Chris Zenowich

There are two kinds of writers in advertising: writers who learn by accident they can make a living there, and advertising people who love the business but can’t draw. I was the former, a writer who discovered that as a copywriter I could pay the bills. One day at Silverman Mower in Syracuse, N.Y., where I was plying my trade, a new copywriter appeared, and it soon became apparent that we were kindred spirits. Chris appeared in my doorway, and said, “Be my friend.” We laughed, and we were friends.

Chris, I learned, wanted to write novels and short stories. John Cadley, another copywriter, wrote songs and plays. The three of us talked about what it would be like to make enough money from our “real writing” to leave the ad game. But with Chris, it became an obsession. He started getting up at 5 a.m. to write fiction.

Some time around 1984, Zeno found a young writer who was studying at Syracuse University with Raymond Carver, and for a small stipend the lad would read Zeno’s work and make comments. “He’s incredibly well-read,” Zeno told me more than once, and said his advice was helpful, and encouraging.

I met the mentor at a book signing in 1984. Rhoda Lerman, with whom I shared a fascination about World War I, was signing copies of her new novel, The Book of the Night, at the Everson Museum. Zeno and I went down, and Zeno’s mentor, Jay McInerney, was there with his wife, Merry. It all felt very literary. Jay was handsome, witty and friendly. His wife was delightful. Rhoda was wonderful, as always. Zeno loved such occasions. So did I. We would imagine our own book signings.

Jay’s first novel, about a young man in Japan, had been shelved for the moment because his editor found more promise in his second, set in New York City. It was a good call. Bright Lights, Big City lit the fuse on Jay’s rocket sled to fame. I bumped into him one day at the library, and he told me Esquire magazine was paying him to interview Mick Jagger. We grinned at the wonderful silliness of it all.

It wasn’t exactly Esquire and Mick Jagger, but in 1988, the Chicago Tribune sent Chris up to Alexandria Bay to interview Frederick Exley. One of Exley’s quotes, which I regret Chris’s ever hearing, was “What’s the point of going half or two-thirds of the way? To risk a great happiness, you have to risk a great sorrow. Otherwise you go down the drain of illusion.”

Eventually, Chris had his day. His novel, The Cost of Living, was published in 1989, and a collection of short stories, Economies of the Heart, came out in 1990. At a book signing in the Good Book Store, in Armory Square in Syracuse, he introduced me to Tobias Wolff. “Kihm, this is Toby Wolff.” Chris was just delighted to be able to say those words. “Toby, this is Kihm Winship. He wrote the Saranac six-pack.” And Toby smiled, and said something kind about how my sales would probably be better than those of his recent memoir, which was This Boy’s Life. Toby was charming; his eyes twinkled. Chris moved from foot to foot, almost hopping with excitement. I reminded Chris that John Cadley had written half of the Saranac six-packs, and mentioned to Toby that my elementary school crush was a girl named Toby Wolf. I don’t remember anything else of the conversation. It was just nice that it took place.

Chris told me that his book was going to be reviewed in the New York Times Book Review. He was excited. A good review would be wonderful; a modest review would be okay, too. But the review was a curt dismissal, a short paragraph, the literary equivalent of a policeman’s “Keep moving. Nothing to see here.” It seems a cliche to say that it was devastating, but it was. I never saw the same enthusiasm in Chris again. He wanted so badly to succeed, to be a writer among writers, but now his demons had something to work with, and work they did. It got dark out.

Zeno’s wife left. He moved away with their daughter, Zoe, and through a succession of jobs, teaching at small colleges, things like that. I talked with him once at some small magazine, but our conversations were no longer about writing, mostly about making ends meet, and darker topics. He told me about a neighbor who lived in the house only on weekends — and I could tell that grated on Chris — a man who had a burglar alarm that was set off by the cold, and it went off every cold night, sounding for two to eight hours before the police, who by now knew it was just the cold weather, would come by and turn it off. One dark winter night, tormented by the alarm’s unending howl, Chris loaded a shotgun and blew the alarm off the side of the man’s house. I remember his laugh as he finished the story. Such were his frustrations and his solutions.

I didn’t hear from Chris much after that. On December 28, 1998, at the age of 44, Chris died of a heart attack. As I understand it, he went to bed and didn’t wake up in the morning. He was visiting his mother for the holidays. I don’t even remember who told me. Various theories were floated. A mutual friend said, “Oh, he drank himself to death.” I felt he died of frustration, whatever the physical causes were.

And I left it at that, until one evening, during dinner, I couldn’t take my eyes off his two books, sitting on the shelf in the dining room, alone in the Z’s. I wondered if anyone had written about him, what traces he had left. The next day, I looked him up on Google. It was a depressing search. There were a few sketchy obits. At Bookfinder, one dealer wrote of Chris’s novel, “A first edition for the price of a paperback!” If he hadn’t been dead already, that could have killed him.

What a legacy, I thought. Two mostly forgotten books. And then, in the spirit of “one more thing,” I put his daughter’s name into Google, and found myself reading the Web log of an angry teenager in Iceland. I had known that Chris’s first wife and daughter were in Iceland, and had traded emails with his wife a year or so ago. But here, now, was Zoe. In her own voice.

I began reading her rants, half in English, half in Icelandic. Quoting John Lennon, chewing out someone for a poor dramatization of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, and this passage:

“My faced burns with coldness. The wind is still. The snow crunches as I walk. The sky seems endless. The stars are so many, the greenness of the northern light is almost overwhelming. It is so quiet that I can hear the paper of my long awaited cigarette burn as I kneel down behind the tractor.”

Hearing the cigarette paper burn. Not just seeing or smelling it, but hearing it. A short passage that engages every one of the senses. Oh God, I thought, Chris would have been so pleased to read this.

And then I got to a part that made me shiver, but not from the Icelandic cold. Her post of 29 December, written from Washington D.C. while on a college visit. At first, I didn’t know who she was talking to, but then the date fell into place, and I realized she was talking to her father on the fifth anniversary of his death.

“Mad am I; all I want to be capable of doing at this moment is remembering your voice. But happy am I that today I did what we were to have done five years back. Barnes & Nobles rules.”

And then I felt so foolish, for having thought that Chris’s legacy was confined to a couple of books, to the memories of a few friends, because here it was another part, alive and growing, his voice remembered, a new voice speaking with his anger, his energy, his gift.

I wrote to Zoe, and asked her if I could quote her. She responded:

“My father’s memory continues to haunt me, as well. It’s when the snow gets so high that you can’t see out the window of our basement flat and the sun never really comes up when it really gets hard and self pity is inevitable. That’s when I’d give anything to hear one of his cynical jokes about Iceland again.

“The sun comes in the summer, though, and makes up for lost time and while I work on the same farm that I always do from June to September, I can hear him telling the stories, that never failed to have a hilarious ending, from his own youth when he also worked on a farm.

“December 28th is the only day that I pray. I pray that I am wrong and that there is god. I pray that that god has a great kingdom. I pray that that kingdom has 24/7 ESPN on a movie screen. And I pray that my father is there watching Sports Center.

“I am honored that you wish to quote me; just make sure you spell my name right.”

When I started this piece, I was saddened at the paucity of Chris’s legacy. But discovering his daughter, reading her work, and hearing his distant voice encouraging me, I came to realize that his legacy is still alive, that there is still hope, still good things to remember and perhaps even better things on the horizon, because of Chris, and his love.

I go to Zoe’s site often. This recent piece is another I’d like to share:

“On the gray seat decorated with rainbow stripes, blends in so well with 80s inspired, clothing of the fashion sensitive young blond girls on their way to Versló, I sit. My eyes are closed and I have to squeeze them to conjure up the memory of summer at Hraunkot..

“The clearing of grass and dandelions, hidden away in the depths of the green trees and moss covered lava rock, where I lay down so often after work. That small private patch of peace… That place where I vowed never to have kids, never to have a job that entailed endless amounts of work, all day, every day of the year, never to have to watch my husband’s hair turn gray and fall out because of too much tension on the body, and never to put up with something because “that’s just the way it is.”

“The bus makes a sharp turn and jerks me away from the trees, the dogs, the voices, the vows, and the smell of the farm and of summer. From the corner of my eye I can see that lady again. She is looking at me. Then turning away, she takes what looks like a rubbing-alcohol bottle out of her right pocket, takes a quick sip, coughs and swallows. She reaches for the metal seat rail and pulls her weak body upright.

“The bus comes to a stop outside of Hlemmur and the lady stumbles as she stands up. Losing her balance, she falls into the seat next me and manages to hiss a couple of curse words into my ear before descending the bus stairs.

“Her image will not leave my mind. Not while Jón mumbles on about Antigone and extended essays. Not while Margrét and Nína tell jokes. Not while I listen to Kip playing his clarinet. She stays there. Her face that was so dry it looked like it was about to break to pieces. The smudges of eyeliner around her young, unfocused eyes. Her black and white tweed coat and the knitted scarf that she had raveled around her neck. The way she wrapped her arms around herself like a little girl with a belly ache of sorrow.

“But most of all it was the stench of her breath, as she hissed those foul words that I remember, that I still smell. The unmistaken scent that never fails to remind me of my childhood; the scent of vodka.”

I wince, but I take heart.

July 12, 2005

After visiting this page, Tobias Wolff wrote:

“He was a great soul, Chris. He did have a rough time of it in the last years of his life — was for a time working as a dish-washer at a restaurant in Connecticut. Absolutely devoted to Zoe… I miss him — that raucous scathing humor, that good heart.”

And then Zoe wrote with another remembrance, a dedication to Chris by author Tom Perrotta:

“It came as such a surprise when I was in the States in Christmas of 2002 and came across his book Joe College in Borders and saw that it had been dedicated to my father. Nobody had bothered to tell me. At first I thought there must be two Chris Zenowichs, but then I went through an envelope of my father’s personal letters that I received after his death, and found quite a few letters from Mr. Perrotta.”

I contacted Tom Perrotta — this is a short excerpt from his letter:

“I dedicated my novel Joe College to Chris’s memory mainly because I missed him and wanted to say so, but also because that book — it’s about a small-town working class kid moving up in the world, and grappling with the complex realities of class and status in America — reflected some of his experiences and concerns as well as my own. We talked a lot about fiction, and about work, and about academia, and a lot of my ideas were deepened and sharpened by what Chris had to say on these subjects, which were close to his heart, and at the center of his own two terrific books. I only wish he were still around, so we could see what else he had to say.

“Chris played a kind of big brother role in my life at a crucial time, and I’m grateful to him for that. But mainly I’m just grateful to him for being such a good and generous friend. You don’t get many of those.”

A student with Chris, Brian McCue, writes:

“Chris and I were both interested in becoming writers. We signed up for a relatively demanding writing course that had about 16 people in it; the prof split it into one class that had Chris, Rick S. and me in it, and one class for the other 13. Chris, Rick, and I learned some great stuff from one another in that class. Several years ago I saw Economies of the Heart in a store and bought it, delighted to see that Chris had ‘Made It’ as a writer. Soon after, before I could start the book, I read in my alumni journal that Chris had died, and beyond that point I could not bear to read the book.

“Thanks so much for putting up your page regarding Chris, whom you obviously knew as I did — as a kindly man, a great friend, and a writer.”

Roy Bentley, a poet who taught with Chris, writes:

“Your page brought back the loss of my friend and most strident supporter… He spoke often of Zoe; in fact, there was not an instance in which she wasn’t mentioned — in a conversation at a bar, in a hallway chat between classes at Denison where we taught English together, at my home in Granville… His students were passionate about him. Very much so. They found him to be what he was — a truth teller with a lust for the Great Story. (Which translates: Someone who would lie his ass off in the service of the Truth.) I miss the guy. I didn’t know the stuff about the Times review; I read his stuff and thought him among the best, truly. A bad review, I’m sure, can follow you. But he was my friend, I knew him, and in my opinion what frustrated him most of all was how damned hard it is to live… just to live. He was a guy who liked to feel the wind, cold or warm; he loved to walk. He kept his car like a farmer — it was a means to an end, a way to get there. He loved people over things… a man that, when he left your house, you felt like some good spirit had come and sat with you and was now out and about in the world.”

Roy wrote a poem in Chris’ memory in 1999, and has given permission for its inclusion here:

The Other Pile
for Christopher Zenowich

And here comes the angel with her drum
and wings. Some wings.
— Charles Wright

After the phone call
testified to your abandonment of the body,
a lucky guy at last to have gone on
easily and without warning, before the Big Snow
you wanted to blanket your life in Ohio just once,
before that snow fell-Asshole-deep, you’d have said-
before that further dissipation of middle age
and your share of collapses, did you know
I reread that story of yours about Bob?
It’s May, in the story, and you’ve got Bob perched
in a blue Ford front-end loader with a pile
of manure to spread. The stuff is so bad,
whoever owns the place has waited so long
into Spring to move it, that Bob’s getting double time
for as long as it takes. You’ve got maggots
white and wriggling, unhoused; you’ve got poor Bob
retching his guts out after the first full pass.
Anyway, you were saying this whole thing stinks
and double time won’t touch it, and careful or not
we come away with the worst of it all over us.

When I was a kid, I had a GI Joe
with a makeshift Superman suit under his fatigues.
In the course of play his uniform could-tada!-
fall away and he wasn’t just some foot soldier
to be spent at the whim of his superiors
according to the requirements of Mission-
as if there could be a Superman beneath the wardrobe
of any one of us. Though my aunt Peg
who did the sewing didn’t do snaps very well,
it didn’t matter GI Joe was stuck with Superman duds.
I wanted him invulnerable, whether or not he could ever
move his pretend bowels or take a pretend piss.
Immortals don’t need to let it out like that, I figured.
Later my aunt told me about Jesus being, becoming,
a kind of Superman after he rose from the dead,
graveclothes flapping in the breezes of an Easter dawn,
savior to the world of us measly GI Joes.
I told her I could use a cape from something
other than corduroy. A redder scrap S this time, too.

I am so happy for you, Christopher.
The heart it would take x-ray vision to watch beat
slowed in your white sleep, stopped altogether-tada!-
before you could even raise yourself. For sure,
it’s that we’re one breath above a stinking shitpile
short of a good day, but you know now
whether there are angels, supermen, risen Jesuses,
and you at least left us Bob in the front-end loader
telling us how the trick is (and it isn’t much of a trick)
to keep the wind at our back.

It’s snowing, and you know what?
If you venture out into it-maybe you used to-
and look straight up, through the wet, at stars or nothing,
the naked skin of the face will catch
and melt handfuls of what’s falling
in startling 3-D lifelike action, catch it
as if the miraculous could pile up by pure chance
before it is itself changed, added to,
held up to Krypton or New Jerusalem, S’s of tears
made to river every curved and exposed inch.

Tess Gallagher, poet and teacher, who was in Syracuse with Raymond Carver when he was teaching at S.U., writes:

“Thank you for sending me to the site about Chris. I do remember him. Very blonde. Thick glasses. A way of squinting sideways at you. A very happy cast to him. Careful listening — as if to hear inside what you were saying…

“This would have been Fall of 1988 and Chris was there before that too. But that Fall he used to walk me back to my car after my class. It was somehow very comforting, as I was toughing it out, teaching at night and taking care of Ray after his lung operation for cancer in the day. He would ask me how it was going in a way I knew he knew things were really hard, but he wasn’t prying, really just wanting me to know he felt bad we were having to go through this crisis…

“I was shocked really to learn he had died so young, even younger than Ray. And also I did not know about his struggle to hold onto his aspirations after a bad review. I wish I’d known that, been able to give him a boost, a word of encouragement. Certainly we are all helped so immensely by our friendships with other writers and also our devoted readers, who care about what we’re doing.

“I did read some from Zoe’s website as I enjoyed so much what you quoted from her. Her voice has an wonderful brash honesty about it. She kind of crashes into the language and gets its wildness back… It’s devastating to lose the one you feel closest to in the universe. Hopefully her writing will be a way to keep with Chris, as he was so invested in writing that he would be awfully proud to think she was carrying that forward.”

John Cadley, who worked with Chris in advertising, writes:

“Chris and I shared two passions: writing and the New York Giants football team. When he was at the agency, I had to get my work done in the margins of my conversations with Chris, which would last for hours. He would show up at my door with a cup of coffee in his hand and I knew I could kiss the next two hours goodbye — and gladly so. Talking with Zeno — about politics, football, literature, and women — was far more stimulating than writing about steel-toed safety shoes. Chris hated hypocrisy and mendacity — which the advertising industry is all too ready to supply in abundance — so Chris never lacked for a subject upon which to fulminate, which he did in world-class style. The man could rant like Charlie Parker taking off on a 10-chorus improvisation. All you could do was listen and be blown away by the word choices, the associations, the metaphors… and he was his own best audience. He would laugh at some of his observations until the tears rolled down his purple cheeks. Yet for all his laughter, Chris traveled with the black dog of melancholy, and we talked about that, too. I’ve always believed that to be a poet, an artist, one must have a little sadness and a little madness. Chris had both and he carried them as well as he could. I loved him. He was my brother in arms.”

Anne Kallas, a newspaper columnist in California, writes:

“Chris was my step-cousin. My mom had married his Uncle Bob. I first met Chris and his brother Dan when we went to visit his parents, Uncle Paul and Aunt Dot. He was a gangly, hyper kid of about 10 who prattled on endlessly about the Yankees. He and my stepdad, who we called Zen, would go back and forth about sports. I was endlessly bored.

“Through the years we’d go visit Chris and Dan (they were always a matched set) in Litchfield, or they would come and visit us… Uncle Paul had graduated from high school and had to work at one of those red-brick New England factories. I thought it was exotic. My stepdad, the baby in the huge Zenowich family, had been orphaned at 13 when both Zenowich grandparents dropped dead of heart attacks within 6 months of each other. (This presaged Chris’ death.) Uncle Bob was then brought up by the rest of the family. He managed to graduate from the Gunnery (a local prep school) and was accepted to Harvard. Big stuff for an immigrant Polish family. Uncle Bob barely managed to graduate from Harvard, but he did and landed a job as a college textbook salesman for a big New York City publishing house, which he loved. But then Uncle Bob married my mom, a woman with upper-middle class aspirations and airs, who pressured him to become an editor at the publishing houses, which he hated. We lived in a huge house in Princeton, N.J., subsidized by my grandfather, who was a very successful lawyer.

“I was blissfully unaware of any tension, but later Chris told me that his mom, Aunt Dot, HATED my mom and always thought my mom was looking down at Uncle Paul and her and their ranch house in the hills outside of Litchfield. (My mom looked down at almost everyone, so Dot was probably right.) Chris and Dan were so energetic. They were both on the cross-country team. Chris would get up before dawn to run. I was amazed. I’ve never found a bed that didn’t look better to me than the early dawn hours. Chris was also amazingly bright, always quoting the Big authors. (I remember him specifically talking about James Joyce with Uncle Bob.) He loved talking with Uncle Bob, with whom he seemed to share a special affinity.

“The last time I saw Chris (and Dan) was in about 1974, I was living on my own in Boston and stopped by Litchfield to see them. I had brought my first car, a 1961 Volvo, which had a stick shift. I amazed Dan by my ability to do a heel-toe clutch thing. Chris dismissed both of us. He could be amazingly insensitive, and then sensitive by turns. I remember when I was in eighth grade and he and his family were visiting and he made a point of commenting on how I’d gained weight. But, later when I’d lost it, he mentioned that too.

“Back to the last visit, I’m not sure why or how but we, Chris, Dan and I, were lying on the grass in their back yard, just lolling on a warm day. And we just talked and laughed. The Zenowiches always had great senses of humor.

“Years later, my mom told me Chris had written a book. I don’t even remember which one. But I recognized so much in it from his life. I knew the house. I remember the kitchen, the dining room, the view over the hills in back. So I was never able to judge it well. I’d always wished he’d written more. Had developed some of his stories more. I wrote him to say this and he seemed really grateful and said he was “so glad to hear my voice” again… I would do Google searches for him from time to time because I wanted to read anything else he wrote… I was doing one a couple of years ago at work when I found out he had died. I felt the room melt away and always wanted to tell someone about Chris and what it meant to me to know he was gone. Thank you so much for putting your tribute to him online. His daughter looks just like his little sister Lizzie did at that age. It’s almost eerie.

“Anne Kallas. (Chris knew me as Princey.)”

In May of 2005, Elizabeth Cauchon, Chris’ sister wrote:

“I am the “Lizzie” Princey mentions. I periodically search the Internet for writing about Chris and for Zoe’s writing. I am part of his legacy. I miss him; and I knew a man very different from the one I read about on the Internet. I’ve lost touch with Zoe, which is why I look for traces of her online.

“The day my brother died, I was driving to work (knowing he’d arrived the night before for a post-Christmas visit at our mother’s house). At the time, I lived ten minutes away from our childhood home and as I drove past the road that leads to that home I thought, “If Chris dies, I will take all his un-finished writing, finish it for him and get it published and recognized as it should be.” Within minutes after sitting down at my desk, I got a phone call from my husband telling me my brother Chris had passed away. I believe he was with me in the car that morning. I am unable to get past this… I never found any unfinished work, and I never heard of anyone else finding any. He was always writing — where did it all go?

“I found your site tonight as I sit in a hotel room in Las Vegas, where I am attending a work meeting. It is in situations like this when I think so much about Chris — his running commentary on people like those I am surrounded by here is in my head. I feel like I think about him every day. I miss him so much it is a tangible object somewhere inside my stomach. He never met my two children…

“I used to try to make contact with people who knew him. I once exchanged some e-mail with Joyce Maynard, whom he dated for a while — he moved to New Hampshire to teach at Keene, and to be nearer her. As I remember that time, it was a low point in his life at the end of which Zoe moved to Iceland. He was drinking heavily. I got many calls from him telling me about a conspiracy amongst the English department members to get him booted out. My husband, brother-in-law and I went to New Hampshire to move Chris out of his apartment back into my parent’s home for the second time. He sent us away. He was completely wasted, completely nonsensical, and his apartment was a reflection of the internal misery he must have been experiencing at the time. I remember going into the room that had been Zoe’s and finding the floor covered with her books as if they’d been thrown around the room in a fit of rage (perhaps they were). It made me so sad that I packed as many of them as I could into the trunk of my car before going home. Chris sat listless in a chair as I did that. I still have some of them in my basement. When I wrote to Joyce and mentioned alcoholism, she wrote back that she had no idea he drank. His second wife did not know that he had a drinking problem, either. All this has been shocking to me — how could anyone know Chris and not know that?

“What I remember most about Chris is very tactile. It is the big bear hug he always gave me, and the scratchy discomfort of his beard — and the wool clothing he wore — against my cheek.

“We don’t talk about Chris much in what is left of our family, so I look for him wherever I can. I still have a recurring dream that this is all a mistake, that he is not gone. In my dream, I am looking for him and there is such relief when I finally find him, proving that this is all a big mistake. Sometimes in the dream it is as if he had to go into hiding for a while. I hope I see him again.

“Princey’s comment about the picture of Zoe looking like me is so funny. Both my children look exactly like us, too. The Zenowich gene pool — strong and scary.”

And the next day:

“Yes, you may post this… I enjoy these collective versions of Chris. They are all true recollections of parts of his character. Maybe I was lucky in that I got it all, as did Zoe. Sometimes I am angry that I got the bad parts, too, and not just all these wonderful parts I find people reminiscing about online. But finding this online world and the mostly happy memories of Chris that people share there makes the bad ones I have less distinct. Were the good ones not so wonderful, I would not miss him so.”

On her Web log, “Awfully Serious,” poet Alison Stine had this entry on March 23, 2005:

“Browsing in the library yesterday, I pulled out a gray, water-stained copy of Joe College by Tom Perrotta. I read the bio, flipped through the first few pages. After the title page, there was a dedication: In Memory of Chris Zenowich. Zenowich was a visiting professor at the college when I was a student. We called him “The Zen Man.” I didn’t have him in class, but I used to sit outside his office and wait for my own. I used to hear laughter from the open door of his classroom, always laughter. He would just have walked in; I would watch him reflected in the shiny linoleum floor, briefcase swinging, go inside, then laughter.”

Kathleen Morrow writes:

“There really is no replacing him. He made the movement of history connect for me in no way any other person has… that somehow all the clutter of global events and the hypocrisy therein was still some part of a unified song… that no matter how absurd and ridiculous and wrong things were there was still some room to laugh at it – and in that laughter we were players, not just pawns, joyful, not just “trying to change the world.” There was just something very rare and solid about him.

“He said this to me, once – that I needed to understand that people were like musicians playing in an orchestra… that they weren’t always in tune and on time but they were still trying to play their parts.”

I quote portions of an e-mail sent by Genie Zenowich on July 8, 2005:

“I was married to Chris when he died. I knew the Chris you all talk about. Most of his demons were behind him, however, and he had found peace, love and security. He was at last a happy soul and so was I. His only regret in the end, I believe, was that Zoe was so far away. He always stopped and breathed a prayer for Zoe at 7:11 both am and pm. I still do that for him, although I bet he’s watching her most of the time.

“After his ‘visiting author’ contract expired at Denison University, Chris was free to write in his office all day while I was at my day job. He would read excerpts to me in the evenings, so I know he was writing. I have gone over and over his boxes and boxes of saved work and found nothing from that time period. He was working on a book he called ‘The Immigrant from the Planet of the Spoonbenders’ about a 17-year-old kid dealing with being psychic. None of that manuscript has been found anywhere.

“I don’t think Chris and I met by accident. God mercifully led us to each other at just the right time. He was the perfect man for me and I miss him terribly. We had fun. We had joy together. And we comforted each other as we shared our turbulent histories with each other.

“By the way, I understood from the cardiologists report that Chris died from heart failure. It just stopped due to an enlarged and damaged heart. The damage was most likely from a virus which the doc said he could have contracted two weeks or two years before his death. No one knows.

“I will never recover from the loss of Chris, the love of my life. That’s even more clear to me as I write this. I appreciate more than I know how to say, this time of writing to you about him. Thank you.”

And this on July 12, 2005, from Matt Linden:

“I first met Chris when I was a student in his senior level fiction writing workshop. The first night we were critiquing three stories: an excellent memoir by Mike Tarbell about his combat experience as an Army Ranger in Vietnam, a pretty good imitation of John Kennedy Toole by an English major and this total piece of crap by some guy who was let into the workshop after the dean told Chris that he couldn’t reject 50% of the people who wanted to take the course. Well, when the crappy story was the rest of the class was being polite. When my turn came I ripped into the guy’s story. I must have been on a roll because I could see Chris was trying not to bust out laughing. Fat chance.

“On the way out Chris stopped me, asked my name and background. I told him my recent history; that I dropped out of college when I was 19 to tour with a punk rock band but had to give up that career when I was 25 years old and strung out on smack. He asked my why I was going to Syracuse. I told him the truth; that my grandfather had left the university enough money in his estate that the admissions department would overlook my spotty academic record. And I wanted to write fiction. He told me to stop by his office the next afternoon.

“When I went to his office the next day Steve Featherstone and another undergrad who had recently been accepted into Iowa were hanging out. Chris gave me his two tier philosophy about teaching undergraduate fiction workshops. There were two types of people who enrolled in these things; English majors looking for an easy elective and serious writers. He had two different sets of rules. The English majors had to make an appointment to see him. But the ones he deemed as serious writers could come in, hang out and talk about writing as long as they wanted. The only stipulation was that we had to leave the office whenever some other student wanted to complain about a B minus.

“‘So how about it, Matt, think you can handle being part of the cool crowd?’

“One night before the workshop Chris and I had dinner with a guy who taught English at a Catholic high school in Syracuse. Over dinner Chris came up with an idea. He’d introduce the English teacher as a fiction editor with Random House and have him take questions from the class. He would also sit in on the workshop and offer his own critiques of each story. Chris and I let Mike Tarbell in on the joke and the three of us sat in the back of the class and watched as the English teacher attempted to pull off an impersonation of a powerful New York book editor. ‘Well, right now there’s a lot of good new writers from the South.’ ‘My advice is to follow your inspiration and write without worrying whether or not your story or book will be published.’ The funniest part was during the break when the guy who wrote the crappy story from the first night in the workshop tried to pitch an idea for a novel he was working on.

“I wrote a whole lot for Chris, sometimes as much as three hours a day. Chris, in return, was more than generous. He introduced me to students in the graduate writing program and arranged for Steve Featherstone and I to go to a summer writing with Bob Olmstead, Paul Watkins and Darcy Steinke. He also talked Toby Wolff into doing an independent study with me. A year later, when he was teaching part-time at SUNY Binghamton, Chris arranged for me to drive my childhood hero, Jim Carroll, from the Syracuse Amtrak station to his reading in Binghamton.

“There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t think about Chris. He was one of the most generous people I’ve ever met. I think he was genuinely happy during the last couple of years of his life. He was writing a whole lot during that time and was really hitting his stride as a writer. The two books, The Cost of Living and Economies of the Heart, are only a hint of the direction he was going. His story, “Po Lives on the Y”, that appeared in Ploughshares is probably a better indicator of what was to come.”

* * *

I thank Zoe, Toby, Tom, Brian, Roy, Tess, John, Anne, Elizabeth, Alison, Kathleen, Genie and Matt for sharing their memories and making this page that much more meaningful.

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2 comments

  1. Tom Quinn · · Reply

    Kihm –

    Yesterday I happened upon your remembrance of Chris Zenowich and all the wonderful voices within it. I learned of Chris’ death that way so the experience of shock and sadness is fresh with me.

    We knew Chris in Syracuse, NY in the 1980s, when he was married to the poet Eva Heisler. Their daughter Zoe was a toddler then. Chris and Eva were part of a network of creative friends from the academic and advertising worlds. We too loved his sense of humor and his kindness.

    You probably remember the story of dogs that bothered him when he worked as a milkman, driving a refrigerated truck in the vicinity of Oran, NY. When a large dog rounded the truck in what seemed an attack, Chris defended himself with a milk bottle, striking the dog on the snout – and unintentionally killing it. There followed a confrontation with the owner, but I no longer remember the exchange as Chris told it. Another time, one of those small yapping dogs was bothering him. He tossed it in the back of his truck and continued on his way, forgetting about the incident until he arrived at the dairy. Opening the refrigeration unit, he discovered a shivering and much subdued creature.

    My younger son Solon, then about four, was fascinated with insects and worms. Chris showed up one day with a “bug bottle” for him. You can learn a lot about bugs by watching them, he explained. Occasionally, he would stop briefly at the house to bring Solon a very interesting beetle or spider.

    I had my own aspirations, writing several unpublished novels during the latter 70’s and early 80’s before channeling my frustrated energy into a business career. Chris and I shared stories about career frustrations, especially the inanity of some business writing. I loved his story about meeting a client in her large corporate office. She was giving Chris notes on the copy she expected him to produce, only to be interrupted by repeated calls from her interior decorator. The calls were lengthy as the client indulged in discussing fabrics and draperies. Chris was kept waiting, listening to one side of the conversation. He amused himself by pacing about the office. “She had a lot of photographs in that office,” he said. “All of them of herself!” I knew the individual he was speaking about, and we laughed cynically at her superficiality and self-absorption.

    So I admired Chris’ bravery in escaping his copywriting job for the Syracuse University’s writers program. Naturally he explained that decision with a story. For the sake of sanity, he would close his door at the advertising agency each day at lunch time to spend 30 minutes reading. One day a Raymond Carver story “changed my life.” He closed the book and decided then to pursue writing seriously.

    I seem to recall he found a publisher through connections with the SU program. There was a guest lecturer at the university and in an evening party, that person asked Chris to send him his work. That began a lengthy back-and-forth with the publisher who asked Chris to rewrite almost the entirety of The Cost of Living. He was so frustrated that summer and fall, yet so eager to complete the work and see it in print. Chris wrote incessantly.

    I don’t think I ever discussed that New York Times review. I was aware a review was pending, and I remember looking for it over several weeks. The piece was so abrupt and so disappointing. I could imagine how Chris felt.

    About that time, we lost touch. Chris, Eva and Zoe moved, as I recall, to Pennsylvania. I was aware of his teaching at a university. I heard about a divorce. Absorbed with my own career and family, I drifted from the creative crowd that used to picnic and talk literature when the kids were young. After Economies of the Heart appeared, I assumed Chris must have settled into a career in academe.

    Yesterday’s newspaper contained an obituary of an acquaintance from those years. How, I wondered, had I come to know that person? Had Chris Zenowich introduced us? That prompted a search for Chris on the internet and my discovery of your posting.

    The news of Chris’ death, almost two decades after the fact, has stunned me. I recall him with such fondness, I want to share these memories.

    1. Tom, Thank you so much. Kihm

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