Z.O.S.: A Memoir

Z.O.S.: A Memoir

by Kay Merkel Boruff


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“A touching and thoughtful meditation on war and personal tragedy.” –KIRKUS REVIEW

Z.O.S. is a memoir about sex, blood, money, and the CIA in Southeast Asia. Kay Merkel Boruff tells the story from her perspective of wife and widow of an Air America pilot killed during covert operations in Laos. She takes the reader there as only one who has been there can. You experience the highs, understand the efforts to escape the constant fear of the dangerous reality these American heroes face daily, feel the anguish of her loss and the isolation of the “zone of silence” she is required to live in for the rest of her life.

Kay Merkel Boruff, as a teacher at The Hockaday School 1973—2010, studies with Naomi Shihab Nye, Li-Young Lee, Tim O’Brien, Madeleine L’Engle, and Robert Olen Butler. She unveils the Air America Memorial at UTD with CIA Director William Colby. Armed with the philosophy carpe diem, she attends Burning Man and climbs Wayna Picchu, chasing another adventure in her “zone of silence.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781684330928
Publisher: Black Rose Writing
Publication date: 08/16/2018
Pages: 220
Sales rank: 1,209,321
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.01(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

KAY MERKEL BORUFF has published in the New York Review of Books, Vanity Fair, and Texas Short Stories 2. In addition, she has work in several journals, including Suddenly, Behind the Lines, Fifth Wednesday, Adanna, Stone Voices, and Paper Nautilus. Letters of her husband's and hers are included in Love and War, 250 Years of Wartime Love Letters. In 2016 NPR interviewed Boruff and Willie H. Minor, Jr., regarding Vets Helping Vets and their Drama Therapy Program. She lives in Dallas with her Labrador Molly Bloom.

Read an Excerpt


The Cocktail Party

I carry with me his words and his obsessions, his songs and his sorrows.

He was just passing through, a mode of being, a temporary address.

Let the wolves [eat] his ashes: [I ate him raw.]

— Julia Kristeva

Strains of Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" seeped under the bathroom door. I slipped off my silk bikini pants, folded them, and put them in my purse. "Merk would die," I thought. The confused expressions of my first grade students' faces clouded my mind. Slipping my pants back on, I resigned myself to my grade school teacher existence. I'd forced myself to be social and come to the Company cocktail party. An unfinished novel lay on the coffee table back in the bungalow. I couldn't concentrate. A power failure ended a letter to Mother. My Day-Timer was empty. The Asian mindset was Sisyphus' boulder, up and back, up and back. Time to Asians was circular. Time was an illusion. Time was Borges' man dreaming he was a butterfly dreaming he was a man.

I had to walk twenty minutes in the heat to get to the party. My sandals were caked in dust. Perspiration dripped down my back. I looked in the bathroom mirror and ran the gold combs back through my hair, adjusting the set. The sun had streaked the dull brown color to auburn. The red polish on my finger nails was chipped. In another lifetime, polish would last a week. I applied a different shade of lipstick and dashed Joy on my wrists and bare waist. A red and gold wood carving stolen from a burned Buddhist temple hung crooked over the mirror. I straightened the antique and opened the door to leave my welcomed retreat.

Peter and Allyson Turner's house, an A-frame Swiss chalet with a vaulted ceiling, walls of glass on three sides, was a misprision in Udorn. Hendrix's "Purple Haze" blaring from the stereo, a misprision in Udorn. Earlier in the evening, I stood on the edge of the patio, clutching my purse, my jaws clinched, feeling a misprision without my husband, a misprision in a dress that barely covered my ass. We were all misprisions in Udorn. Air America was not here.

Single men, Thai girlfriends, Company couples, Red Cross donut dollies, CIA spooks without names — all crowded into the living room, their conversations, oppugn threads wafting to the ceiling, refracted fragments against the glass walls — I could use some of that punta. Mother fuckin' goddamned dink. His bloody Jap flaps and snake piss. The notion of privacy is twentieth century. Not Nietzsche. The smoke was so thick I couldn't see the fuckin' controls. Understand alien culture? Bullshit Vico. Get fuckin' real, shithead. She was standing, crying, on Tu Do Street, wrapped in a bath sheet. I stood in the village chief's house, ready to leave. The chopper was nowhere in sight. I had to kill them. Inside, glass shattered against glass. Air America was here.

"Hi, doll. You're looking chic," Milton said to me as I left the bathroom. Milton was a pilot with Air America. He scooped me up like a rag doll, his huge smooth hands encircled my bare waist. Large circles were cut from each side of my silk hiphugger mini-dress.

Milton wore a sarong, wrapped and knotted over his hips. The turquoise batik flowed down his sexy lumbering thighs. He wore faded rubber flip flops, a gold Rolex and a double link gold ID bracelet from Laos, his name written in Hebrew.

"You're looking fine yourself, wild man." I kissed him on the cheek.

Milton Greenberg, Merk and I arrived in SÃ i-Gon, 1968, with Peter and Allyson Turner. This past fall the Company had transferred all the chopper pilots to Udorn to fly in Laos. The pay was better. The flying more dangerous. The stress immeasurable.

"Kay, you be my tee lock while Merkel's gone." His face relaxed into a youthful grin. He'd moved in with his Thai girlfriend so my husband and I could rent his small bungalow until we found our own house.

"Milt, you know I don't cook, don't do windows, and spend money like there's no tomorrow."

"That's okay. I like my women expensive." He smiled. "Your Lobster Thermidor's edible." His beefy fingers grazed my nose in a mock punch. "Can't blame an old man for asking."

My friend Allyson walked downstairs from the children's room. I was relieved to see someone else I knew. She hugged me and brushed my cheek with a kiss.

"Sorry not to see you sooner. Ginny cornered me the minute I got here. I think she's after my husband's body."

Ginny's boyfriend Jacques was also a pilot. They had a key club once a month where couples threw keys in a circle and round robin fucked. The only party of theirs Merk and I had attended was a dinner party. Ginny had worn a tacky chiffon dress and no underwear. I was more shocked that she sat with her legs apart announcing the fact. The inexpensive Thai silk miniskirt she wore tonight covered her broad hips. I could see she had on underwear. The blouse neckline was cut low to the waist showing her breasts. She needed a better tailor. Her journalism degree from Yale and her body were wasted on Jacques. He had money but no class. Picking his teeth and fondling Ginny's breasts bothered me more than the fact that he kept a woman in Udorn and a wife in Bangkok. My feelings for Ginny were ambiguous. I was both repulsed and attracted. Her intelligence and recklessness were enviable but she failed in the boyfriend department.

Allyson laughed. A crooked eyetooth gave her a pixie expression. "I know the feeling. She's always chasing Peter. Glad you could come. You're looking smashing, as always." "JC says, 'Keep 'em guessing.' I try to oblige." The dress was less revealing than the French bikini I wore at the club. Merk bought the skimpy "string" on our honeymoon in Tijuana. "I love your dress, but it would never do for me."

Allyson, a petite five feet, wore a low-cut spaghetti-strap sundress with a built in bra. "Whenever I grow up, I'm going to have bosoms like all the other mothers," I said.

Milton rolled his eyes, drank the remaining half of his Ba Muoi Ba, and left us to join the group of kickers and pilots in the living room.

"Your figure — five five and a hundred pounds — I'll never see. Have a few more cha gios and nuoc mam."

"You know you've been here a long time when you love fermented fish sauce." I caught Chi Hai's attention and gestured that I wanted another bourbon and coke. "Your Chi Hai's egg rolls are delicious."

Allyson and I were different yet complementary, like Asian yin and yang. She was a housewife and the mother of three young children. I was an unemployed teacher and childless. She was easygoing. I was uptight. Both of us, however, were confident enough to walk several steps behind our men.

Chi Hai brought my drink.

"Kop cum mock, cai." I bowed and took the drink. "When will Peter be home?"

"Tonight, but you know how that goes."

Pilots were at the mercy of the Company. The Customer said, "Go," and the men went. They flew days and nights in hazardous conditions. They took cargo in and out of war zones. Live bodies and dead bodies, rice bags and body bags were shuffled in and shoved out. Information was stenciled and toe tagged. Air America's motto — anything, anytime, anywhere.

Allyson and I walked through the crowded living room. More couples, pilots, mechanics, kickers I didn't know sat on rattan sofas and chairs. Three gold elephants from Thanh Ley's antique store in Sài-Gon formed the base of a coffee table. The three tails intermingled under the party bricolage. Empty bottles of Ba Muoi Ba were scattered around the glass top. A Chiang Mai ashtray was filled with cigarette butts and joints. I was jealous of Allyson and Peter's house, their furniture, their antiques, their children. I couldn't wait to move and decorate a new house and start a family.

Allyson and I walked out to the patio.

The night was comfortable because the rainy season hadn't arrived. It wasn't humid or sweltering. Poinsettias scattered around the manicured yard gave the feeling that it was Christmas, not February.

I told Allyson the story Ginny had told me earlier tonight, about the newest wife to arrive in Udorn. "The wife had several children — two in diapers and one in first grade. A kamoy had broken into her house. The wife shot him in the chest. Dead. And dragged his body into the house, just like the Company said to. Then they came and took away the body. 'Could you do that?' Ginny had said to me. I told her, 'If a kamoy came into my house, I'd shoot him in the balls.'"

Allyson laughed.

"How do you cope with Peter's being gone? I'm lost without teaching, but the school doesn't have a position. I feel like a burden to Merk. I know he worries about my adjusting to another move."

This admission of concern, even to my closest friend, was a huge risk for me. Some wives couldn't cope. The mother of one of my first grade students in Viêt-Nàm had a nervous breakdown. The Vietnamese police found her drunk, wrapped in a bath towel outside the Caravell Hotel on Tu Do Street. After almost two years, I had adjusted to living in Sài-Gon, but in Udorn I felt useless.

"Don't be such a Puritan. Enjoy being a lady of leisure. You'll be busy enough after your first baby comes."

"I wish I were pregnant, but we can't take our home leave in May if I'm too far along. I hate being twenty-six and not having children. Merk hates being thirty and not owning a home, but you know his ten-year-plan — early retirement."

I thought of Merk's statement, that he felt safe, now that he had "insurance" — a Rolex and a gold ID bracelet from Vientiane. I told him the Pathet Lao will cut off your hands and take your jewelry and put your fingers in their joss bags. Allyson's husband didn't have a Rolex or a gold ID. They had a home in upper state New York for their retirement.

"Merk is happily married. Over here, that's no small feat."

"I hope he's happy."

"He's up-country writing poetry to you, and the other galoofs are out drinking and whoring."

Someone inside put on the Beetles' song "Yesterday."

Another glass broke in the living room. "You're a mother fuckin' liar."

"I'm sorry to unload on you," my knuckles tight around my glass. "Sometimes I feel like it was a mistake to come to Udorn."

"Where else could you have so much fun — telephones and toilets that never work, cockroaches the size of grasshoppers, and a rainy season to cool off the dust."

"And Company cocktail parties to replace absentee husbands and your own person wat."

A red and gold miniature temple mounted on a post by the gate held garlands of white flowers. The scent of jasmine wafted through the yard.

"How do you rate that?"

"Too bad I'm not a Buddhist. It'd be more convenient than going to mass every Sunday," Allyson said.

"I became a Buddhist when I lived in California." I bit down on an ice cube.

"All the nuts roll to the West Coast. I ought to know. That's where I was raised."

"I was teaching school in Garden Grove and living with my aunt."

Aunt Thelma would love Asia, its mores and its decadence. Widowed young, she drank and swore more than I did. She declined marriage proposals, raised a doctor, a syndicated news commentator, and cared for a quadriplegic son for over twenty-five years. She was my mentor. Before my illness, I'd been following in her footsteps, drinking and living fast. This dichotomy, an obsession with perfection and scurrilous profanities, drove my friends crazy. That and my schizoid line of thinking. In the heat, I felt like my life was beginning to unravel.

"One of my student's parents invited me to study Zen. Mom and Dad and Merk didn't disapprove. I have my beads, my scroll, and my O-bon."


"Ancestor worship. Ironically, I end up in the land of Buddha."

Allyson's husband Peter drove up. He sat immobile, dragged one leg from the car, then the other. I wondered why he wasn't carrying his flight bag. I knew a pilot's fight bag held maps and updated modifications to get in and out of hot landing zones. It was as valuable as his unauthorized M16. Pilots teased Merk for his SOP, "standard operating procedure," peppering Tabasco sauce on everything, cold C rations in the field and hot food at the Club.

I waved, glad that Peter was home to join the party. Merk would never admit it, but Peter had become the brother he never had.

Peter approached me. He was hot and sweaty, dressed in Company greys. It was strange, he didn't walk over to Allyson, give her the obligatory kiss on the cheek.

Peter was the antithesis of Merk who kissed me for any reason, leaving the table to fix a drink at the bar or leaving the house to wash the car in the front yard. He held my hand wherever we were, in church, the movies, the supermarket. He never came home without flowers, a poem he'd written to me, a description of a sunset he'd seen without me. He ordered me sexy gowns from Saks and forgave me when I chewed out his ass. He was tender like my father.

Peter came closer, his eyes distant. He put out his arms, embraced me, his voice falling to a whisper. "Merk's been shot dow-n." He shuddered, put his hands over his eyes and struggled to be calm. He began to cry. I put my arms around the form towering over me. I felt compelled to comfort him. He was so pathetic and out of control. Were people staring at us? I hadn't noticed others' reactions. It wasn't real. I knew I'd wake up in a moment.

Peter stopped crying. His fingers pressed into my shoulders.

"He was flying at Xieng Khouang."

Peter's hair was sweaty and stuck to his forehead. Merk's baby fine hair hadn't begun to thin. He constantly brushed the hair from his eyes, his pale blue eyes.

"Let's get Kay's things," Allyson said. "She can stay with us tonight."

Peter gripped my arm, and Allyson held my hand. They led me away from the party.

I crossed the patio and leaned beneath the arched gate. My forehead hit the low overhang, but the pain didn't register. Cool quietness, a peace, wrapped around me. I was in shock, a character in a play, standing apart from the pretended role she played. I would soon step into another scene.

I slid into the back seat of the Turner's car. How could I never talk to Merk again? How could I live without him? The smiling nurse, the showers, the small paper container with three pills, the lacquer smell in the OT room ever present in my mind. How will I cope alone? I shivered in the heat as fear crept over me. In the darkness, the womblike safety away from judgment and disapproval, away from pretending to be the perfect wife, I allowed myself silent, dispassionate tears. If you don't touch the pain, it isn't real. Rise above the turmoil, and go forward, the same cool nature my mother showed to the world. There are no accidents. Joss guides your life. I will not leave you alone.

The three of us drove on in silence, strange optimistic silence. Somewhere in the back of my mind, there was the shimmering of a crack. Small. Quiet. Cloisonné weblike cracks. Yet a hair-like thread spun as sugar over a flame, a thread of spiderweb neutrianic strength.

She was in the car. The car was moving down the dirt road toward the bungalow. Voices in the front seat were far away. Yes, she could see the mountains, the clouds, the blue cornflowers, the luna moth, her image in the mirror. She could see dark circles under her eyes. She was reading a novel. The words were slipping off the page. She was writing her mother. The handwriting was perfect. There was no electricity. The man's hair was thinning. His fingernails had dirt under them. The gold comb fell. Dust covered the woman's clean feet. Sweat ran down her back. This was the third bath. The water was cool. She ran back. Something was forgotten. The stairs were steep. The sandals were wrong. The old gold pair were perfect. It rained today. The lacquer won't dry. The nurse held three pills. The shower was cold. The little boy and girl in the painting held hands. Beside them were flowers and a red bird. Lights were shining in the shacks. Poverty. Pigs. Chickens. Ducks. Muddy klong water. The children were riding water buffaloes. She was drunk, throwing the bouquet, ripping the phone from the wall. She'll be good. Perfect. She was waving good-bye. Yes, she could see his hat, jaunty on his head. Yes, she could see his pale blue eyes. The sun fell. Yes. She said, Yes.




She said, Yes.

"His body will be back tomorrow."

She knew the Achi tribe talked only when they were sick.

Yes, I know. It'll be fine. Just listen. They don't write their stories down.

Peter parked the car in the driveway. Allyson opened the back door.

She clutched something in her hands and straightened the seams of her dress. She crossed the dirt yard and walked up the fifteen steps. She opened the door and went in. The unfinished copy of Failsafe and the letter to her mother lay on the table, both suspended in limbo. She forced herself to think the words: Merk's been shot down. But then she followed with calming thoughts: Maybe the Company isn't telling me the truth. Maybe he's only away on a mission. He has his bracelet and his watch. He can buy his freedom.

Dang and Vee Chi, the couple who worked for the Merkels, came in, surprised that Madame Merkel was home.


Excerpted from "Z.O.S."
by .
Copyright © 2018 Kay Merkel Boruff.
Excerpted by permission of Black Rose Writing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Recommended Read,
Dedication-3 West,
1-The Cocktail Party,
3-The Funeral,
4-Phoenix Study Group,
5-The Captain's Party,
6-Straight Arrow Kisses,
7-The Emerald Buddha,
8-Con-Son Island,
9-The Snake,
10-The Plane Ride,
11-The Synecdoche,
12-The Wall,
13-The Home Place,
Epilogue-Pastiche v Bricolage,
Suggested Reading,
About the Author,
BRW Info,

Customer Reviews

Z.O.S.: A Memoir 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was mesmerized by this book. For someone who did not have a close family member in the Vietnam war, it was certainly an eye opener for me to be able to see it from a wife's point of view, especially since the author lived there with her husband. The author does an excellent job of introducing the reader to the people of Vietnam and to the country itself. I felt her pain when she learned Merk had been shot down. It is a love story, beautifully written.
cristieu More than 1 year ago
The author did a stellar job of writing about the human toll of loss during the Vietnam War. The details in the writing made it easy to picture that time in history.