An inventive spoof on childhood mystery novels.
"Almanac's father fell face forward onto the concrete garage floor, dead, blood pooling beneath him, and ending Almanac's childhood right then and there."
An inventive spoof on childhood mystery novels.
"Almanac's father fell face forward onto the concrete garage floor, dead, blood pooling beneath him, and ending Almanac's childhood right then and there."
A forgotten birthday cake sets off a chain of unexpected events.
"The door to the bakery is meant to be pulled, but I push hard against it, like a bird hitting the glass. The lady behind the counter settles eyes on me, so I pull myself up as straight as I can and pull the door. On a wooden board above the register a TV is playing The Today Show. Jane Pauley and Madonna won’t shut up about Madonna’s dress like it’s gonna end the Cold War and I have to wonder if I’m the only person in the world living with trouble. Be-hind the glare of the case, I can see the Cinderella cake covered in icy blue frosting thick as a comforter. A glass carriage flies across the surface in needle-thin icing. I put my hand to the glass—forgetting the lady behind the counter—smudging it, until she clears her throat.
A story of unhappiness and creative outlets.
"Last winter, when she was supposed to be designing a parking garage for a luxury shopping center in McLean, she built a city instead. She got the idea when she was surveying the lot where the parking garage was supposed to go. In her leather pumps and peacoat, she stood on the flat expanse and looked out; the land was a deep brown, lightly marbled with snow. She walked the perimeter, her hands in her pockets, her heels sinking into the dirt, her breath a white cloud in the air. She felt on the edge of something."
A deaf boy and his mother take part in an odd religious community.
"My mother wasn’t always this way. Before the accident we never even went to church, never mind twice in one day. Then my dad had to go and wrap his car around a tree and mumble some crazy shit about angels and white tunnels while he’s dying. It was just bad luck that brought us here. My mother Googled churches in the area, and it’s no surprise which ranked number one on the search results page."
A woman, spending the summer at the shore, entrances girls with a mysterious story.
"After what seemed like forever, the girls got to the water, Janice continued. There had been a sea breeze all day long. Now there was nothing except a feeling like something holding its breath. The girls waded in, enjoying the warm water on their feet and the burst of the first waves against their ankles, still warm but cooler, the shallow water mixing with water from the heart of the ocean, which was cold. The ocean is coldhearted; you don’t have to be a genius to know that. It makes boats sink. It makes you watch where you put your feet. If you choose to swim at the end of the day after the lifeguards have left the beach you take your life in your hands. You know that, don’t you? Janice gave everyone a piercing stare meant to drive her point home."
An actor, fresh from prison, attempts to reconnect with his son in 1950s California.
"And he had believed it. Everyone had. Since the day he’d been cast as Lev, Alexi had been aware that he was getting away with something—though, he reasoned, he’d never explicitly lied about anything. He just never told the complete truth. He may have, when asked about his American accent, mentioned the pronunciation workbooks stacked on his family’s kitchen table, as if he, and not just his parents, had pored over them nightly. He may have once, a little drunk at a party, pretended to forget the English words for the pigs in a blanket being passed around. He may have, that night and possibly a few others, begun sentences with, In my country . . . He may have, when asked by the film’s very openly communist director one night over steaks at Musso’s what he thought about Truman, parroted back what he’d overheard at the writers’ table, that he was narrow-minded and ruthless, his doctrine a farce and an affront to civil liberties. He may have, at Stella and Jack’s invitation, attended a number of meetings in their Hancock Park living room, where there may have been some pretty detailed discussions about following their Soviet comrades down whatever path they took. He may have, on one of those evenings, filled out one of the Party membership forms being passed around, simply because everyone else was."
An old crush is remembered via childhood memories and an unusual anecdote.
"Then he began wearing pastel skateboarding-themed shirts. SKATEBOARDING IS NOT A CRIME, one said. Wallace Marguerite is not committing a crime, Stella thought. It was novel and thrilling, true whether or not he was a skateboarder. She never saw a skateboard."
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.)
A childhood evening in a barrio.
"Now they’re bossing all the kids around. Just because they have the nicest soccer ball in all of Cuatro de Marzo, they think they can slave-drive the other kids to make the soccer field, to carve it out from the dirt street. They think they can practically reinvent the game. The ball is pretty nice. Nobody knows exactly where they got it, but they never let it out of their sight. They take turns guarding it, sleeping with it at night. It’s the same kind the Guadalajara Chivas use, one that looks official—all red, white and blue with their coat of arms on the side."
The observations and fears of a stepmother.
"Evie runs to you to get a drink of water, and you hand her the squeeze bottle you keep in your purse. Your purse—just three years ago, it had beauty magazines and lipstick in it. If someone took an inventory now, they’d find toys from the quarter machines, small notes or drawings Evie gave you, plastic animals. It’s like you are a different person now: the person you always wanted to be when you grew up. And Evie is the kid you hoped you’d have."
Children in Mississippi prepare for a hurricane's arrival in this excerpt from 2011's National Book Award winning-novel.
"If one of Daddy's drinking buddies had asked what he's doing tonight, he would've told them he's fixing up for the hurricane. It's summer, and when it's summer, there's always a hurricane coming or leaving here. Each pushes its way through the flat Gulf to the twenty-six-mile manmade Mississippi beach, where they knock against the old summer mansions with their slave galleys turned guest houses before running over the bayou, through the pines, to lose wind, drip rain, and die in the north. Most don't even hit us head-on anymore; most turn right to Florida or take a left for Texas, brush past and glance off us like a shirtsleeve. We ain't had one come straight for us in years, time enough to forget how many jugs of water we need to fill, how many cans of sardines and potted meat we should stock, how many tubs of water we need."
A mother's illness through the eyes of a child; from the author of Hill William, forthcoming from Tyrant Books.
"The next day Mom and Dad were getting ready to go someplace. Before they left, my mother sat at the kitchen table. Ruby stood at the sink washing Styrofoam plates, bragging about how many preserves she put up or how many potatoes she was going to plant this year. My dad told her it wasn’t healthy to wash Styrofoam plates and use them again. Grandma whispered, 'Shit.'"
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. "
A day in the life of a twelve year-old girl: feminine sacrifice and reversed parenting/gender roles.
"When she's not ricocheting between coasts to spearhead corporate sales and yoga retreats, our mother is skipping off to islands (Cuba, the Canaries, Greenland) and leaving me typed notes that become more and more blunt and encoded. She doesn't spend much time with our father--none of the mothers do--and they have all become so hard and muscular and breastless that you wouldn't want a hug from them even if you were feeling bad."
A father and son clash over a murdered dog.
"Bear. Who hopped up and wagged his tail at my dad. He thought they were going on a trip. Probably thought they were going hunting up to the last minute. Until my father laid the muzzle of his gun against Bear’s own muzzle, soft. I can imagine Bear sniffing at the gun in curiosity, looking up to my dad, who had fed him and watered him, and for my dad Bear had braved wild pigs, skunks and angry raccoons. I can see him sitting, wagging his tail expectantly, waiting for the command to search, to run."
Memories both unique and ominous surround a woman's childhood.
"I liked to visit the Moon kitchen, a grease-laden cave that stank of meat. The table had a plastic covering patterned with wagon wheels and rustic scenes. The Moons cooked foods I’d never seen before in vats studded with dumplings. At dinner the Moon men mopped up their stews with slices of white bread and guzzled cartons of milk. They had a big cat-killing dog that they had trained to sit upright on a chair at the table, and they took turns feeding it buttered toast smeared with jam. After dinner Mr. Moon sat in the kitchen when he wasn’t at the tavern, drinking beer and bluing the air with swearwords and tobacco smoke."
A father attends his son's birthday party, hosted by his ex-wife and her boyfriend.
"Locklin sat next to Will in front of the fireplace. The brick was warm and Locklin put his arm around his boy. He was proud of the way Will had handled it all—he seemed okay, not blaming himself or anything. Will was a lot like he was, though, and that worried him. Once, Locklin had talked to him about how there were two types of people in this world: volcanoes and geysers. 'Volcanoes, like you and me,' he’d said 'sit and brew and stuff all their problems. The thing is, one day, they erupt. You don’t know how or when, but when it happens, it’s ugly. It’s best to be like your mother, a geyser—let it out often and easily. Don’t hold back.' Will had seemingly understood."
A child's uneasy participation in a hunting party; an excerpt from Jackson's forthcoming novel Mira Corpora.
"A bearded man orders the children to circle up and divide into groups. A brother and sister pull my ears and claim me. They say that I’m their lucky charm. The siblings are pale with spindly legs, denim shorts, floppy hiking boots. We set off into the heart of the woods. The boy’s crew cut ends in a braided rat’s tail. He flicks it back and forth across his shoulders. They both have beady eyes and big noses. There’s something else on their faces, but it’s not clear yet."
A man returns to his small hometown for a temporary substitute teaching job.
"I went away from this place and I lived somewhere else. Years passed. When I came back, it was all the same. It had been years, but the place was the same. I started teaching at the school I went to as a boy. It was a substitute gig. The original teacher needed surgery and she would be out for three weeks. There was a little girl there in the 5th grade class and she was so shy she could barely speak. The other 5th grade teacher told me that the little girl’s mother was on drugs. She told me not to get close to the kids like that because they never made it through the school year. They always ended up moving or just disappearing. She told me that she had been to a funeral just a few weeks earlier for a student’s mother who had overdosed."
A boy in Texas comes of age as a frequent visitor to an adult video store.
"Ricky pushes open the blacked-out door and heads to the counter at the back of the room. Ed trails slowly behind him, pausing to look closely at the shrink-wrapped magazines and their pictures of men and women together. They look bestial, naked, sunburned, mouths open and showing teeth. The magazines Ricky has at home are not like this, magazines of women only, alone, their clothes caught while falling off them, or running naked through the surf at the beach, the surf covering that one exact spot."
A girl, her pet salamander, and some family strangeness.
"Ambistoma’s gills stick out of his head instead of being tucked to his flanks. The gills are like Mamá’s hair when she wakes up. Her hair is so curly, orange, crazy. In the mornings when she pulls away from Papá’s arms, she walks towards the bathroom as if she were electrified. Her hair is knotted in tiny corkscrews, tangled here and there like coral branches. It jumps all over like thoughts of fire."
An incident on a frozen stream, excerpted from Banks' 1993 novel, Complicity.
"We were told not to do this, told not to come here, told to sledge and throw snowballs and make snowmen all we wanted, but not even to come near the loch and the river, in case we fell through the ice; and yet Andy came here after we'd sledged for a while on the slope near the farm, walked down here through the woods despite my protests, and then when we got here to the river bank I said well, as long as we only looked, but then Andy just whooped and jumped down onto the boulder-lumped white slope of shore and sprinted out across the pure flat snow towards the far bank."
A high school athlete from a troubled Brooklyn family tries to stay on the right path in a small Virginia town.
"But it didn’t take long for Marcus to get around to missing Brooklyn. On weeknights his granny would be in bed by eight, and since the television in the living room got such poor reception Marcus would go to his room. The windows in Granny’s house had no curtains or blinds, so when it was dark he got a creepy feeling, like he was being watched. There were no yellow streetlights, no sirens or car stereos, nobody calling out to anybody else outside. Just unfamiliar sounds rising and filling up the air until it sounded like they were invading the room itself. Frogs? Crickets? He couldn’t tell. He’d make up his bed and lie down in it and put on his headphones and close his eyes and think about home."
A poetic story of a variety of childhood memories, detailing hopes, abuse, and dismantling.
"Our dad left without saying goodbye or taking any of his stuff. We took to poking around in the basement where my mom had thrown all his belongings in a corner. We started smoking his cigars. At first it felt like we were getting back at someone, which felt pretty good, even if we didn’t know who. We’d climb out our window on to the roof of the porch, and even if neighbors were awake, they never looked up to see us. We felt on top of things even though that’s not how we felt at all."
An evening of drinking and tensions culminates in the revelation of embarrassing childhood memories.
"'What’s in my Memory Palace?' she wondered. A driveway. One with a basketball hoop on a pole. Megan was 11 and playing with her new friends. They grinned at each other and approached her, tied her to the basketball pole with two jump ropes, attached rollerblades to her feet, and then drew penises on her face. Then they dressed her hair with shaving cream."
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.'"
Cerebral horrors from the inimitable Blake Butler.
"The tone had been appearing on the air for weeks. Its tone contained all possible timbre: every sentence ever crammed into each blink. Sometimes the tone would last for several hours, sealing the air against all other motion. It always hurt. It made Person 1180's blood go numb. It made the books fall off the bookshelves and land opened to certain pages, though when she tried to look the words would melt or disappear. No one could say what made the tone or where it came from. Tax dollars were purportedly at work."
A student navigates the treacherous world of isolation and bullying.
"But you just can’t, that’s all. It’s the one thing you have no talent for: being a little bit brave. You think you could be very brave, if the need arose, and if you had to slay a dragon or fight a Sith Lord. But enduring Paul Boehler’s wedgies and Marvin Grossman’s under-the-breath-threats? It’s too much psychic trouble for so small a reward. You cannot do it. And so you’ll stay here for third period, lunch, too. There is no one to eat with in the cafeteria, no place to sit without feeling alone, and so you eat in the nurse’s office and pretend that you are her assistant. She never really seems to mind, though she sighs a little whenever she looks in your direction."
A woman imagines herself to be in an inappropriate relationship with a young boy.
"In the store Del and Simon race to the drinking fountains, Simon gets a mouthful and gleeks it at my slacks, says Oh hey, pisspants, Del points and laughs. In the magazines they say men are sometimes cruel because they are testing your emotional boundaries, I want Del to know I am boundless, I am a universe, I grit out a smile and follow them to the toys, they arm themselves with swords and commence to stabbing me, Simon saying Lop off her tiddies, Simon saying I wish these blades were real, and I wish you were dying like old ladies are supposed to, Del chops me in half. A woman smiles at me, says Boys, I want to tell her Del is my man, tell her he is not a boy, but she is wearing a pink hairclip and a wooden necklace and this convinces me she would not understand."
A father and son work the Chinese cattle markets in this story from the 2012 winner of the Nobel in Literature.
"People trusted him implicitly. If a transaction reached a stalemate, the parties would look at him to acknowledge that they wanted things settled. 'Let's quit arguing and hear what Luo Tong has to say!' 'All right, let's do that. Luo Tong, you be the judge!' With a cocky air, my father would walk around the animal twice, looking at neither the buyer nor the seller, then glance up into the sky and announce the gross weight and the amount of meat on the bone, followed by a price. He'd then wander off to smoke a cigarette."
A young boy observes life through the actions of his father and of former Knick center Patrick Ewing.
"'We’re not leaving till you make five free throws in a row,' my dad says. Even at ten, I get it. He thinks I’m going to make the shots quickly. He thinks I’ll make five free throws in a row and be reborn confident and new, my anemic offense rebooted in a single stroke of coaching genius. But then I remember Patrick Ewing, the doom of his body, how he never pulls up for a jumper, how he always runs headfirst into his trembling opponents. "
An Uzbek man, partially settled in America, reflects on his ties to his childhood home.
" Paper space helmets, old rubber gloves. The girls held the unwieldy cardboard rocket. Their faces appeared through the windows, and their bows veered above: green, red, brighter red. Again, poems were recited, this time about Gagarin, the way he must have looked at earth from above with his new eyes, the eyes of a hero."
A young boy deals with mean relatives and religious extremes as he embarks on his first communion.
"Then, to crown my misfortunes, I had to make my first confession and communion. It was an old woman called Ryan who prepared us for these. She was about the one age with Gran; she was well-to-do, lived in a big house on Montenotte, wore a black cloak and bonnet, and came every day to school at three o'clock when we should have been going home, and talked to us of hell. She may have mentioned the other place as well, but that could only have been by accident, for hell had the first place in her heart."
A young boy with ringworm is sequestered in a children's hospital. Part of The Morning News' "Reading Roulette" series, featuring contemporary Russian writing.
"The sociology in our ward was as follows. Lousy Letuch ruled the roost, a bruiser whose surname was Letuchev, pretty violent and not serving a prison sentence only through some administrative error or because he was underage. His elder brothers, he related proudly, had all done a spell inside. He had a sidekick, a smalleven smaller than mebut very strong lad of 11 called Vovan, who did all the dirty work for his boss; sorted out the parcels, beat up the contentious, and generally kept order."
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 family, headed to Florida, encounters a gang of criminals in this grim classic.
"The old lady said that in her opinion Europe was entirely to blame for the way things were now. She said the way Europe acted you would think we were made of money and Red Sam said it was no use talking about it, she was exactly right. The children ran outside into the white sunlight and looked at the monkey in the lacy chinaberry tree. He was busy catching fleas on himself and biting each one carefully between his teeth as if it were a delicacy."
A futuristic nursery room, controlled by their children's thoughts, wreaks havoc on a husband and wife.
"As for the nursery, thought George Hadley, it won't hurt for the children to be locked out of it awhile. Too much of anything isn't good for anyone. And it was clearly indicated that the children had been spending a little too much time on Africa. That sun. He could feel it on his neck, still, like a hot paw. And the lions. And the smell of blood. Remarkable how the nursery caught the telepathic emanations of the children's minds and created life to fill their every desire. The children thought lions, and there were lions. The children thought zebras, and there were zebras. Sunsun. Giraffesgiraffes. Death and death."
A father and daughter engage in an elaborate deception in a roadside diner.
"I followed him, stretching my legs to match his stride. I swung my arms, too, catching the shiny rhythm of the way he walked when he was excited about something. I copied the bounce in his step. Even though I was just an eleven-year-old girl, I promised myself that I, too, would someday ride trains and sit around campfires listening to old hobos telling stories. Even if I had to dress like a man to do it, I wanted that kind of experience, even more than being a war nurse. Before he got to the front door, I caught up. 'Let’s play deaf again.' 'Okay, squirt.' He zippered his lips with his fingers. 'Mum’s the word.'"
Escalating competitions between two boys take an unexpected turn.
"Most of my losses, though, were at the hands of the son, Jimmy Knockwood Jr. Two years older than me, Jimmy wore a hint of Iroquois aristocracy in his cheekbones, and some part of his body was usually sheathed in a dirty plaster cast. He beat me at every sport we had equipment for. At 13, he had arms like a man and could throw a baseball with such force that after playing catch with him you couldn't turn a doorknob. Once, when we were wrestling, he put me in a choke hold that made my vision go white. I cursed Jimmy's mother, and he rubbed a toad into my teeth. Seeing me in tears afterward, my father asked why I put myself through the disgrace of playing with Jimmy. He had forgotten the infatuation a boy has no choice but to feel for a peer who is good at everything."
Father and son endure in a crab fishing village in the Pacific Northwest.
"One year I loved Robert Louis Stevenson, the next radio cars, and my father never caught up. Sometimes I wondered why he came home at all."
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--"
A town suffers two afflictions: a young girl who goes missing, and a curious homeowner who decides to build a moat.
"Diane Miller didn't watch the news. Diane Miller didn't sleep. She shoveled. She filled a wheelbarrow with dirt and carted it into her garage. She used a thick iron bar to pry around large rocks and roll them to the edge of her property. Her skin darkened under the sun during the day and glinted pale-blue in the moonlight. If we opened the window, we could hear her shovel biting into the ground with regular, crisp barks. We watched her until we started to fall asleep, or grew ashamed at our spying, and went back to bed. We always went to sleep before she stopped."
During a camping trip, a son sees his father as a flawed individual.
"Behind me, Bruce wrestled with the tent flaps. Nature thrived all around me. The river ate away the sludgy bank. I knew somewhere within the onyx waters, fish turned and dove. Furious and haphazard. Organisms crawled under my feet. My father and I had brought supplies where only we had use for them. We were out of place in the wild, and I started to wonder if Bruce knew what he was doing."
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 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."
New, eerie definitions and potential crimes surround a water park..
"Some say that when the Jesus of the Dakotas fed his blue ox Babe to the five thousand there were thirteen baskets of Babe-flesh left over, and the Babe-flesh was discarded beside a pond where it ossified or petrified or what have you, into a whale. A whale with a slide head and a diving board tail. But that's stupid. The oldsters want you to believe that it's the very whale that spit out Ishmael when President Action Jackson ordered him to go preach to the savages, which is theologically unsound and also why I wish we had not abandoned the practice of sacrificing our oldsters to the Great Teen Spirit."
A mother recalls her sexual past while on a trip to Disney World.
"We ride the Jungle Cruise. The animals are fake yet it remains a big draw of Adventureland. That and the turkey legs, which are big as clubs but 100% real. You should see how America eats them. I feel almost skinny. My husband picks up a stuffed giraffe as a souvenir. Call it luck. Until I planted that hissing plate of fajitas (hot, very hot) before him at Mary’s Cantina I had no idea anyone could see pregnant skin as potential."
A classroom of troubled children take a trip to a bowling alley.
"Mr. Chiasson shouted at him to stop. When he wouldn’t Mr. Chiasson seized his shoulder and shook it. Then he moved over to Ryan. Ryan’s snoring head lay on his desk. Mr. Chiasson never tried to wake him when he fell asleep. One day a supply teacher covering for Mr. Chiasson made the mistake of waking him up and he bashed a bowling trophy over her head. They had to get a new trophy, and a new supply teacher."
The mishaps and growth of an accident-prone child.
"But Oliver had come late in their little pack of offspring, at a time when the challenge of child rearing was wearing thin, and he proved susceptible to mishaps. He was born with inturned feet and learned to crawl with corrective casts up to his ankles. When they were at last removed, he cried in terror because he thought those heavy plaster boots scraping and bumping along the floor had been part of himself."
A series of random and unsettling snapshots of two brothers.
"Michael’s brother is on the diving board again and then not, his body in the air and taking up so much space. He gets closer and closer and the water turns to glass. Michael feels like he’s dreaming. The water cracks and breaks and scatters. Michael’s brother is in pieces. He screams and Michael deep-breathes and Michael closes his eyes"
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 shares memories of various communications, ranging from the innocent to the violent.
"Still, there were occasions on which I had to be stopped. When you think of two things to say, pick your favorite and only say that, my mother suggested once, as a tip to polite social behavior, and the rule was later modified to one in three. My father would come to my bedroom door each night to wish me happy dreams and I would speak without taking a breath, trying desperately to keep him in my room with only my voice. I would see his hand on the doorknob, the door beginning to swing shut. I have something to say! I’d tell him, and the door would stop midway."
A grifter uncle visits his fundamentalist family.
"Uncle Skillet had stayed the same as he was in the stories my dad told. He had become a nomad, somebody my parents argued about in loud hisses, thinking they were whispering while they thought I was asleep. The idea of Uncle Skillet thrilled me. He was one of the bad guys from the Bible, a nomad on a permanent adventure, no agenda. Wild, dangerous, sinning all over the world, a life like the underside of the lawnmower."
An imaginative, unpopular boy and a depressed older man face the dangers of winter.
"Something was wrong here. A person needed a coat. Even if the person was a grownup. The pond was frozen. The duck thermometer said ten. If the person was mental, all the more reason to come to his aid, as had not Jesus said, Blessed are those who help those who cannot help themselves, but are too mental, doddering, or have a disability?"
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."
A mysterious visitor at a children's party has far-reaching ulterior motives.
"They did not play cards with him, they did not offer him cigars. No one entered into conversation with him. Possibly they recognised the bird by its feathers from a distance. Thus, my gentleman, not knowing what to do with his hands, was compelled to spend the evening stroking his whiskers. His whiskers were really fine, but he stroked them so assiduously that one got the feeling that the whiskers had come into the world first and afterwards the man in order to stroke them."
A group of children transfix themselves with the mania of creative destruction.
"'All this hate and love,' he said, 'it's soft, it's hooey. There's only things, Blackie,' and he looked round the room crowded with the unfamiliar shadows of half things, broken things, former things."
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 substitute teacher entices and repels her students with mysterious "substitute facts."
"'Pyramids,' Miss Ferenczi said, still looking past the window. 'I want you to think about pyramids. And what was inside. The bodies of the pharaohs, of course, and their attendant treasures. Scrolls. Perhaps,' Miss Ferenczi said, her face gleeful but unsmiling, 'these scrolls were novels for the pharaohs, helping them to pass the time in their long voyage through the centuries. But then, I am joking.'"
A stand-alone piece of the manuscript that became The Pale King, this story details a young boy's mysterious and doomed obsession.
"During the five weeks that he was disabled with a subluxated T3 vertebraoften in such discomfort that not even his inhaler could ease the asthma that struck whenever he experienced pain or distressthe heady enthusiasm of childhood had given way in the boy to a realization that the objective of pressing his lips to every square inch of himself was going to require maximum effort, discipline, and a commitment sustainable over periods of time that he could not then (because of his age) imagine."
Fabulist fiction, about a shoeshine boy with a secret.
"Dr. Fessenden takes an interest, both medical and fatherlike. He wears black leather brogues at least twenty years old, the kind they don't make anymore. He prods my back with his doctorly fingers and makes considering sounds. "
A boy falls in love with a Barbie doll. A little NSFW.
" I did something Barbie almost didn't forgive me for. I did something which not only shattered the moment, but nearly wrecked the possibility of us having a future together. In the hallway between the stairs and Jennifer's room, I popped Barbie's head into my mouth, like lion and tamer, God and Godzilla."
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."
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."
Childhood acquaintances, meeting again in adolescence.
"In the morning you all slept in, victims of jet lag, reminding us that despite your presence, your bags crowding the hallways, your toothbrushes cluttering the side of the sink, you belonged elsewhere."