On childhood amnesia, or why we don’t remember much before age seven.
Memories of an abusive father and a mother's ghost.
"One night, he didn’t come home, and we went to bed without dinner. After you’d fallen asleep, I went to the kitchen to make a peanut butter sandwich. I didn’t make you one. I came back into our room and ate quietly. When our mother’s ghost appeared near the foot of your bed, she startled me: I had never before seen the moment of her appearance, and now I did, the flash of it, quick and bright, like an eye opening. I dropped my sandwich on the floor."
A space station custodian reflects on her terrestrial past.
"She scrubs the fingerprints from the instrument panels, watches the lights flicker and dim. She wonders how many rags she’ll go through, how many surfaces have to get clean before she can finally empty herself of the past. She doesn’t know about metaphors but she knows that even the smallest human vessel has boundless storage for sorrow. Was there a right way to take in so much sorrow it burned clean through the lungs and heart? Was there a right way to atone?"
A mysterious stranger in the woods; horrific escalations.
"When we were eleven Billy Jacobs told us he had seen three people standing at the edge of the woods. One was the redheaded man–or someone who from a distance resembled the redheaded man, a sicker, thinner incarnation of him. The three held big glass bottles as they waved to Billy. One let a cigarette fall from his mouth and the others shrieked with laughter. They stumbled away and were gone."
An unsettling dialogue between a woman and her jilted lover.
"Her face is turning pale, her freckles darkening. Don’t feel bad now. Dismiss that urge to hold her, to comfort her, to make her feel safe. She is the girl you love, but not. She is the girl who will break your heart. Who broke your heart already, and will do it again."
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 small town paramedic reflects on her troubled yet protective uncle.
"Inside, Lou washed our faces and made us some lemonade. I changed my pants. He turned on the radio in the kitchen. He made us peanut butter and crackers. He dealt out hands of Crazy-Eights and told us a story of Mom learning to milk a cow. Not once did he look out the window. After an hour, Lou picked up the phone and called the coroner."
The interactions and memories of a gas station attendant on the outskirts of Atlantic City.
"I make coffee at 4:30 in the morning: the parking lot full of idling big-rigs, their headlights on, their cabins dark. I arrive before the guys who work the pumps. All of my prep work is done in the dark, without the store’s lights. The men watch me moving in the lone gas station on a highway through South Jersey. The store a box of windows."
An old crush is remembered via childhood memories and an unusual anecdote.
"Then he began wearing pastel skateboarding-themed shirts. SKATEBOARDING IS NOT A CRIME, one said. Wallace Marguerite is not committing a crime, Stella thought. It was novel and thrilling, true whether or not he was a skateboarder. She never saw a skateboard."
Inside the minds of two people, one with the world’s best memory and one with the world’s worst.
A young man's story of sexual yearning and a looming military obligation; slightly NSFW.
"And there was nothing I could do about it. I mean, I couldn’t say anything bad about Betty. She was my very best, and only, hope of leaving the ranks of the aging virgins before I joined the ranks of the Air Force."
Technologies of literacy, technologies of memory.
"Millions of people, some my age but most younger, have been keeping lifelogs for years, wearing personal cams that capture continuous video of their entire lives. People consult their lifelogs for a variety of reasonseverything from reliving favorite moments to tracking down the cause of allergic reactionsbut only intermittently; no one wants to spend all their time formulating queries and sifting through the results. Lifelogs are the most complete photo album imaginable, but like most photo albums, they lie dormant except on special occasions. Now Whetstone aims to change all of that; they claim Remem’s algorithms can search the entire haystack by the time you’ve finished saying 'needle.'"
A story of telemarketing and the aftermath of a terrible accident.
"She looks run down and queasy under the yellow fluorescent lights. When I was on her side of the glass, I thought visitors always had a look of contentment, as if they didn’t have problems, other than someone in here they had to visit. They came in all tan, wearing white shorts and baseball caps like they were headed to picnics after. It seemed cruel. My parents always looked like they’d gotten lost on the way to church."
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 child's uneasy participation in a hunting party; an excerpt from Jackson's forthcoming novel Mira Corpora.
"A bearded man orders the children to circle up and divide into groups. A brother and sister pull my ears and claim me. They say that I’m their lucky charm. The siblings are pale with spindly legs, denim shorts, floppy hiking boots. We set off into the heart of the woods. The boy’s crew cut ends in a braided rat’s tail. He flicks it back and forth across his shoulders. They both have beady eyes and big noses. There’s something else on their faces, but it’s not clear yet."
After accidentally casting himself adrift in space, an astronaut's mind wanders over varied paths.
"According to his calculations, Barington had now been adrift in space for three months. This figure was based on his sleep schedule, which, although inexact, was his only possible point of reference. Whenever he determined that a day had passed, he reached up into his helmet and marked the inside of his visor with a tally, using a wax pencil he had found in his suit’s utility compartment. After the accumulation of seven tallies, he erased them with his thumb and drew a W for Week."
A complex look at an act of small town violence.
"There wasn’t time to think about it, though, because Jim had already opened his car door and was running up the concrete incline toward where the two men were sleeping, and there was two of them and one of him, so I kicked off my slides in the floorboard and grabbed hold of my blackjack and run up the hill after him."
A woman's ex-lover moves into her duplex apartment.
"I wanted to be with Mitch again the way we were after college, with that safety of the late-night sex call, the backup-plan date who was not really a date to parties filled with couples. But I did not have the courage to tell him that I wanted to pick up where we had left off before he married Janet any more than I could have told him I had loved him all those years ago. By the time he was free again (and moving into the duplex I owned), I had learned to seal off my heart from his casual, unofficial kind of love."
On the film The Act of Killing, in which the actual perpetrators of a 1966-1966 Indonesian genocide recreate their own actions for the camera, and what it can tell us about our memories of the Vietnam War.
An aging wrestler reflects as he prepares to wrestle an old nemesis: a black bear.
"Emperor Jones Number Two vs. Dave 'Warthog' Ferrari in 'The War 2 Settle The Score' was the main event of that evening's Wrestling Road Show. It was the only match on the card that featured any animals. Times were changing, Friar had told me. The draw at the gate had been better than Friar expected; he'd sold more than a hundred tickets in advance and there were now twice that many people crammed into the small gymnasium. When commissioning the gym, the Legionnaires decided to have a stage built at one end, for medal ceremonies or other such honors. That was where Friar had his ring set up. Normally you work in the round, but this set up had it's advantages for a promotion like Friar's. It was easy to bring animals in and out and people wouldn't get too nervous seeing how they had to be wrangled from their cages when it was done behind a curtain."
A man returns to his small hometown for a temporary substitute teaching job.
"I went away from this place and I lived somewhere else. Years passed. When I came back, it was all the same. It had been years, but the place was the same. I started teaching at the school I went to as a boy. It was a substitute gig. The original teacher needed surgery and she would be out for three weeks. There was a little girl there in the 5th grade class and she was so shy she could barely speak. The other 5th grade teacher told me that the little girl’s mother was on drugs. She told me not to get close to the kids like that because they never made it through the school year. They always ended up moving or just disappearing. She told me that she had been to a funeral just a few weeks earlier for a student’s mother who had overdosed."
On disposing of a dead sea lion, and the pitfalls of memory.
A weary tenant gets lost in his vast apartment complex.
"The fourth floor is the same as the third. I again turn left outside the elevator, but take fewer steps before again realizing my error. Turning around, the numbers climb: 418, 420, 422. I put my key in my door and it slides all the way in, and I pause, surprised, though unsure why I should be. I can feel the door respond to me opening it, but then it stops. I've never once locked that deadbolt when leaving the apartment. Sometimes I lock it when home, inside the apartment, though just as often I don't. The door itself locks automatically when I leave, and the apartment building is locked as well, so I've never stopped and taken the time nor precaution for the extra lock of the deadbolt. I try my same key in the second lock—it fits, but won't turn. It won't unlock, but I knew it wouldn't. I stand still and silent, listening, wondering again if someone inside heard me trying to let myself in. I try to think of as simple an explanation as possible, should someone open the door, though who might that be? Who else would be in my apartment, why would they open the door?"
A divorced father takes a job disposing 44 tons of rotting bison meat in an abandoned warehouse.
"As though exposure to air were a catalyst of some sort, a wave of the stench hit him, even through the painting mask and snowmobile goggles. His eyes watered; he was momentarily unable to breathe. He may even have blacked out, which may have been why his aim was off, why his shoulder stopped rotating in the air, and how he came to be showered in a blanket of maggoty meat. And then he did pass out, just briefly."
Mysteries and complex memories envelop an unhappy suburban marriage.
"So Kendall started it, and once the ball of change got rolling, it gathered velocity. No going back. Things were starting to happen. One morning on the brick patio, Kendall was in sweats after finishing his workout. The look suited him: athletic but not excessively sweaty. In the distance, the heavy haze was like a scrim in front of the cityscape. It would mean a smog alert when they turned on the news. Behind him was the dry swimming pool, a long, inset coffin with a sturdy mesh cover that looked like a rectangular rug laid over the yard. She felt a recklessness bubbling up in her. He was her husband, yet not. Something about him coming home a stranger was cutting her loose, changing the plan."
After a young man's death, his college friend and his mother reassess their lives.
"Many of these details Ben learned while he stood in the lobby of the funeral home on Madison Avenue before the service that warm September Saturday. He was looking for a place to stash his suitcase and people were saying the body was in good shape; it was nice to be able to say goodbye. Perhaps it was the jetlag, but Ben never realized they were talking about an open casket in another room and so he never went to see it. Later, when he started believing he was seeing Mike in London — in the turn of a cheek, a certain stride — he regretted this. He thought maybe the problem could have been avoided if he’d said goodbye with more finality, had seen Mike’s dead face. That seemed like part of the problem; it was hard to accept that Mike was gone. He’d worked harder than most for everything he’d attained. How could it be that the one thing he couldn’t work for was not granted to him in large supply?"
A debt-ridden young woman lives as a mysterious servant to a pair of artists.
"Charles looked me up and down and said I was worth every penny. That first night, we did not lie down together. He taught me how to play sixes and sevens. I did not tell him I already knew how to play because I could see that teaching me would make him happy. In service, I have learned it is good to make sure those you serve stay happy."
A poetic story of a variety of childhood memories, detailing hopes, abuse, and dismantling.
"Our dad left without saying goodbye or taking any of his stuff. We took to poking around in the basement where my mom had thrown all his belongings in a corner. We started smoking his cigars. At first it felt like we were getting back at someone, which felt pretty good, even if we didn’t know who. We’d climb out our window on to the roof of the porch, and even if neighbors were awake, they never looked up to see us. We felt on top of things even though that’s not how we felt at all."
An evening of drinking and tensions culminates in the revelation of embarrassing childhood memories.
"'What’s in my Memory Palace?' she wondered. A driveway. One with a basketball hoop on a pole. Megan was 11 and playing with her new friends. They grinned at each other and approached her, tied her to the basketball pole with two jump ropes, attached rollerblades to her feet, and then drew penises on her face. Then they dressed her hair with shaving cream."
A series of hallucination-like memories in the aftermath of a car accident.
"The accident happened at sunset, so that is when I felt this way the most. The man I had met the week before was driving me to dinner when it happened. The place was at the beach, a beach on a bay that you can look across and see the city lights, a place where you can see everything without having to listen to any of it. A long time later I went to that beach myself. I drove the car. It was the first good beach day; I wore shorts."
In the wake of his grandmother's death, a young man struggles with intense bouts of anger.
"I'll describe the walls because that's easy — they were white, and I hurt my right pinkie knuckle-punching some of them while I walked through rooms searching for my car keys. My inability to find them frustrated me so badly that I beat up the bathroom door, limped away, and waved my fist at the plaster statue of Beethoven's head on top of the piano we never learned to play. After all that, I found the keys in a coat pocket I had already checked twice but somehow missed. I grabbed the video and made toward the back door, but on my way I noticed Sparkles cowering under the kitchen table, shaking, terrified of me. I hated myself a little extra, fed her a slice of manufactured cheese, patted her on the head, and took the back steps three at a time."
What will you remember when it's all over?
"That night, like every night that year, long after dark had fallen, I climbed the tree at the top of the hill behind town hall. That night was different, though. When I'd almost made it to the top, instead of the bird with whom I'd been having an affair, I met a fellow border guard."
Spending time and memories in the afterlife.
"1981, Teskia recalled, wasn't so bad. They had both been very young then, so the population would be sparse. They took a train (it was five days for the fare) and ended up in July. They traveled north until she found Zoya, living in October. Zoya wanted out of 1981; Teskia wanted in."
A dying grandmother shares a story about meeting George Harrison.
"I went to my room a little catatonic, in a mixture of religious awe and fascination with my grandmother. I confirmed the information and yes, Rishikesh was that city in India where the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram was, where the Beatles had stayed in the late 1960s and where they had composed a bunch of songs. It was incredible that Gran had managed to associate the song I had played with all that. And remembered the song, and that it was by George, and included herself in the story, to boot."
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."
Two friends meet and catch up at a train station bar.
"I cough something out about seeing him around and he swallows something back at me and each of us gives something that’s barely a nod. I start to walk towards the light rail to carry me home and I look out at the water. The snow’s still falling, hitting the Hudson and turning anonymous. I get the sudden abstract sense that going by train in this weather isn’t safe and I turn back around to see if Nathan’s still at the machine, if there’s time to go back to him and say something better than what I’ve given so far. When I look back, there’s no one left to stand at the machines."
While being stripped and sold, old ships reflect on their long histories and the generations of men associated with them.
"But we were the ones they came back to, dawn after dawn, year after year. We were the ones who brought them home, hoary and frail, to Snug Harbor. The nurses tucked them into wooden wheelchairs. They spent the landlocked hours making models of us in bottles, the Nellie P. and the Golden Eagle, the Sallie Ann and the Spirit of Victory. Hunched between the wall with the clock and the wall with the crucifix, they assembled us from memory. Their fingers traced each narrow bottleneck. They slipped inside as far as they could reach."
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."
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."
After a divorce and in the midst of uncertainty, a woman impulsively buys an old piano.
"And now, X could not even appreciate the simple pleasure of background noise, for she could not play. She sat at the bench and looked at the keys, depressing one here and there, listening to the soft gasps of noise that vibrated from the strings inside the Steinway. She tumbled a few notes together; they sounded like little coughs, a disease she was uncertain of how to cure. She ran her hand over the smooth ebony finish; it reminded her of her pediatric patients, bubbled mounds of clay cherubs who had not yet been pulled like taffy into their angled adulthood."
A young boy observes life through the actions of his father and of former Knick center Patrick Ewing.
"'We’re not leaving till you make five free throws in a row,' my dad says. Even at ten, I get it. He thinks I’m going to make the shots quickly. He thinks I’ll make five free throws in a row and be reborn confident and new, my anemic offense rebooted in a single stroke of coaching genius. But then I remember Patrick Ewing, the doom of his body, how he never pulls up for a jumper, how he always runs headfirst into his trembling opponents. "
An Uzbek man, partially settled in America, reflects on his ties to his childhood home.
" Paper space helmets, old rubber gloves. The girls held the unwieldy cardboard rocket. Their faces appeared through the windows, and their bows veered above: green, red, brighter red. Again, poems were recited, this time about Gagarin, the way he must have looked at earth from above with his new eyes, the eyes of a hero."
A dreamlike look at a person's lavish celebration with various figures from her life.
"They are all waiting by a picnic table in a park this person has driven past many times before. There they are, it's everyone. There are balloons taped to the benches, and the girl this person used to stand next to at the bus stop is waving a streamer. Everyone is smiling. For a moment this person is almost creeped out by the scene, but it would be so like this person to become depressed on the happiest day ever, and so this person bucks up and joins the crowd."
A clown's harrowing, distorted journey through towns, roads, and memories.
"Now, long days along the roads, back roads and highways, roads of dust and concrete, roads bent and vibrating in the heat and the letter taped to the windshield, a membrane browning in the sun. Long days tangled in the station wagon, legs and heads flopped from windows, the back window kicked out and exploded into dust for the bulges and ruffles of a hundred Pierrots, their long red shoes and polka dots. Long days now hurtling along, lost in the vibrations of gestures, lost within the vibration of minds. These days hurtling along roads in an endless gesture, the only gesture Pierrot once knew. The gesture Pierrot never forgot."
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."
An NYU student examines two different relationships: a friendship and a tense love affair.
"I blamed my need for Patrick’s adoration on our undergraduate rivalry. That and our occasional, unbalanced, raucous affair. It became a vendetta. Our disagreements occurred often enough to be not just memorable, but legendary, in both volume and scope. We waged verbal combat with ease, caring neither for our hewn down egos nor dismantled bonds. Other people can afford to be thoughtless; they’re ignorant of the gravity their speech holds. But linguists will devastate if only because we can do so with a well-placed term or phrase. Then it’s the silences that serve as our minions. They scrape at wounds old and new, where apologies dare not tread."
If you could see the future, how would it change your relationships? What if your partner could see the future too? Winner of a 2012 Hugo for Best Novelette.
"I just can't see a happy future where I don't date Doug. I mean, I like Doug, I may even be in love with him already, but... we're going to break each other's hearts, and more than that: We’re maybe going to break each other's spirits. There's got to be a detour, a way to avoid this, but I just can’t see it right now."
Escalating competitions between two boys take an unexpected turn.
"Most of my losses, though, were at the hands of the son, Jimmy Knockwood Jr. Two years older than me, Jimmy wore a hint of Iroquois aristocracy in his cheekbones, and some part of his body was usually sheathed in a dirty plaster cast. He beat me at every sport we had equipment for. At 13, he had arms like a man and could throw a baseball with such force that after playing catch with him you couldn't turn a doorknob. Once, when we were wrestling, he put me in a choke hold that made my vision go white. I cursed Jimmy's mother, and he rubbed a toad into my teeth. Seeing me in tears afterward, my father asked why I put myself through the disgrace of playing with Jimmy. He had forgotten the infatuation a boy has no choice but to feel for a peer who is good at everything."
A sample from Powell's 2009 novel-in-questions.
"Are you happy? Are you given to wondering if others are happy? Do you know the distinctions, empirical or theoretical, between moss and lichen? Have you seen an animal lighter on its feet than the sporty red fox? Do you cut slack for the crime of passion as opposed to its premeditated cousin? Do you understand why the legal system would? Are you bothered by socks not matching up in subtler respects than color? Is it clear to you what I mean by that? Is it clear to you why I am asking you all these questions?"
An American visitor reflects on a visit to Bosnia, with observations both sweet and ominous.
"We liked the weather on the ground and in the mountains and we liked the drive up Jahorena with its dismantled houses, houses whose faces were opened by bombs and tanks. We stayed in a cabin surrounded by snow and the ruined landscape of an ethnic cleansing. And on that mountain we threw paper planes and shot homemade videos and played steal the bacon until it was time for us to go to sleep, then wake up again feeling safe in the cold house with an unfed, wood-burning stove."
Adolescent desires and yearnings permeate the memories of an all-boys academy.
"At school, we were allowed to wear costumes but were not allowed to bring treats. So we'd made the most of it -- we wore our costumes, we overcrowded the hallways with streams of sleepy ghosts. And often, through the punctured eyeholes of our masks, we tried to imagine how things might be if only we had girls. We envisioned an influx of princesses, maybe a witch or two or three positioned by the lockers. But we were an academy, an all-boys academy, and the possibility of both girls and treats were, in Principal Foster's eyes, completely out of the question."
The hungry, woozy thoughts of a young hitchhiker.
"The time since our last bath has made us smell completely wanton, like we’re bad apples. That is why I am not allowed to faint, no matter how hungry I get. If I swoon, there won’t be help. My body will not be held in arms until it can be laid gently among the reeds. Rather, my skull will split against, and brains will spill great fountains on the sidewalk. The crowd will continue, too busy to observe the tableau by their feet. If anyone hears my splash, they’ll see the dark sky and be convinced that it’s somehow got to do with rain."
A mother views her child in wildly diverse manners.
"The soles of his feet, his ears, the folds of his neck, are excellent and new, expensive-looking, like small perfect things sewn from extinct wild-animal skins. His thighs hold tight to my ribs, athletic and intelligent -- all of his cells have intelligence. It's four A.M. He looks out behind us as we walk around together. He sees like an Abstract Expressionist -- American, of course: color field, emotional repetition, surface tension. Everything is untitled."
An alternate take on Memento's amnesiac-detective concept, written by Christopher Nolan's brother.
"He is caught at the door to his room, one hand on the knob. Two pictures are taped to the wall by the door. Earl's attention is caught first by the MRI, a shiny black frame for four windows into someone's skull. In marker, the picture is labeled YOUR BRAIN. Earl stares at it. Concentric circles in different colors. He can make out the big orbs of his eyes and, behind these, the twin lobes of his brain. Smooth wrinkles, circles, semicircles. But right there in the middle of his head, circled in marker, tunneled in from the back of his neck like a maggot into an apricot, is something different. Deformed, broken, but unmistakable. A dark smudge, the shape of a flower, right there in the middle of his brain."
During a camping trip, a son sees his father as a flawed individual.
"Behind me, Bruce wrestled with the tent flaps. Nature thrived all around me. The river ate away the sludgy bank. I knew somewhere within the onyx waters, fish turned and dove. Furious and haphazard. Organisms crawled under my feet. My father and I had brought supplies where only we had use for them. We were out of place in the wild, and I started to wonder if Bruce knew what he was doing."
A fictionalized account of a moment in baseball history from a contemporary master of detailed Americana.
"Russ wants to believe a thing like this keeps us safe in some undetermined way. This is the thing that will pulse in his brain come old age and double vision and dizzy spells -- the surge sensation, the leap of people already standing, that bolt of noise and joy when the ball went in. This is the people's history and it has flesh and breath that quicken to the force of this old safe game of ours. And fans at the Polo Grounds today will be able to tell their grandchildren -- they'll be gassy old men leaning into the next century and trying to convince anyone willing to listen, pressing in with medicine breath, that they were here when it happened."
Experimental surrealism; a mix of memories and strange evocations.
"A railcar arrives in the middle of desolation. A girl enters and sees a mangy rat pacing the floor inside. He approaches her and asks her for the latest news. 'There is no one left,' she sobs. After many days, she makes a nest for herself in the railcar. She adopts the mangy rat and begins to groom him with her fingers."
A young girl's relationship with her mother and rural surroundings are told in an experimental dose of stream of conciousness.
"...you ask her what she is doing and she tells you still not opening her eyes nothing, girl only that word does not mean what it means it means something so big and black it can hardly fit into language though she does not say another thing and her lack of saying says more than her saying ever could the sun bit by bit turning itself off and the evening bit by bit turning itself on and the over-sweet summer breeze stirring for maybe fifteen minutes no more without cooling a thing and you go back into the trailer to watch the television trying not to think about all this thinking but after a while you go out again to see and she is still there still sitting in the lawn chair alone precisely as you left her smoking with her head tilted back eyes closed..."
A series of shorts about a marriage and conversations with two old-time movie stars.
"Ingrid Bergman told me she'd sleep with any man who desired. And there had been plenty. She slept with the majority of her costars on every film, most of the directors, several costume designers, and once, for kicks, a sound-effects editor—"helps me get into the role," she argued. It didn't bother her at all. It was like taking a walk, 'like reading from a script,' she said."
Three women bribe a Red Cross driver for a ride to a battlefield to identify the lost men in their lives.
"They climbed into the back of the Red Cross truck, carrying small bags of lunch and the knickknacks they hoped to bury. The interior smelled of disinfectant, of cigarettes. The metal seats offered only the ache of ice. Underneath their unwashed winter coats, they wore clothing for the dead -- Carmen in Savic's favorite dress, the one he always begged her to wear without a bra, and now much too thin for this cold; Marina in jeans and a sweater, wearing her brother's skiing cap and a large cross around her neck, folding and unfolding her spotted hands; Gisele bundled up, zipped up, buttoned up with all the clothing she could wear, not a bit of wife showing."
An invitation to Timbuktu; an attempt to push away life's problems.
" Here, do not think about the past; do not worry about the future. Instead, think only of the present. Of the brilliant shining sun. Of the opalescent waves. Of the bleached rolling dunes in the distance. Let yourself fade away. Enjoy the weather of Timbuktu.……Walk across the island. Notice how the temperature is exactly what you’d want it to be if someone asked you. Do not think about how no one ever asks you—about anything. How most things occur against your will. Instead, realize that throughout Timbuktu, the temperature varies from 64° to 95°."
A record store employee meets a seemingly blessed musical prodigy.
"You really had to be there to see him in action. He held his hands before him, chest high, as if holding a box. And as he walked by the racks, he looked at the records -- through the records. His eyes got big and then they filled with a light as clear and as dense as water. As he passed a record, that light filled with music. Even from my nook in back I could see staff lines and notes and chords shimmering in it. Then I could hear the music myself -- faintly, as if he were wearing those Walkman headphones though this was years before Walkmans."
On the relationship between travel and photography.
A man awaits his death at the hands of three men and a mysterious machine.
"He never seriously doubted that he would warm to and admire all three at once, and wish only that he could have been their friend. He knew that they used a machine. As if prompted by some special hindsight, Denton thought often and poignantly about the moment when the leader would consent to take his hand as the machine began to work. He knew that they were out there already, seeing people, making telephone calls; and he knew that they must be very expensive."
Haunted by the abuse of her former cellmate, a prison inmate seeks companionship with an inflatable Cell Buddy.
"Keeping one eye on the cell door, Amanda opened the box and pulled out the folded plastic figure, gently removing the sealed packaging, complete with a two-part pump system she assembled after a few minutes of difficulty. (Amanda was pretty handy but sometimes struggled with instructions.) Now with her back to the tier, hiding the plastic figure from view, Amanda slowly pumped up her Cell Buddy until it was fully inflated. She then stood back, admiring her new friend."
A mother recalls her sexual past while on a trip to Disney World.
"We ride the Jungle Cruise. The animals are fake yet it remains a big draw of Adventureland. That and the turkey legs, which are big as clubs but 100% real. You should see how America eats them. I feel almost skinny. My husband picks up a stuffed giraffe as a souvenir. Call it luck. Until I planted that hissing plate of fajitas (hot, very hot) before him at Mary’s Cantina I had no idea anyone could see pregnant skin as potential."
A destitute seamstress embarks on an act goodwill.
"As bare and comfortless as the room was Miss Sophie's life. She rented these four walls from an unkempt little Creole woman, whose progeny seemed like the promised offspring of Abraham. She scarcely kept the flickering life in her pale little body by the unceasing toil of a pair of bony hands, stitching, stitching, ceaselessly, wearingly, on the bands and pockets of trousers. It was her bread, this monotonous, unending work; and though whole days and nights constant labour brought but the most meagre recompense, it was her only hope of life."
A woman mourns and reflects on a suffering romance.
"I resolved to stay mute on my walk to work. But then I saw a man wearing your green cap, and I called for you. The sidewalks echoed. When he turned I saw he was somebody else. His smile was too white, his eyes too blue. He was too young and his face too square. Everybody stared. I fled. I told myself to stop the wishful thinking. But eight more times it happened. Eight more times I called you because eight men had clothes or gaits or napes like you."
Observations on death, from the outside and the inside.
" No one really dies in my family. Not yet. A grandmother died, and an uncle, but I was too young. A grandfather died seven years ago; I wasn’t allowed to see his last moments. I remember his final weeks: hospice, jaundice, eyes, resignation. Jump-cut to the funeral home: yellow skin softened by the buttermilk interior of the casket, a suit that I didn’t know he owned, a pocket square like denim."
An actress shares memories of her previous theater company.
"It was like looking back into another age, into some frozen pre-history of the theater, all ancient yellow figures posed in the most piercing harshness of light, haloed with their faces painted and lined, black lipstick on their mouths, kohl smeared around their eyes. There was Mrs. Templeton, so much younger, her body thin as rope, standing bloodless and terrified over a rag-covered corpse."
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"
During a train ride, a man reflects on his past lovers.
"I have not thought of that boy—Joey—for many years; but I see him quite clearly tonight. It was several years ago. I was still in my teens, he was about my age, give or take a year. He was a very nice boy, too, very quick and dark, and always laughing. For a while he was my best friend. Later, the idea that such a person could have been my best friend was proof of some horrifying taint in me. So I forgot him. But I see him very well tonight."
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."
The histories of a corporate workshop leader and a conference attendee intertwine.
"In fact, Jim was taking a bigger risk than someone might have thought. He’d hidden his name tag when he asked his questions, but Lund could easily have recognized him without it. Lund was by no means a stranger, though Jim was by then pretty sure Lund had forgotten who he was. He and Lund went back a long way. At one point, in fact, they’d been pretty close. That was decades earlier, when they were both in school and working summers at a boys’ camp called Camp Fairweather, in another part of the country."
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 stoned woman's journey encompasses family memories and political and feminist activism.
"The caravan of images broke apart, dispersing into the motes that poured through the windshield of her Dart. Ruth took off her sunglasses and rubbed her eyes. The tiny blood vessels felt huge. She did not know her sister anymore; they were separated by politics and by her marriage to Jack. Had she ever known Helene? Ruth put the saliva-soaked joint to her lips, aware now of the music coming over the radio. “All you need is love. Love is all you need.” She laughed, sapphires and rubies spilling from her mouth, and the sadness left for a moment."
An art collector reflects back on the summer camp of her childhood, and a dreadful occurrence.
"[T]hese paintings are not landscape paintings. Because there aren’t any landscapes up there, not in the old, tidy European sense, with a gentle hill, a curving river, a cottage, a mountain in the background, a golden evening sky. lnstead there’s a tangle, a receding maze, in which you can become lost almost as soon as you step off the path. There are no backgrounds in any of these paintings, no vistas; only a great deal of foreground that goes back and back, endlessly, involving you in its twists and turns of tree and branch and rock. No matter how far back in you go, there will be more. And the trees themselves are hardly trees; they are currents of energy. charged with violent color."
A man muses on philosophical and personal issues while watching a war film.
"Fizzing rockets, stetsons, verdant tree canopies and earnest young patriots: none of these things help me locate my lighter, which is perhaps dug in a cleft in the sofa somewhere, or proudly beyond reach on the table top. The springs of my inherited sofa are too yielding, and my position too weak for me to prop myself up right now and undertake the reconnaissance required to find it."
Outside of a Springsteen concert, a lonely young woman bonds with a bus driver.
"Heidi stood there with him, waiting for him to do something else. The thought of sitting in a hot stadium with thousands of other people made her sick. But the driver wasn’t leaving either, she realized. He, too, stood there with his hands in his pockets, looking a little awkward. She felt her heart pound instinctively, and ran her hand through her hair to tousle it."
Memories of a prison form a puzzle of theories and careful details.
"There is a theory I favor that the ground is beaten in the morning. The children allow for some ascension or ebbing of shadow before effecting a slight switching with brushrope of the soil. To explain the pattering at dawn? A slight drumming or the chatter? One cannot be too careful. The light swivels north of the third prison container, which is constructed of small bricks. I believe the women are housed there, for the birds rush off the turret at noon and there is a moment each day when the shadow is severe."
After the birth of his child, an unhappy man's mind wanders.
"Carl didn’t want to cut the cord. He had done it for the others and this, he felt, was more than his share. The other kids were tucked in and away for a few days at her sister’s spread in Winnetka, not far from his parents’ old farm. His own modest house off Cicero, just southwest of downtown, was enticingly empty tonight, all five windows to the street, three on top and two on each side of the red door, would be dark and oblivious to Carl, for example, in a big empty bed, or babies, or the half moon rising through the grit and glow of the city, outlining the tallest of its buildings. Keep it dark. He hoped to get home tonight and sleep some, in all that still and lonesome."
Passengers and a tour bus driver share personal stories and local legends.
"Fraser Island is the world’s biggest sand island. It is made up entirely of sand. I like to say that a good island is just like a person: if you can understand its one main factor, you can understand the whole thing. The sand is what makes the island the way it is. It is all sand, blown together by the wind and taken here from the coast of New South Wales. That is why we have the trees we do, and why the beach and dirt are our roads. So you could say the island is the way it is because of sand from the wind."
A list of various lovers, presented with no judgement but a wealth of observation.
"I see on Max’s wrist a bracelet made of kelp. “Oh this?” Max says, and describes wading out into the Pacific, his stomach pressed against his board, anchoring himself by the wrist and diving, weaving through the kelp vines that sway deep below. There’s a whole world down there, he says, and I feel like he’s describing the dimensions of a home I’ve always imagined. He takes the bracelet from his wrist and ties it on mine. Anna walks between us after that."
A meeting at a castle is mixed with painful adolescent memories.
"It was one of those views that make you feel like God for a second. The castle walls looked silver under the moon, stretched out over the hill in a wobbly oval the size of a football field. There were round towers every fifty yards or so. Below Danny, inside the walls, it was black-pure, like a lake or outer space. He felt the curve of big sky over his head, full of purplish torn-up clouds. The castle itself was back where Danny had started out: a clump of buildings and towers jumbled together. But the tallest tower stood off on its own, narrow and square with a red light shining in a window near the top."
“In the very near future, the act of remembering will become a choice.”
On Alison Winter’s Memory: Fragments of a Modern History, and issues of memory in the 20th century.
Underlying the compelling feeling that we are our memories is a further common-sense assumption that our entire lives are accurately retained somewhere in the brain ‘bank’ as laid-down memories of our experience, and that we retrieve our lives and selves from an ever expanding stockpile of recollections. Or we can’t, and then that feeling that it’s on the tip of our tongue, or there but just out of range, still encourages us to think that everything we have known or done is in us somewhere, if only our digging equipment were sharper.
A dancer turned marketing writer reminisces about her previous profession.
"Back in the home offices in midtown, I was the mistress of machines, baroness of 1,001 banalities it took to keep the organization running. I’d quit dancing at twenty‐one when the work got too hard and the people too mean. At twenty‐five I could no longer stretch or bounce like the kids in the company."
Two older writersliterary alliesdiscuss their memories, their past relationships, and their past conflicts.
"Their own sales were holding up, just about. A couple of thousand in hardback, twenty or so in paper. They still had a certain name recognition. Alice wrote a weekly column about life's uncertainties and misfortunes, though Jane thought it would be improved by more references to Alice's own life and fewer to Epictetus. "
A man's memories of his troubled childhood lead to extravagant personal imagery of heaven and hell.
"Is heaven full of surprises? Our minister made it sound static. Happy, happy, happy, and no sleep, just blissed up like an addict, people bowing whenever Jesus walks by. Or the Father. Or the Holy Spirit sent a breeze-puff near where you stood by a window with a golden sill. Did the Holy Spirit get tired of being invisible? Maybe in heaven all is visible, even the Spirit."
A couple shakes off an argument with a conversation about dreams, nightmares, free association games, and a haunting childhood memory.
"Probably this happened. This is likely how the day had been going. But Audrey cannot fully retrieve the events of that day, cannot quite remember what the day was like until the frantic knocking on the window, the crunching of the snow, the three of them running down the hall into the big family room to see their father opening the front door, their mother reaching for the phone. The big room no longer warm, despite the fire. Audrey no longer cozy, but shivering."
Paul Auster does his usual blend of fiction and memoir in a recounted Christmas story.
"I spent the next several days in despair, warring with the ghosts of Dickens, O.Henry and other masters of the Yuletide spirit. The very phrase "Christmas story" had unpleasant associations for me, evoking dreadful outpourings of hypocritical mush and treacle. Even at their best, Christmas stories were no more than wish-fulfillment dreams, fairy tales for adults, and I'd be damned if I'd ever allowed myself to write something like that. And yet, how could anyone propose to write an unsentimental Christmas story? It was a contradiction in terms, an impossibility, an out-and-out conundrum. One might just as well imagine a racehorse without legs, or a sparrow without wings."
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 rumination on an ancient relic.
"At its apex there was a chamber that might have contained relics. Some say it preserved the ashes of a great conqueror. Others believe it held the bones of a crucified rebel. But troubled times came, and the barbarians swept through our lands. The obelisk toppled over, and for a thousand years it lay in an abandoned field."
From the classic collection Dubliners, two truant schoolboys encounter an unsettling old man.
"A slap on the hand or a box on the ear was no good: what he wanted was to get a nice warm whipping. I was surprised at this sentiment and involuntarily glanced up at his face. As I did so I met the gaze of a pair of bottle-green eyes peering at me from under a twitching forehead. I turned my eyes away again."
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."
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."
Brian Mihok, the editor of the experimental journal matchbook, examines beauty, monuments, memory, time, and warehouses.
"This is a café, she said. But everything in this café was made in a warehouse. Even me, she said. You were made? Taiga said. I was born in a hospital, but the hospital was a warehouse."
Extracted from the author’s memoir, Life Itself.
The British satirist Auberon Waugh once wrote a letter to the editor of the Daily Telegraph asking readers to supply information about his life between birth and the present, explaining that he was writing his memoirs and had no memories from those years. I find myself in the opposite position. I remember everything. All my life I've been visited by unexpected flashes of memory unrelated to anything taking place at the moment. These retrieved moments I consider and replace on the shelf.