A man, a woman, and a child negotiate their uneasy triangle in the days and weeks following 9/11.
"His briefcase sat beside the table like something yanked out of a landfill. He said there was a shirt coming down out of the sky."
A man, a woman, and a child negotiate their uneasy triangle in the days and weeks following 9/11.
"His briefcase sat beside the table like something yanked out of a landfill. He said there was a shirt coming down out of the sky."
A Japanese photographer examines the scene of the St. Valentine's Day massacre; a story from the author of The Black Hour.
"Was it the worst I’d seen? I turned to the camera, viewing the scene anew. Four men lay in a row, as though they had been tucked into a large bed. One slept at their feet, face down. The last hunched on his knees at a round-backed wooden chair. Blood ran toward the center of the room. Later that day when I returned to the newsroom, I would release the image from the machine in my hands, like a dragon from a cage. The city would see the blood, black, and no one would remember that someone—call him Togo or call him Fujita, the name will not be printed—had stood in the dust of men’s bones to face the dragon so that they did not have to."
A chance encounter with a movie star on an airplane.
"Roy Spivey shifted in his seat, waking. I quickly shut my own eyes, and then slowly opened them, as if I, too, had been sleeping. Oh, but he hadn’t quite opened his yet. I shut mine again and right away opened them, slowly, and he opened his, slowly, and our eyes met, and it seemed as if we had woken from a single sleep, from the dream of our entire lives. Me, a tall but otherwise undistinguished woman; he a distinguished spy, but not really, just an actor, but not really, just a man, maybe even just a boy."
An unsettling story of murder and telemarketing; originally published in 2007 and recently anthologized in The New Black, edited by Richard Thomas.
"There is a noise—the noise teeth might make biting hurriedly into melon—punctuated by a series of screams. It makes me want to tear the headset away from my ear. And then I realize I am not alone. Someone is listening. I don't know how—a certain displacement of sound as the phone rises from the floor to an ear—but I can sense it."
A brief history of the world and the late 1990s Chicago Bulls.
"This is the version of him that has no future or past. No ex-wife or kids, no off-court life. He lives in the United Center. He doesn't fuss with food or water. There are whole months in the air, between the floor and the rim. This moment of quiet and loud gets stuck on repeat. Michael Jordan shoots, swishes, but a lot of times he just stands, lit. An occasional swivel. Rotates like a figurine. Television size. He could dribble his basketball in the palm of your hand."
A former student and high school coach travel to California to kidnap the coach's daughter, an adult film actress.
"I would watch her green eyes, the smile that always closed them. I remember her face lit by a Bunsen burner's quivering flame, laughter bursting from her like confetti. Once, I saw her slap Junior Wendell's hand away from her skirt, and I felt the confinement of a teenage girl. The way her mind was full of longings—a knot of emotions constantly rising to the surface, washing over her, carrying her through a harrowed suburban field, past the shopping mall and long acres of bluestem grass, into the back seats of cars, truckbeds."
Sons and fathers, fish and mud.
"Us brothers, we each of us take turns fingering that word father so that our father might see it, so that he might rise up towards, a river-bottom fish swimming up towards the light of the moon: a fish leaping up, breaking through the sky of the river, opening up its fish mouth to take a bite of the moon."
A child's difficult obsession with a toy cement mixer.
It was a simple toyno batteries. It had a colored rope, with a yellow handle, and you held the handle and walked pulling the cement mixer behind you—rather like a wagon, although it was nowhere near the size of a wagon. For Christmas, I'm positive it was. It was when I was the age where you can, as they say, 'hear voices' without worrying that something is wrong with you. I 'heard voices' all the time as a small child. I was either five or six, I believe. (I’m not very good with numbers.)
Women are swayed by the moon's pull in a world dominated by consumerism.
"It was a depressing sight. We went out in the crowds, our arms laden with parcels, coming and going from the big department stores that were open day and night, and while we were scanning the neon signs that climbed higher and higher up the skyscrapers and notified us constantly of new products that had been launched, we’d suddenly see it advancing, pale amid those dazzling lights, slow and sick, and we could not get it out of our heads that every new thing, each product that we had just bought, could similarly wear out, deteriorate, fade away, and we would lose our enthusiasm for running around buying things and working like crazy—a loss that was not without consequences for industry and commerce."
Childhood memories of occupied Manila, 1944.
"My new school was a brick building on a once-busy street of banks and offices about a mile outside Intramuros. Like everything else, the school was overseen by the Japanese. We wore uniforms: khaki shorts, white shirts, white sneakers. Each morning we lined up in the schoolyard, a small fenced-in square of concrete, and while exercise instructions blared from speakers propped in an open window above us, we followed: first bowing to the east, toward the Land of the Rising Sun, next stretching, then running and jumping in place. "
In this 2005 story from MacArthur winner Karen Russell, two brothers search for the ghost of their drowned sister.
"Olivia disappeared on a new-moon night. It was exactly two years, or twenty-four new moons, ago. Wallow says that means that tonight is Olivia’s unbirthday, the anniversary of her death. It’s weird: our grief is cyclical, synched with the lunar cycles. It accordions out as the moon slivers away. On new-moon nights, it rises with the tide."
A woman encounters a strange pair of missionaries.
"'Are you suffering some anguish?' the man asked abruptly. When I heard this, I realized that he was probably a member of some sort of cult. Proselytizers from these groups often pick days when the weather is bad, and they often bring children with them—which never fails to throw me. Still, there was something about these two that felt different from those I had encountered before. In fact, there was something that set them apart from anyone else who had ever come to my door."
A poisoned witch sets forth a lavish plan for revenge and renewal.
"The inside of the catsuit is soft and a little sticky against Small’s skin. When he puts the hood over his head, the world disappears. He can see only the vivid corners of it through the eyeholes—grass, gold, the cat who sits cross-legged, stitching up her sack of skins—and air seeps in, down at the loosely sewn seam, where the skin droops and sags over his chest and around the gaping buttons. Small holds his tails in his clumsy fingerless paw, like a handful of eels, and swings them back and forth to hear them ring. The sound of the bells and the sooty, cooked smell of the air, the warm stickiness of the suit, the feel of his new fur against the ground: he falls asleep and dreams that hundreds of ants come and lift him and gently carry him off to bed."
Leo Gursky, author and former locksmith, reflects on mortality and the past.
"When they were ten, he asked her to marry him. When they were eleven, he kissed her for the first time. When they were thirteen, they got into a fight and for three terrible weeks they didn’t talk. When they were fifteen, she showed him the scar on her left breast. Their love was a secret they told no one. He promised her he would never love another girl as long as he lived. 'What if I die?' she asked. 'Even then,' he said. For her sixteenth birthday, he gave her a Polish-English dictionary and together they studied the words. 'What’s this?' he’d ask, tracing his index finger around her ankle, and she’d look it up. 'And this?' he’d ask, kissing her elbow. ''Elbow'! What kind of word is that?' And then he’d lick it, making her giggle. When they were seventeen, they made love for the first time, on a bed of straw in a shed. Laterwhen things had happened that they never could have imaginedshe wrote him a letter that said, 'When will you learn that there isn’t a word for everything?'"
An ornithologist and a cellist converse desperately while trapped in a crashing plane.
Somewhere over the Bay of Fundy the cabin lights began to flicker. The video monitors went dead (they’d been showing a map of the Atlantic, with our speed, altitude, and outside temperature). The cellist looked up for a moment, her lips still moving with the sheet music. Then the cabin fell entirely dark, and a strange silvery light poured into the plane through each oval portal and lathed the aisles in a luminous, oddly peaceful glow.
A complex look at an act of small town violence.
"There wasn’t time to think about it, though, because Jim had already opened his car door and was running up the concrete incline toward where the two men were sleeping, and there was two of them and one of him, so I kicked off my slides in the floorboard and grabbed hold of my blackjack and run up the hill after him."
A giant talking frog enlists the help of a timid Japanese man in saving Toyko from a massive earthquake.
"I'm an absolutely ordinary guy. Less than ordinary. I'm going bald, I'm getting a potbelly, I turned 40 last month. My feet are flat. The doctor told me recently that I have diabetic tendencies. It's been three months or more since I last slept with a woman—and I had to pay for it. I do get some recognition within the division for my ability to collect on loans, but no real respect. I don't have a single person who likes me, either at work or in my private life. I don't know how to talk to people, and I'm bad with strangers, so I never make friends. I have no athletic ability, I'm tone-deaf, short, phimotic, nearsighted—and astigmatic. I live a horrible life. All I do is eat, s1eep and shit. I don't know why I'm even living. Why should a person like me have to be the one to save Tokyo?"
An aging wrestler reflects as he prepares to wrestle an old nemesis: a black bear.
"Emperor Jones Number Two vs. Dave 'Warthog' Ferrari in 'The War 2 Settle The Score' was the main event of that evening's Wrestling Road Show. It was the only match on the card that featured any animals. Times were changing, Friar had told me. The draw at the gate had been better than Friar expected; he'd sold more than a hundred tickets in advance and there were now twice that many people crammed into the small gymnasium. When commissioning the gym, the Legionnaires decided to have a stage built at one end, for medal ceremonies or other such honors. That was where Friar had his ring set up. Normally you work in the round, but this set up had it's advantages for a promotion like Friar's. It was easy to bring animals in and out and people wouldn't get too nervous seeing how they had to be wrangled from their cages when it was done behind a curtain."
The opening of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom; the complexities and relationships of a wholly American couple.
"For all queries, Patty Berglund was a resource, a sunny carrier of sociocultural pollen, an affable bee. She was one of the few stay-at-home moms in Ramsey Hill and was famously averse to speaking well of herself or ill of anybody else. She said that she expected to be 'beheaded' someday by one of the windows whose sash chains she’d replaced. Her children were 'probably' dying of trichinosis from pork she’d undercooked. She wondered if her 'addiction' to paint-stripper fumes might be related to her “never” reading books anymore. She confided that she’d been 'forbidden' to fertilize Walter’s flowers after what had happened 'last time.'"
After a one night stand, a musican unknowingly takes a piece of a woman's soul.
"The girl tried to feel contempt for the boy, too, but it is hard to have contempt for a person who’s made off with part of your soul. She went about her life—her job at a used-clothing store, her once-a-week volunteer stint at the Outreach Center for homeless youth, her evenings out with friends. Outwardly, she did not appear much changed by the misalignment; the first layer of her thoughts was more or less the same, logical and competent enough to get her through the day.
A woman views a breakup through the lens of a condition.
"She would be asked to do interviews with local news channels and it would become known that she was crying because of her virus. There would be marathons and benefits for finding the cure to the unlovable virus, which she would become a spokeswoman for, and many other people would speak out about being UNL-positive. There would be ribbons on cars. There would be t-shirts. There would be pins. There would be a lot of people, everywhere, saying to their friends, 'I’m sorry you’re unlovable and that I can’t love you in the way you want, the way that would cure you.'"
After a gardening mishap, a meticulous, harried family man finds himself being replaced by a grotesque clone; from the author of Red Moon.
"He, the mud man, stands in the middle of a shallow crater. His joints issue a series of blistery pops like pitch pockets boiling out of a log thrown on a fire. Clods of dirt fall off him and patter the garden, freckling the daffodils and hostas. He has all the calm of a tree, the breeze rushing around him, bending the loose vines and leaves hanging off him like hair, carrying a smell like worms washed across a sidewalk after a hard rain. The mud man seems to be staring at Thomas, though it is hard to tell as his eyes are hollows with black scribbles in them, like the insides of a rotten walnut."
A potential assassin observes a wave of Zimbabwean refugees.
"They plunge into the Limpopo, sometimes drowning, and, if they survive, rise like mists from the water to cut holes in the border fence into his country. Then they plough through the jungle, and then eventually onto this very road that runs in front of his house. Headed to Jo’burg. What puzzles him, what he would really like to find out, is how they leave no footprints on the earth, make no mark, and drop nothing. And how it is that when they walk, like whispering, they do not cast shadows on the earth."
A young bartender attempts to make sense of where his life is going.
"A lot of people proclaim a need for independence, for space. And while I could attest to that, more than anything, I was a tiger dying amongst the sprawling jungle. I longed for a cage of my own. My apartment, a two bedroom overlooking the gentrification of Philadelphia, had a décor of my design. I picked out the furniture, including the Ikea futon I dubbed “death trap,” and gave every trinket and knick-knack their designated spots: high school diploma and Bachelor’s degree over my black computer desk, novelty shot-glasses along the top of my bookcase and various Buddha figurines, from flea markets in South Jersey, on my dresser and nightstands. And of course, my vinyl collection, a two hundred piece of my heart that took me to the dustiest, most allergenic music stores on the East Coast."
A man's partner disappears, leaving only a movie recommendation as a clue.
"The phrase 'vanishing life style' catches Jack's attention. He wonders if vanishing is a motif in the movie, a theme echoed in the love story between Costner and Bening, prompting the odd question: What if I were to vanish?"
A woman from the past emerges with an offer.
"She was tall with a long, elegant nose like a thoroughbred. What people look like isn't the same as what you remember. She had been coming out of a restaurant one time, down some steps long after lunch in a silk dress that clung around the hips and the wind pulled against her legs. The afternoons, he thought for a moment."
With two children in tow, a woman prepares to witness her lover's execution by lethal injection.
"Lyell gave her a shove, then she gave him a shove, and they raced to the guest bedrooms and put on their nicest outfits. Twenty minutes later they sat at Cornelia’s dining room table, waiting for her to speak. She inhaled deeply. Her fine blond hair was wrenched from her scalp into a tight, high-sitting barrette. 'Where we are about to go,' Cornelia whispered, 'must remain a secret. Can you children remember that?' They nodded. 'Today, we embark on a farewell mission,' she said, 'a goodbye mission for a friend who will enter the other side—which is to say, children, that he will be killed.'"
A woman who works in road maintenance reflects on the dangers and pleasures of temperatures.
"37.5at this temperature, the yearly tally of accidents officially due to inclement weather begins. This tally will only grow and grow."
A lonely woman's attraction to a waitress leads her to quiet social experiments.
"Odette had fallen in love with a waitress who was too good to be true. Odette thought the woman looked familiar and asked if they'd met somewhere. The waitress said, 'I've never even met myself. I don't know who you are, for sure.' Odette tried again the next weekend, made sure she was seated at an appropriate table. Still nothing."
Illicit lovers disrupt the laws of physics.
"We neared the chandelier and I grasped the base of it, its sparkles and gems flying around my face but I held on, something to keep us still, and his motion lifted me to the ceiling, laid my back against it. With my arms over my head grabbing the light fixture, tangled in crystals and cords, it was like I was on the ground, both arms tied to a radiator, and we finished that way, almost like things were normal."
A story of strange actions and potential love for a one-armed misanthrope.
" The next day it wasn't raining so hard, just a drizzle that faded in and out like bad reception. After lunch I did a little work on my fake arm. They need a lot more upkeep than you'd think—I had to oil the elbow cam, replace a couple of grommets, and adjust the socket to keep it from rubbing my stub raw. That rubbing wasn't much fun, but it was cupcakes compared to the phantom aches I got every so often. You've probably heard about them on television: just because you've lost a limb doesn't mean it can't hurt like a bitch where the limb used to be. I couldn't say which was worse—the pain itself or the way it reminds you of what you aren't anymore."
A man balances a lonely job and a lost love in a future universe where thousands of years can pass in the span of contemporary minutes.
"How will I get her to stay this time? I pull out the brochure for this place. It's yellowed and crumbling. The marketing slogan for the planet is at the top: It's Livable! The picture shows a human woman and a male Xorbite. The Xorbite is pointing at his main lung with a tentacle, as if to say, I am really enjoying this non-toxic nitrogen-based atmosphere! The previous version brochure had the woman holding a fish, until someone's mother sued the tourism bureau for false advertising claiming her son died because the picture misleadingly suggested that it was possible to catch fish here. The dead boy's mother won and the bureau had to change the brochure or stop printing it, but since the bureau has no funding, instead of retaking the picture, the bureau just touched up the image so that the woman now appears to be holding a football (or possibly a pizza) in one hand and giving the Xorbite a thumbs up with the other. The happily breathing Xorbite is giving her a tentacles-up sign as well."
Two B-movie directors compete for the talents of a reluctant actress.
"Real lifethat's what I wanted to play, but my only roles were Bat-Winged Pygmy Queen, Werewolf Girl, Two-Headed Bride of Two-Headed Dracula, Squid Motherall those monstrous girls that Checkers dreamed up just for me."
A lonely hotel waitress has a fling with a guest.
"Tonight, when the man hands over the tissue he asks Lori up to his room. He tells her he only wants to put his arms around her. Every time he sees her, he says, he longs to put his arms around her. Lori finishes her shift, counts and shares her tips, unties her apron and meets the man outside the bar. She wishes she didn't smell so much like hamburgers."
A confidence shared in a bathroom leads to an unlikely business alliance.
"She hesitates when she hears my voice and then she starts crying the way children do, in loud and furious spurts. I give her a minute or two to get it out of her system while I exit my stall to wash my hands. The soap is a soy and pomegranate concoction that’s very on trendeveryone is doing naturals and organics these days."
A man—one half of a costume reenacting a famous Times Square photograph—reflects upon love, loss, and using the bathroom.
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After a divorce and in the midst of uncertainty, a woman impulsively buys an old piano.
"And now, X could not even appreciate the simple pleasure of background noise, for she could not play. She sat at the bench and looked at the keys, depressing one here and there, listening to the soft gasps of noise that vibrated from the strings inside the Steinway. She tumbled a few notes together; they sounded like little coughs, a disease she was uncertain of how to cure. She ran her hand over the smooth ebony finish; it reminded her of her pediatric patients, bubbled mounds of clay cherubs who had not yet been pulled like taffy into their angled adulthood."
A woman attempts to find her own closure following losses on 9/11.
"The Rumson police, the Little Silver police, the Middletown police especially insisted, they’d already had funerals of their own and knew what to expect. The roads were cordoned off from the Sea Bright Bridge to the Avenue of Two Rivers and cars parked for a mile all the way down Rumson Road, women in black sling-backs climbing the rutted grass along the road, made the shortcut through the tennis club across the school yard to the gray shingle church, capacity four hundred, someone said a thousand stood inside and out to hear Father Jim say no words could gather the force he needed to say his prayer, they would all join him in silence. Kathleen in the choir loft, alone, sang “Danny Boy” for her brother, for her father, and the thousand beyond prayer, beyond tears, shook and trembled now."
After a tragic accident involving a rabid dog, grief drives citzens to extreme, illogical measures to prevent further occurrences.
"What I'm saying is, with no dogs and no cats, the chance that another father would have to carry his animal-murdered child into their home, where the child's mother sat, doing the bills, happy or something like happy for the last time in her life, happy until the instant she looked up and saw--what I guess I'm saying is, with no dogs and no cats, the chances of that happening to someone else (or to us again) went down to that very beautiful number of Zero. Which is why we eventually did have to enact our policy of sacrificing all dogs and cats who had been in the vicinity of the Village at the time of the incident."
From the latest winner of the National Book Award for Fiction: a former nun's infatuation with classical music leads to unexpected connections and actions.
" At any rate, she played Chopin. Played him in utter naturalness until the Mother Superior was forced to shut the cover to the keyboard and gently pull the stool away. Cecellia lifted the lid and played upon her knees. The poor scandalized dame dragged her from the keys. Cecellia crawled back. The Mother, at her wit's end, sank down and urged the young woman to pray. She herself spoke first in fear and then in certainty, saying that it was the very Devil who had managed to find a way to Cecellia's soul through the flashing doors of sixteenth notes. Her fears were confirmed when, not moments later, the gentle sister raised her arms and fists and struck the keys as though the instrument were stone and from the rock her thirst would be quenched. But only discord emerged."
A troubled loner finds the murdered body of a young woman and attempts to solve the mystery.
"In the garage, he lifts the lid of the chest freezer that sits against the far wall. He stares at the open space above the paper-wrapped bundles of venison, tries to guess if there’s enough room, then stacks the meat on the floor, makes piles of burger and steak and sausage until he’s sure. He goes out to the car and opens the back door. He lifts the girl, grunting as he gathers her into his arms like a child. He’s not as strong as he used to be, and she’s heavier than she looks, with all the water filling her lungs and stomach and intestinal tract. Even through her tank top he can see the way it bloats her belly like she’s pregnant. He’s careful with her as he lays her down in the freezer, careful as he brushes the hair out of her eyes again, as he holds her eyelids closed until he’s sure they’ll stay that way."
Memories of happiness and troubling behavior linger during a couple's vacation.
"He could hear nothing underwater but his breathing and the rise and fall of frothed waves. Sometimes Nora appeared in front of him or off to the side, but he couldn’t talk—only wave or point. She was beautiful, a streak of light in the water. He duck-dived and his breaths rumbled in the tube. He imagined the crew back on the boat. The whole trip he had noticed how people treated him differently, an Asian with a white wife in Australia, where they didn’t belong, even without knowing he had tried to choke her and she still refused to forgive him. The mask covered his nose and he breathed out of his mouth now like he did when he was trying to sleep."
A piece of shocking news and a terrible accident sends a husband on a chain reaction of consequence-laden impulses.
"Looking at the results, Dooley can’t be happy or relieved that Gracie has been spared a future of progressive hearing loss. The report says there’s a 99.9 percent chance that Toby Tidwell—when did he get tested?—is Gracie’s father. Dooley wants to go get fucking Toby Tidwell and string him up by the ankles. Bleed him like the pig he is. Toby Tidwell got busted up in a tank accident while practicing whatever people in the Army practice, so Dooley will have to wait till he gets out of Walter Reed to bust Toby up himself."
A series of sociological observations made while shopping at a Salvation Army.
" Sometimes, I'd wish that we were real friends, the other women in the store, and me. Then the glow would last a little longer, then we'd walk out arm in arm, our huge bundles floating light as down pillows as we sauntered down the street. We'd have our coffees and linger for a cigarette or two before going our separate ways, back to our apartments and all the riches a Saturday night in New York City could hold."
A Bosnian immigrant in Chicago undertakes some ramshackle detective work.
"Office 909 had a sign that read GREAT LAKES EYE and a black-and-white eye with long, upward-curling eyelashes. Pronek hesitated for a moment before knocking at the door--his fingers levitated, angled, in front of the eye. Pronek knocked using three of his knuckles, the glass shook perilously, then he opened the door and entered an empty waiting room. There was another door, closed, and there were magazines strewn on the few chairs, even on the musty floor, as if someone had searched through them all. The waiting room was lit by a thin-necked lamp in the corner, leaning slightly as if about to snap. A picture of an elaborate ocean sunset--somebody lit a match under the water--hung on the opposite wall. 'Acapulco,' it said in the lower right corner, 'where you want to dream.' Pronek stood in front of the picture, imagining Acapulco and all the pretty, tawny people there. It would be a good place to disappear for a while."
Small town acts of violence intersect with moments of despair and redemption.
"Roddy and I talked about it a couple of nights later in the lot of the Arby’s on route 15, and I told him that he was pretty damned lucky, after all. If he’d been cold-cocked by someone local it would have been all over the town in a matter of a week; since it was college kids who did it, all the locals could just say 'goddamn college kids' and forget it’d happened, and it wouldn’t come up again until someone got drunk enough to forget what they should and shouldn’t say. I don’t think I made him feel any better."
A delightfully strange and humorous imagining of Mitt Romney's thoughts during a massage.
"Something curdled inside him—he didn’t deserve this dig. Yes, he’d been busy lately, insanely busy, especially with those foreign-policy dopes, but he’d tried to remain attentive to his lady. He’d arranged this nice weekend for them. He’d canceled events, he’d canceled events that were scheduled months ago. Suddenly, he was impatient to get away from her, to find the remote and check on the day’s news. He hadn’t turned on the set since lunchtime yesterday, a gesture he’d hoped that she’d notice and appreciate, mostly because it came so hard to him."
Fears both real and imagined permeate a woman's affair with a married man.
"Ruthie often meets William at his office, which is only five minutes from the software company she works at in Reston and a good forty to fifty minutes from either of their houses and either of their other lives. She started going to him last year after waking up with an impacted molar. She likes his office with its little green awning out front, located in a brick office park area between an insurance agency and an optometrist, the professionally stenciled 'William Fairfield, D.D.S.' in silver letters on the front glass door."
A metaphorical tale of a wayward younger brother and his icy relationship with his siblings.
"The fifth brother, Joseph, was much younger. By the time he came of age, there were no comfortable rooms left for him, and so he was given the raw rooms in the mansion's newer wing. Joseph was a strange, solitary, somewhat frightening child, and although his brothers loved him, they were relieved to have him out of their hair. Joseph wished to be a gentleman like his brothers, but life was difficult in the raw wing of the mansion. The new wing was a place of Protestant industry, and Joseph went to work."
A couple goes about their relationship while the world outside may or may not be descending into chaos.
"When the announcement was made, my first instinct was to hold my breath in case whatever it was had already been released into the air. 'What?' Victor asked, coming in and turning down the volume. I exhaled. 'Gas masks,' I said."
Two shorts: 'Dear Creatures' examines a relationship and a chance observation; 'Imaginary Birds' examines place, potential creations, and identity.
"Some of you will leave, break through the walls to build more in someone else’s country, uninvited and entirely necessary. You will bring tablets to make the water drinkable, pieces of printed paper to explain your theories; scrawl pictures in the dust when words become too heavy in the mouth. You will wipe soot from leaves, soak oil from birds. You will weave shelters from torn branches with ends still weeping sap. You will build things up for others to break down."
A young man explains the physical and psychological turmoils of his anatomical differences.
"Sorry, I keep forgetting you’ve seen my file. As I was saying. Even after I started dating, I still had to leave the gloves on. I’d tell a girl that my hands were covered in burn scars or that I had early onset arthritis. It was easier to lie to them, give them something they’ve heard of, something they could believe. Something they could deal with."
A mother and her two daughters vacation at Lake Champlain; an exploration of fears both mythological and personal.
"A few months ago, we saw a documentary piece on Champ, part of a low-budget sea monster show on PBS. We converged in the living room, feeling defensive of our lake, our monster, our private August world. The camera panned across sepia-toned photographs of the steamboat from which Champ was sighted in 1870, portraits of distinguished believers pointing to their graphite renderings of the serpent. Mallory’s fingers tightened on the arms of her chair as she watched a computer-generated Champ dive and surface, as a blonde actress standing waist-deep in the lake shrieked and snapped the iconic Champ photograph: a humped back and a slender brachiosaur neck rising from the dark water."
A nameless, interlocking conversation about a tryst.
"Of course he was American, but I courted him, not the other way around. And now he's returned to the United States and you miss him. B-- removes a cigarette from her silver case. Please don't light that, A-- says, I haven't finished my meal. All right, go on then, tell us about him. When was the affair? C-- asks. He went home two weeks ago. You didn't tell us, D-- says. I didn't think you would understand. I understand that you're my friend and should have said something. So I was right, you don't understand."
A dreamlike look at a person's lavish celebration with various figures from her life.
"They are all waiting by a picnic table in a park this person has driven past many times before. There they are, it's everyone. There are balloons taped to the benches, and the girl this person used to stand next to at the bus stop is waving a streamer. Everyone is smiling. For a moment this person is almost creeped out by the scene, but it would be so like this person to become depressed on the happiest day ever, and so this person bucks up and joins the crowd."
A tale of romance gone wrong, from MacArthur Fellowship winner Junot Diaz's new collection This Is How You Lose Her.
"Alma is a Mason Gross student, one of those Sonic Youth, comic-book-reading alternatinas without whom you might never have lost your virginity. Grew up in Hoboken, part of the Latino community that got its heart burned out in the eighties, tenements turning to flame."
The inimitable Blake Butler presents us with a strange gestation and a talking bear.
"God will knit it in my womb like he did you, she murmured. When you wear it you will blind the world. "
A prehistoric human specimen sets precipitous events in motion.
"Whereas before we would march down the sterile, artificially lit halls of the Institute, nodding to one another as we passed, the air around us a cold flutter of clipboards and clicking pens, we now began to stop and greet one another, laughing. Two weeks with Loeka, and some of the men started showing up to the lab in more brightly colored shirts and gag neckties."
Wildly diverse thoughts while waiting for coffee.
"I then remember that I am only ordering coffee and wonder how that would be depicted and I settle on an outline of Columbia only to realize that I am giving far too much credit to the register’s operator to deduce that coffee is the blow state’s largest legal export and then wonder if it could be a button with a brown “C” and realize how easily that would be confused with Coke."
A couple's relationship, analyzed in standard and experimental shorts.
"A brown beard and sideburns thirty years ago; now bald on top and feathery white tufts above his ears. Thick-knuckled fingers wrapped in wrinkles; reddish palms, the same as the end of his nose and the rims of his eyes. Construction, a soda fountain, washing neighborhood cars, infantry, insurance adjustment, management, retirement. Brother, father, grandfather, husband. Tin Roof Sundae ice cream, creamed corn, cornbread. Breadwinner, collector of rare bottlecaps, once sled down a hill of grass. This morning imagined his death, falling from the wings of a bird to the green ground, splayed like a leaf, equal parts love and regret. "
A butcher contemplates death and life in various forms.
"I don’t like the idea of being stuck anywhere. I would rather be in hell. You know why? Because even though they all say that hell sucks, that there’s nothing decent going on there, I’ll bet you a trillion dollars that every once in a while you’ll be resting on your pitchfork, taking a slight break while The Whipmaster sips at his coffee, and you’ll look out over the valleys and hills of hell and think, hey, fire and brimstone are sort of pretty at this hour, almost like a big, violent sunset. "
A sample from Powell's 2009 novel-in-questions.
"Are you happy? Are you given to wondering if others are happy? Do you know the distinctions, empirical or theoretical, between moss and lichen? Have you seen an animal lighter on its feet than the sporty red fox? Do you cut slack for the crime of passion as opposed to its premeditated cousin? Do you understand why the legal system would? Are you bothered by socks not matching up in subtler respects than color? Is it clear to you what I mean by that? Is it clear to you why I am asking you all these questions?"
Sketches of a lonely woman's search for love and happiness.
"...three weeks later asking the redheaded dishwasher to drive her home and directing him to the spot she knew those girls went to, her lips aflame, when he pulled up sliding over, the stick shift digging into her hip, putting her mouth on his freckled neck, it smelled like mashed potatoes and industrial soap and sweat, her hand first on his thigh and then crabcrawling to his zipper, it was already hardening under there despite him saying, Hey hey, what, and Peggy Paula saying, Just, please, and the dishwasher quiet after that, letting Peggy Paula, letting her, following her into the backseat, holding her tight when it happened, saying I’m sorry and Peggy Paula saying Shh, stinging his shoulder with her lips and his back with her nails and feeling filled up and afraid and like her heart could kick the windows out."
An armchair astronaut attempts to become the first black man to walk on the moon.
"The robot had this fold-down flap on its backside and Wesley sat there, buckled in, and told us he and the robot were going to outer space. There were fuses attached to the thing's feet and we stood back as he lit them like Wile E. Coyote. Well, that crazy robot went up all right—right up in flames! And we all about fell on our faces laughing, Wesley loudest of all."
The man behind Ripley's Believe It Or Not!, and his "Ghostly Appendage."
"If an Appendage may be allowed an opinion, here is mine: Given an era of less anxiety and more discretion, take away the Great Depression and two World Wars, and Ripley might have been your run of the mill suburban crackpot. A plastic bag sorter, hoarder of stoppers and snaps, jam jars, jawbreakers, broken ping pong paddles, push mowers, racially inspired lawn ornaments, waffle irons. He was simply a man at ease with bizarre objects, weird bibelots, fantastic freaks of nature who made him feel, by association, less odd."
Adolescent desires and yearnings permeate the memories of an all-boys academy.
"At school, we were allowed to wear costumes but were not allowed to bring treats. So we'd made the most of it -- we wore our costumes, we overcrowded the hallways with streams of sleepy ghosts. And often, through the punctured eyeholes of our masks, we tried to imagine how things might be if only we had girls. We envisioned an influx of princesses, maybe a witch or two or three positioned by the lockers. But we were an academy, an all-boys academy, and the possibility of both girls and treats were, in Principal Foster's eyes, completely out of the question."
Two gay brothers--one semi-closeted, one out--navigate a lifetime of tensions and problems.
"But something changed between Davis and me the afternoon we met downtown for lunch, sitting in a coffee shop in a small vinyl booth, facing one another. Davis leaned forward as he talked. When we were in high school, he confided, he'd sometimes taken our mother's Impala and driven downtown to have sex with a Korean man he'd met in a park, an accountant who lived in a boardinghouse near Dupont Circle. He and the man never really spoke, Davis said; nothing was exchanged between them, nothing but sex, which was hurried and guilty, and which provided only the most momentary relief, followed by Davis's long drive back to our house in the suburbs, listening to the call-in shows on stations our mother had preprogrammed on her car radio. He'd also had sex a few times with a popular boy, he said, a football player he'd occasionally brought back to our house while our mother was working, offering him some beer or a little marijuana, though the boy never acknowledged him afterward, not even with a quick nod if they happened to pass one another in the hallway the next day at school."
A robot anatomist contemplates the mysteries of the mind.
"While we knew a little about the structure of the brain, its physiology is notoriously hard to study because of the brain's extreme delicacy. It is typically the case in fatal accidents that, when the skull is breached, the brain erupts in a cloud of gold, leaving little besides shredded filament and leaf from which nothing useful can be discerned."
A Green Beret returns from Haiti and surprises his wife with news of his unusual spiritual "marriage."
"She got it, sort of, how fluid and free your mind might become when life took on the quality of hallucination. How that might blow your coping strategies all to hell? Dirk meditated daily in the middle of the den, which Melissa took for a joke at firstGreen Berets, snake-eaters, did not meditate, nor did anyone else she knew except people from Chapel Hill. 'Keeping it real' was how he explained himself; meanwhile Melissa took wary note of her dreams and watched her life fill up with nagging signs and portents."
A woman makes a companion from spoiled soup in this weird tale from the "Queen of Russian horror," Anna Starobinets.
"I moved, but a week later I'd already started fretting. After all, I did have a responsibility. I was constantly wondering how it was getting on there without me. Completely alone. In the plastic bags."
The history of a relationship between a son and his mostly-absent father.
"He lay down. His spine pressed into the soil a notch at a time, undid him. Upside down was a land of female legs. He was fond of these new bell-shaped skirts, wide enough to crawl under and be kept safe, and wished he had waited to marry, or married differently. He thought, What if I stayed here? Let the sun swallow me, and the orange dazzle under my eyelids become not just the thing I see but the thing that I am, and let the one daisy with the bent stem, and the rose smell and the girl upside down on the pub bench eating an upside-down ploughman's with her upside-down friend be the whole of the law and the girth of the world."
The author ("media inventor" Robin Sloan) describes this as a "short story about recession, attraction, and data visualization."
"That night, at the bookstore, I started working on the new visualization, thinking I could impress Kat with a prototype. I am really into the kind of girl you can impress with a prototype."
The hungry, woozy thoughts of a young hitchhiker.
"The time since our last bath has made us smell completely wanton, like we’re bad apples. That is why I am not allowed to faint, no matter how hungry I get. If I swoon, there won’t be help. My body will not be held in arms until it can be laid gently among the reeds. Rather, my skull will split against, and brains will spill great fountains on the sidewalk. The crowd will continue, too busy to observe the tableau by their feet. If anyone hears my splash, they’ll see the dark sky and be convinced that it’s somehow got to do with rain."
An abstract observation of a man on life support.
"The contract was spongy white yellow and was held by a paper clip and smelled of musk and told her to unplug them no matter what. He had wanted it that way. She too. But now here she was three sweaters down and two pairs of striped socks snug and warm against a niece’s fourteen-year-old cream calves and her drink resting on his chest sweating itself to dilution."
An isolated young boy engages in strange hobbies and interactions.
"The garage still dark, Gerald found the stepladder. He climbed the second step, reached up, and yanked the chain. The single bare bulb lit up. He stepped down, pushed the small ladder against the workbench, then climbed back up and clambered onto the chipped wooden bench. One by one he unscrewed the dusty glass jars, each held onto a shelf by a single nail driven through their lids. Gerald fingered the contents of the jars: short screws, long screws, shiny silver and dull gold screws, tiny square nuts that threaded onto some screws and not onto others--"
Picnicking families stumble upon a mysterious iron cube.
"Nobody knew what to make of the thing. It was too big to have been carted in on a pickup truck. It would be too large for the open bed of an eighteen-wheeler, and even then there were no tire marks in the area, no damaged vegetation and not even a road nearby wide enough for a load that size. It was if the block had been cast in its spot and destined to remain. And then there was the issue of the inscription."
A murderer fights off vengeance seekers, including God.
"I sundered Him, and He rejoined Himself. I interrupted Him, and He resumed Himself. I adjourned Him, and He reconvened Himself. I perforated Him, and He performed holy acts of closure. I peeled Him, but He only laughed—the old fox!—and could not be tricked into repealing Himself in order to end up sitting among the superannuated gods."
An elderly couple attempts a series of adventurous forays into crime.
"She grinned back, but her heart was wilting. This crumbling of old values must be a sign of dementia, mustn't it. Perhaps his was an encapsulated dementia, confined to mild misbehavior. Maybe petty crimes would stave off worse senility. She knew some poor old fellows who tried to fondle waitresses."
An alternate take on Memento's amnesiac-detective concept, written by Christopher Nolan's brother.
"He is caught at the door to his room, one hand on the knob. Two pictures are taped to the wall by the door. Earl's attention is caught first by the MRI, a shiny black frame for four windows into someone's skull. In marker, the picture is labeled YOUR BRAIN. Earl stares at it. Concentric circles in different colors. He can make out the big orbs of his eyes and, behind these, the twin lobes of his brain. Smooth wrinkles, circles, semicircles. But right there in the middle of his head, circled in marker, tunneled in from the back of his neck like a maggot into an apricot, is something different. Deformed, broken, but unmistakable. A dark smudge, the shape of a flower, right there in the middle of his brain."
A woman deals with the potential consequences of her missed period.
"Still, after I’d hung up the phone, I went on sitting dully in the kitchen, thinking about all the wasted sit-ups I’d done in the last two years and wanting to die. Not that I could admit that to anyone. Because if it were Steve who would be walking around for nine months with hemorrhoids and a dull backache, with the elastic waist of his maternity jeans crimping from overuse, I’d be able to be happy; I’d be thinking about how to fit another car seat in the minivan and whether I should start buying rice in bulk. I’d be sitting at the desk in my office practicing the breathing exercises, prepping."
Scenes of a crumbling relationship between a black woman and a Jewish man.
"You know what I mean? I was nineteen and crazy back then. I'd met this Jewish guy with this really Jewish name: Gideon. He had hair like an Afro wig and a nervous smile that kept unfolding quickly, like origami. He was one of those white guys who had a thing for black women, but he'd apparently been too afraid to ask out anyone, until he met me."
A fictionalized account of a moment in baseball history from a contemporary master of detailed Americana.
"Russ wants to believe a thing like this keeps us safe in some undetermined way. This is the thing that will pulse in his brain come old age and double vision and dizzy spells -- the surge sensation, the leap of people already standing, that bolt of noise and joy when the ball went in. This is the people's history and it has flesh and breath that quicken to the force of this old safe game of ours. And fans at the Polo Grounds today will be able to tell their grandchildren -- they'll be gassy old men leaning into the next century and trying to convince anyone willing to listen, pressing in with medicine breath, that they were here when it happened."
Experimental surrealism; a mix of memories and strange evocations.
"A railcar arrives in the middle of desolation. A girl enters and sees a mangy rat pacing the floor inside. He approaches her and asks her for the latest news. 'There is no one left,' she sobs. After many days, she makes a nest for herself in the railcar. She adopts the mangy rat and begins to groom him with her fingers."
A young girl's relationship with her mother and rural surroundings are told in an experimental dose of stream of conciousness.
"...you ask her what she is doing and she tells you still not opening her eyes nothing, girl only that word does not mean what it means it means something so big and black it can hardly fit into language though she does not say another thing and her lack of saying says more than her saying ever could the sun bit by bit turning itself off and the evening bit by bit turning itself on and the over-sweet summer breeze stirring for maybe fifteen minutes no more without cooling a thing and you go back into the trailer to watch the television trying not to think about all this thinking but after a while you go out again to see and she is still there still sitting in the lawn chair alone precisely as you left her smoking with her head tilted back eyes closed..."
A series of shorts about a marriage and conversations with two old-time movie stars.
"Ingrid Bergman told me she'd sleep with any man who desired. And there had been plenty. She slept with the majority of her costars on every film, most of the directors, several costume designers, and once, for kicks, a sound-effects editor—"helps me get into the role," she argued. It didn't bother her at all. It was like taking a walk, 'like reading from a script,' she said."
An invitation to Timbuktu; an attempt to push away life's problems.
" Here, do not think about the past; do not worry about the future. Instead, think only of the present. Of the brilliant shining sun. Of the opalescent waves. Of the bleached rolling dunes in the distance. Let yourself fade away. Enjoy the weather of Timbuktu.……Walk across the island. Notice how the temperature is exactly what you’d want it to be if someone asked you. Do not think about how no one ever asks you—about anything. How most things occur against your will. Instead, realize that throughout Timbuktu, the temperature varies from 64° to 95°."
A snapshot of a woman in the midst of depression.
"She shuffle-dashes back into the house, thinking she could use a nap, thinking that one of these days she’s going to get her act together and drag her ass out of this drain she’s circling, maybe get on some anti-depressants—something—but that means going to a doctor, which means finding a doctor, way too much wrapped around all that. Besides, she’s not sure she’s depressed, it's not like she sits around weeping; self-pity is the least of it. No, it’s more a complete failure to act."
During World War II, a young soldier gives a dance lesson to General Eisenhower.
"The two MPs walked him to the door, which opened as they reached it, and a dapper-looking lieutenant asked Kelly to come in and have a drink. He said that his name was Lieutenant Mason, and that he was General Eisenhower’s aide-de-camp. The MPs noted carefully the look on Kelly’s face. They went away with their chins clenched in an effort to suppress belly laughter."
Two troubled high school friends cope with their families and depressions.
"A half-an-hour later, Bambi slipped through her front door, hoping to sneak upstairs unnoticed by the mass of humanity that lived at her house. She shared her space with four younger brothers who’d been born so close together that they all resembled the same kid in a different stage of metamorphosis. So much testosterone flowed through the house that she had gotten lost in the shuffle. Her dad really didn’t know quite what to do with her and tried to avoid the discomfort of female emotional interaction. He focused on the easy rapport he had with her brothers and spent most of his free time talking sports or taking them fishing. Her mom was usually frazzled and easily irritated. She was starting her cocktail hour a bit earlier every day and was usually comfortably anesthetized by dinner time. She seemed to have slipped into a complacency that bordered on being in a coma."
A man embarks on a troubled relationship with a psychic.
"She called it, so, fine, I gave her twenty bucks. But I forgot all her predictions, being the king of the drunken blackout. My brain tries its best to sweep up, and most times I do appreciate it. I had some residuals the next morning from her reading, mainly of outrage and disappointment at what she saw for me, but no specifics. It really wasn’t fair having her walk around the bar like that. Everyone was there to meet their future, and then she walks by, selling it. And then those of us who are ugly. And those of us that can’t dance. We’re gluttons for punishment: we’re desperate for good news."
A record store employee meets a seemingly blessed musical prodigy.
"You really had to be there to see him in action. He held his hands before him, chest high, as if holding a box. And as he walked by the racks, he looked at the records -- through the records. His eyes got big and then they filled with a light as clear and as dense as water. As he passed a record, that light filled with music. Even from my nook in back I could see staff lines and notes and chords shimmering in it. Then I could hear the music myself -- faintly, as if he were wearing those Walkman headphones though this was years before Walkmans."
A couple's love leads to an oddly sweet collection of "mementos."
"She liked textures, how the hair on his chest and belly bunched between her fingers, the slow swirling of her palms and fingertips a steady growing arousal. Afterwards, her cheek on his matted chest, he rested his arm on her back, relaxed but secure. Then she dug in his navel."
Personal histories and mysteries emerge when a woman stakes out the woman who may have cannibalized her boyfriend.
"Now she is hungry. I can tell by the way she moves. And her laughter isn´t real nor is that hair. It is a wig woven from the hair of all the men she has eaten. This has gone on for so long. I can tell. Her hair reaches her waist. Turning, she looks right at me, does not see me. Does not recognize the picture that must have been inside my lover's heart that she split open before boiling."
Haunted by the abuse of her former cellmate, a prison inmate seeks companionship with an inflatable Cell Buddy.
"Keeping one eye on the cell door, Amanda opened the box and pulled out the folded plastic figure, gently removing the sealed packaging, complete with a two-part pump system she assembled after a few minutes of difficulty. (Amanda was pretty handy but sometimes struggled with instructions.) Now with her back to the tier, hiding the plastic figure from view, Amanda slowly pumped up her Cell Buddy until it was fully inflated. She then stood back, admiring her new friend."
A widow balances a new hobby and her interactions with her grown children.
"She signed up for an introductory course at the Museum of Natural History, sending her check in the mail with a slip of paper wrapped around it. It was the sort of thing that her children made fun of her for, but Marjorie had her ways. The class met twice a week at seven in the morning, always gathering on the Naturalist’s Bridge just past the entrance to the park at 77th Street. Marjorie liked that, the consistency. Even on days when she was late—all year, it had only happened twice, and she’d been mortified both times—Marjorie knew just where to find the group, as they always wound around the park on the same path, moving at a snail’s pace, a birder’s pace, their eyes up in the trees and their hands loosely holding onto the binoculars around their necks."
Life and death envelops a polygamist family.
"Walker Getty led us to the candle with thirteen flames, which he said symbolized our family. Twelve small candles circled and bowed to one large flame. Hiram lit the large flame with a butane lighter, and one by one we wives lit one small candle with his big candle. Six candles stayed unlit, Walker Getty said, until the Lord saw fit to bless Hiram with more."
A story about a young woman's history of drug addiction.
"They had met just before the holidays. She was still shaky from rehab, having jagged days, nightmares, humongous cravings. She hadn't felt that bad in years, not since after the accident, when she was sixteen and went through the windshield near dawn after a long foggy night at the clubs on Sunset. Then she had stayed in a coma for weeks. (Her mother always talked about it in this dramatic voice, 'Arabella was in a coma for weeks, she came back from the dead.') It was cozy enough for her, she was feeling no pain, just morphine and voices and a sense of almost being where she belonged. In a coma was fine with her. Coming out of it was a bitch."
A dying professor hosts a party for his students.
"The professor and his students arrived the evening of the party to find the house filled with peonies, flush with plates of sausages ringed by cucumber slices, and equipped with small kegs of beer. The students went around the room sniffing at the plates of sausages and at the flowers and fondling the kegs. One young woman began immediately eating cucumber slices."
A mother and daughter seek various forms of spiritual guidance and stability.
"The waitress came over and her mother ordered a coffee, plenty of cream and sugar, and Melissa ordered a pop with everything—Coke, Sprite, and Dr. Pepper but no root beer. The psychic ordered a side of bacon and an iced tea with three slices of lemon. He touched her mother gently on the hand and said, Shelley, you are a Gemini. Pollux, one of Gemini’s stars, is the nearest giant star to Earth. Her mother ooohed and went glass-eyed, and Melissa wished she could take her mother home, where the two of them could wait on the porch for dark, and when it came, Melissa would point and say, There, Mother. There’s Gemini. Right there. But Melissa didn’t know where Gemini was."
A high school couple discuss their future in a wave of public lust.
"The laugh echoed in Missy’s ears as she stuck her tongue in JP’s mouth. JP’s mouth was the best place she’d ever been. It was like falling asleep and waking up. Could there be a room in the dream house that would feel like JP’s mouth? Oh wait, she could just kiss JP in any of the rooms."
A woman goes to unexpected extremes to determine why her body has been invaded by microorganisms.
"There are microscopic organisms in my body. They’re not killing me, but I can feel them all the time. They hold impromptu line-dancing sessions in my abdomen when I am trying to eat. They think my lymph nodes are snooker balls. They climb out of my bellybutton while I am sleeping, and do an Irish jig atop my knee caps."
Drunken students discuss politics and philosophy.
"Longhaired Empty in his furlined cape gazes down disdainfully on Harry, ogling Annie Axe’s butt as she wags it johnward. 'Alas, wretched mortal!' he says. Empty, alias Empedocles, flamboyant charlatan, lofty romantic, gay vegetarian, is the brightest and the maddest of us all. For Empty, ardent but gloomy democrat, the Red Scare is real, the Bomb is. 'It’s a time of increasing Strife,' he oft laments."
The histories of a corporate workshop leader and a conference attendee intertwine.
"In fact, Jim was taking a bigger risk than someone might have thought. He’d hidden his name tag when he asked his questions, but Lund could easily have recognized him without it. Lund was by no means a stranger, though Jim was by then pretty sure Lund had forgotten who he was. He and Lund went back a long way. At one point, in fact, they’d been pretty close. That was decades earlier, when they were both in school and working summers at a boys’ camp called Camp Fairweather, in another part of the country."
An entire town congregates at the local post office.
"The post office is a zoo today I said to a troop of boy scouts. They looked around for their leader. I said this place is a zoo to the veteran in a wheelchair I had seen in the newspaper that month. He was writing a book on courage I knew. It really is he said. I smiled at him too hard. My best guess is that the whole town did."
A stoned woman's journey encompasses family memories and political and feminist activism.
"The caravan of images broke apart, dispersing into the motes that poured through the windshield of her Dart. Ruth took off her sunglasses and rubbed her eyes. The tiny blood vessels felt huge. She did not know her sister anymore; they were separated by politics and by her marriage to Jack. Had she ever known Helene? Ruth put the saliva-soaked joint to her lips, aware now of the music coming over the radio. “All you need is love. Love is all you need.” She laughed, sapphires and rubies spilling from her mouth, and the sadness left for a moment."
A woman tells the story of her odd alien abduction.
"I was talking very fast, so as not to lose my nerve, but as soon as I stopped, I didn’t feel so good. I was able to tell that it had gone over very poorly. The one alien furrowed his brow. Then he translated for the others, and they too furrowed their brows. He turned to me. Why would you write something like that?"
A nerve-wracking mountain drive and degrees of protection.
"He didn’t seem to mind. He drove fast, confident, and he had turned the music up on the radio, and it was the wrong music, loud and angry, the kind she thought was okay sometimes, maybe when they were drunk and at a bar, laughing and shouting their words.But not now. The music, the loudness, the speed of sound and movement, the fog, the loopy meandering, the mountains ready to move, she couldn’t handle it."
A woman records the sounds of a big city.
"She never collected in a systematic way, but when she moved to the city there were all sorts of new sounds to discover -- the rattling of the 7 train as it emerged into the light of Long Island City, the whoosh the steam produced as it rose mysteriously from the sidewalk grates, the reverberations the escalators made as you descended into Penn Station on the Madison Square Garden side of the building. It was a whole new world and Fern embraced it lovingly and ferociously."
Contemporary fabulist Kate Bernheimer spins a yarn about a girl, a husband, and a secret zoo.
"Each morning, before the husband comes to breakfast, the girl goes down the basement stairs to feed the pets. At sunrise animals must be fed. She remembers this from school."
Two working class brothers and their girlfriends dream of elevating their bleak lives.
"Growing up, we always looked up and wondered what it would be like to live in the grand homes looking down. At Christmas, our parents drove us along the overlook. Our mothers cooed at the beautiful decorations even though on every other day they cleaned those houses and took care of the children living in them. Our fathers, who worked for the grand homeowners, grunted. They said it wasn’t anything special. They swallowed the bitterness of their envy and chased it with a nip of whiskey."
A young man analyzes his personal problems while making a cattle delivery.
"I think about driving back through this mess after I drop the cows off, and speed up the drive in my eyes so that it’s like watching a movie in fast forward: me and the truck diving into the green again. I see my daddy in the house waiting for me, sitting at his same seat at the table. I picture this in my head even though I know he probably ain’t even going to be there, that the house will smell like empty: dust and cut grass and Comet and fried grease."
A young pregnant woman versus the dryer at a military Laundromat.
"She is thirty-one years old, and she never wanted anything so much as to be married to the man she loves and to have a child with him. And she had thought, all those years when they tried to conceive, that she knew and loved her husband better than anyone she could even imagine. But what kind of man joins the Marines when there is a war going on? She could never have imagined herself in this Laundromat across the street from a strip designed for the eighteen-year-old children who are most of the Marines, her husband's new colleagues."
A elderly father and his grown son attempt uneasy bonding on fishing trips.
"But he would talk to me during that time when he wasn't concentrating on a cast or reeling something in. I loved that he would tell me stories. That day with the mayflies he told me how he went fishing everyday as a kid, had to because they ate whatever he caught that day for dinner. And when he went fishing with his dad in a little aluminum boat and when the motor gave out his dad told him to get out and drag the boat. He put a rope around him and pushed him into the water, which was probably full of gators and moccasins, and he dragged his big, fat, drunk dad in the boat until they got to shore."
Passengers and a tour bus driver share personal stories and local legends.
"Fraser Island is the world’s biggest sand island. It is made up entirely of sand. I like to say that a good island is just like a person: if you can understand its one main factor, you can understand the whole thing. The sand is what makes the island the way it is. It is all sand, blown together by the wind and taken here from the coast of New South Wales. That is why we have the trees we do, and why the beach and dirt are our roads. So you could say the island is the way it is because of sand from the wind."
Various people descend on an Italian gay pride parade.
"Her sense of her own presence was mounting. The fact was that she-who hadn't gone on even one strike when she was a young factory worker; who had not voted for at least fifteen years; who hadn't gone on vacation since her husband died, and who had only traveled on her own to visit distant, faded relatives-she was nearly becoming intoxicated by the thought of immersing herself in the tumultuous throng; of being lost and out of place in a crowd to which she had no social, sexual, or official connection at all."
A meeting at a castle is mixed with painful adolescent memories.
"It was one of those views that make you feel like God for a second. The castle walls looked silver under the moon, stretched out over the hill in a wobbly oval the size of a football field. There were round towers every fifty yards or so. Below Danny, inside the walls, it was black-pure, like a lake or outer space. He felt the curve of big sky over his head, full of purplish torn-up clouds. The castle itself was back where Danny had started out: a clump of buildings and towers jumbled together. But the tallest tower stood off on its own, narrow and square with a red light shining in a window near the top."
The author of History Lesson For Girls meditates inventively on the magnificent force of a big truck.
"You’re sitting at a red light, and there it is, all that power underneath you, all around you, jiggling your bangles, making it hard to light a cigarette, making you have to go to the bathroom, making the poetic stare hard to maintain as you listen for the illustrative comment—once you’ve been there, I’d say it’s like being present when a star is created, up way up where these things happen, these mysteries, these strong beautiful mysteries of destruction and creation."
A short appreciation of a weird dog, from notable comic-book author Matt Fraction.
"Often he chases his tail--but do not let Space Dog fool you. He is making himself the physical representation of an Abraxas, an Ourobouros: symbolic of life and all of her vicious cycles, of time and tide, of history itself. It is an interpretive cry of existential angst and ennui from Space Dog."
A mother's interactions with her children is beset with ambiguous foreshadowing.
"The mother stares at her big, strong son, who in reality is still a boy, only he’s older than the others. The light in the room goes bright and dark, by turns, as clouds move with sinister purpose in front of the sun. The mother feels as though she is caught in a kaleidoscope and suddenly comes alive."
A couple's history, told through eleven moments in their erotic life.
"She throws her head back in a deep, genuine, womanly laughter, her eyes flashing, and where did the girl go, he wonders, and who is this?"
A man's memories of his troubled childhood lead to extravagant personal imagery of heaven and hell.
"Is heaven full of surprises? Our minister made it sound static. Happy, happy, happy, and no sleep, just blissed up like an addict, people bowing whenever Jesus walks by. Or the Father. Or the Holy Spirit sent a breeze-puff near where you stood by a window with a golden sill. Did the Holy Spirit get tired of being invisible? Maybe in heaven all is visible, even the Spirit."
A couple shakes off an argument with a conversation about dreams, nightmares, free association games, and a haunting childhood memory.
"Probably this happened. This is likely how the day had been going. But Audrey cannot fully retrieve the events of that day, cannot quite remember what the day was like until the frantic knocking on the window, the crunching of the snow, the three of them running down the hall into the big family room to see their father opening the front door, their mother reaching for the phone. The big room no longer warm, despite the fire. Audrey no longer cozy, but shivering."
A flash fiction account of a blind woman's struggles with her guide dog.
"The blind woman wonders if she can return the dog or if it would be like the time she tried to return a sweat-stained dress by claiming it was that way when she bought it. The dog barks again, giving a quick tug at its leash. The woman does not complain at the dog’s bad behavior because she knows she is the one who has caused it. The next time the dog barks the woman decides to bark back."
A flurry of interactions in a doctor's office hint to varieties of unnamed medical problems and domestic unhappiness.
"Why wasn’t the doctor coming out? I could give her a ride, but not to another state, not to Wheeling, West Virginia. Beyond the glass doors, a vacuum started loudly. Suddenly, the woman who’d drawn my blood walked quickly past us, tears streaming, mouth tight, clutching a pink piece of paper."
An apartment cleaning crew has an uneasy relationship with a troubled boss.
"Button went to Vietnam, but they didn't give him a gun, and he's resented it ever since. Mickey says he was sent home for stealing someone else's gun and running out on a dirt road. He started shooting like mad but it wasn't loaded. When they found him, he was kneeling in the dirt and making sad little gun noises to himself."
Married sitcom writers, once famous for their love, buckle under sexual and creative differences.
"The funniest lines in their work, the lines with that satisfying crackle of sadism, were mostly his, but he was aware that it was Pam’s confidence and Pam’s higher tolerance for cliché that had won them their big contracts. And now, because she wasn’t engineered for doubt, Pam seemed to think it didn’t matter that she’d gained fifteen pounds since moving to the mountains and that she was thumping around the house with the adipose aquiver in her freckled upper arms; she certainly seemed not to care that they hadn’t had sex since before Labor Day; and she’d been pointedly deaf to certain urgent personal-grooming and postural hints that Paul had dropped during their photo shoot for L.A. Weekly."
Two parents react to their child's accidental scalding.
"The Daddy was around the side of the house hanging a door for the tenant when he heard the child's screams and the Mommy's voice gone high between them. He could move fast, and the back porch gave onto the kitchen, and before the screen door had banged shut behind him the Daddy had taken the scene in whole, the overturned pot on the floortile before the stove and the burner's blue jet and the floor's pool of water still steaming."
Dancing in the office, after hours, leads to a fragile romance.
"It is too lovely to be a joke, though, and you both know it. The two of you are as clumsy as costumed animals on stilts, but in the most charming way ever. The office lights know it is the best thing they will see sitting up there and blink sadly in approval."
A satirical list of musts for the paranoid American.
"...if there's a malignant thunderstorm and you've left a window open, the house may flood and you know your insurance won't cover all costs. If you're really lucky, you won't lose your vanilla house, your life, your honor, your delicate psyche, your precious collectibles, your SUV, communication devices, or the cat; but expect some collateral damage at the very least. There will always be something missing. "
A university student-worker distantly observes her surroundings and relationships.
"She tolerates the students she works with because they are mostly scholarship kids. Many of them grew up in neighboring towns and can only attend this University if they work. They live on Ramen noodles and tap water and their shirts are stiff and rough from being hand-washed in the sink."
A supposedly deceased grandmother's unexpected visit is rife with confusion and memories.
"I nodded, and thought about what that might mean. 'But,' I said, 'there was an autopsy.'I didn’t want to offend her, and here she was, but there had been an autopsy."
Civic and domestic troubles lead residents to unusual acts of creativity.
"Jen's car was still missing; Jeff was nailing again, hard. Instead of tiles, though, he was using Jen Simmons's underwear, pair after pair, sides touching like the hands of paper dolls."
A tricked-out Toyota Supra accelerates a family's unraveling. From the author of 2011's Busy Monsters.
"I know the ins and outs of what he did to that car, the numbers and brands and details, perhaps better than I know anything else on earth: I spent my most formative years steeped in this information, flipping through the automotive magazines with him, attending weekend car shows, listening to his ecstatic dinner-time talk of his next modification, of how that Supra would be the slickest in all of New Jersey."
A guy just out of prison drops in at a party, with zombies on his mind.
"It turned out that everyone in the prison had a zombie contingency plan, once you asked them, just like everyone in prison had a prison escape plan, only nobody talked about those. Soap tried not to dwell on escape plans, although sometimes he dreamed that he was escaping. Then the zombies would show up. They always showed up in his escape dreams. You could escape prison, but you couldn’t escape zombies."
A cheating doctor takes unusual steps towards redemption after his wife's death.
" One Tuesday evening, long after midnight, you back the Beemer out of the garage and flip open the hood. Lying heavy on the driveway is a bag of cement mix and you lift it part way, rip open the seal, and with a dusty thud drop it on the edge of the car engine next to the radiator. You fill the radiator with cement mix."
A father prepares a grotesque dinner for his family, with hints of unhappiness and ruminations on masculinity.
"Father tossed icy fishchunks into the microwave and they wobbled in the hot hum. Father sat back in his chair to swig golden brandy from his gut-flecked glass. Father peered down his great glistering nose at us. His nose gleamed like pocked gunmetal in the fishoil night and we sat on the floor in a row, each little child with his legs twisted into a knot."
A woman hooks up with her ex-boyfriend.
"Denis' fiancé was in Panama City with her girlfriends, in celebration of her upcoming nuptials, while the two of us were in his bed, landlocked and naked."
One important document, many permutating possibilities.
"Or she offered it to strangers, or she didn’t, or swore she didn’t, or she stood on a bridge and let it slip through her fingers."
A Mexican man reluctantly provides cultural insights to a pandering white American journalist.
"Two years before, Samuel Kramer had arrived to write the nteenth feature on Frida Kahlo. Someone told him I wrote screenplays for tough documentaries, and he paid me to accompany him through a city he considered savage and explain things he called mythical."
Thirteen forms of rain, each apocalyptic in their own way.
"The glass came first in early morning. I watched through the only safe storm window. It sounded as if the sky itself was rippinglike some sick sour music box, cranked to cracking. The shards shattered on impact, each giving off a second spray. "
As part of his cover, a spy is forced to work at a big-box store called "Circuitpalooza."
"There are, I suppose, far unluckier fates than my own. I remember the botched assassination in Paraguay, the decapitated arms dealer in Slovenia, the lone orphan girl in Kuwait. However, I can’t help but feel that, as a spy, my position here at Circuitpalooza demands perhaps a little more from me than it would from most."
A nuanced, lively investigation of the relationship between a mother and a son, this received First Prize in the O. Henry Awards for 2000
"Mom understands life don't play so spends beaucoup time and energy getting ready for the worst. She lifts weights to stay strong. Not barbells or dumbbells, though most of the folks she deals with, especially her sons, act just that way, like dumbbells. No. The weights she lifts are burdens, her children's, her neighbors, yours."
A man, a woman, and a child negotiate their uneasy triangle in the days and weeks following 9/11.
"His briefcase sat beside the table like something yanked out of a landfill. He said there was a shirt coming down out of the sky."
A couple's late night conversation reveals much in its sparse dialogue.
" I could tell she was tired now, she was talking with her face on the pillow and her speech was slurred a little. 'And when you get back with the bottle and after you see your friend we could talk for a while and maybe sleep together.'She was quiet for a long time. Finally she said: 'I'm going with him.'"
Short fiction from the author of this year's giant novel, The Instructions
"He was carrying a black-lacquered cane with a diamond-studded handle and I envied him his cane. I imagined thumping my fingertips against it, the sound that would make, and flipping it upside-down to make believe it was the letter L."
On monsters, both fantastical and real.
"Wendell and I ate hotdogs and argued about Hooferman. He’s not real, I said. My dad saw him, Wendell said. My dad said only drunks see him, I replied, and it’s really the devil they see."
Former U.S. Presidents are reincarnated as horses.
"Martin Van Buren is barn sour, but even he shouts out impossible promises at the turkeys from the dim interior of his stall: 'You are my constituents, my turkeys,' Van Buren neighs, 'and the love I feel for you is forever.' The turkeys promenade around the yard and ignore him. Rutherford wonders if they, too, have human biographies hidden beneath their black feathers."
A man's crumbling life is explored through his precise medical afflictions and liquid consumption.
"“This is a little bit of shit luck that you’ll certainly shake,” his father had sighed sympathetically into the phone. “You know, when you step in shit, sometimes you just got to leave that shoe outside for a while, but eventually, it airs itself out.” It was an awkward attempt to imbue some wisdom on his son, but Fredrick wasn’t exactly sure what he meant."
An ailing massage therapist views life and interpersonal connections with philosophical musings.
" Again my eyes get the waves, white water foam at the edges, rolling toward the center, blurring my vision. It feels like someone ripping off the film of my eye, Doc. Like someone's pulling the lid off my eye if my eye were a pudding. Cold plastic chair. A bright light. He looks disconcerted and leaves the room and is gone for awhile and then comes back in."
A religious leader in colonial New England builds a mysterious machine.
"The motor will cause great floods of spiritual light to descend from the heavens. It will reveal the earth to be a limitless treasure trove of motion, life, and freedom. "
From the author of Winter's Bone: A Vietnam War veteran grapples with the aftermath of killing a home intruder.
" A year after his return Pelham ceased to mention Vietnam to new acquaintances, dropped it from the biography of himself he’d give if asked. Only those who knew him before he went were certain that he’d gone. Jill was a second wife, fifteen years his junior, a lovely, patient blond, and remembered Vietnam as a tiresome old television show that’d finally been canceled about the time she left third grade. "
A boy ("the kid"), a man, a girl, a dog, a a bag of drugs, and the Buddha.
"The kid didn't laugh, because he never fake-laughed. The girl laughed because she was nervous. There was an uneasy space where the kid was not laughing. "
Two writers, one young, one old, share a varied correspondence about writing, politics, and family matters.
" The Alcoy Council sent me his address without delay—he lived in Madrid—and one night, after dinner or a light meal or just a snack, I wrote him a long letter, which rambled from Ugarte and the stories of his that I had read in magazines to myself, my house on the outskirts of Girona, the competition (I made fun of the winner), the political situation in Chile and in Argentina (both dictatorships were still firmly in place), Walsh's stories (along with Sensini, Walsh was my other favourite in that generation), life in Spain, and life in general."
Death in various forms looms over a 1960s family.
"As she snubbed out her cigarette and rinsed her cup in the sink, Marianne thought, thirty-four. One of the television commentaries had mentioned Jackie Kennedy’s age and it was Marianne’s age exactly. She was in this way aligned with the grieving first lady: they had seen the very same days."
A sweet, curious anti-story, from Zacharia's collection Now Playing.
"See, you ask me what's going on, and I know you mean, tell me something good, but not much is going on."
An office misunderstanding.
"A guy in a suit, I don't know him, walks by my cubicle holding one of the paper plates, his mouth full, chewing his last bite, folds the plate around his napkin and fork and cake crumbs, leans into my cubicle, reaches around a corner and stuffs the plate in my garbage can. No look, no excuse me, no nothing."
Early novel samples from one of my most influential college teachers.
"[T]o drive along any of the national highways meant you had indeed acquired value, but that your value had absolutely nothing to do with your worth as a unique individual."
Rust as a drug.
"Hydrated ferric oxide. A textbook will tell you it's what happens when iron oxidizes after exposure to air and water, but that's what happens to iron, not to you. Not to you if you put a fingertip coated with its sandy granules to the back of your tongue or when you inhale a long, coppery ridge. "
Poe's "The Raven," reimagined
" That's right, buddy, the crow is talking. Pinch yourself; it isn't a dream. The crow is talking. Feed me meat."