in school about the plight of Soviet Jewry and sang about trying to worship in secret, I totally identified. I knew what it felt like to be penalized for faith, though I never had the guts to try any clandestine activities. I didn’t tell him. I liked this feeling, of introducing my mom as someone who appreciated what was important to me, who delighted in loving openly.

At some point she told me that Michael was a very sick man, that he didn’t want to be there, that he only took the job for the health insurance. She must have registered some sort of mirror image, the way people with similar interests spot each other in the airport. 

At the start of 2018, he and my mom were two of the most central people in my life. A year later, they were both dead. 

I cry as I tell Rimma. She assumes I have regrets, that I would have done something, or a lot of things, different had I known they would both soon be gone. That would make sense. That’s how people are taught to think. But what I actually cry about is that over and over it happens: all the signs point to death and yet it feels a surprise — as if Fate just somehow landed, with no predictable warning.

Denise Berger is a Los Angeles based writer. Recent work has appeared in Beth Am Review and Detroit Jewish News.