Marital advice columns from the past.
The life of a conflicted IT worker from Iowa.
"Roger Jeffries is given to bouts of fantasy in which he speculates the possibilities suppressed by his current set of circumstances: that, indeed, he could have, if he had chosen to make the effort, packed a moving truck full of his stuff and left UNI for more cultivated frontiers. The Twin Cities, maybe, or Chicago, or back East to New York. Westward to the Pacific, perhaps, a destiny realized in Los Angeles. At any rate, he frequently imagines a young self packing up his stuff and driving for days—regardless of how close this destination might actually have been to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, home of the UNI Panthers, he always envisions driving for days, young, stubbled, over-caffeinated and chain smoking—to some more prestigious or renowned place."
An academic marriage dissolves into a grotesque, demeaning power trip.
"I had always loved Olivia’s fearless and outspoken brilliance. It was one of the things that first attracted me to her—along with her perfect bubble butt and sailor’s laugh. But I suspected she didn’t honestly believe what she said about Dickinson’s poetry. Sometimes, especially after multiple martinis, one or the other of us would find the slightest reason to engage in some sort of verbal jousting. It was the manifestation of a lot of other problems we had buried over the past five years of marriage. We had both been divorced, both had children, both were in our forties, both should have understood the tensions of remarrying in mid-life. And we both should have known how alcohol—which we loved and self-medicated with—was the match that lit the fuse to these confrontations every time."
A man heads to Key West in a quest for sobriety.
"At the piano a black man in dark glasses set the tempo with hands the size of catcher’s gloves. He never looked down at the keys. Instead he seemed to be staring straight at Daniel. It was unnerving at first, but soon Daniel got used to it. Perhaps because he was sober, it seemed as if he could hear all the notes. He didn’t miss a moment. He smiled at the piano man. He nodded his head when the piano man did a whirling riff and clapped when he finished a mind-boggling solo."
A giantess attends her normal-sized daughter's wedding.
"She had practiced the art of speaking with barely a sound until sometimes she could not even be sure that she would be audible to a human’s undersized ears. As she made her nomadic way across her land to that of the humans, she had spoken to herself in ever quieting tones; everything she would say to Freya when they met, everything she had longed to tell her baby through the long nights, the songs she would have sung to soothe a teething gum, the reasons for the way of the world and the whys and the hows, the way their parting had left a crack running through her, a fracture so fundamental that she knew she would one day simply fall into two pieces."
An American woman's travels and memories of her Russian husband.
"When Bramya was abroad, Sarah mixed adhesives, ordered glaze, saw friends, and lived without the expectation of change to this arrangement. She read his letters and answered his phone calls, and they talked about the things they did when they were apart, neither acknowledging that separation had come to be as familiar as the shape their bodies took together. But when she knew his flight had landed, she sat at the kitchen table with painful patience, rolling clay from hand to hand until it was made pliable by the heat of her skin, piecing together anxiety animals, anticipating the sound of the cab door closing that told her Bramya was on her street."
A deserting Civil War soldier sets out for home.
"As he approached Jacob Story’s farm, Benjamin saw that the corn stood dark and high. No hard frost or gullywasher had come. The signs held true, not only for the corn but the beans and tobacco. Smoke rose from Jacob’s chimney. Noon-dinner time already, he thought. Benjamin followed the trailway through a stand of silver birch, straddled a split-rail fence, placed one foot on his land and then the other. He had hoped Emma would be in the cabin. That way he could step onto the porch, open the door, and stroll in no differently than he would coming from a field or the barn. Benjamin wanted their separation to seem that way, he wanted to never speak of the war or their months apart. He wanted it to become nothing more than a few dark moments, like a lantern carried through a cabin’s low door."
A new counselor takes a job at a faltering Florida high school.
"The others at the table were talking about summer break, how it had gone too quickly, how the last thing they wanted was to be back at school, at this school. They complained about the heat, the giant mosquitos, the rain—the constant rain—and joked about how wrong it was to be so pissed off already when it was only the first day. Andrew, at the end of the table, nodded and smiled while he munched on a Cuban sandwich, trying to find an in, some common ground."
A story of a playoff at-bat, a franchise, and a spectator couple.
"Coco has watched every home game with her husband from these seats since the ballpark opened in 2008 while listening to the game play by play on 106.7 FM. She has endured horrible seasons, but 2009 when her beloved team lost 108 games, and 2010 when they lost 93 more, are distant memories. Now she feels like a winner. This is the playoffs. After marriage, and kids, and grandkids, after retirement and their dream trip to Dubrovnik, this is what she has been hoping for. It is the last of her major life events. Something to retell at family dinners. Remember the World Series of 2012?"
A story of unhappiness and creative outlets.
"Last winter, when she was supposed to be designing a parking garage for a luxury shopping center in McLean, she built a city instead. She got the idea when she was surveying the lot where the parking garage was supposed to go. In her leather pumps and peacoat, she stood on the flat expanse and looked out; the land was a deep brown, lightly marbled with snow. She walked the perimeter, her hands in her pockets, her heels sinking into the dirt, her breath a white cloud in the air. She felt on the edge of something."
An overweight teenager's psychological test with an unhappy neighbor.
"Mrs. Butler never commented on my weight. I wanted to believe she didn’t see my layers of fat or hear how my breathing quickened if I exerted much physical effort. My neighbor wasn’t gorgeous like a supermodel, but she moved her long graceful limbs with an elegance I could only envy."
Tensions rise when a high school teacher fails a star student-athlete.
"Word spread: Jimmy Carter, the prize of the Permian Basin, the boy who could flat-out fly, the jovial kid who never turned in work but still somehow always got Cs, was in danger of getting yanked off the team, all because some Yankee teacher had to show his moral fiber. How convenient that his son just happened to be the backup."
A boy's crush is complicated by his parents' troubled marriage.
"His father offered him the bag of pretzels and he took one. He thought his father might say something else, about Monica, or the movies, but he didn’t. They walked down Main in the glow of empty shop windows, taking their time, the only people out and about tonight. If his mother wasn’t ready for them at home it wouldn’t be any good to go back now. 'Do men and women think alike?' Greg said."
The evolution and deterioration of a marriage, told through interactions on/around a piece of furniture.
"Often, at the breakfast table, he reads a magazine from one of his many subscriptions. After a long article, he’ll lean across the table and open the window. Whenever this happens, it’s best if the blinds are unbound, so that the wind, clueless of human grief as it is, may work its way through their lofty protection. And often, when this happens, he’ll look out the window and think of himself as another person. Often, he’ll be walking beneath an umbrella in a foreign country, down some unrecognizable street, one which he can’t identify; or he’s standing on the stern of a fishing boat, one just recently bound by a rope, dark and wet from the sea, to an ancient dock in the Mediterranean, his body slowly rocking, coursing, in a semi-circle of moonlight, calming him to the point that he even forgets what he’s forgotten, and it’s all real, and actually moving, alive within the maternal ebb of the ocean; or he’s in another home, a shack in a forest, and never knew his own life: his job or wardrobe or wife, as he lies back in a cold, twin-sized bed, which keeps only himself, and the darkness, and the quiet; or he’s just a ghost, dancing in the hallways of his home as his wife stumbles through, drunk and mourning, with his absence everywhere, and then counting the strands of her hair as she does her single load of laundry for the week, consisting of only her nightgown, the jogging pants and old t-shirt of his that she relaxes in while spending her evenings at home, her seven pairs of flesh-toned underwear, and work uniform, for the job she had to find after his passing in order to both support and occupy herself—all the while at the breakfast table."
Three generations of women endure the trials of a turbulent Nigeria.
"Almost a year into their courting, the war comes. Her people are Biafra loyalists, his people think Ojukwu is a fool. On the night of their engagement party only her people attend. And when she goes by his house the next day she discovers he has left the country."
An abusive, neglectful husband gets his comeuppance; Zora Neale Hurston's 123rd birthday.
"Delia’s work-worn knees crawled over the earth in Gethsemane and up the rocks of Calvary many, many times during these months. She avoided the villagers and meeting places in her efforts to be blind and deaf. But Bertha nullified this to a degree, by coming to Delia’s house to call Sykes out to her at the gate. Delia and Sykes fought all the time now with no peaceful interludes. They slept and ate in silence. Two or three times Delia had attempted a timid friendliness, but she was repulsed each time. It was plain that the breaches must remain agape."
A farmer's marriage to a Native American woman is plagued by problems and supernatural phenomena.
"The other thing about Lily that half-annoyed and half-charmed me was her belief in all sorts of supernatural horseshit. I figured she couldn’t help it, for the most part, being unavoidably disposed to things like honoring her dead ancestors and crop ceremonies and who knows what else; but every once in a while she took it too far. One of the biggest arguments we ever had came after I found her tacking up little bundles of bones and animal guts over all the windows and doors of the farmhouse. She’d gotten it into her head that the farmer’s spirit was still wilting around in the rafters of the front porch. He was just melancholy now, she said, she could feel it; but he might turn malevolent if we didn’t communicate to him that he didn’t live here anymore, that he needed to cross over."
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."
The rise and fall of a friendship between three Indian women.
"We were goddesses. Meena, Annie, and Nayantara. Even our names were like heroines. Meena and Annie had known each other since they were 5. I met them in seventh standard. Though we never said it aloud, we knew that three beauties had more power than two or one. Like the Hindu gods. Or all those pop groups. Like the Wilson Phillips. We liked the Wilson Phillips. We pretended to like the fat one but heart of hearts we didn’t."
A senator and his wife deal with the aftermath of a sex scandal.
"He opened the car door and pushed his way out into the sea of shouting reporters. Batting away microphones, he made his way up the front walkway and mounted the steps to the porch. The door was locked. Steve patted his empty pockets; his keys were in his suitcase in the trunk of the car. He rang the doorbell and waited with his hands folded in front of him. Then he took out his phone and dialed Maureen. 'I’m locked out,' he said when she picked up."
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."
An old pair of ice skates is the catalyst for tensions between a man, his wife, and his granddaughter.
"Outside, a few snowflakes spit from the gutter-drifts. The searchlight at the hospital went round. No moon had risen. Break my ankles, he mused. Break my spine. He thought of Dorothy Zmuda trudging from door to door with her dead man’s box on a sled. I haven’t skated, he realized, since I was sixteen. Break my spine. He looked at Ruth and Stephie, both bent over their bowls, holding their spoons with the same tight fist. He looked at his own hands, frail, wrinkled, splotched, nothing but jutting tendons and hangnails and forty-year-old tobacco stains."
A young assistant causes strain and conflict between a writer and a painter.
"We took her with us when we went out. It was startling when a waitress at the Forest Diner mistook Evvie for our daughter. I had just turned 38 that fall, and Colin was 46. We were both on our second marriages, and had both agreed that children would get in the way of our art. Colin was old enough for a 22-year-old daughter—I certainly wasn’t. It was something like having a child, though, without the trouble of rearing one. Evvie was devoted to Colin. If she’d been more attractive, I might have felt threatened, but I didn’t. She was almost a daughter, in those early months."
A long, philosophical courtship between a wealthy man and an intelligent woman.
"She looked up. Man and manservant were circling the property. They picked their way slowly, gazing down, grimly. She had not seen anyone move like this; it was the walk of people in a graveyard who knew all the buried. He was wrong. For him it was a test of devotion. Her devotion had nothing to do with it. She craved that man’s face and hands, her sweetest concern was what he would say next, the air she liked best had the damp of his breath in it."
Confessions of a serial husband.
Personal dislikes and tensions abound during Speed Week at the Bonneville Salt Flats.
"I have been held up to the standards of this perfect girl since. It was Nancy who pushed for Bonneville. She was a Nevada girl, through and through. Utah and the Salt Flats were only ever a mountain range away. Once the idea of Bonneville had been planted, it rooted itself in Jeffery, eating him like a mold. He had to be there. He had to be part of it. By 2007, forum members had pledged enough money to send us all out. Jeffery set a record that year then lost it the next."
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."
Over a cup of coffee, an unhappy father examines chance happenings, fate, and accidents.
"It was a game David would play every morning when he woke up and every evening when he got back from work. He was mentally prepared to have to play the game at any moment while he was inside his house. It happened in split seconds; he would fumble the cup he was retrieving from the cabinet in the kitchen and think, If that cup falls on the floor and breaks, I’ll leave my wife. He would bump his car against the side of his overstuffed garage backing out and think, If that bumper just got dented or the taillight just shattered, that’s it. I’m gone. And so on and so forth. No cups ever fell and no car parts were ever damaged, and David was always able to tell himself that the game was just that—a harmless, fun little thing like so many other harmless, fun little things in so many other marriages."
A husband struggles with the needs of his paralyzed wife and his creation of a hologram version of an assassinated President; new fiction from the author of The Orphan Master's Son.
"After the doctor left, I went into the garage and started making the President. A psychologist would probably say the reason I created him had to do with the promise I made Charlotte and the fact that the President also had a relationship with the person who took his life. But it's simpler than that: I just needed to save somebody, and with the President, it didn't matter that it was too late."
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."
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.'"
A fisherman/trapper and his wife, the emergence of a child-like ghost spirit; an excerpt from Matt Bell's In The House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods.
"But still I was unsatisfied, still I claimed that the son she had given me was not the son we had made and that somehow she had replaced him with this other, this foundling. Against these claims my wife offered no new defense, would only reassure me again, telling me not to worry, that of course he was my son, that despite the wonders of her voice her songs could not make a life. She said this again and again, against my many multiplying queries, each voiced as I trailed her around the house, following her from chore to chore, until after so many denials she changed her tack, asked quietly, What is a life lived but an array of objects, gathered or else made into being, tumored inside the wall-skin of our still-growing house? What else to make a biography of, if not the contents of these rooms?"
A husband is wrongfully credited for his wife's heroic act.
"Immediately, Ron was sick, wishing that he was in the water and not her. But the shock of it all had scrambled his mind and it was confusion that held him, pretty much taking the wind out of him. He couldn’t get moving. Joy was the better swimmer, anybody would say so. Watching her flailing about out there with the old woman was painful. Still Joy’s strong, a fighter, she’ll be okay, he kept telling himself. And finally she was. The water got still out there and she had control. She was moving toward the shore, dog paddling, kicking water up behind, tugging the old woman along. Christ, by the hair, he ascertained when they got closer."
What starts as a mouse infestation turns into a complex study of a marriage and a husband's place in the world.
"But in the evening I did the bills at the dining table and one ran across my foot. I could see it through the glass top, looking exactly like the one I’d released. I realized I’d sort of imagined only one, maybe two. Mice are so identical, appearing on one and then another side of the room as if by magic, moving through walls. All that damage. Now they could be filling the walls and if I slit one with a machete they’d spill out like organs, or like corn from a sack. This could make the species more impressive, or less."
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."
Secrets and reservations come out in the drunken lead-up to a wedding.
"Carrie couldn’t recall much of the walk home from the bar, except she said something about her grandmother that maybe she shouldn’t have, that her grandmother might have been gay, as she petted Alison’s hair. But she couldn’t remember whether she did this while they were walking or just standing around outside the condo complex. She didn’t know when she fell asleep. She first woke up when it was still dark and began going in and out of sleep with the air conditioner."
A man struggles to deal with his depressed, suicidal wife.
"And Helen? Helen takes care of the basics. Then she cries in the mornings in the kitchen while the coffee brews. She leans against the counter with her face in her hands. And Phil finds this behavior sexy, which is possibly messed up and weird."
An astronaut, a superhero, a love story.
"Sometimes she feels like her marriage to a superhero was preordained; what other options did she have when her passion was split between flight and the stars? When she gets home, she’ll wrap her arms around his neck, twist her legs around his, lie down on his back and they’ll go carving through the night sky, ignoring gravity’s plaintive calls to come back down, the lights of industrial Houston like the stars reflected ten fold, the opaque water of the Gulf spotted with the miniature cities of oil rigs."
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.'"
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.
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 profile of former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, who is running for office four years after his affair with an Argentine journalist became national news.
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 couple's marital problems stem from the wife's inability to fall asleep with her husband.
"She tells me I’m a lunatic, it’s not like she’s having an affair. I think that’s probably true. She’s never been good at subtlety or deception. When we were first married, she came to bed with me every night, settled her naked body on top of mine, settled her face in my neck. I could tell she liked it, but she wasn’t romantic in the least."
On a mission to the moon, a female astronaut reflects on her mission and her family life.
"John left and I had Jonah and I felt like I had a hole in me like rocket man, starting between my legs and going right up inside me. I asked Houston if I could stop the special events and training and trajectory and thrust for a little while so I could see my children's special events and training and trajectory and thrust. Houston copied that and so I did. For a little while. But after a little while it felt like a long while. John came back and my children were good and my status was good but I felt the moon calling."
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."
Marriages and friendships are upended after a man buys a supposed unicorn.
"When I got there I found Ralph sitting in his chair dressed in his robe, and by the drape of it and by a flap of it that hung open at the top of his thigh, I could tell he wasn't wearing anything underneath. Worried I might have intruded on some private and disturbing moment, I stopped and was about to turn back around but then saw the heavy rise and fall of his chest and realized he had fallen asleep. I was quiet then as I opened the gate and took my seat next to him, gently flipping the robe back in place to cover his nethers. The unicorn hardly noticed me or my quiet administrations. As far as I could tell from watching it, the unicorn hardly noticed anyone. It was generally quite still, or not still, not exactly still. It seemed to have a way of standing still that made it look like it was in constant motion, or as if it existed in another place at the same moment it existed in our place, a shimmering, jittery, vibrating kind of stillness."
Memories of happiness and troubling behavior linger during a couple's vacation.
"He could hear nothing underwater but his breathing and the rise and fall of frothed waves. Sometimes Nora appeared in front of him or off to the side, but he couldn’t talk—only wave or point. She was beautiful, a streak of light in the water. He duck-dived and his breaths rumbled in the tube. He imagined the crew back on the boat. The whole trip he had noticed how people treated him differently, an Asian with a white wife in Australia, where they didn’t belong, even without knowing he had tried to choke her and she still refused to forgive him. The mask covered his nose and he breathed out of his mouth now like he did when he was trying to sleep."
A piece of shocking news and a terrible accident sends a husband on a chain reaction of consequence-laden impulses.
"Looking at the results, Dooley can’t be happy or relieved that Gracie has been spared a future of progressive hearing loss. The report says there’s a 99.9 percent chance that Toby Tidwell—when did he get tested?—is Gracie’s father. Dooley wants to go get fucking Toby Tidwell and string him up by the ankles. Bleed him like the pig he is. Toby Tidwell got busted up in a tank accident while practicing whatever people in the Army practice, so Dooley will have to wait till he gets out of Walter Reed to bust Toby up himself."
"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."
A delightfully strange and humorous imagining of Mitt Romney's thoughts during a massage.
"Something curdled inside him—he didn’t deserve this dig. Yes, he’d been busy lately, insanely busy, especially with those foreign-policy dopes, but he’d tried to remain attentive to his lady. He’d arranged this nice weekend for them. He’d canceled events, he’d canceled events that were scheduled months ago. Suddenly, he was impatient to get away from her, to find the remote and check on the day’s news. He hadn’t turned on the set since lunchtime yesterday, a gesture he’d hoped that she’d notice and appreciate, mostly because it came so hard to him."
Fears both real and imagined permeate a woman's affair with a married man.
"Ruthie often meets William at his office, which is only five minutes from the software company she works at in Reston and a good forty to fifty minutes from either of their houses and either of their other lives. She started going to him last year after waking up with an impacted molar. She likes his office with its little green awning out front, located in a brick office park area between an insurance agency and an optometrist, the professionally stenciled 'William Fairfield, D.D.S.' in silver letters on the front glass door."
"The next morning, Tuesday, it was still raining and the cat still wasn’t back when I left for work. I drove to the office under the gloomy, gray skies listening to the rain beating on the windshield and the ripping sound the car tires made on the wet streets, thinking. I have crooked little feelings, I guess, nothing you could write a magazine article about. Not like these people with these giant, rectangular emotions that sound like volumes of an encyclopedia. Guilt, Hysteria, Independence, Joy, Loss, Zed. Rot."
An obstetrician (and abortionist) makes the decision to marry. An excerpt from Wa, the most recent novel from this year's Nobel Prize in Literature winner.
"Aunty said that in all her years as a medical provider, traveling up and down remote paths late at night, she'd never once felt afraid. But that night she was terror-stricken."
A married man meets a married woman in a Russian seaside town.
"The stories told of the immorality in such places as Yalta are to a great extent untrue; he despised them, and knew that such stories were for the most part made up by persons who would themselves have been glad to sin if they had been able; but when the lady sat down at the next table three paces from him, he remembered these tales of easy conquests, of trips to the mountains, and the tempting thought of a swift, fleeting love affair, a romance with an unknown woman, whose name he did not know, suddenly took possession of him."
A new teacher begins work at a TB hospital in rural Canada.
"The number of students who showed up varied. Fifteen, or down to half a dozen. Mornings only, from nine o'clock till noon. Children were kept away if their temperature had risen or if they were undergoing tests."
A chance meeting among old co-workers brings up unspoken attractions and desires.
"She adjusts her T-shirt. Was I staring at her chest? I need to watch that, but can it really be avoided? I don’t know. I don’t even really know her. I once knew her, sort of, before I was married, though you wouldn’t call it a friendship exactly. We worked at the same agency and she had been hired to oversee this huge grant, AIDS stuff, before protease inhibitors and before anyone could manage the disease. People died then. That’s all. I don’t even remember what kind of program she was running, what anyone ran back then, hospice and support groups mostly. It was horrible. They called her the Angel of Death. It was meant to be funny, escapist, black humor. But she couldn’t deal."
A couple's relationship, analyzed in standard and experimental shorts.
"A brown beard and sideburns thirty years ago; now bald on top and feathery white tufts above his ears. Thick-knuckled fingers wrapped in wrinkles; reddish palms, the same as the end of his nose and the rims of his eyes. Construction, a soda fountain, washing neighborhood cars, infantry, insurance adjustment, management, retirement. Brother, father, grandfather, husband. Tin Roof Sundae ice cream, creamed corn, cornbread. Breadwinner, collector of rare bottlecaps, once sled down a hill of grass. This morning imagined his death, falling from the wings of a bird to the green ground, splayed like a leaf, equal parts love and regret. "
A Green Beret returns from Haiti and surprises his wife with news of his unusual spiritual "marriage."
"She got it, sort of, how fluid and free your mind might become when life took on the quality of hallucination. How that might blow your coping strategies all to hell? Dirk meditated daily in the middle of the den, which Melissa took for a joke at firstGreen Berets, snake-eaters, did not meditate, nor did anyone else she knew except people from Chapel Hill. 'Keeping it real' was how he explained himself; meanwhile Melissa took wary note of her dreams and watched her life fill up with nagging signs and portents."
A woman 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."
A series of shorts about a marriage and conversations with two old-time movie stars.
"Ingrid Bergman told me she'd sleep with any man who desired. And there had been plenty. She slept with the majority of her costars on every film, most of the directors, several costume designers, and once, for kicks, a sound-effects editor—"helps me get into the role," she argued. It didn't bother her at all. It was like taking a walk, 'like reading from a script,' she said."
A couple's love leads to an oddly sweet collection of "mementos."
"She liked textures, how the hair on his chest and belly bunched between her fingers, the slow swirling of her palms and fingertips a steady growing arousal. Afterwards, her cheek on his matted chest, he rested his arm on her back, relaxed but secure. Then she dug in his navel."
A divorce takes the same celebratory gestures as a wedding.
"Still, Susan and Michael enjoyed their last weeks of marriage and felt sad about the things they would miss, like half of their belongings. They set up a registry, two registries actually. Hers included a food processor, a flat-screen TV, and a Nintendo Wii because he would be keeping those things. His included high quality Tupperware, an ab roller, and an espresso maker because she would be keeping those."
Life and death envelops a polygamist family.
"Walker Getty led us to the candle with thirteen flames, which he said symbolized our family. Twelve small candles circled and bowed to one large flame. Hiram lit the large flame with a butane lighter, and one by one we wives lit one small candle with his big candle. Six candles stayed unlit, Walker Getty said, until the Lord saw fit to bless Hiram with more."
A 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."
At a nursing home, a middle-aged woman deals with her scientifically modified body and memories of her past.
"For the past few months, nanobots have been rebuilding Elise’s degenerative neural structures, refortifying the cell production of her microglia in an experimental medical procedure. Now she sits in the Memory Lane Neurotherapy lounge, strapped into a magnetoencephalographic (MEG) scanner that looks like a 1950s beauty parlor hair-drying unit. As a young female therapist monitors a glowing map of Elise’s brain, a male spits streams of nonsense at her."
Contemporary fabulist Kate Bernheimer spins a yarn about a girl, a husband, and a secret zoo.
"Each morning, before the husband comes to breakfast, the girl goes down the basement stairs to feed the pets. At sunrise animals must be fed. She remembers this from school."
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 profile of Maggie Gallagher, founder of National Organization for Marriage.
A mysterious visitor at a children's party has far-reaching ulterior motives.
"They did not play cards with him, they did not offer him cigars. No one entered into conversation with him. Possibly they recognised the bird by its feathers from a distance. Thus, my gentleman, not knowing what to do with his hands, was compelled to spend the evening stroking his whiskers. His whiskers were really fine, but he stroked them so assiduously that one got the feeling that the whiskers had come into the world first and afterwards the man in order to stroke them."
A 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?"
Married sitcom writers, once famous for their love, buckle under sexual and creative differences.
"The funniest lines in their work, the lines with that satisfying crackle of sadism, were mostly his, but he was aware that it was Pam’s confidence and Pam’s higher tolerance for cliché that had won them their big contracts. And now, because she wasn’t engineered for doubt, Pam seemed to think it didn’t matter that she’d gained fifteen pounds since moving to the mountains and that she was thumping around the house with the adipose aquiver in her freckled upper arms; she certainly seemed not to care that they hadn’t had sex since before Labor Day; and she’d been pointedly deaf to certain urgent personal-grooming and postural hints that Paul had dropped during their photo shoot for L.A. Weekly."
Civic and domestic troubles lead residents to unusual acts of creativity.
"Jen's car was still missing; Jeff was nailing again, hard. Instead of tiles, though, he was using Jen Simmons's underwear, pair after pair, sides touching like the hands of paper dolls."
A woman has a midnight encounter in her kitchen.
"She thinks, it is amazing, this man is calm enough to make a glass of milk while robbing her. She moves to check the silverware in the dining room, but stops herself. What good would it do? If it’s gone, it’s gone."
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 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."
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 Hitchcockian meditation about everyday people's capacity for violence.
"An odd thought crossed her mind: She would pick up the heavy glass ashtray and smash her husband over the head with it."
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."
Raymond Carver's stories have a knack for illuminating uncomfortable marriage scenes, and this tale of a man wanting his wife to lose weight is as well-written as it is saddening.
"He pulled the covers up, closed his eyes, and allowed himself to think about the incident. The humiliation started in his face, the forehead and cheeks, and worked down into his shoulders and on into his stomach and legs."
Life without reflection.
"She does her hair in the morning in much the same way her husband shaves: by feel, brushing it out, patting it into shape, fixing it with pins. She's been putting on earrings for forty years, and certainly doesn't require a mirror for that."
A character sketch from one of the early masters of the short story form.
"My conscience and my intelligence tell me that the very best thing I could do now would be to deliver a farewell lecture to the boys, to say my last word to them, to bless them, and give up my post to a man younger and stronger than me. But, God, be my judge, I have not manly courage enough to act according to my conscience."
When spouses get upset because their husband or wife wants to be frozen upon death, it’s not because they find the practice sacrilegious. It’s because their partner is consciously considering a future without them.