Learning about death from a sixth-generation funeral director.
Details from a Lord of the Rings fantasy game interrupt details of a tragic, complicated personal life.
"Right about now, I assume you’ve gotten a bit bored. Dead babies! Let me tell you, dying babies bore the shit out of pretty much everyone, I’ve learned. So, let me take a moment to tell you a humorous LOTRO anecdote (that is, Lord of the Rings Online) about my level 25 minstrel character, Sinuviel. You see, LOTRO is free up to a point, and great fun if you have access to a computer that is badass enough to run it. Just before my fiancé, James, died, I bought a refurbished ASUS laptop for dirt cheap, and it was the best thing in the world for distracting me from how boring my dying child was to everyone I’d ever known."
The death of a pet leads to unique, unsettling mental strains.
"She needed to take a seat. Altogether too much for a morning already, and it was only seven. She collapsed backwards onto the couch and the thing jumped into the lap of her nightgown, settling into the space there, the way Caleb had done as a puppy. She touched it tentatively, and the thing seemed to shiver pleasantly under her hand."
As a mother and son share cocktails on the porch, past problems are discussed and imagined.
"She was aware of the resonance of her son's voice. She guessed the neighbors were used to it by now, and would assume Bradley was having another mental fit. They didn't know how hard these family deaths had hit her son, and how tough it was to keep him from getting aroused, or agitated, a word his therapist used a lot. She knew too, that her son, like his father, was persistent and could fixate on things."
“For much of my life, there was something about my mother I felt almost allergic to. As she approached death, for the first time I found I didn’t merely love her, I actually liked her.”
Excerpted from The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion.
A woman bonds with her terminally ill sister over food, memories, and shaky lives.
"When Ava won the middle school election, there was peach cobbler with a filling so warm it burnt my tongue. When I failed chemistry, she silently let me lock myself in my room, but I came down for dinner to lasagna with short ribs that fell apart at the slightest nudge. Mom would only speak to us seriously once our mouths were full; with blueberry-banana pancakes the morning of the SATs, chicken-stuffed bell peppers after soccer games, and over spaghetti carbonara for high school heartaches. We came to interpret her innermost thoughts in meticulous meals culled from Julia Child and the Rombauers. It was like she needed something to distract us when she was fully there."
An interactive fiction: a son and the illusion of his dead father; the intersection of technology and real life.
"Once I created his page I tried to return to my life. I was twenty-six years old, a man of inconsistent employment. During the winter I shoveled snow for the elderly. They paid me in germs and butterscotch candy. My landlord, an independently wealthy sexagenarian, accepted the candy as payment. She also insisted I tidy the complex. I changed light bulbs. I dusted the parking lot. I swept cigarette butts into the street. I clubbed the occasional beehive. My life was guarded and lonely, and susceptible, I soon discovered, to the distraction my father provided."
A widower takes his children to visit relatives under vague, suspicious circumstances.
"One day he said he was taking us on a trip to meet his people in Missouri, relatives we hadn’t known existed. They were farmers of German descent, with exotic-sounding names like Fritzi and Helga and Smit. We loaded up the car and just drove, right out into the country. If our mother had been alive, she’d pack a cooler full of bologna sandwiches and Mars bars, but there was none of that. The windows were down and hot bursts of wind boxed our cheeks and made the Cubs cap on our father’s head twitch."
On what you do and don’t learn in medical school.
Excerpted from Being Mortal.
Cemetery field recordings reveal terrifying audio messages.
"One night, listening back, she heard the crunch of shovelling. Nothing to worry about, the priest said. Simply gravediggers. She had not realised the cemetery still bore room for fresh dead; she imagined dough cut to the shape of the cemetery and a coffin-shaped cookie cutter pressed into it to calibrate the number of remaining graves."
Sam Simon made a fortune from The Simpsons. Now, diagnosed with terminal cancer, he is racing to spend it.
A tale of small town love and loss; a summer tale for the last official weekend of summer.
"Do you love her? Those things are kind of hard to know. For me, anyway. My mom died when I was four and my dad never met anyone else, at least, not anyone that made him want to try again. I never got to watch him love, and so it feels like that part of me is broken. I know how to ride a bike, how to fry an egg sunnyside-up, how to thread a worm on a hook, but I don’t know when someone says I love you if they mean it or if they just want me to lie back in the grass and hike up my skirt."
A day in the life of a child in 1960s England.
"Carrie’s father was studying, in the evenings and on weekends, for a degree in politics, but on the day of a party he had to leave his books and submit to the different laws of the female domain, obeying the instructions that his wife rapped out, vacuuming and tidying, setting up the drinks tray. She followed impatiently after him, because he had no feeling for arranging the cushions or the flowers; he thought these things were not worth having a feeling for. The children exchanged sly looks and jokes with their father behind their mother’s back, conspiring against her remorselessness. But as soon as the guests arrived she relaxed into smiles, as if that other, sterner self had never existed."
Somber, tender scenes from a local bar.
"It was supposed to be an intervention, but they were getting piss drunk. Freddy Malins had been drinking all week. His mother died the morning after New Year’s at her home in Portobello. She was taking out the trash and fell down the steps in the hall that led to the street. There was another tenant, but they were stuck in Kildare due to the snow storm that covered the country, and, after Freddy came around to ring for her and she wouldn’t answer, he went back home, cursing at his mother for being a right bloody pain in the ass, and got his copy of the key to her house. When he opened the door he found her there, eyes closed, neck craned at a sharp angle, head pressed forward against her chest."
An excerpt from Murakami's forthcoming novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.
“I have a kind of weird story related to death. Something my father told me. He said it was an actual experience he had when he was in his early twenties. Just the age I am now. I’ve heard the story so many times I can remember every detail. It’s a really strange storyit’s hard even now for me to believe it actually happenedbut my father isn’t the type to lie about something like that. Or the type who would concoct such a story. I’m sure you know this, but when you make up a story the details change each time you retell it. You tend to embellish things, and forget what you said before. ... But my father’s story, from start to finish, was always exactly the same, each time he told it. So I think it must be something he actually experienced. I’m his son, and I know him really well, so the only thing I can do is believe what he said. But you don’t know my father, Tsukuru, so feel free to believe it or not. Just understand that this is what he told me. You can take it as folklore, or a tale of the supernatural, I don’t mind. It’s a long story, and it’s already late, but do you mind if I tell it?”
The aftermath of a back alley operation.
" He was lying in a tub with a gash around his gut that looked badly sewn up and possibly infected. The stitching was so poor that it mirrored the seams on a homemade football done left-handed. Ugly zigzags. The tub was floating full of Pabst and Budweiser cans. No ice, just cans and lukewarm water the color of weak coffee doing the cooling."
A young man works as an apprentice to his mortician uncle.
"I have learned a number of corollaries to that in my time as an apprentice. I have learned that, sometimes, your relatives will ask us to remove gold fillings from your teeth so that they can sell them. I have learned that some of your acquaintances will wear jeans to your funeral. I have learned that, all too often, your closest friends will not come at all. They will text during the service. They will sneak outside to the parking lot when it’s time to sing hymns to smoke cigarettes and steal swigs from flasks of whiskey, telling each other that you would’ve wanted it that way."
A small town paramedic reflects on her troubled yet protective uncle.
"Inside, Lou washed our faces and made us some lemonade. I changed my pants. He turned on the radio in the kitchen. He made us peanut butter and crackers. He dealt out hands of Crazy-Eights and told us a story of Mom learning to milk a cow. Not once did he look out the window. After an hour, Lou picked up the phone and called the coroner."
A son goes to visit his dying father in a story about various forms of storytelling.
"He ripped open his shirt and crushed the mutilated tomato against his chest. Juice glistened in dark burls of hair. He thought that maybe he was about to make a serious declaration, or even try to laugh the whole thing off, when he felt a twinge, a test cinch for another spell of nervous woe. The Belt of Intermittent Sorrow, which he somehow now named the moment it went tight, squeezed him to the kitchen floor."
Young love in an rural American town is beset by ominous setbacks.
"The only person he could make out was Reverend Kelly, a traveling preacher from England. He sat by a lamp, which illuminated his sharp cheekbones and pointy nose, his sagging mouth formed into a smirk. And those beady eyes. Willie didn’t like the way he’d seen those eyes following Lena around earlier in the night."
A boarding house for ghosts; coping mechanisms of family deaths.
"My mother forbade me from going to the Haunt-Away, so I went every day after school. My aunt and I had never been close. Her husband, George, had died thirteen years prior, just months before I was born. Now, each afternoon, I watched her wash sheets and remake untouched beds. She set out plates of cookies and brewed pots of tea which, when poured, grew cold in unused cups. She talked and laughed to empty rooms, and sometimes when I entered, I had the distinct impression that I was interrupting."
Misguided love sustains a groundskeeper through multiple deaths and decades.
"Murdering all those Emmetts had been especially hard on Archibald who was never adept at taking the lives of non-gazelles, however plentiful those lives might be. He grew more and more ill as the Emmetts came and dropped. He became increasingly fearful of silence and the dark, spending hundreds in oil to keep the house bathed in flickering light, a whole house drowning in amber. He’d taken to leaving tarpaulins up on the walls for when the Emmetts arrived so he could minimize his cleanup time, but as he spiraled deeper into paranoia he neglected to scrub them, and they wriggled blackly with flies. With an eye to hygiene, he had once tried strangling an Emmett, but this had proved too horrific for him to bear."
A distraught brother is given a Ziplog bag of his sister's ashes.
"So where should he stow a Ziploc bag of his sister’s ashes? Not all of her cremains, mind you. About a third, according to his father. Noah didn’t like the idea of their dad divvying her up, like a drug dealer, weighing out bags of powder. But more than that he also doesn’t like having that baggie now. On the airplane. Heading back to San Francisco. After the funeral."
A scientific and psychological examination of a gunshot.
"This is how you feel a bullet. You have certain sensory receptors that detect pain, these are called nociceptors. When a nocicpetor receives a painful stimulus, it sends a signal through its neuron to the spinal cord, which sends the signal to your brain, which sends it to a number of different areas for processing. The location and intensity of the stimulus is deciphered by the primary and secondary somatosensory cortex, for example."
An elderly man's work on a complex sculpture confuses those close to him.
" I sit on the plastic pot bench with my feet dangling in the water, drinking beer with my son, and it occurs to me that this is the first time in a long while that we have done something together that wasn’t planned to death or didn’t involve other people. I keep my mouth shut because I don’t want to spoil the moment. But Wallace spoils it for me. He starts telling me about his speech. At first I don’t understand what he is talking about, but then I start to hear something. He says that expectations are changing, and that the things that sustain us are not always recognizable as such. But what I hear him saying is that he thinks this thing I am building is what I believe is keeping me alive. He still doesn’t get it. He thinks maybe I am depressed, so I turn the conversation to something more capitalistic."
Two strangers on a bus attempt to make sense of mutual loss.
"Back on the bus, the old man has vanished. Only flecks of tobacco linger on his empty seat. If he suspected me of anything, by now I’d know. Through the window, I watch the market shrink away until it’s no more. The sun beats on my face, hotter than yesterday, and the day before that. Motion sickness snaps between nerves in my brain, spreads down and gnaws the lining of my stomach. I feel my organs rotting from the inside out. One hundred and twenty. Stupid dogs."
A husband's death; a long, complicated friendship.
"You'd take your anger at his passivity out to the porch, along with an old cigar (the closest thing you can find in the house to a cigarette) and your cell phone. Call your best friend Madeline. Make small talk. Get to the point. Tell her about the fight. Tell her everything—but don't tell her too much. Feel reassured by her certainty:'We're all polyamorous.'Remember she's single, and then hold her in secret disdain for shattering your fairy tales of soul mates and true love with her psychology books and her thesis theory."
A primer on services for the afterlife.
"So you’ll start by taking a ride in the flatbed truck with Gurtie, and she’ll drop you off at the ARF center. You’ll probably be pretty disoriented. It’s okay. You’ve been riding in the back of a white flatbed truck with a bunch of recently dead people for several hours through the Afterlife—which looks basically like North Dakota. None of you will be happy campers, and some of your traveling companions will look downright alarming, what with death not being such a photogenic moment for most people. We understand and we sympathize. It’s an unpleasant time for you, but like I said, we are understaffed. Do we wish there were a better way? Yes, we do. Is there a better way? Not yet, there’s not."
“It’s Tuesday, it’s February, it’s my first day back at work after a week on vacation. I notice the candle in the foyer just as the whoosh of the door blows it out. They never did that for my birthday, I think as I walk past reception.”
Two friends travel to Mexico while dealing with individual deaths.
"Late in the afternoon Allison and I happen upon a parade in the oldest part of Oaxaca―more out-of-tune horn-players and wild-hot colors and heart-shaped garlands and costumes and photos of people gone but still remembered and cherished. Two tiny girls dressed in white, like angels or brides or spirits, carry a baby-sized cardboard coffin on their shoulders. These good people of Oaxaca have learned, one generation to the next, how to make this annual occasion of loss into celebration."
A young woman seeks an appropriate way to dispose of the ashes of her father, a fervid design critic.
"He always wished to be a geometric form (so often did he rail against 'the tyranny of the organic') so I could tell myself he’d be happy, but he also hated bric-a-brac and I think right now he’d qualify, being a small object with no function."
An aging man, a dead wife, a peculiar dog.
Once more at five o'clock, just before five o'clock, the dog engaged in its unaccountable behavior. And then, the next day, again. And the day after that, again. And still he had gotten not an inch closer to understanding why. Would he ever? Perhaps a sound so high-pitched he couldn't hear it. Something shifting in the clock maybe as it prepared to chime the hour. Or the dog was somehow seeing something that wasn't actually there. Or maybe he was simply watching the dog go mad.
A couple peacefully contemplates their imminent destruction.
"I dreamt that it was all going to be over and a voice said it was; not any kind of voice I can remember, but a voice anyway, and it said things would stop here on Earth. I didn't think too much about it when I awoke the next morning, but then I went to work and the feeling as with me all day. I caught Stan Willis looking out the window in the middle of the afternoon and I said, 'Penny for your thoughts, Stan,' and he said, 'I had a dream last night,' and before he even told me the dream, I knew what it was. I could have told him, but he told me and I listened to him."
A woman is sent on an ominous mission to collected a jugular vein.
"The hands are still clapping when I jump, when I take on the air, when I dive. My body slams into the dirt at the bottom of the hole, some of the jugulars beneath me, I can feel the softness of them, I pull the rest near me, bring their thick heavy softness near the heat of my body."
Memories of a grandfather's seemingly endless chances to demise.
"Grandpa died in his bathroom when I was eleven, slipped on the tiles when I ran into his house to get him up for Christmas morning. Grandpa died when we were making a giant diorama of the solar system for my eighth grade science fair and he fell on the table saw. Grandpa burned in camp fires, had aneurisms at football games when I waved to the bleachers, choked on turkey bones and once a pecan pie at Thanksgiving. Instead of studying for tests, I learned the Heimlich, mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, drew schematics for heart paddles salvaged from toaster ovens."
How Service Corporation International corporatized death, driving growth through everything from aggresive acquisitions, volume pricing on caskets and embalming fluid, a “strong flu season,” and pre-selling over $7.5 billion worth of burials.
An act of terror at an art museum.
"When – with difficulty – I made my way into the centre of the space, or what seemed like the centre of the space, I saw that one door was obscured by rags of hanging debris, and I turned and began to work in the other direction. There, the lintel had fallen, dumping a pile of brick almost as tall as I was and leaving a smoky space at the top big enough to drive a car through. Laboriously I began to climb and scramble for it – over and around the chunks of concrete – but I had not got very far when I realised that I was going to have to go the other way. Faint traces of fire licked down the far walls of what had been the exhibition shop, spitting and sparkling in the dim, some of it well below the level where the floor should have been."
An animal's corpse disrupts a humdrum workday in this early story from Eleanor Catton, the winner of this year's Man Booker Prize.
"Sharon was upstairs cleaning out the tearoom when the van arrived. I ran out into the carpark to greet them properly, before anyone else got the chance. The delegate was a youngish girl with short hair and leather cuffs around her wrists. 'Let's see this headless dog, then," she said, and she rubbed her palms together and clapped them twice.'"
Two sisters struggle to adjust to changing family circumstances.
"When we got outside, the first thing we did was loosen and let trail the scarves our mother had wrapped around our necks. (The fact was, though we may not have put the two things together, the deeper she got into her pregnancy the more she slipped back into behaving like an ordinary mother, at least when it was a matter of scarves we didn’t need or regular meals. There was not so much championing of wild ways as there had been in the fall.) Caro asked me what I wanted to do, and I said I didn’t know. This was a formality on her part but the honest truth on mine. We let the dog lead us, anyway, and Blitzee’s idea was to go and look at the gravel pit. The wind was whipping the water up into little waves, and very soon we got cold, so we wound our scarves back around our necks."
A dead son's markings appear in household mold, thus beginning a new form of Butler's surreal, creepy family dramas.
"I’d always felt my boy would live forever. He seemed strung with a different make of vein. I’d once watched him bang his head hard on a lathe out in my workshop in the midst of chasing moths, and instead of crying, whining for mother, his body shook with hiccupping elation, a brook of blood tracing his cheek down to his diapers. Only months alive he’d had large canines. When I’d let him, in his mother’s absence, he liked pounding nails with the tiny hammer I’d provided. I’d caught him more than once chewing on hunks of dirt or even glass, which he’d swallow grinning as I tried to make him spit. How he could stare straight into a blowtorch, beg for me to lay the hot blue light in his hands and sit like that for as long as I could stand to hold it with him. Three years old and already beyond anything I had imagined in a son."
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."
How Norman Mailer and other writers wanted to go out.
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."
A relationship is explored via memories and lists; a mental breakdown ensues.
"I thought the standard things like dates and flowers could keep us normal. But it was the subtle derision in your smile that made me want to smother you in your sleep after I said things like: It aches sometimes—how life seems so long. You thought therapy could keep us sane so you made it an ultimatum and flushed my Seroquel down the toilet."
Mystical, unsettling rumors surround a student at an all-girls school in Nigeria.
"We shuddered when we heard her invoke Allah. All but begging her not to unleash her powers on us, we recounted, in turns, how we had heard from someone who had heard from someone of the pencil case in the gym. Pencil case in the gym? What pencil case in what gym? We said that we had heard stories, too, about the blotting paper. Naturally, we made no mention of her Islamic faith. The word ‘witch’ remained unsaid. We said only that, whatever she had done, we were certain she had done for a good reason. And that her adversary, whomever it was, probably deserved it. Nuratu, as the full implication of our story dawned on her, looked as if she had been stabbed. She slowly sank to the floor, and began to weep and shake her head.
In a digital world, two godlike corporations secretly plan to overtake another entity.
"They transmitted to cloudspace where there were no bodies. The nanocrystalline substrate was like gossamer wisps, visible only as glittering mica dust beneath the nourishing fusion showers of the sun. Billions of bodiless minds gathered, connected frail tendrils like excited jellyfish, and formed an optical array so they could watch from on high how the war was going. I can’t see the wave, Jacob transmitted to Jocelyn. She was an invisible presence beside him, little more than a compression of neuron–data, like him, and like two–thirds of the human race now."
A young widow deals with attraction, ghosts, and patients while working in a mental facility.
"Gail refrained from telling her mother about Willem, maybe out of defiance if nothing else. When you live in your childhood home, jobless, for three years, it’s hard not to become something like a teenager again. Gail would be happy to report on her regained self-sufficiency, to tell her mother that she’d received crisis intervention training to defend herself against and restrain these 'crazies.' But her mother wanted to picture Gail dating people, not putting them in headlocks."
After a tragic accident, a husband and wife take a trip to Japan.
"Neither of us knows what Nori looks like, nor do we know how he will recognize us. In my first reply email months ago, I had explained that my wife and daughter would like to try exotic foods, perhaps see a bit of Japanese history. I had forgotten, like so many other things that have since slipped through the cracks, to mention that Gracie would no longer be joining us."
A young Sikh narrates gender identity issues to a dead friend.
"I just stare at him for a minute. It’s a minute that hangs in the balance. He may be batshit. But then, I’m the one seeing disappearing boys. I may be batshit. Something about what he says is true though. It’s unavoidable. There is something different inside of me. Something besides being a boy and a girl and neither. Maybe that something is what kept me alive all this time, kept me from shattering. An emptiness that sustains."
An oral history of a murdered prep basketball star.
"All I can think is how narrow the drive-through is and how it's full of exhaust and grease and the vent where the air blows out and how they couldn't move, couldn't go backward or forward 'cause there were five LAPD cars and how Tenerife must have been trying to call me. Trying. I just took two more. I know I had some wine. I don't care."
A niece's tense, monotonous visits with her bedridden aunt; an unexpected, grisly turn of events.
"Uncongenial was the word for that atmosphere; but not painful, not ugly. Then, quite soon, with the utmost perverseness, it turned very ugly indeed. Sophie faithlessly developed a horrifying and terminal, but not very promptly terminal, illness. And after a series of live-in nurses (friendly, but beset by all the normal misadventures of daily life) had held the fort spasmodically, Sophie had ended at Holly Hill, and Edie in the first major possession of her life: a midget and not particularly nice apartment, but sunny, quiet, except for music and casual voices, and never, never, never a source of shock."
A college student takes a trip to Greece following a death in the family.
"He bumped his way through the crowd of tourists shopping for postcards and miniature statues of gods with erect penises. Was his dad in an art gallery, picking up a sculpture of Poseidon for the foyer? Was he at a taverna sipping on local wine and feasting on fresh clams? Alex kept marching, out of the town and past the famous windmills. He looked back at Little Venice and its cluster of bars extending out over the water like they were threatening to leap."
The first published excerpt of J.G. Ballard's disturbing novel.
"The optimum auto-disaster. Panels consisting of drive-in theatre personnel, students and middleincome housewives were encouraged to devise the optimum auto-disaster. A wide choice of impact modes was available, including roll-over, roll-over followed by head-on collision, multiple pile-ups and motorcade attacks. In an overwhelming majority of cases a crash complex was constructed containing elements not usually present in automobile accidents, i.e. strong religious and sexual overtones, the victim being mounted in the automobile in bizarre positions containing postural elements of both perverse intercourse and ritual sacrifice, e.g. arms outstretched in a notional crucifixion mode."
Mysteries and complex memories envelop an unhappy suburban marriage.
"So Kendall started it, and once the ball of change got rolling, it gathered velocity. No going back. Things were starting to happen. One morning on the brick patio, Kendall was in sweats after finishing his workout. The look suited him: athletic but not excessively sweaty. In the distance, the heavy haze was like a scrim in front of the cityscape. It would mean a smog alert when they turned on the news. Behind him was the dry swimming pool, a long, inset coffin with a sturdy mesh cover that looked like a rectangular rug laid over the yard. She felt a recklessness bubbling up in her. He was her husband, yet not. Something about him coming home a stranger was cutting her loose, changing the plan."
After a young man's death, his college friend and his mother reassess their lives.
"Many of these details Ben learned while he stood in the lobby of the funeral home on Madison Avenue before the service that warm September Saturday. He was looking for a place to stash his suitcase and people were saying the body was in good shape; it was nice to be able to say goodbye. Perhaps it was the jetlag, but Ben never realized they were talking about an open casket in another room and so he never went to see it. Later, when he started believing he was seeing Mike in London — in the turn of a cheek, a certain stride — he regretted this. He thought maybe the problem could have been avoided if he’d said goodbye with more finality, had seen Mike’s dead face. That seemed like part of the problem; it was hard to accept that Mike was gone. He’d worked harder than most for everything he’d attained. How could it be that the one thing he couldn’t work for was not granted to him in large supply?"
A drifter shares a bond with a friend's mistreated dogs.
"It’s Thursday. Every Thursday he goes to see Mel’s dogs. Mel owns Mel’s Grocery and Mel’s Laundry. Mel lives above the grocery and out back he keeps two Rottweilers, one male and one female, in cages. Mel never bothered to name the dogs, so Mike named the female She. He didn’t name the male. The male is just a big dumb empty head. But She is smart. Mike likes to play with her in the vacant lot behind the old Sears building. Just last week they were playing ball. They huddled up."
In the wake of his grandmother's death, a young man struggles with intense bouts of anger.
"I'll describe the walls because that's easy — they were white, and I hurt my right pinkie knuckle-punching some of them while I walked through rooms searching for my car keys. My inability to find them frustrated me so badly that I beat up the bathroom door, limped away, and waved my fist at the plaster statue of Beethoven's head on top of the piano we never learned to play. After all that, I found the keys in a coat pocket I had already checked twice but somehow missed. I grabbed the video and made toward the back door, but on my way I noticed Sparkles cowering under the kitchen table, shaking, terrified of me. I hated myself a little extra, fed her a slice of manufactured cheese, patted her on the head, and took the back steps three at a time."
From 1855 comes this gripping tale about the consequences of acceding to a deathbed request.
"Let me go. Let me go!" said Susan (for her lover's arm was round her waist). "I must go to him if he’s fretting. I promised mother I would!" She pulled herself away, and went in search of the boy. She sought in byre and barn, through the orchard, where indeed in this leafless winter-time there was no great concealment; up into the room where the wool was usually stored in the later summer, and at last she found him, sitting at bay, like some hunted creature, up behind the wood-stack.
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."
After a drunk driving accident, a dangerous altercation ensues.
"Now Flint says nothing, and his lips sew themselves closed. His head jerks sharply, half an inch to the side. There’s no reading it. John has never been good at reading people. He reads reports and precedents, and those are the things he is good at. He reads labels and alcohol content and is good at ignoring those. Was. He can’t do that again. He wants to do that again. He wants the scotch his sister upended in the drain, the gin alongside. He should be thinking about the money, about the cost of those things, but money is beyond him right now. All he wants is moisture in his throat. Outside, the sky is still as dry as sand, a black blanket cut by threads of lightning. He misses the darkness, before the lamp came on, because the yellow light is too clean, too real. This moment is not at all real."
Spending time and memories in the afterlife.
"1981, Teskia recalled, wasn't so bad. They had both been very young then, so the population would be sparse. They took a train (it was five days for the fare) and ended up in July. They traveled north until she found Zoya, living in October. Zoya wanted out of 1981; Teskia wanted in."
A dying grandmother shares a story about meeting George Harrison.
"I went to my room a little catatonic, in a mixture of religious awe and fascination with my grandmother. I confirmed the information and yes, Rishikesh was that city in India where the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram was, where the Beatles had stayed in the late 1960s and where they had composed a bunch of songs. It was incredible that Gran had managed to associate the song I had played with all that. And remembered the song, and that it was by George, and included herself in the story, to boot."
Dead creatures reflect on their current/eternal circumstance.
"Enshrouded and encased, the animal mummies are trying to be patient. They did not expect the afterlife to be lit with flickering, fluorescent bulbs. Darkened sarcophagi, woven boats rowed across the heavenly river, glimmering, gorgeous night—that was what they thought would be in store after they died and priests washed them with palm wine and pulled white linen tight."
After a friend's death, three people take a trip to scatter the ashes.
"The will assigned the task of scattering the ashes to Megan and Nolan, high school friends, and me. We were to scatter the ashes in a ravine on Levi’s uncle’s farm in Henderson, Kentucky. A year passed before Megan, Nolan and I agreed on a weekend to make the trip. By that time I was out of the halfway house and working max hours as manager of a dingy apartment complex in Louisville. I couldn’t believe Levi, at twenty-two, had written a will."
The man behind the Body Worlds exhibit faces his own death.
A widow meets the acquaintance of a mysterious, frightening young girl.
"Miriam ate ravenously, and when the sandwiches and milk were gone, her fingers made cobweb movements over the plate, gathering crumbs. The cameo gleamed on her blouse, the blond profile like a trick reflection on its wearer. 'That was very nice,' she sighed, 'though now an almond cake or a cherry would be ideal. Sweets are lovely, don’t you think?' Mrs. Miller was perched precariously on the hassock, smoking a cigarette. Her hairnet had slipped lopsided and loose strands straggled down her face. Her eyes were stupidly concentrated on nothing and her cheeks were mottled in red patches, as though a fierce slap had left permanent marks."
A woman, originally hired as a tutor for a now-deceased girl, finds herself in the middle of a wealthy couple's mournings and problems.
"At Grace’s next session on Park Avenue, Mrs. Bank does something she hasn’t done since the first session: she comes into Perry’s bedroom. Grace is flipping through online photos of kids who stuck with the theater program when she senses she’s not alone and pretends to be scribbling history cards. But when she casually turns a minute later, it’s obvious Mrs. Bank isn’t paying attention to what she’s doing at the desk. Instead Mrs. Bank is sitting in Perry’s pink armchair, the one that’s usually colonized by old stuffed animals and American Girl dolls, looking out the window at Midtown."
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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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."
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."
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 hunter is overcome by a vengeful snake and bear.
"When the sun was above the treeline, and the hunter returned to the cabin, they were ready for him. The bear swung the cast iron fireplace poker, knocked him to his knees, then lunged forward and pinned the hunter to the pine floorboards, with the same force she remembered feeling from him, setting her teeth to his jugular. Stunned, incapacitated, the hunter managed only a whimper as the snake joined the attack, bit a hole in him, entered him, slithering in, feeling her way, the same way she remembered him doing."
Family faults, loss, and discontent arise when a widower watches his grandson during a summer in Florida.
"In the calm that follows his tears, Fowler sees clearly how Mary, in dying, not only took herself away from him, but also widened the gap between he and his daughter and his grandson. Fowler would have to take on his wife’s best qualities — her patience, her unconditional love for people despite their flaws — in order to stop that gap from widening. This realization terrifies him — he doesn’t have that kind of strength — and as his heart beats fast with that fear, he notices the boy’s socks on the floor near the bed. He picks one of them up and uses it to wipe at his eyes. He blows his nose into the sock, breathes in the fabric’s sour scent."
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."
"He knew Jody was rattling about the house. He knewand he acknowledged this laterthat she might at any moment blunder in. She did not like parties that involved open doors, and guests passing between the house and the garden. Strangers might come in, and wasps."
Why do Ikarians live so long—and remain mentally sharp until the end?
The trials and silliness of Facebook, from beyond the grave.
"In a last, desperate attempt to recapture our imaginations, Madeline began posting pictures of herself with dead celebrities like Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe, even Benjamin Franklin. But they were doing things like high-fiving, watching TV, and playing darts. As a community, we agreed it was in bad taste."
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 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 longtime Harper’s contributor considers America as he dies: “When I died, I died of many things: the failing systems; the weakening of age; the exhaustion of the long war against dying. Finally, I succumbed to the lack of ethics in a California hospital, killed by filth and neglect.”
After a mutual friend "goes too far," his friends plan a get-together for his hanging.
"We asked him what sort of music he would like played at the hanging. He said he'd think about it but it would take him a while to decide. I pointed out that we'd have to know soon, because Howard, who is a conductor, would have to hire and rehearse the musicians and he couldn't begin until he knew what the music was going to be. Colby said he'd always been fond of Ives's Fourth Symphony. Howard said that this was a 'delaying tactic' and that everybody knew that the Ives was almost impossible to perform and would involve weeks of rehearsal, and that the size of the orchestra and chorus would put us way over the music budget."
Amid rumors about her beauty, a young woman returns home from work to make a tragic discovery.
"On her way up the long flights the girl unfastened her veil. One could then clearly see the beauty of her eyes, but there was in them a certain furtiveness that came near to marring the effect. It was a peculiar fixture of gaze, brought from the street, as of one who there saw a succession of passing dangers, with menaces aligned at every corner. On the top floor she pushed open a door, and then paused on the threshold, confronting an interior that appeared black and flat like a curtain. Perhaps some girlish ideas of hobgoblins assailed her then, for she called, in a little breathless voice, 'Daddie!'"
A man awaits his death at the hands of three men and a mysterious machine.
"He never seriously doubted that he would warm to and admire all three at once, and wish only that he could have been their friend. He knew that they used a machine. As if prompted by some special hindsight, Denton thought often and poignantly about the moment when the leader would consent to take his hand as the machine began to work. He knew that they were out there already, seeing people, making telephone calls; and he knew that they must be very expensive."
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."
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."
Observations on death, from the outside and the inside.
" No one really dies in my family. Not yet. A grandmother died, and an uncle, but I was too young. A grandfather died seven years ago; I wasn’t allowed to see his last moments. I remember his final weeks: hospice, jaundice, eyes, resignation. Jump-cut to the funeral home: yellow skin softened by the buttermilk interior of the casket, a suit that I didn’t know he owned, a pocket square like denim."
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"
Residents of a small New Hampshire town deal with various problems and hardships.
"I unchained my bike and rode out through the center of Carlisle towards Jack’s house. A couple of times, I had told Wesley that I was done being a thief. It was like when Jack decided to stop drinking. Quitting’s easy, Jack told me, I’ve done it hundreds of times. I was scared at night, when I would hear cars pull up, and wonder if someone I had ripped off was after me."
For over one hundred years, a malicious supercomputer named AM has enslaved five tortured survivors who look for a way out.
"Oh, Jesus sweet Jesus, if there ever was a Jesus and if there is a God, please please please let us out of here, or kill us. Because at that moment I think I realized completely, so that I was able to verbalize it: AM was intent on keeping us in his belly forever, twisting and torturing us forever. The machine hated us as no sentient creature had ever hated before. And we were helpless. It also became hideously clear:If there was a sweet Jesus and if there was a God, the God was AM."
An art collector reflects back on the summer camp of her childhood, and a dreadful occurrence.
"[T]hese paintings are not landscape paintings. Because there aren’t any landscapes up there, not in the old, tidy European sense, with a gentle hill, a curving river, a cottage, a mountain in the background, a golden evening sky. lnstead there’s a tangle, a receding maze, in which you can become lost almost as soon as you step off the path. There are no backgrounds in any of these paintings, no vistas; only a great deal of foreground that goes back and back, endlessly, involving you in its twists and turns of tree and branch and rock. No matter how far back in you go, there will be more. And the trees themselves are hardly trees; they are currents of energy. charged with violent color."
A story about the tortured life of 1910s ballplayer Morrie Rath.
"Morrie's 1920 season is awful. He's sent back to the minors for a little while, then to the Pacific league, and then it's over. He will never have another World Series at-bat. He will never know what it's like to really be the best in the world."
Following their mother's death, two Colombian half-sisters visit a cathedral built within an old salt mine.
"She had imagined the church where the funeral was held, but pillared with white salt instead of gold and marble. A sort of whimsical confection. Only upon arriving at the mountain in Zipaquirá does she realize what this sight-seeing really entails: she and Valentina must descend with hundreds of people 600 feet into the earth. It’s a disturbingly morbid activity to undertake so soon after her mother’s death. But it is also something to do, so she buys their tickets and joins Valentina in the long line near a tall cement cross that marks the entrance to the mountain."
Infidelity leads to murder, with implications of haunting beyond the grave.
"Now Joe knew his wife had passed that way. He knew that the men lounging in the general store had seen her, moreover, he knew that the men knew he knew. He stood there silent for a long moment staring blankly, with his Adam’s apple twitching nervously up and down his throat. One could actually see the pain he was suffering, his eyes, his face, his hands and even the dejected slump of his shoulders. He set the bottle down upon the counter. He didn’t bang it, just eased it out of his hand silently and fiddled with his suspender buckle."
A librarian engages in sexual pursuits following the death of her father (NSFW).
" She has him back in the room; he makes one tentative step forward and then he's on her like Wall Street rain, his suit in a pile on the floor in a full bucket, her dress unbuttoned down, down, one by one until she's naked and the sweat is pooling in her back again. She obliterates herself and then buttons up. This man too wants to see her again, he might want to marry her, he's thinking, but she smiles without teeth and says, man, this is a one-shot deal. Thanks."
The Machine supports all remaining life and is not to be questioned in this science fiction classic.
"Advanced thinkers, like Vashti, had always held it foolish to visit the surface of the earth. Air-ships might be necessary, but what was the good of going out for mere curiosity and crawling along for a mile or two in a terrestrial motor? The habit was vulgar and perhaps faintly improper: it was unproductive of ideas, and had no connection with the habits that really mattered."
Not exactly Valentine's Day: an English professor in Chicago, lost in grief, begins dating a student.
"I can't even figure out what it is in Eric, why he sometimes reminds me of my old boyfriend. It's something in the way their faces shift, but I can never pin it down to a feeling or a cause. It surprises me right out of sleep."
A woman reflects back on a son who died in prison.
"A few of the guards were kind to her. In a couple of them she could see them look at her as if she were a vision of their own mothers driving four hours to be humiliated, to be searched, to have the insides of her thighs patted down for the love of a son who didn’t deserve it. "
An Indian woman is torn between Hinduism and Christianity.
"We were all somewhat worried by this, but Gold Teeth's religious nature was well known to us, her husband was a learned pundit and when all was said and done this was an emergency, a matter of life and death. So we could do nothing but look on. Incense and camphor and ghee burned now before the likenesses of Krishna and Shiva as well as Mary and Jesus. Gold Teeth revealed an appetite for prayer that equalled her husband's for food, and we marvelled at both, if only because neither prayer nor food seemed to be of any use to Ramprasad."
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?"
In Chicago at the 130th National Funeral Directors Conference.
The identity of the designer of a proposed 9/11 memorial competition inflames the emotions and the prejudices of an observer.
"The Rally to Protect Sacred Ground kicked off on a balmy Saturday morning in a plaza opposite the site. The members of both the Memorial Defense Committee and Save America From Islam were there, gathered in a cordoned-off area in front of the stage. Behind them stretched thousands: women holding signs that said NO TOLERANCE FOR THE INTOLERANT or KHAN IS A CON; fathers hoisting small children on their shoulders; men in camouflage who may or may not have been veterans. "
A fictional imagining of Edgar Allan Poe and a Faustian explanation of his talents.
"Don't you admit that a grave and corpse are more real than a memory and a lock of hair? and she said I never thought you such a materialist, Eddie and he laughed and they went on into the suffocating gloom and the Star set slowly over the black valley which his reasoning powers in combination with his accurate knowledge had enabled him to predict in bold relief, and as the Star set it cast a last beam down through the night-trees that occluded the gull, and tenderly brushed the pure darkness below."
A bank robber, an unexpected act of goodwill: an entertaining slice of American Western pulp.
"Sam Graybull liked whisky. He liked whisky like most men like women. Liked the color of it in a glass. Liked the gurgle of the stuff as it spilled out of a jug into a tin cup. Talk about music. The burn of it when a man tilted a jug and drank it thataway. God, fer a drink right now."
From Lutz's new collection, Divorcer: a man mourns his deceased wife in an unorthodox fashion.
"Death didn’t have any of the detergent effect I thought I had been led to expect. Things that had looked violently dirtied before looked even dirtier now, and there was a marital malodor to our place, but make no mistake: we had been lovers, my wife and I, meaning mostly that we had coated things and people with love, had used our love to cover things up, to see to it that layer after layer got put over everything."
At the scene of his mother’s funeral, Elvis Presley — invincible sex symbol, cocksure performer, the man who changed the world and music forever — was reduced to a pathetic, blubbering mama’s boy. “Mama, I’d give up every dime I own and go back to digging ditches, just to have you back,” he told her body while it lay in repose the night before the funeral. At the service, according to biographer Peter Guralnick, "Elvis himself maintained his composure a little better until, towards the end, he burst into uncontrollable tears and, with the service completed, leaned over the casket, crying out, 'Good-bye darling, good-bye. I love you so much. You know how much I lived my whole life just for you.' Four friends half-dragged him into the limousine. 'Oh God,' he declared, 'everything I have is gone.'"
A teenage girl observes her parents' work in a "dying parlor."
"It doesn’t take a genius to figure out dying people like to have a kid around to remind them of happier times. A teenager though, that’s something they’ll skip for their last two hours on earth. No one looks back on their life and says, remind me again of what it was like to be fifteen. Yeah, those were the days."
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."
Attempted, inane conversations with a woman on her deathbed.
"I read her MAN ROBS BANK WITH CHICKEN, about a man who bought a barbecued chicken at a stand down the block from a bank. Passing the bank, he got the idea. He walked in and approached a teller. He pointed the brown paper bag at her and she handed over the day's receipts. It was the smell of barbecue sauce that eventually led to his capture."
The lives and tribulations of two small town families intersect and collide.
"I was five months along, due in April, around the same time Bran would have turned twelve. That seemed ominous to me, but my aunt assured me that I was suffering from nothing more than nerves. My husband laughed at me, said Calum couldn’t keep track of all his kids. He was bound to lose one or two."
An insult leads to an unsettling form of revenge.
"As I said these words I busied myself among the pile of bones of which I have before spoken. Throwing them aside, I soon uncovered a quantity of building stone and mortar."
A man's recurring nightmare becomes a reality.
"John and I went back into the tower room and washed the blood off; but neither on his hand nor on mine was there the slightest trace of a scratch or cut. It seemed to me that, having ascertained this, we both, by a sort of tacit consent, did not allude to it again."
A universal panic--the spontaneous combustion of women--highlights feminist questions and everyday living.
"The stories kept circulating: a mother of five, sitting on the sidelines of a Little League game, gone. A waitress in our favorite diner, who always remembered that we needed extra napkins, gone. A bank teller we said hello to when we deposited our checks, gone. Who could figure this out, we asked. Who was going to protect us?"
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."
In the wake of a suicide attempt, a wise-cracking man addresses his late father, who died of auto-erotic asphyxiation.
"It was after all quite a shock to us, father, to learn of the promiscuous double life you had invented for yourself. When we found you, the tip of your penis was squeezed out through the top end of your fist like a tongue between two pursed lips, and the pearly sequins on the fronts of your stiletto heels shone up at us like droplets of you-know-what. And whatever shade of lipstick that was, smeared around the edges of that makeshift orifice, well, mother has refrained from restocking her supply—from wearing lipstick altogether in fact."
Meticulous details of a room and a murdered young woman; a sample of Robbe-Grillet's sometimes challenging forms.
"In the background, near the top of the stairway, a black silhouette is seen fleeing, a man wrapped in a long, floating cape, ascending the last steps without turning around, his deed accomplished. A thin smoke rises in twisting scrolls from a sort of incense burner placed on a high stand of ironwork with a silvery glint. Nearby lies the milkwhite body, with wide streaks of blood running from the left breast, along the flank and on the hip."
A typical family Christmas--dinner, presents, fighting, and the return of the dead father.
"My mother dropped a basket of hot rolls in the center of the table, looked quickly at my father sitting there. She may have been startled inside, but she didn’t show it; she just straightened a few of the forks on the linen napkins next to her and called into the living room where everyone was speaking in exaggerated hushed tones."
Animals,physical proximity and emotional distances link a troubled family and an eccentric neighbor.
"I am an expert now on the importance of throwing oneself back into neglected friendships and job. I suppose the advice is universal: teenaged girl, single working woman, middle-aged man living with his wife and the daughter he used to fail to recognize among the crowd of other people’s children pouring out of school when he went to pick her up. Now she drives herself."
A black man on the run for murder seeks a hiding place in this brief yet controversial piece from a stunning Harlem Renaissance voice.
"Annie Poole cut him off. 'Dis ain't no time foh all dat kin' o' fiddle-de-roll. Ah does mah duty as Ah sees et 'shout no thanks from you. Ef de Lawd had gib you a white face 'stead o' dat dere black one, Ah shuah would turn you out. Now hush yo' mouf an' git yo'se'f in. An' don' git movin' and scrunchin' undah dose covahs and git yo'se'f kotched in mah house.'"
A classic short detailing a woman's grief.
" She did not hear the story as many women have heard the same, with a paralyzed inability to accept its significance. She wept at once, with sudden, wild abandonment, in her sister's arms. When the storm of grief had spent itself she went away to her room alone. She would have no one follow her."
An American ESL teacher faces a potential crime investigation, mirrored by a crumbling relationship.
" The absurdity strikes him again – Jude the Midwestern philosophy major, worrying about a Thai jail sentence for counterfeiting – and he bites back a smile. He lives too much in his head, he knows, blowing up hypotheses and imaginings. The bills read ‘legal tender’; surely they are."
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. "
Fossils and farms in the American South.
"It took over a million years to make that smooth little hill, and I've looked all over it for trilobites. I think how it has always been there and always will be, least for as long as it matters."
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."
I felt, in some substantive yet elusive way, that I had had a hand in killing my mother. And so the search for a bed became a search for sanctuary, which is to say that the search for a bed became the search for a place; and of course by place I mean space, the sort of approximate, indeterminate space one might refer to when one says to another person, "I need some space"; and the fact that space in this context generally consists of feelings did not prevent me from imagining that the space-considered, against all reason, as a viable location; namely, my bedroom-could be filled, pretty much perfectly, by a luxury queen-size bed draped in gray-and-white-striped, masculine-looking sheets, with maybe a slightly and appropriately feminine ruffled bed skirt stretched about the box spring (all from Bellora in SoHo).
The call to the sheriff's office came on Nov. 18, 2010, just before noon. The townhouse, deputies learned, had belonged to a woman named Kathryn Norris, and the 1987 silver Chevy Nova was registered to her, too. She had used a normal amount of electricity in July 2009 and much less in August and none after that. She had paid her mortgage in August and then stopped. Her head was on the floor and her feet were on the seat. The corpse, deputies wrote in their report, was wearing a dress.
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."
New fiction from the author of 2010's Mr. Peanut.
"All of Patricia’s family pictures are still inside. Her clothes are still in the drawers. Her Garfield posters are still up on the walls. Everything."
A year-long investigation of America’s coroners and medical examiners reveals a deeply flawed, deeply troubling system.
The new purgatory; what becomes of digital identities after death.
Notes on a summer spent aboard an industrial fishing boat off the Alaskan coast.
Should modern medicine shift its end-of-life priorities, focusing less on staving off death and more on improving a patient’s last days?