On recreational genetics, privacy and the new vulnerability of family secrets.
An estranged husband recaps his odd marriage to a German woman.
"Back then, though, we weren’t sleeping together. That didn’t happen till later. In order to pretend to be my fiancée, and then my bride, Johanna had to spend time with me, getting to know me. She’s from Bavaria, Johanna is. She had herself a theory that Bavaria is the Texas of Germany. People in Bavaria are more conservative than your normal European leftist. They’re Catholic, if not exactly God-fearing. Plus, they like to wear leather jackets and such. Johanna wanted to know everything about Texas, and I was just the man to teach her. I took her to SXSW, which wasn’t the cattle call it is today. And oh my Lord if Johanna didn’t look good in a pair of bluejeans and cowboy boots."
When their parents are called away, the children of the farm set about creating their own Thanksgiving.
"Eph took his fiddle and scraped away to his heart's content in the parlor, while the girls, after a short rest, set the table and made all ready to dish up the dinner when that exciting moment came. It was not at all the sort of table we see now, but would look very plain and countrified to us, with its green-handled knives, and two-pronged steel forks, its red-and-white china, and pewter platters, scoured till they shone, with mugs and spoons to match, and a brown jug for the cider. The cloth was coarse, but white as snow, and the little maids had seen the blue-eyed flax grow, out of which their mother wove the linen; they had watched and watched while it bleached in the green meadow. They had no napkins and little silver; but the best tankard and Ma's few wedding spoons were set forth in state. Nuts and apples at the corners gave an air, and the place of honor was left in the middle for the oranges yet to come."
A mental disorder in which the protagonist believes he is a tree.
"There are a lot of things though that one doesn’t experience as a tree. For example music. Maybe trees feel the vibrations, but I don’t remember anymore. When I was young my mom put me in piano lessons. I begged to go to them actually, but I was horrible. Before the lesson I used to have to sit and wait in the hallway of the music school and from the different rooms you could hear the different instruments being played badly, but from my position in the hallway, it sounded like they were all coming from the same room. A cello screeching as syncopation to an out of tune violin with a piano clank-clanking along. It was beautiful and what I enjoyed more than anything else. Music is one thing that I’ll miss, when I become a tree again."
A clash of culture, sex, and need between an English wife and her Greek husband.
"On this day Mary goes home excited and restless and sits in front of her looking glass and examines herself. She often does this. She is plump, pretty, with ruddy cheeks, black curls, and a lot of well-placed dimples, and Dmitri calls her his little blackberry. But she has gray eyes, and he says that if it weren’t for those cool English eyes he could believe she has Greek blood. His black eyes easily smolder, or burn, or reproach. Mary leans her forearms among the little bottles of scent, the lipsticks, the eye paint, and tries out expressions. She puts a long unsmiling unblinking stare on her face and frightens herself with it."
A father and daughter face complicated sexual dynamics; NSFW.
"Back home, he is watching Formula One on television and bingeing on my mother’s homemade apricot sorbet. Ayrton Senna is on pole position. I’m going through a L.L. Bean catalog, seated right next to him on the couch, turned sideways toward him, knees to my chest so that when I wriggle my toes, I can almost feel the rough fabric of his pants. His eyes are riveted on the screen. He leans forward to place the empty bowl ice cream bowl on the coffee table. The moment he sinks back into his seat, I jump on his lap knees first, like a puppy on its master, wrap my arms around his neck and kiss him on the mouth. He pushes me away. I lose my balance and fall from the sofa to the floor, bumping my head against the solid wood coffee table. The fake silver spoon trembles inside the empty bowl, a lingering echo mocking my collapse."
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."
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."
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."
An uncle sets out to find his wayward niece.
"I pick Jerry’s and I’m right. A couple of old people are hanging out outside the pizza place and next to them groups of highschool kids. I see Sara. She’s sitting on a mailbox, leaning over a guy, her back to me. The sharp outline of her spine showing through her tank top and she doesn’t look like she’s been eating. She’s a good looking girl though, I can tell. An old Ozzy Ozbourne song plays from the open door of a Lexus next to them."
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."
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."
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."
Memories of the magical, enlightened daughter of a religious leader.
"It was in this moment that we began to wonder when her father might sense these happenings and descend upon us; when we turned to look, he had only just begun his approach, had only just caught sight of his daughter. He betrayed no surprise but drew himself up, preparing to mete judgment, and quickened his step as though eager to commence the necessary violence—"
A team of superheroes disrupt the life of a family.
"She tried to do errands like any other day. When she bought toilet paper, she thought to herself, 'What am I doing at the drug store? They took my baby. I should be doing something.' When she went to buy groceries, she felt like everybody was watching the star of 'Mom Jacked by Action Squad' picking out the freshest rutabagas for her now–childless family."
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 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 husband and father throws away old junk and painful memories.
"It's such a relief; I feel so wholesome, so pure, the toxins drained from my blood. I want to find more, so I dig up the shame of getting fired from my first job out of college. It's a nasty gray thing, like an old dried out iguana, hidden in a dark corner. As I pick it up, it begins to flake and crumble in my hands. I throw it into the dumpster like a football and it bangs against the metal wall. Then I find an ugly little puss-filled creature, looks like an over-cooked eggplant, my guilt for losing my temper and smacking my daughter once when she was five. I hold it far in front of me as I carry it out and chuck it in the giant metal bin. I dig up the anxiety about whether I'll make the next round of cuts at my job, the disappointment in myself for being a weak athlete in high school, and the remorse over not having spent more time with my dad toward the end of his battle with cancer, each thing strangely malformed and grotesque. I dump them all."
Her grandfather, she found out decades after he died, was not her grandfather. Who did that make her?
Changes forced by cancer put a Dominican-American man at odds with his family.
"The fever lasted two days, but it took a week before he was close to better, before he was spending more time on the couch than in bed. I was convinced that as soon as he was mobile he was going to head right back to Yarn Barn, or try to join the Marines or something. My mother feared the same. Told him every chance she got that it wasn’t going to happen. She was the tiniest person, but she posted up on him like she was Gigantor. I won’t allow it. Her eyes were shining behind her black Madres de Plaza de Mayo glasses. I won’t. Me, your mother, will not allow it."
After texts and phone calls are hacked and leaked, women across America are murdering each other for insults, slights, and dishonesty.
"Mom was trying to board up the window. She was terrible with hammers, with nails. Our living room was a sea of glass. The window was everywhere and everything was wrong. I wanted to tell someone about this but I couldn’t call Guncha. The phones didn’t even work anymore. That was how America was trying to fight. Just get people to stop interacting. There were curfews in effect. The phones were shut down. They figured if they could keep us from being near each other then maybe we would stop killing each other.
A party game drives a woman to reflect upon a history of manipulation.
"After each killing, Claire tried to be kind—defensive of those who were accused of being the werewolf and suspicious only of those making accusations. And throughout each round Claire asked questions about how the game was played, whose answers, in all honesty, she did not have figured out. (Though again, was that the werewolf playing the game, posturing innocence even in her private thoughts? Yes, it probably was. This freaked her out.)"
An unemployed banker drifts along Occupy protests, his crumbling life, and a crime scene.
"Against the bleachers’ far end, beyond the scope of the cameras, Michael was thinking again about Brussels. The bullet had rung out with plunky subtlety he knew to expect but found disappointing, still. He remembered a cathedral there and the sound he had heard inside of it. This was years ago. The sound he recalled was a cane that he’d heard falling onto the cathedral’s marble floor. The way sound survives inside a cathedral. He remembered looking across the aisle to a hairless woman with earrings dangling halfway down her neck. In the darkness of Chicago, the boy’s body called to him for a closer look, he still had his phone after all, a camera. He could hear the sirens approaching."
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."
The opening of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom; the complexities and relationships of a wholly American couple.
"For all queries, Patty Berglund was a resource, a sunny carrier of sociocultural pollen, an affable bee. She was one of the few stay-at-home moms in Ramsey Hill and was famously averse to speaking well of herself or ill of anybody else. She said that she expected to be 'beheaded' someday by one of the windows whose sash chains she’d replaced. Her children were 'probably' dying of trichinosis from pork she’d undercooked. She wondered if her 'addiction' to paint-stripper fumes might be related to her “never” reading books anymore. She confided that she’d been 'forbidden' to fertilize Walter’s flowers after what had happened 'last time.'"
While worrying about her obese father, a teenager develops an eating disorder.
"Selma’s parents aren’t dieting. Whenever I see Dr. Garza, he’s in green scrubs, fresh from delivering a new batch of babies. I can’t tell how thin he is, but I know for certain that he isn’t fat, and I doubt Mrs. Garza is repulsed by him. I’m convinced that Papa is the only obese parent at my school and I hate him for eating thirds at buffets and for serving himself a heaping bowl of butter pecan ice cream most nights. Around January I convince my mother that my breakfast, usually biscuits and hot chocolate, is lacking in nutrition. What I need is a breakfast shake packed with vitamins. Each morning I mix protein powder with skim milk and drink my shake. This is all I ingest for breakfast: one hundred and ten calories and half a gram of fat."
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."
Struggling to pay for her mother's medical care, a young woman is drawn into the sex industry.
"The man arrived in a BMW, a Be My Wife, Njideka teased. He was tall and dark, his simple linen buba and sokoto crisply ironed, and his shoes shone even in the dim evening light. He reached out his hand and took mine. He drew my hand upwards, and tipped his head just a bit as he placed a kiss on the back of my hand. He wore gold rings on three of his five fingers. They were not massive rings, but small diamonds circled each of them and sparkled so that the rings appeared much larger than they actually were."
An eldery Nigerian woman tends to her deteriorating body and a family crisis.
"Her last child was thirty-seven years old. He had lived with her until nine years ago, when he traveled to China—via Libya, then Qatar, then Malaysia—in search of a better life. He was married now, to a Filipino woman he had met in a textile plant in Zhengzhou, and they had two children, a four-year-old girl whom they had named Corazón after his wife’s mother, and a one-year-old boy who was called Ramón after his wife’s father. He had sent his mother their photographs with the last parcel of canned pork and imitation-leather handbags that arrived from him with climatic regularity. The letter that accompanied the parcel informed her he was doing well, that he no longer worked in factories but now tutored Chinese professionals in the English language, and that he might come to visit next year with his family. In her reply she had urged him to come quickly because the eye trouble had recurred, and she wanted to see her grandchildren before she went blind."
An unlikely romance between a film star and an enormous man flares up during a cold, ashy year.
"People began to inhabit their homes like mice, holed up in tiny corners, hiding from the cold and trying to remember where their passions lived. Intellectuals wrote books about desert climates, and polar exploration finally lost the last of its charm. Oasis Parties became popular among the very wealthy, who would build up bonfires in fire pits where guests would dance in wild costumes and drink absinthe. More often than not, these parties ended in orgies or house fires. Sometimes both. People were starting to lose their minds a little."
Disorientation and dissociation in urban Taiwan.
On the bus Erin slept with her head on Paul’s lap. Paul’s father slept one row behind. It was around 10:30 p.m. Paul stared at the lighted signs, some of which were animated and repeating like GIF files, attached to almost every building to face oncoming traffic—from two-square rectangles like tiny wings to long strips like impressive Scrabble words but with each square a word, maybe too much information to convey to drivers—and sleepily thought of how technology was no longer the source of wonderment and possibility it had been when, for example, he learned as a child at Epcot Center, Disney’s future-themed 'amusement park,' that families of three, with one or two robot dogs and one robot maid, would live in self-sustaining, underwater, glass spheres by something like 2004 or 2008. At some point, Paul vaguely realized, technology had begun for him to mostly only indicate the inevitability and vicinity of nothingness.
Greek heroes and gods roam suburban America.
The goddess hiked her gowns and climbed as softly as she could the creaky wooden steps into his house. She had snuck into a home a million times, and the hardest part was carrying the shield through the door with it hitting anything, or not knocking overcoat trees or a vase. Or keeping on her helmet without its tall purple that got nudged off in low doorways. All of this and more had happened many times, and it was never not embarrassing; there were instances when people thought that she was not a god, but just an oddly-dressed intruder. She’d stopped wearing metal combat boots a hundred years ago and now she wore her flip-flops, though she made sure her father saw her in the boots when she was leaving Mount Olympus.
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."
Desire and dental surgery in Northern India.
His father leaned back on his hands and tilted his face to the sun. Daniel bent over his cushion. In the habit of telling The Number his thoughts, he had already begun to narrate for her his feelings about the woman."
A nineteenth-century family in the ice-harvesting business.
Jon Ehrlich guided the barge past the sandbanks into port and packed the wares in an underground cellar along the riverfront. An ice dealer from Carondelet Avenue came and inspected the work. Crisp bills were counted out. It was good business. It was as if Reconstruction itself knew how to make things work. Hotels. Restaurants. Oyster shops. Rich men in fancy homes. Even sculptors who wanted to carve from giant ice blocks.
When their trash cans are mysteriously ransacked, a family devises a series of fantastical solutions and hypotheses.
"After we go in, the kids devise traps for whatever got into the trash. I’m not sure who starts it. They get scratch paper from my desk—one-sided printouts of old story drafts—and they lay out their schematics in marker. Emily sits on the floor at the coffee table, her legs curled Indian-style underneath. Her traps are complicated, cause and effect, involving counterweights, nets, and ropes. With a practicality she didn’t get from me, she only incorporates objects we actually possess: laundry baskets, blankets, and—in a stroke of inspiration that chills me—the plastic coffin of our cartop carrier."
After a gardening mishap, a meticulous, harried family man finds himself being replaced by a grotesque clone; from the author of Red Moon.
"He, the mud man, stands in the middle of a shallow crater. His joints issue a series of blistery pops like pitch pockets boiling out of a log thrown on a fire. Clods of dirt fall off him and patter the garden, freckling the daffodils and hostas. He has all the calm of a tree, the breeze rushing around him, bending the loose vines and leaves hanging off him like hair, carrying a smell like worms washed across a sidewalk after a hard rain. The mud man seems to be staring at Thomas, though it is hard to tell as his eyes are hollows with black scribbles in them, like the insides of a rotten walnut."
A high school runner is torn between championship meets and quality time with his drunk, racist father.
"It’s five thirty. Mom called Dad, but he’s not home. Must be on his way, she says. I nod. We’ve made this exchange a hundred times. I’m wearing a new camouflage t-shirt from the Army-Navy Surplus outlet. Mom bought it. You look like a little soldier, she says. I made her buy face paint too, but I’m saving that for the woods."
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 baby born in New Jersey grows and takes on the characteristics of a headstrong Russian woman.
"She was her parent’s second child; the first was Glenn, a boisterous seven year old obsessed, as his father had planned, with football. In fact, it was Glenn who first noticed the peculiarity of his little sister. As he stared into her crib one morning making faces at the baby, he noticed that she had swaddled herself in her soft, pink knitted baby blanket. She looked at him with a focus that seemed preternatural for an infant. She drooled, but she held the blanket tight around her face, like a little babushka."
A young couple's moving day, complete with a variety of mishaps.
"The door spring is rusted and doesn’t really work anyway so I get a screwdriver and take the thing off its mounting. I take the broken couch leg and stick it in the upper corner of the door to prop it open. When I come inside a little while later to check on things, the movers are wrestling with my mattress on the stairwell. Bright streaks of fresh blood mark the white plaster in the living room and on the stairway wall. Rod is in mid-staircase, holding up the bottom end of the Macy’s queen that Kelly’s mom bought us for a wedding present. 'You exposed a screw on your front door when you took that thing off,' he says. 'I cut my arm open on it.'"
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."
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.
An exploration of tensions and drama from an experimental master.
"...it was me like a cowgirl, swinging the cord around my head; it was the date saying, you’ve got issues; it was the date saying, serious ones; it wasn’t always like this though; it was a good time with that ID; I was a good time with that ID; I met guys and it was a good time back then; it was the ID always getting me in; it was the ID always getting me what I wanted;"
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 former Facebook executive critiques Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” movement.
Three vignettes taking place in far northern reaches.
"In the crystalline quiet where no one watches an iceberg calved with the shrieks and growls of any birth. A part of her shivered then rumbled then slipped, splashed into the ocean to announce an arrival with ripples of frigid blue waves."
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."
A man's colonoscopy causes him to reflect on aging, mortality, and family life.
"For a moment, Pete wondered if he should say something else, anything, but the guy had already picked up his magazine again, leaving Pete to ponder not only his inadequacies, but his colonoscopy, something he was suddenly looking forward to and maybe even deserved."
A weather forecaster finds her life unraveling in multiple ways.
"Broadcast meteorologists, on the other hand, were supposed to smile through everything. That was one of the first lessons Beth had learned. It didn’t matter if you were talking about heat waves or blizzards or forest fires. Mother Nature was never bad news! Nothing we can’t handle! Her first broadcast job was in Mobile, Alabama, and she had kept smiling as a Category 5 hurricane spiraled toward their coast, kept smiling when the TV studio went dark and the walls shuddered. It was exhausting, all that smiling."
A woman struggles with her faith while caring for her addicted husband.
"She stood up, brushing off the back of her jeans. She would choose to believe the anointing had worked. That there would be some change. That she and Mitch would embrace and begin the path toward healing. God would never give her more than she could handle. It said that in the Bible. Nothing beyond what you can bear. She and Mitch were only being tested, refined like silver."
A woman, troubled by a terrible accident, takes care of her boyfriend's baby from a previous relationship.
"The mother of my boyfriend’s youngest child, Anna Lisa, handed me her daughter, still in her carrier, as well as a large duffel bag. She nodded toward the bag. 'The baby’s things.' I looked at the baby, neither cute nor ugly, a blob of indeterminate features. We stood quietly, listened to moths and other insects flying into the bright, buzzing lamp covering us in its light. My shoulders ached. The air was damp and heavy. Anna Lisa is beautiful but she looked tired. She wore a loose pair of sweat pants with fading block letters down the left leg. Her t-shirt was stained. Her breasts were swollen. I could see that. Her hair hung limply in her face. She smelled ripe. There were dark circles beneath her eyes. I don’t know that we looked different."
A man balances a lonely job and a lost love in a future universe where thousands of years can pass in the span of contemporary minutes.
"How will I get her to stay this time? I pull out the brochure for this place. It's yellowed and crumbling. The marketing slogan for the planet is at the top: It's Livable! The picture shows a human woman and a male Xorbite. The Xorbite is pointing at his main lung with a tentacle, as if to say, I am really enjoying this non-toxic nitrogen-based atmosphere! The previous version brochure had the woman holding a fish, until someone's mother sued the tourism bureau for false advertising claiming her son died because the picture misleadingly suggested that it was possible to catch fish here. The dead boy's mother won and the bureau had to change the brochure or stop printing it, but since the bureau has no funding, instead of retaking the picture, the bureau just touched up the image so that the woman now appears to be holding a football (or possibly a pizza) in one hand and giving the Xorbite a thumbs up with the other. The happily breathing Xorbite is giving her a tentacles-up sign as well."
In a fictionalized Haiti, a man explains the inner workings of the political landscape and his own shady rise to the role of Prime Minister.
"Yet…deciding to recount the entire tale, the whole historical record, as in order for events to work out as Richard wanted them to, then yes, he’d have to make good on his promise that everything would be made clear, revealed in one fashion or another—it’s probably best if I explain: Jean was once a senator in the Haitian senate, the second-youngest senator in Haiti’s history in fact, and as a senator, he was wildly inept. You can’t really find him totally at fault however, because Jean’s parents bought him his seat when he was fresh from school. I can’t fathom why, but my guess is that they knew he had no head for business and that there was nothing else he’d really be good for, so they had hoped that a career in politics would both keep him busy and allow them to control a portion of the country without too much effort. But well, Jean, Jean bloody fucked all that, what with his reckless politicking and all."
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 family man visits his wayward, troubled brother.
"I've driven here after all these years to figure out—maybe for the first time—the person my brother is. My brother who I've known only in memory. And in two-minute phone calls and birthday cards and rumors. My brother who is sometimes kind and sometimes cruel. Kind when he brought me pizza after my accident, when, at two in the morning with an IV poking through my skin, we ate and laughed to the rhythmic beep-beep of the heart monitor. Cruel when he chased Tommy Gleeson—our autistic neighbor—down the street with a pipe, cornered him, and then stepped on his stomach until he vomited."
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."
A Hanukkah story revolving around anarchists, crooks, and vandals. [Free registration required.]
"'Anyway, what's this talk about roots?' he said and immediately regretted it. He could see the magazine covers already. The Return to Religion: The New Tribalism. He liked it better when Wendy was insolent and yelled 'Death to the pigs!' at a couple of off-duty cops having a cup of coffee at a local diner before Frieda pulled her away."
A young couple, laying low in Maine, is menaced by the reappearance of a suspicious father.
"Jesse is small, but solid in the way some short men can be. He has thick hair, dyed black, parted distinctly in the middle of his head, and he is wearing slacks and a clean, white tee-shirt. In his small hand, he has my journal."
An artist of baby names explores the meticulous details that go into selecting the perfect moniker.
"Not all prospective parents are comfortable with me watching them have intercourse and that’s fine if you want to cut corners on the name your baby will carry for the rest of her life. The parents who allow it are sophisticated enough to understand that there’s no better way for me to know a child’s essence than to be there for the erotic act from which that child is created. But if you’re too modest and you’d prefer that I name your baby with one hand tied behind my back, so be it. You can make a video recording of the conception and send it to me."
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."
A grim conversation with a gas station attendant.
"Look, he said, none of my business but in my experience the longer you live in a car the bigger it gets. So as you never find your way out."
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."
Fears both real and imagined permeate a woman's affair with a married man.
"Ruthie often meets William at his office, which is only five minutes from the software company she works at in Reston and a good forty to fifty minutes from either of their houses and either of their other lives. She started going to him last year after waking up with an impacted molar. She likes his office with its little green awning out front, located in a brick office park area between an insurance agency and an optometrist, the professionally stenciled 'William Fairfield, D.D.S.' in silver letters on the front glass door."
A metaphorical tale of a wayward younger brother and his icy relationship with his siblings.
"The fifth brother, Joseph, was much younger. By the time he came of age, there were no comfortable rooms left for him, and so he was given the raw rooms in the mansion's newer wing. Joseph was a strange, solitary, somewhat frightening child, and although his brothers loved him, they were relieved to have him out of their hair. Joseph wished to be a gentleman like his brothers, but life was difficult in the raw wing of the mansion. The new wing was a place of Protestant industry, and Joseph went to work."
A 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."
An immigrant girl compulsively hides food in an intense state of depression.
"They couldn't get her to stop doing it. Crusts of bread, leaves of boiled cabbage, twenty-six grapes, flour in small plastic bags choked with red twist ties. They couldn't get her to stop doing it until she stopped doing everything, and after that it wasn't long until the end. Half bananas browning in their peels, dollops of sour cream in drawers, potatoes in slippers under the bed, red beets bleeding through the pockets of her pale yellow bathrobe."
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 young adolescent goes to IHOP with her nihilistic older sister in the middle of the night.
"She got into the car next to her sister. Tabitha lit a cigarette, a tulip of fire surrounded by the black petals of her painted nails. Against the light her eyes were red at the edges. She turned the key."
While dealing with her fractured, fighting family, a girl tries to find out why bananas keep appearing in her home.
"With a sigh, Rachel got up and pulled the vacuum out of the cleaning closet. She plugged it in, turned it on, and immediately turned it back off. Coming from inside the dust compartment was a loud thumping sound that died as the vacuum's motor slowed to a stop. Opening the compartment, she discovered that the source of the sound was a long, yellow, banana."
Two gay brothers--one semi-closeted, one out--navigate a lifetime of tensions and problems.
"But something changed between Davis and me the afternoon we met downtown for lunch, sitting in a coffee shop in a small vinyl booth, facing one another. Davis leaned forward as he talked. When we were in high school, he confided, he'd sometimes taken our mother's Impala and driven downtown to have sex with a Korean man he'd met in a park, an accountant who lived in a boardinghouse near Dupont Circle. He and the man never really spoke, Davis said; nothing was exchanged between them, nothing but sex, which was hurried and guilty, and which provided only the most momentary relief, followed by Davis's long drive back to our house in the suburbs, listening to the call-in shows on stations our mother had preprogrammed on her car radio. He'd also had sex a few times with a popular boy, he said, a football player he'd occasionally brought back to our house while our mother was working, offering him some beer or a little marijuana, though the boy never acknowledged him afterward, not even with a quick nod if they happened to pass one another in the hallway the next day at school."
The history of a relationship between a son and his mostly-absent father.
"He lay down. His spine pressed into the soil a notch at a time, undid him. Upside down was a land of female legs. He was fond of these new bell-shaped skirts, wide enough to crawl under and be kept safe, and wished he had waited to marry, or married differently. He thought, What if I stayed here? Let the sun swallow me, and the orange dazzle under my eyelids become not just the thing I see but the thing that I am, and let the one daisy with the bent stem, and the rose smell and the girl upside down on the pub bench eating an upside-down ploughman's with her upside-down friend be the whole of the law and the girth of the world."
Picnicking families stumble upon a mysterious iron cube.
"Nobody knew what to make of the thing. It was too big to have been carted in on a pickup truck. It would be too large for the open bed of an eighteen-wheeler, and even then there were no tire marks in the area, no damaged vegetation and not even a road nearby wide enough for a load that size. It was if the block had been cast in its spot and destined to remain. And then there was the issue of the inscription."
A woman deals with the potential consequences of her missed period.
"Still, after I’d hung up the phone, I went on sitting dully in the kitchen, thinking about all the wasted sit-ups I’d done in the last two years and wanting to die. Not that I could admit that to anyone. Because if it were Steve who would be walking around for nine months with hemorrhoids and a dull backache, with the elastic waist of his maternity jeans crimping from overuse, I’d be able to be happy; I’d be thinking about how to fit another car seat in the minivan and whether I should start buying rice in bulk. I’d be sitting at the desk in my office practicing the breathing exercises, prepping."
Visiting his daughter in San Francisco, the author longs for food delivery in Manhattan.
A troubled mother and daughter spend their first day in Los Angeles.
"I wonder what we looked like then, that day we drove over into California. My mother could probably still tell you what we wore. We were driving to California from Bay City, Wisconsin, just the two of us, so I could be a television star. We'd taken Ted's Mobile Credit Card and stayed in motels, charging gasoline and Cokes on the bills. We dug up to our shoulders in the ice chests, bringing the cold pop bottles up like a catch. We'd stolen vegetables all across America, anything we could eat without cooking. My mother spotted the trucks."
Two troubled high school friends cope with their families and depressions.
"A half-an-hour later, Bambi slipped through her front door, hoping to sneak upstairs unnoticed by the mass of humanity that lived at her house. She shared her space with four younger brothers who’d been born so close together that they all resembled the same kid in a different stage of metamorphosis. So much testosterone flowed through the house that she had gotten lost in the shuffle. Her dad really didn’t know quite what to do with her and tried to avoid the discomfort of female emotional interaction. He focused on the easy rapport he had with her brothers and spent most of his free time talking sports or taking them fishing. Her mom was usually frazzled and easily irritated. She was starting her cocktail hour a bit earlier every day and was usually comfortably anesthetized by dinner time. She seemed to have slipped into a complacency that bordered on being in a coma."
After their father leaves, two siblings set up a humane pest control business.
"Neither of us signed on for anything, I want to point out. That's the way it is with families. You're born into someone else's mess, their tics and crannies, their cancers, their travel lusts. We didn't stand a chance, I want to tell him. Instead, I try to comfort the voles by sticking my hand into their cages, letting them run across it, roll in my open palm, nibble at my fingertips. I don't even flinch when nibbles turn to bites. It's their nature, I tell myself. It is who they are."
A person seeks solace from an overwhelming family visit.
"I held my head in my hands and wondered if a hundred years in this filthy closet could be enough to undo the past four days. I felt my inner eye zeroing in on an escape, but there were rides to be given to the airport in the morning, babies to be cuddled, dishes to be washed. The polite thing to do was stay."
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 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."
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 father and son attend a Mexican bullfight, experiencing a clash of time and cultures.
"My son cheers loudly now. His eyes are bright and he sports shiny cowboy boots. I try to smile and clasp my cool fingers together. The woman sitting behind me leans over to her friend again, 'No more American rodeos. Bullfights are much nicer. Quieter. The bull is an elegant animal. And lastly,' she says, 'We are Spanish.'"
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."
A young man awaits a conversation with his father, with the Egyptian Revolution in the background.
"I am standing and waiting on my father to come home. He is well-educated and serves quite the purpose in one of the state dailies. He works among the bureaucrats, in their offices without walls, only partitions, and aspires for me to do the same when he is promoted. Promotion is not contingent, it is imminent. Our side will win and the present situation will end, but for tonight I hope political talk will trap itself somewhere on the road from Tahrir to our apartment and that my father and I can focus on our cocktails."
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."
A poetic support of the downtrodden, and a father's refusal to buy a family dog.
"My dad wouldn't let me have a pal. Who will have to walk that pal, he said. I will. And it's going to be snowing or it's going to be raining and who will be waiting by the vacant lot at the corner in the cold wet wind, waiting for the damn dog to do his business? Not you, Billy boy Christ, you can't even be counted on to bring in the garbage cans or mow the lawn. So no dog."
A single father and his children examine and hypothesize the actions of his felonious, unstable ex-wife.
"They wanted possession of facts. And they each wanted in their own distinct ways that fit their own distinct lives, now forming and shaping in this new old-house, a clear and logical understanding of why she was the way she was, why she did those things, what sinister motives propelled her through those jagged movements that in turn transported her into legend."
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."
An elderly woman and her extended family make their traditional pilgrimage to a cave shrine.
"Much depended on the weather, for a trek up the wind-swept mountain could not be undertaken except on a fine day. When the conditions seemed propitious, the bandobast would start the night before. The feast that followed the puja was always the most eagerly awaited part of the pilgrimage, and the preparations for it occasioned much excitement and anticipation: the tin-roofed bungalow would ring to the sound of choppers and chakkis, mortars and rolling-pins, as masalas were ground, chutneys tempered, and heaps of vegetables transformed into stuffings for parathas and daal-puris. "
Two working class brothers and their girlfriends dream of elevating their bleak lives.
"Growing up, we always looked up and wondered what it would be like to live in the grand homes looking down. At Christmas, our parents drove us along the overlook. Our mothers cooed at the beautiful decorations even though on every other day they cleaned those houses and took care of the children living in them. Our fathers, who worked for the grand homeowners, grunted. They said it wasn’t anything special. They swallowed the bitterness of their envy and chased it with a nip of whiskey."
At a party, two black cousins confront each other on personal identities, class status, and honesty.
"Francis had blown through a trust the size of Connecticut to establish his career as a rapper. And from what had been rumored, paid out hush money and child support to women across the Northeast. My cousin the genius. I couldn’t believe how much Suze admired him. Despite my repeated warnings about his true character, Suze still believes that Francis is a role model the poor can look up to, that he gives hope to the less fortunate. In her attempts to win me over, she even pointed out that Francis’ rapping name was actually a clever bastardization of phlogiston: an archaic, imaginary substance people once believed responsible for making things burn."
A elderly father and his grown son attempt uneasy bonding on fishing trips.
"But he would talk to me during that time when he wasn't concentrating on a cast or reeling something in. I loved that he would tell me stories. That day with the mayflies he told me how he went fishing everyday as a kid, had to because they ate whatever he caught that day for dinner. And when he went fishing with his dad in a little aluminum boat and when the motor gave out his dad told him to get out and drag the boat. He put a rope around him and pushed him into the water, which was probably full of gators and moccasins, and he dragged his big, fat, drunk dad in the boat until they got to shore."
Exploring the relationship between authors and their parents.
It mattered to her that she could have, or might have, been a writer, and perhaps it mattered to me more than I fully understood. She watched my books appear with considerable interest, and wrote me an oddly formal letter about the style of each one, but she was, I knew, also uneasy about my novels. She found them too slow and sad and oddly personal. She was careful not to say too much about this, except once when she felt that I had described her and things which had happened to her too obviously and too openly. That time she said that she might indeed soon write her own book. She made a book sound like a weapon.
A mother's interactions with her children is beset with ambiguous foreshadowing.
"The mother stares at her big, strong son, who in reality is still a boy, only he’s older than the others. The light in the room goes bright and dark, by turns, as clouds move with sinister purpose in front of the sun. The mother feels as though she is caught in a kaleidoscope and suddenly comes alive."
A man's memories of his troubled childhood lead to extravagant personal imagery of heaven and hell.
"Is heaven full of surprises? Our minister made it sound static. Happy, happy, happy, and no sleep, just blissed up like an addict, people bowing whenever Jesus walks by. Or the Father. Or the Holy Spirit sent a breeze-puff near where you stood by a window with a golden sill. Did the Holy Spirit get tired of being invisible? Maybe in heaven all is visible, even the Spirit."
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. "
Coping with a brother’s suicide.
We tell stories about the dead in order that they may live, if not in body then at least in mind—the minds of those left behind. Although the dead couldn’t care less about these stories—all available evidence suggests the dead don’t care about much—it seems that if we tell them often enough, and listen carefully to the stories of others, our knowledge of the dead can deepen and grow. If we persist in this process, digging and sifting, we had better be prepared for hard truths; like rocks beneath the surface of a plowed field, they show themselves eventually.
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 mother visits her sona failing entrepreneurand is surprised by the news that he has married.
"Marie wondered what Raymond's title in this place might be. 'Manager,' he'd said, but he and Mimi lived like caretakers in an inconvenient arrangement of rooms off the lobby. To get to their kitchen, which was also a storage place for beer and soft drinks, Marie had to squeeze behind the front desk."
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."
The narrator and a guy named Satan go to the Sanrio store; hijinx ensue. Kinda NSFW.
" A crowd of children had started to gather around Satan and me, pointing at my hair, which I had done up in braids entwined with wire so they stuck out of my head at right angles like my namesake, Pippi Longstocking, or PipiLngstck as I am known on-screen."
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."
A father picks up the wrong gift for his daughter's birthday party.
" The look on your daughter’s face, though, devastates you; you feel it in your knees: her confusion and disappointment, paired with the newly acquired knowledge that those two emotions join each other effortlessly. The gift is what she wanted, but not what she wanted: a bike with no wheels."
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."
A tricked-out Toyota Supra accelerates a family's unraveling. From the author of 2011's Busy Monsters.
"I know the ins and outs of what he did to that car, the numbers and brands and details, perhaps better than I know anything else on earth: I spent my most formative years steeped in this information, flipping through the automotive magazines with him, attending weekend car shows, listening to his ecstatic dinner-time talk of his next modification, of how that Supra would be the slickest in all of New Jersey."
This house has a power. Happy Halloween.
"She said she rang the bell and then waited until she heard the sound of it coming up from the basement and could sense it there behind the door. And then she opened the slit of the letterbox and spoke into it."
Neither Jon nor Ian is legally married to Jaiya. Both are allowed to see other women. But the three of them live a lifestyle that—much of the time—isn't that different from a conventional marriage.
On the rise of polyandry, in which one woman settles down with two or more men.
A father prepares a grotesque dinner for his family, with hints of unhappiness and ruminations on masculinity.
"Father tossed icy fishchunks into the microwave and they wobbled in the hot hum. Father sat back in his chair to swig golden brandy from his gut-flecked glass. Father peered down his great glistering nose at us. His nose gleamed like pocked gunmetal in the fishoil night and we sat on the floor in a row, each little child with his legs twisted into a knot."
Love advice from a beloved aunt.
I try to call my Great Aunt Doris every day. She's ninety-years old and lives alone. I love her desperately and as she gets older, especially of late as she becomes more feeble, my love seems to be picking up velocity, overwhelming me almost, tinged as it is with panic -- I'm so afraid of losing her.
A young man Japanese man visits his estranged, domineering father.
"Still, it was not their physical features that made it difficult for Tengo to identify with his father but their psychological makeup. His father showed no sign at all of what might be called intellectual curiosity. True, having been born in poverty he had not had a decent education. Tengo felt a degree of pity for his father’s circumstances. But a basic desire to obtain knowledge—which Tengo assumed to be a more or less natural urge in people—was lacking in the man."
A story about Holden Caulfield's older brother, published six years before Catcher In The Rye
"While you dance and the band plays on, you think about everything in the world except music and dancing. You wonder if your little sister Phoebe is remembering to take your dog out regularly, if she's remembering not to jerk Joey's collar—the kid'll kill the dog someday."
The first thing I did at Walt Disney World was to take an oath not to make any smart-aleck remarks. A Disney public-relations man had told me that attitude was everything. So I placed my left hand on a seven-Adventure book of tickets to the Magic Kingdom and raised my right hand and promised that there would be no sarcasm on my lips or in my heart.
Portrait of a Chinese-American family living in New York.
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."
On cell phones and the decline of public space.
One of the great irritations of modern technology is that when some new development has made my life palpably worse and is continuing to find new and different ways to bedevil it, I'm still allowed to complain for only a year or two before the peddlers of coolness start telling me to get over it already Grampaw--this is just the way life is now.
A nuanced, lively investigation of the relationship between a mother and a son, this received First Prize in the O. Henry Awards for 2000
"Mom understands life don't play so spends beaucoup time and energy getting ready for the worst. She lifts weights to stay strong. Not barbells or dumbbells, though most of the folks she deals with, especially her sons, act just that way, like dumbbells. No. The weights she lifts are burdens, her children's, her neighbors, yours."
A woman makes the choice between deer and cattle.
"I want to explain. I was raised on milk and beef. That’s how I was robbed of my swift, slender legs. That’s how I was given the shape of a woman. "
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 Jewish family moves from Florida to Tennessee, and a prodigal son returns.
"My father decided he would cook a genuine Jewish brisket for the in-laws’ first Tennessee meal. They were coming up from West Palm Beach and he thought the brisket would make for the perfect pastiche of Jewish and Southern tradition, to the extent that either could be embodied in a slab of beef."
A religious leader in colonial New England builds a mysterious machine.
"The motor will cause great floods of spiritual light to descend from the heavens. It will reveal the earth to be a limitless treasure trove of motion, life, and freedom. "
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."
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."
A beautifully detailed look at friendships, painful family memories, and potential unspoken desires.
"There was a man there named Josh who didn’t want nearly enough from me, and a woman called Thea who wanted way too much, and I was sandwiched between them, one of those weaker rock layers like limestone that disappears under pressure or turns into something shapeless like oil."
Semi-surreal account of a family's new home.
"The empty room, being a tabula rasa, bore aspects of total corruptibility, a potential we’d in childish obedience overlooked until now."
A odd and menacing story-like bit spun off from Marcus' forthcoming novel, The Flame Alphabet.
"To warn me of Esther’s approach, or indeed of the motion of any living creature through our halls and rooms, I rigged a system of alarms that puzzled into the wall switch plates. But I crossed the wiring or somehow failed to close the circuit for this contraption, because the high siren pierced the air even when no one roamed through."
The writer speaks with his father for the first and last time.
My father moved back to Nigeria one month after I was born. Neither I nor my sister Ijeoma, who is a year and a half my elder, have any recollection of him. Over the course of the next 16 years, we did not receive so much as a phone call from him, until one day in the spring of 1999, when a crinkled envelope bearing unfamiliar postage stamps showed up in the mailbox of Ijeoma's first apartment. Enclosed was a brief letter from our father in which he explained the strange coincidence that had led to him "finding" us.* It was a convoluted story involving his niece marrying the brother of one of our mother's close friends from years ago. As a postscript to the letter, he expressed his desire to speak to us and included his telephone number.
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."
Two killers and one cop: The story of the LaMarca family, told over three generations.