Dr. Z and Matty Take Telegraph

by Ari Rosenschein

Dr. Z and Matty Take Telegraph by Ari Rosenschein It’s the late ’90s—the final days before smartphones and the internet changed the teenage landscape forever. Zack and his mother have moved from Tempe to Berkeley for a fresh start, leaving behind Zack’s father after a painful divorce. A natural athlete, Zack makes the water polo team which equals social acceptance at his new school. Yet he’s more drawn to Matthias, a rebellious skater on the fringes, who introduces him to punk rock, record stores, and the legendary Telegraph Avenue.

As their friendship intensifies, Matthias’s behavior reminds Zack of his absent dad, driving a wedge between him and his mother. Complicating matters is Zaylee, a senior who boosts Zack’s confidence but makes him question his new buddy, Matthias. Faced with all these changes, Zack learns that when life gets messy, he might have to become his own best friend.

Dr. Z and Matty Take Telegraph is about how a friendship can challenge who we are, how we fit in, and where we’re going.

“Dr. Z and Matty Take Telegraph is a keenly and compassionately observed coming-of-age story that glows with truth and yearning. Reading this book feels the way falling in love and making a new best friend alight on the young and hungry heart.”
— Jeff Zentner, award-winning author of In the Wild Light




General Fiction


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Chapter One

The Unknown World

It’s as good a day as any to leave our past in the dust. Mom swears this move to Berkeley is gonna be a fresh start for both of us, but for me, it’s more like a shot at a new identity. As we speed down the highway, I feel a growing distance from Dad, my parent’s divorce, and everything else—but mostly from my old self.

We started our road trip bright and early in Tempe with milkshake sugar buzzes and just crash-landed at a Travelodge in Riverside with sun headaches and gas station food bellies.

“Your father would’ve done the whole drive in one shot,” Mom says, slamming the trunk of our Acura Integra.

She’s right. The entire trip should only take about twelve hours, but Mom decided to break it up into two days.

I’m already dragging my suitcase towards the beckoning lights of the motel. “Let’s not talk about that guy,” I yell over my shoulder, but the wheels on gravel drown me out. As far as Dad is concerned, he can stay in the desert—Scottsdale, Santa Fe, wherever his wanderlust leads him. He made his choices, now he has to live with them.

Outside the Travelodge lobby, under fluorescent bulbs in the balmy early evening, I wait while Mom gets our keys from the night staff. By the time our room greets us with crisp sheets, a Pine-Sol-fresh bathroom, and loud air-conditioning, I’m ready to pass out. The last thing I remember before I drop dead is Mom’s voice asking the front desk about a wake-up call.

When I eventually awaken, it’s morning, but you wouldn’t know it from our pitch-black room. I slept right through the phone ringing. I roll out of bed, pull on some gym shorts and a tank top, and lace up my dirty Nike Air Max 95s. Mom’s not around, so she’s feasting on the bounty of baked goods already.

Since there’s some privacy, I lift my shirt in front of the full-length motel mirror. This is a ritual for when I’m alone, but Mom’s caught me a few times. My sixteenth birthday passed in July, but the broad shoulders and muscle gains from wrestling last year make people think I’m older. Though most of the time, I still feel like a kid in my head.

Right now, I’m hoping my reflection will reassure me. Nope. Pecs, delts, and biceps are acceptable but nowhere near where I want them to be. As soon as I started lifting in eighth grade gym class, it became an obsession. Coincidentally, that was when Mom and Dad split up.

The mirror also reveals that my hair is most definitely not happening. I’ve been letting my freshman flattop grow out this summer, so brown tufts are sticking out in half a dozen directions. It does this when I don’t tame it down with gel. Whatever. There’s no one at the Travelodge to impress.

Standing in the breakfast line makes me remember all the good times the Tempe High wrestling team had during out-of-town tournaments. Beds we didn’t have to make, cable TV, and all the orange juice and muffins we could eat. This trip is different. It almost feels like we’re escaping rather than moving to a new state. Maybe we are.

Turns out I was wrong about there being no one to impress at the motel. A few tables over, I see a family of five with three kids. Two of them are misbehaving twins, and the third is a tall redhead in a pink sweatsuit who looks about my age. She catches me looking but turns away. I push my hair down. Damn it. Should have worn something cooler.

After loading up my breakfast plate, I pick a table. While shoveling food in my mouth with one hand, I open The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells, a book on the Berkeley High tenth-grade summer reading list. That’s one valuable thing Dad taught me; Always be in a book.

“Six hours until we begin our new existence, kiddo,” Mom says, interrupting my reading. She’s returned with a plate piled high with thick pancakes, fluffed-up eggs, and buttery toast.

“That’s a bold statement.” I flip a page.

Mom licks some jam from her index finger. “Well, fortune favors the bold.”

“Who’s bold in this scenario?” I say extra loud. Hopefully, the redhead hears and is dazzled by my maturity.

“You and me, buddy. You and me.” She notices the family of five. “Has someone captured my angst-ridden son’s attention?”

“Jeez, Mom. Could you broadcast that to the whole room?”

“Sorry, sorry.”

She digs into her food, and I am grateful for the quiet so I can try to catch the redhead’s eye again between snippets of H.G. Wells. No success. You see, I’m a hopeless romantic, prone to falling in love several times a day, an hour even. I’ve also never had a real girlfriend except for Janie Mullins at Archery camp the summer before seventh grade. She broke it off before school started—said I was too needy.

Mom scoots her seat back. “You ready to hit the road?”

“Yup, time to meet the left-wing radicals in Cali.”

“Zack, all kinds of people live in Berkeley.”

“You know that was only to rile you up.”

My eighth-grade history teacher told our class that Berkeley was “home to more nutsos per capita than anywhere in the US.” He followed that nugget up by saying he expected many of us would end up there. Needless to say, both my liberal parents disagreed with his curriculum, especially the gung-ho way he taught us about the Vietnam War and how much he praised Ronald Reagan.

I stand and push my chair in, stretch my arms over my head to show off some muscle tone, and shoot the redheaded girl one last hopeful look as we walk out. We’re ships in the night, as I head off into the unknown world known as The Golden State.

Today is all cloudless blue skies and dried-up farmland. The Cali highway is drab compared to Arizona’s crimson rock formations and towering cacti. Mom is rapping along to “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls—not my favorite song in the world.

With a leg on the dashboard, I crack open The Invisible Man, turning pages with one hand and lifting my trusty ten-pound dumbbell with the other. Deviating from my exercise routine freaks me out.

Mom turns the radio down just as ads start to invade the car. “I hope you’re not too bummed out by your new school’s lack of decent wrestling.”

“It’ll be fine.”

“I know it’s an adjustment on top of an adjustment. Another example of how mature you are.”

“Whatever you say, Mom.” Who knows? Maybe I’ll be like “the stranger” in Wells’s novel: the new guy everyone tries to figure out. A mystery man. Dad for sure saw himself that way—an outlaw intellectual with a poetry book, the guy who read me excerpts from The Prince by Machiavelli as a bedtime story.

Not that the apple fell too far from the tree; I’m pretty reclusive. Back home, people knew me as a good wrestler and student, but I never let anyone get too close. I had plenty of acquaintances but no best buddies or even a friend group. Maybe I’ve got trust issues or something.

After an hour of reading and lifting, I grow nauseous, and I drop H.G. into the black hole between the seat and the door. “Doesn’t it feel weird that we’ve never been inside our new house?”

Mom turns the radio down. She’s gone quiet, which means my question irked her. In the two years since Dad bailed on us, I’ve perfected the art of getting under her skin. I’m not proud of this ability—just good at it.

“The HR woman from the university swears the neighborhood is fabulous.” Some frizzy hair escapes from behind her ear, and she pushes it back. “They always set up housing for new professors and their families.”

“Our family of two, you mean.”

Mom turns the radio back up, louder now. The signal is crackly—we’ve lost the station. A few minutes pass. “And just so you aren’t disappointed, remember, it’s an apartment, not a house. That’s what we could afford in the Berkeley market.”

“Doesn’t ‘apartment’ mean we’re downgrading?”

She ignores me and scans the dial. “Looks like we’re in a dead zone. Do we need to go over why we’re moving again?”

“Only if you want to, Mom.”

“Opportunities like this for female professors don’t come along often—”

“You’ve told me.”

“I’ll have a chance at tenure,” she continues like she’s rehearsing in the mirror. “UC Berkeley holds real weight in the world of academia. Plus, we both need a more enlightened environment.” She cranks the AC. “I sure do.”

“Mom, like I’ve said ten million times, I’m just as happy to get away from Arizona as you are. Too many memories—mostly bad ones.”

“I love these lyrics,” Mom says, changing the subject. And away she goes, bellowing off-key while patting the steering wheel to “If It Makes You Happy.” After stopping for a Slurpee in Bakersfield, I pass out to the sound of her humming along to “Macarena.” God, that song is horrible.

I emerge from my car nap sweaty and dazed, with my head pressed against the window. The late-day rays warm my forehead as I sit up. Between sips of warm Slurpee, I watch two Porsches pass us. “California plates.”

Mom smiles like I’m coming around to her plan at last.


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