An essay on the service economy.
A young woman is hired to hand out pamphlets at a seedy racetrack.
"When the supply of flyers was gone, I walked over to the snack bar to get more from Al. The crowd was thinning now. People either looked me over or tried not to look. Without the stack of paper in hand, I felt self-conscious again. The pumps hurt my feet."
A woman takes a job as a typist for a Southern con man.
"Nor did he notice that her bag was packed and sitting at her feet where she waited by the window, twisting the curtains in her hands. But then, Cal has no reason to notice these things. He is not her lover, not really her friend. Just a man who pays her to take notes, a man she has known only a few months, a drunk, a liar, and when he suggested this outing, when he asked her if she’d like to take a break from her note-taking, have some fun, she should have known better."
A professor of mathematics "disconnects" from his work and broods on his past.
"As a child, he never figured out how to explain himself. A hurricane of questions whenever he’d taken an aimless walk, just over that way to see the neighbors’ dog or the flock of parakeets that came around in the late afternoon, I just went overthatway, that’s all. They’d say: why? What for? What dog? At this hour? To see what about the dog, what parakeet? I’d respond: Over that way because they’re pretty. He’d blush saying the words over that way because they’re pretty. Later, he’d get furious, when they’d ask him about feelings."
On literary mashups, double entendres, and questionable choices.
"Maybe you’ve heard of M__y Dick? I would bet you haven’t read it, and I bet I’d win that bet because I’d be leaving nothing up to chance. Here’s why: nobody has read M__y Dick. Scratch that. Nobody but me has read M__y Dick, because there’s only one copy in existence and it’s right here in my apartment, right here on this very desk I am writing to you from. That was the whole point. M__y Dick was just for me, for my own self-improvement. Of course, that didn’t stop them from talking about it, which was fine at first, and then it was not."
A primer on services for the afterlife.
"So you’ll start by taking a ride in the flatbed truck with Gurtie, and she’ll drop you off at the ARF center. You’ll probably be pretty disoriented. It’s okay. You’ve been riding in the back of a white flatbed truck with a bunch of recently dead people for several hours through the Afterlife—which looks basically like North Dakota. None of you will be happy campers, and some of your traveling companions will look downright alarming, what with death not being such a photogenic moment for most people. We understand and we sympathize. It’s an unpleasant time for you, but like I said, we are understaffed. Do we wish there were a better way? Yes, we do. Is there a better way? Not yet, there’s not."
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 pizza restaurant employee goes to extreme lengths to sabotage a rival.
"I normally hopped on my Honda scooter and went straight home after work, but not that day. I stood by the gumball machine near the front entrance and peered out the blinds, staring daggers into the Pizza World facade. Their parking lot was full, even though the lunch rush had been over for two hours. I looked at the intersection and their guy was still dancing, waving his arms like a buffoon, no rhythm at all, nothing choreographed. I had a three-minute routine I would do and then repeat, over and over like a fucking pro (three different one-minute variations of the Macarena dance, choreographed by yours truly). Pizza World had clearly put a rookie in the suit, and I thought: that’s one strike against you."
A rural worker conjures up fantastical mythologies to hide his own troubled past.
"Several days after re-wiring the fence, Shuck asked Boss if he could take me to town for new tractor parts. Shuck drove Boss’s truck and smoked with the windows up, filling the cab with thick tendrils of burnt and cheap tobacco. He took the long way into town and told me that they gypsy had been the most beautiful girl to ever exist back in Spain. She had been the daughter of a rich soldier. But after some incident that Shuck wasn’t entirely sure of, she had joined with a vagabond group of gypsies, travelling the foothills of Spain, marking her new group’s travels by the patterns of stars and their gathered constellations. Shuck said that she had been the most beautiful girl to ever set foot on the entire European continent. But she grew old so quickly that soon her limbs began to tangle and go numb."
An older brother attempts to break free from his wayward younger sister.
"And at once Avi knew it all—his sister was head over heels in love with him, the inker. Just as she had been head over heels in love with the recovering junkie stand-up comedian in the East Village, a guy whose entire routine centered around his days trading oral sex for heroin. Or the peach farmer named Karma, a man-boy who had wanted to marry her in spite of the fact that he was, well, already married."
A Southern defense attorney's complicated family Christmas, told through the point of view of his child.
"Every Christmas Daddy throws a 'Taking the Christ Out of Christmas' party and invites everybody. Everybody loves my Daddy except for a small percentage that want to take their revenge, so it's lots of people, old clients, other criminal defense attorneys, Rey Mason from the feed store, everybody. No Jesus cause it makes Daddy angry and both his hands already broke."
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."
Asphyxiation, heavy machinery accidents and heat stroke–the dangers of America’s temporary workforce.
The wrenching existence of a circus sideshow attraction.
"Dog Boy has a phantom tail. When excited he can feel the invisible tail wagging; his whole rump moves with it. When he’s afraid, he tucks it between his legs. But there is something frustrating about it, like eating imaginary food. Sometimes his frustration builds until he feels the intense and sudden urge to chase this invisible tail; he spins around and around in a tight circle until he exhausts himself."
Executives discuss a reality TV pilot gone awry.
"'I don’t know what happened in there. Like I said, maybe if we hadn’t told him she was in on it, whatever it was would’ve gone down differently. But a few minutes later the girl comes running out of the house with blood on her, screaming like hell. Cortez caught her and took her inside, waited with her while Benny called 911—'"
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."
Three London flatmates navigate work, identity, and class.
"Licia herself did not believe in restricting her lifestyle to her earnings, and was in the happy position of not having to. Her parents (The Parents, she called them, as if they were the only ones in the world) were forever buying her extravagant gifts and sending her hampers from Fortnum and Mason. Every spring and autumn, she and her mother went out to buy Licia a new summer wardrobe and a new winter wardrobe. If Licia were to peer from the top of a tall staircase, or teeter along a perilous rooftop, she would see The Parents waiting below, with mattresses spread out to catch her, duvets and goose down pillows. The feathers buoyed her steps; her feet, in their Italian leather shoes, never quite made contact with the pavement. She was always the one turning up the heat or throwing out two-day-old bread or buying white rum and vermouth to make cocktails."
The unfolding of a fling between an employee and a club owner.
"There are two more bus trips and hotel rooms. Each trip goes pretty much the same. Each morning you wake up alone and he’s at the casinos, and he never picks up his cell phone and it all makes you feel so helpless and pale and when you ride back to the city there’s never anything to say. Spring is coming, and coat check season will be over soon."
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."
An animal's corpse disrupts a humdrum workday in this early story from Eleanor Catton, the winner of this year's Man Booker Prize.
"Sharon was upstairs cleaning out the tearoom when the van arrived. I ran out into the carpark to greet them properly, before anyone else got the chance. The delegate was a youngish girl with short hair and leather cuffs around her wrists. 'Let's see this headless dog, then," she said, and she rubbed her palms together and clapped them twice.'"
A woman starts a new job with a massive, all-knowing social media company; an excerpt from Eggers' The Circle, coming in October.
"Mae looked at the time. It was 6 o’clock. She had plenty of hours to improve, there and then, so she embarked on a flurry of activity, sending 4 zings and 32 comments and 88 smiles. In an hour, her PartiRank rose to 7,288. Breaking 7,000 was more difficult, but by 8, after joining and posting in 11 discussion groups, sending another 12 zings, one of them rated in the top 5,000 globally for that hour, and signing up for 67 more feeds, she’d done it. She was at 6,872, and she turned to her InnerCircle social feed. She was a few hundred posts behind, and she made her way through, replying to 70 or so messages, RSVPing to 11 events on campus, signing nine petitions and providing comments and constructive criticism on four products currently in beta."
Workers and diners in a British cafe experience a small act of weather-related magic.
"None of the others notice Tommy pull up a chair and seat himself next to the counter, his eyes level with the cup. The furious churn of the storm grips him. He hears a hurried tinkling as tiny fists of hail sugar the bottom of the cup. For the first time in years he does not think of Alice. The storm’s rumble elongates, thunder and lightening overlapping. A tinny crescendo rattles inside the ceramic shelter of the cup."
A pair of shipwrecked seamen are put to work producing effigies.
"My effigy took eleven days to complete and I was genuinely proud of it when I had finished. It was just the same size as me to the quarter-inch, and the face, drawn over sun-bleached cloth in charcoal, was quite like my own despite my having no mirror to work with and having had no previous artistic training of any kind. The Chieftan congratulated me heartily, and after hefting the effigy onto my back, he allowed me to leave the working area for the first instance since I had begun the undertaking."
A rodeo rider squares off with a racist immigration official.
"He saw deputies in their serious hats coming through the restaurant from the kitchen, four white guys who looked like they meant business, serious, minds made up, and Nachee thought of a grandfather now from the other time, more than a hundred years ago, Nachitay, sitting in Mi Nidito with Victor’s grandfather from the same time, Victorio. Sometimes Nachee talked to Victor about those guys living the way they chose to. You hungry? Run off a mule, cut steaks and cook them over a fire. Before General Crook came along on his mule, the one Nachee’s grandfather from that other time was dying to eat. Bring them all here to sit with their rifles, Victorio, Cochise, Geronimo … those guys doing whatever they wanted. They never carried ID but every horse soldier in the Arizona Territory knew who they were."
A worker in a slaughterhouse observes the ups and downs of generational differences.
"This morning is always pig-killing. This afternoon is always cleaning. Tomorrow is sheep-killing. It is the same each week. Tuesday, pigs. Wednesday, lambs. Just after we had opened the gates this morning a young farmer came. He is one of those who are the amateur farmers. I like them. They are unlike any farmers I know at home. They wear farming, as if it were a jacket. It never truly fits their shoulders. They farm not because they have to but because they think it is good for them, or for their children, or for society. They believe in the soil and in hard work and they add farming to their office jobs. In this factory, we can recognize them from afar. They drive their jeeps like they would drive a car, and they are always a little frightened of their animals. When they leave off their animals for slaughter they stare at the killing equipment.
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 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."
In this excerpt from the novel Tampa, a pedophile prepares for her first day of teaching middle school; NSFW.
"The early start time of Jefferson Junior High was one of its main allures: seven thirty a.m. The boys would practically be asleep, their bodies still in various stages of lingering nocturnal arousal. From my desk, I'd be able to watch their exposed hands rubbing across their pants beneath the tables, their shame and their half-inflated genitals arm-wrestling for control."
Confusion and nervousness ensue when items slowly go missing at a nursing home.
"After that conversation, more glasses went missing. Sometimes we found them on the wrong peoples’ faces. Sometimes a pair showed up, perched in the middle of a bowl of oatmeal. Everyone was confused; Miss Marilyn panicked. Even my grandma had her theories—a rat had carried things off and dropped them in sly places. But I knew who was responsible and I kept quiet. I couldn’t break a man’s spirit.
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."
Struggling to pay for her mother's medical care, a young woman is drawn into the sex industry.
"The man arrived in a BMW, a Be My Wife, Njideka teased. He was tall and dark, his simple linen buba and sokoto crisply ironed, and his shoes shone even in the dim evening light. He reached out his hand and took mine. He drew my hand upwards, and tipped his head just a bit as he placed a kiss on the back of my hand. He wore gold rings on three of his five fingers. They were not massive rings, but small diamonds circled each of them and sparkled so that the rings appeared much larger than they actually were."
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."
Greek heroes and gods roam suburban America.
The goddess hiked her gowns and climbed as softly as she could the creaky wooden steps into his house. She had snuck into a home a million times, and the hardest part was carrying the shield through the door with it hitting anything, or not knocking overcoat trees or a vase. Or keeping on her helmet without its tall purple that got nudged off in low doorways. All of this and more had happened many times, and it was never not embarrassing; there were instances when people thought that she was not a god, but just an oddly-dressed intruder. She’d stopped wearing metal combat boots a hundred years ago and now she wore her flip-flops, though she made sure her father saw her in the boots when she was leaving Mount Olympus.
A woman enters a casual relationship with a butcher.
"He was lazy about it. He told me he couldn’t that night but could he give me a call? It was two weeks and one — almost two — skipped Five Dollar Fridays later that he called and demanded why I had not come in yet. I arrived at a quarter to nine. He grinned and dug his knife into pork liver. Then a plucked duck. I ate the spinach rolls he set out for me and watched him slice away. Finally I told him I was starving and he looked up from his bloodied counter and grinned some more. He put his meat in the giant freezer behind him, hung his apron and walked out to me. It was the first time, I realized, that I’d seen his legs. I could tell they were brawny behind his jeans. In fact he looked like a hockey player and I wished he did that instead of dismembering dead animals all day."
A nineteenth-century family in the ice-harvesting business.
Jon Ehrlich guided the barge past the sandbanks into port and packed the wares in an underground cellar along the riverfront. An ice dealer from Carondelet Avenue came and inspected the work. Crisp bills were counted out. It was good business. It was as if Reconstruction itself knew how to make things work. Hotels. Restaurants. Oyster shops. Rich men in fancy homes. Even sculptors who wanted to carve from giant ice blocks.
After a gardening mishap, a meticulous, harried family man finds himself being replaced by a grotesque clone; from the author of Red Moon.
"He, the mud man, stands in the middle of a shallow crater. His joints issue a series of blistery pops like pitch pockets boiling out of a log thrown on a fire. Clods of dirt fall off him and patter the garden, freckling the daffodils and hostas. He has all the calm of a tree, the breeze rushing around him, bending the loose vines and leaves hanging off him like hair, carrying a smell like worms washed across a sidewalk after a hard rain. The mud man seems to be staring at Thomas, though it is hard to tell as his eyes are hollows with black scribbles in them, like the insides of a rotten walnut."
A young bartender attempts to make sense of where his life is going.
"A lot of people proclaim a need for independence, for space. And while I could attest to that, more than anything, I was a tiger dying amongst the sprawling jungle. I longed for a cage of my own. My apartment, a two bedroom overlooking the gentrification of Philadelphia, had a décor of my design. I picked out the furniture, including the Ikea futon I dubbed “death trap,” and gave every trinket and knick-knack their designated spots: high school diploma and Bachelor’s degree over my black computer desk, novelty shot-glasses along the top of my bookcase and various Buddha figurines, from flea markets in South Jersey, on my dresser and nightstands. And of course, my vinyl collection, a two hundred piece of my heart that took me to the dustiest, most allergenic music stores on the East Coast."
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."
Tension between two co-workers turns into a complicated game of lies and intentions.
"I picked up the phone and told Stan I’d like to drop by for a moment. He hesitated, and it hit me that B. could still be there, and I struggled to banish images of Stan pointing at the phone and mouthing my name while B. twisted his hair-encircled mouth and gritted his brown teeth. Stan asked me to give him ten minutes to wrap up something, and I agreed."
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 research assistant experiences hallucinations while working in Antarctica.
"You hear a strange sound. It’s loud and insistent and returns again and again. You listen to it for a while before you realize it’s the sound of your own breathing and the moist rhythm of your heart. At night it ceases when you are no longer paying attention and the white steals into your 2 ½ x 1½ meter space in the housing unit. The room is barely larger than a coffin. Inside it, you could just as well be dead. You haven’t told Dr. Lubin. It’s just your heart falling quiet, leaving the job of keeping you alive to the white that surrounds you, infinitely greater than your tiny red. Who are you to deny it? After a while your heart starts up again, and that’s when you become aware that it had stopped."
A woman who works in road maintenance reflects on the dangers and pleasures of temperatures.
"37.5at this temperature, the yearly tally of accidents officially due to inclement weather begins. This tally will only grow and grow."
A former Facebook executive critiques Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” movement.
A weather forecaster finds her life unraveling in multiple ways.
"Broadcast meteorologists, on the other hand, were supposed to smile through everything. That was one of the first lessons Beth had learned. It didn’t matter if you were talking about heat waves or blizzards or forest fires. Mother Nature was never bad news! Nothing we can’t handle! Her first broadcast job was in Mobile, Alabama, and she had kept smiling as a Category 5 hurricane spiraled toward their coast, kept smiling when the TV studio went dark and the walls shuddered. It was exhausting, all that smiling."
A woman engages in fantastical, extreme forms of temporary employment.
"The longhaired man is named Carl, and he is something of an entrepreneur. His small murder business sits in a tidy shack not far from the water, which is convenient for dumping the bodies. Location, location, location, he says. He sounds like my real estate boyfriend. I laugh and wash his weapons every morning, adhering to the cleaning manual he developed. I am filling in for his buddy who is currently serving some time. Carl does not always pay in money, but he feeds me and gives me a place to sleep, a small cot next to his desk in the shack."
A philandering newspaper reporter documents a small town's economic collapse.
"But, very late at night, other men and women walk the small streets alone, shuffling slowly along the leaf-filled gutters that border the roads, sometimes a constable stopping them as they walk, shining flashlights in their faces, saying little or nothing before nodding and driving away from the distant, fading stare of a man or woman fearing that their life is falling apart.
'This kind of rapid breakdown generally only occurs in times of war, famine or plague,' a Stanford economics professor tells me as I take notes, a group of six strikingly healthy grad students unloading knapsacks, tape recorders and clear plastic clipboards from a Land Rover parked nearby."
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 man balances a lonely job and a lost love in a future universe where thousands of years can pass in the span of contemporary minutes.
"How will I get her to stay this time? I pull out the brochure for this place. It's yellowed and crumbling. The marketing slogan for the planet is at the top: It's Livable! The picture shows a human woman and a male Xorbite. The Xorbite is pointing at his main lung with a tentacle, as if to say, I am really enjoying this non-toxic nitrogen-based atmosphere! The previous version brochure had the woman holding a fish, until someone's mother sued the tourism bureau for false advertising claiming her son died because the picture misleadingly suggested that it was possible to catch fish here. The dead boy's mother won and the bureau had to change the brochure or stop printing it, but since the bureau has no funding, instead of retaking the picture, the bureau just touched up the image so that the woman now appears to be holding a football (or possibly a pizza) in one hand and giving the Xorbite a thumbs up with the other. The happily breathing Xorbite is giving her a tentacles-up sign as well."
Two missionaries share their histories, experiences, and brushes with sin.
"They could walk together and talk without holding anything back. It had been like that since their third week together in school. They were sitting up on the roof of Oldham-Betts, and Samuel said, 'It’s hard to be up here and not smoke a cigarette,' and when Leslie gave him a sideways look, Samuel said, 'Look, I have a past. It’s pretty apparent, right? I’m a good thirteen years older than everybody here. There’s some things I had to walk away from. Can you handle that?' 'Who am I,' Leslie said, 'to judge you. I’ve got my own things to walk away from.' And Leslie—this kid—began to lay out his confessions, chief among them the lust he held in his heart when he looked upon a woman, this guilt he carried around with him daily, along with images he had seen in the magazines his father had kept behind some Time/Life books about World War II."
A neighborhood, a building, and a woman's precarious existence at the periphery.
"No doubt there are those who will be critical of the narrow, essentially local scope of Fatou's interest in the Cambodian woman from the Embassy of Cambodia, but we, the people of Willesden, have some sympathy with her attitude. The fact is if we followed the history of every little country in this world—in its dramatic as well as its quiet times—we would have no space left in which to live our own lives or to apply ourselves to our necessary tasks, never mind indulge in occasional pleasures, like swimming. Surely there is something to be said for drawing a circle around our attention and remaining within that circle. But how large should this circle be?"
A lonely hotel waitress has a fling with a guest.
"Tonight, when the man hands over the tissue he asks Lori up to his room. He tells her he only wants to put his arms around her. Every time he sees her, he says, he longs to put his arms around her. Lori finishes her shift, counts and shares her tips, unties her apron and meets the man outside the bar. She wishes she didn't smell so much like hamburgers."
A confidence shared in a bathroom leads to an unlikely business alliance.
"She hesitates when she hears my voice and then she starts crying the way children do, in loud and furious spurts. I give her a minute or two to get it out of her system while I exit my stall to wash my hands. The soap is a soy and pomegranate concoction that’s very on trendeveryone is doing naturals and organics these days."
A woman attempts to find her own closure following losses on 9/11.
"The Rumson police, the Little Silver police, the Middletown police especially insisted, they’d already had funerals of their own and knew what to expect. The roads were cordoned off from the Sea Bright Bridge to the Avenue of Two Rivers and cars parked for a mile all the way down Rumson Road, women in black sling-backs climbing the rutted grass along the road, made the shortcut through the tennis club across the school yard to the gray shingle church, capacity four hundred, someone said a thousand stood inside and out to hear Father Jim say no words could gather the force he needed to say his prayer, they would all join him in silence. Kathleen in the choir loft, alone, sang “Danny Boy” for her brother, for her father, and the thousand beyond prayer, beyond tears, shook and trembled now."
A museum taxidermist offers fantastic assessments of his work and philosophy.
"Each day masses throng displays I have created, though hardly do they pause to consider dark hours and livid eyes and lemur fingers needed to bring to full completion the task they come to see once I am gone. They will surround a parliment of owls, each feather of them set as if responding to a wind that blows for them, and them alone. They will gape before cave bears whose bones I clothed with pelts I once acquired of Russian merchants and stitched together until made sufficient cape to draw about the great beasts’ napes and narrow shoulder bones."
A woman eking out a meagre existence takes a younger woman in from the cold.
"Inside, I make her tea and give her slices of cake until she is full. She holds big bites inside her mouth and pours tea over them, so each chunk soaks in a hot pool until she swallows it down like it hurts her. She eats four slices this way and does not seem to find happiness in any of them."
Careers, relationships, infidelities, and anxiety envelop the friendship of two New York women.
"Ellen should have mentioned his kiss right at the time — the next day, or on their weekend upstate. But even thinking about it had felt disloyal, an insult to Abby’s judgment, looks, her soul. When Abby phoned, barely able to announce that Marcus had slept over, what else could Ellen say but that she was happy for her? If Ellen said something now, that, and her reasons for it, would upset Abby more than Ellen’s years of saying nothing, or Marcus’ long-ago — and always after drinking — indiscretion."
From the latest winner of the National Book Award for Fiction: a former nun's infatuation with classical music leads to unexpected connections and actions.
" At any rate, she played Chopin. Played him in utter naturalness until the Mother Superior was forced to shut the cover to the keyboard and gently pull the stool away. Cecellia lifted the lid and played upon her knees. The poor scandalized dame dragged her from the keys. Cecellia crawled back. The Mother, at her wit's end, sank down and urged the young woman to pray. She herself spoke first in fear and then in certainty, saying that it was the very Devil who had managed to find a way to Cecellia's soul through the flashing doors of sixteenth notes. Her fears were confirmed when, not moments later, the gentle sister raised her arms and fists and struck the keys as though the instrument were stone and from the rock her thirst would be quenched. But only discord emerged."
Men working in penal servitude develop a fascination with a sixteen-year-old seamstress.
"Life was stuffy and tight in a stone box under a low heavy ceiling, coated in soot and cobweb. It was hard and sickening in thick walls, spotted in dirt and mold. We rose at 5:00 AM, unrested, and dull, indifferent by 6:00 we were making kringles from dough our comrades made while we slept. And all day at a table from morning to ten at night, shaping elastic dough and rocking to and fro so as to not go numb, while others kneaded flour with water. All day sadly purred boiling water in the pot where kringles cooked; on the stove the baker's shovel hit fast and angrily, flinging slippery boiled dough on hot brick. Morning to night wood burned in the oven and flared, reflecting red flame on the workshop wall, as if silently laughing at us."
On Christmas Day, an elevator operator cons holiday charity out of a variety of tenants.
"On the way home from work a few nights earlier, Charlie had seen a woman and a little girl going down Fifty-ninth Street. The little girl was crying. He guessed she was crying, he knew she was crying, because she'd seen all the things in the toy-store windows and couldn't understand why none of them were for her. Her mother did housework, he guessed, or maybe was a waitress, and he saw them going back to a room like his, with green walls and no heat, on Christmas Eve, to eat a can of soup. And he saw the little girl hang up her ragged stocking and fall asleep, and he saw the mother looking through her purse for something to put into the stocking—This reverie was interrupted by a bell on 11. He went up, and Mr. and Mrs. Fuller were waiting. When they wished him a merry Christmas, he said, 'Well, it isn't much of a holiday for me, Mrs. Fuller. Christmas is a sad season when you’re poor."
A businessman-cum-boxer struggles with the motives and attention of an unlikely mentor.
"We went from the weigh-in directly to the ring. We were introduced not only by name and by record but by salary, title, and time served with the company. I felt certain this was the wrong thing to do, but there was no one I could tell. Everyone was in the bag for Cory. The referee had his arm around him and was saying nice things about his father, comforting things. A woman in the front row had a sign that said 'A Good Employee Punches In' and, beneath it, a drawing of a boxing bell."
An artist of baby names explores the meticulous details that go into selecting the perfect moniker.
"Not all prospective parents are comfortable with me watching them have intercourse and that’s fine if you want to cut corners on the name your baby will carry for the rest of her life. The parents who allow it are sophisticated enough to understand that there’s no better way for me to know a child’s essence than to be there for the erotic act from which that child is created. But if you’re too modest and you’d prefer that I name your baby with one hand tied behind my back, so be it. You can make a video recording of the conception and send it to me."
Our current late capitalist moment, as seen through the eyes of an express-delivery driver.
"The driver chose a thirty-two-ounce Pepsi with a double vanilla shot and a jumbo popcorn, waiting to pay behind a man who, at 6:09 A.M., was purchasing a travel-sized laundry detergent and two lottery tickets. Headlines on morning newspapers stacked on a rack referred to developments in several wars, but the driver never talked with his friends about wars. They did talk a lot about combat video games. The driver hurried on his way to the distribution center, knowing he'd be docked an hour of pay if reporting more than three minutes late. "
A Bosnian immigrant in Chicago undertakes some ramshackle detective work.
"Office 909 had a sign that read GREAT LAKES EYE and a black-and-white eye with long, upward-curling eyelashes. Pronek hesitated for a moment before knocking at the door--his fingers levitated, angled, in front of the eye. Pronek knocked using three of his knuckles, the glass shook perilously, then he opened the door and entered an empty waiting room. There was another door, closed, and there were magazines strewn on the few chairs, even on the musty floor, as if someone had searched through them all. The waiting room was lit by a thin-necked lamp in the corner, leaning slightly as if about to snap. A picture of an elaborate ocean sunset--somebody lit a match under the water--hung on the opposite wall. 'Acapulco,' it said in the lower right corner, 'where you want to dream.' Pronek stood in front of the picture, imagining Acapulco and all the pretty, tawny people there. It would be a good place to disappear for a while."
"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."
"But years ago, there was room for friendship. They talked for hours at Haddonfield, grinning in helpless academic passion and exclaiming at their own twin hearts. They ate breakfast together on a heap of rock in the marl pits, black bread and coffee as the sun swam into the sky. Cope in shirtsleeves, a boy's face, looking more like Marsh's son than his contemporary."
Welcome to your new workplace.
"Amanda Pierce, who tolerates Russell Nash, is in love with Albert Bosch, whose office is over there. Albert Bosch, who only dimly registers Amanda Pierce's existence, has eyes only for Ellie Tapper, who sits over there. Ellie Tapper, who hates Albert Bosch, would walk through fire for Curtis Lance. But Curtis Lance hates Ellie Tapper. Isn't the world a funny place? Not in the ha-ha sense, of course."
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 teacher, his colleagues, and the misapplied wisdom of a Vietnamese Buddhist monk.
"A well-meaning teacher, inspired by a text he had been reading, once sent all the other teachers in his school a message about negative emotions."
A prehistoric human specimen sets precipitous events in motion.
"Whereas before we would march down the sterile, artificially lit halls of the Institute, nodding to one another as we passed, the air around us a cold flutter of clipboards and clicking pens, we now began to stop and greet one another, laughing. Two weeks with Loeka, and some of the men started showing up to the lab in more brightly colored shirts and gag neckties."
In this previously-unpublished Fitzgerald story, a saleswoman wants a cigarette, and perhaps encounters something more profound.
"Smoking meant a lot to her sometimes. She worked very hard and it had some ability to rest and relax her psychologically. She was a widow and she had no close relatives to write to in the evenings, and more than one moving picture a week hurt her eyes, so smoking had come to be an important punctuation mark in the long sentence of a day on the road."
When jobs vanish, Southern men find new ways to contribute.
Wildly diverse thoughts while waiting for coffee.
"I then remember that I am only ordering coffee and wonder how that would be depicted and I settle on an outline of Columbia only to realize that I am giving far too much credit to the register’s operator to deduce that coffee is the blow state’s largest legal export and then wonder if it could be a button with a brown “C” and realize how easily that would be confused with Coke."
A butcher contemplates death and life in various forms.
"I don’t like the idea of being stuck anywhere. I would rather be in hell. You know why? Because even though they all say that hell sucks, that there’s nothing decent going on there, I’ll bet you a trillion dollars that every once in a while you’ll be resting on your pitchfork, taking a slight break while The Whipmaster sips at his coffee, and you’ll look out over the valleys and hills of hell and think, hey, fire and brimstone are sort of pretty at this hour, almost like a big, violent sunset. "
Father and son endure in a crab fishing village in the Pacific Northwest.
"One year I loved Robert Louis Stevenson, the next radio cars, and my father never caught up. Sometimes I wondered why he came home at all."
A ranch wife's conversation with a passing stranger is rife with unspoken implications.
"'Well, I can only tell you what it feels like. It's when you're picking off the buds you don't want. Everything goes right down into your fingertips. You watch your fingers work. They do it themselves. You can feel how it is. They pick and pick the buds. They never make a mistake. They're with the plant. Do you see? Your fingers and the plant. You can feel that, right up your arm. They know. They never make a mistake. You can feel it. When you're like that you can't do anything wrong. Do you see that? Can you understand that?' She was kneeling on the ground looking up at him. Her breast swelled passionately."
Duty and secret feelings mark the emotions of two undercover cops in a gay bar (NSFW).
"A black-haired man in a taffeta gown rustles close. Name’s Crow, he says. Got fully equipped rooms above. Certified clean. He waves his hand around the bar. Our eyes follow and we see men’s tongues licking the air. Some hands are down pants. Pick me, they all say with their faces. We spin on our bar stools toward the mamby pambys, tongues snaking out against our will, eyebrows up. "
After their father leaves, two siblings set up a humane pest control business.
"Neither of us signed on for anything, I want to point out. That's the way it is with families. You're born into someone else's mess, their tics and crannies, their cancers, their travel lusts. We didn't stand a chance, I want to tell him. Instead, I try to comfort the voles by sticking my hand into their cages, letting them run across it, roll in my open palm, nibble at my fingertips. I don't even flinch when nibbles turn to bites. It's their nature, I tell myself. It is who they are."
A young assistant struggles with God's command of "let there be light."
"This attitude seemed to please the Almighty. However, when the young man tried to ask a few necessary questions regarding light, God turned Himself into a giant, apocalyptic mountain that quaked and belched fire and was surrounded by seven thousand froth-mouthed basilisks in that way He always did when He was starting to get irritated."
Amid rumors about her beauty, a young woman returns home from work to make a tragic discovery.
"On her way up the long flights the girl unfastened her veil. One could then clearly see the beauty of her eyes, but there was in them a certain furtiveness that came near to marring the effect. It was a peculiar fixture of gaze, brought from the street, as of one who there saw a succession of passing dangers, with menaces aligned at every corner. On the top floor she pushed open a door, and then paused on the threshold, confronting an interior that appeared black and flat like a curtain. Perhaps some girlish ideas of hobgoblins assailed her then, for she called, in a little breathless voice, 'Daddie!'"
Two people share a conversation and observations at a seafood restaurant.
"I focus on every bite of the meal. I read on zenhabits.com that you should chew each bite of food thirty times to achieve a meditative understanding of your body’s relationship to the food you are eating. By chew twelve the fish is nothing, a strange mire of goo-meat. I finish thirty chews, swallow and take another forkful of fish. I add a French fry to my mouth. I go slow. I feel myself filling. I was a vegetarian last year. I caved. This is my first battered fish in three years."
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."
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."
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 story about the tortured life of 1910s ballplayer Morrie Rath.
"Morrie's 1920 season is awful. He's sent back to the minors for a little while, then to the Pacific league, and then it's over. He will never have another World Series at-bat. He will never know what it's like to really be the best in the world."
A librarian engages in sexual pursuits following the death of her father (NSFW).
" She has him back in the room; he makes one tentative step forward and then he's on her like Wall Street rain, his suit in a pile on the floor in a full bucket, her dress unbuttoned down, down, one by one until she's naked and the sweat is pooling in her back again. She obliterates herself and then buttons up. This man too wants to see her again, he might want to marry her, he's thinking, but she smiles without teeth and says, man, this is a one-shot deal. Thanks."
A sample from Colson Whitehead's classic debut novel about clashing groups of elevator inspectors.
"The man's lips arch up towards his nose and Lila Mae understands that he's never seen an elevator inspector like her before. Lila Mae has pinpointed a spot as the locus of metropolitan disaffection. A zero-point. It is situated in the heart of the city, on a streetcorner that clots with busy, milling citizens during the day and empties completely at night except for prostitutes and lost encyclopedia salesmen."
A comical look at the lives of grocery store employees, from the author of Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet.
" "What about the glacé cherries?" I tell her they're in Home Baking and she asks, "Where's that?" so I have to take her back. My knees are hurting. Passing through Meat and Poultry these beanpole girls with pierces and tattoos ask me, "Do you know the difference between a 'free-range chicken' and 'farm-fresh'?" For a second I'm too miserable to even say "No.""
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."
Financial workers engage in a gambling scheme that mirrors the contemporary banking crisis.
"Word spread. Other people approached us about joining the pool. At first we were angry that he told on us, but in the end it really was because of him that we got as rich as we did. Harrison and I decided to back the bids ourselves and open up to outsiders. We gave Steve partial ownership in the venture—not a whole third, of course. Our favorite sniffling over-sharer picked up the slack from our actual jobs, which let us dedicate more time to the rankings without getting fired ourselves."
A comic, loose fable: Big Foot teaches a creative writing course.
"He goes on about how he, the Big Foot, was famous for a minute, and that he’s not quite sure where it all went wrong. Then, of course, he brings the government into it. Fictitious Beast Placement program this, FBP program that, and a few of us fall asleep at our desks because we’ve heard the same speech for like three weeks in a row."
Two women discuss various means of employment and potential job stereotypes.
"Tia is used to this. My bluntness has long ago lost the ability, if it ever existed, to even dent her obsessions. She's fascinated with the fringes of daily existence, as if her own position wasn't fringe enough. Her favourite daydreams involve strange kinds of work and the women she imagines doing them. She can't keep her mind off the jobs that, not to put too fine a point on it, nobody else wants."
A young woman endures tedious, infuriating work in the hospitality industry.
"I told him that pest control would’ve noticed cockroaches when they were here looking for rats. They’re very different creatures, rats and cockroaches, he said. Yeah, but you’d know if you saw cockroaches or if you didn’t, I said. He looked at me as if I’d confessed that I used to be an insect myself and just stared with that fixed gaze for an interminable period and then said, what makes you think you’re qualified to make that distinction?"
An apartment cleaning crew has an uneasy relationship with a troubled boss.
"Button went to Vietnam, but they didn't give him a gun, and he's resented it ever since. Mickey says he was sent home for stealing someone else's gun and running out on a dirt road. He started shooting like mad but it wasn't loaded. When they found him, he was kneeling in the dirt and making sad little gun noises to himself."
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."
A father uses his daughter in a disturbing scheme.
"It only takes an hour and the pile of money gets higher and higher every time. The men pay twenty dollars a pop to come to the Tongue Party. "
Dancing in the office, after hours, leads to a fragile romance.
"It is too lovely to be a joke, though, and you both know it. The two of you are as clumsy as costumed animals on stilts, but in the most charming way ever. The office lights know it is the best thing they will see sitting up there and blink sadly in approval."
A teenage girl observes her parents' work in a "dying parlor."
"It doesn’t take a genius to figure out dying people like to have a kid around to remind them of happier times. A teenager though, that’s something they’ll skip for their last two hours on earth. No one looks back on their life and says, remind me again of what it was like to be fifteen. Yeah, those were the days."
A university student-worker distantly observes her surroundings and relationships.
"She tolerates the students she works with because they are mostly scholarship kids. Many of them grew up in neighboring towns and can only attend this University if they work. They live on Ramen noodles and tap water and their shirts are stiff and rough from being hand-washed in the sink."
The bleak contours of life at a nail salon.
"If you’re sad and you don’t feel like huffing from the nail polish bucket, go and cry at the coffee shop next door."
The new owner of the Twin Forks Store and Campground encounters some trouble.
"The sheriff had said, 'You probably should've shot him while you could do it legal and get it over with. He might be back for you, or you might not ever see him again, who knows with meth heads. But you surely will want to be ready if ever he does come around for you, and that could be at any time from now on.'"
Gaitskill's first published short story, in which a young female street merchant endures an unwanted proposition.
"Susan has been waiting for something better than this for years now. She hasn't a clue as to what this better destiny might be, although she can picture herself writing caustic bestsellers, or hosting talk shows, or something, you know. But this will have to happen later because now she has this stuff to sell. "
A young man Japanese man visits his estranged, domineering father.
"Still, it was not their physical features that made it difficult for Tengo to identify with his father but their psychological makeup. His father showed no sign at all of what might be called intellectual curiosity. True, having been born in poverty he had not had a decent education. Tengo felt a degree of pity for his father’s circumstances. But a basic desire to obtain knowledge—which Tengo assumed to be a more or less natural urge in people—was lacking in the man."
A Mexican man reluctantly provides cultural insights to a pandering white American journalist.
"Two years before, Samuel Kramer had arrived to write the nteenth feature on Frida Kahlo. Someone told him I wrote screenplays for tough documentaries, and he paid me to accompany him through a city he considered savage and explain things he called mythical."
The job interview as existential horror.
"It's up to you to decide the context, he says. It's a simple question. How do you see yourself?"
As part of his cover, a spy is forced to work at a big-box store called "Circuitpalooza."
"There are, I suppose, far unluckier fates than my own. I remember the botched assassination in Paraguay, the decapitated arms dealer in Slovenia, the lone orphan girl in Kuwait. However, I can’t help but feel that, as a spy, my position here at Circuitpalooza demands perhaps a little more from me than it would from most."
A woman working on a Cuban sugar plantation ruminates on her family and secret love.
"When Papá talks of making myself necessary, I cringe. Necessary would mean a lifetime in the field, just as Papá has “necessaried” himself into stained hands and bent fingers. So different from my own. I can still straighten mine when I put my machete down for the day. I don’t know how much longer that will be true, however."
An ailing massage therapist views life and interpersonal connections with philosophical musings.
" Again my eyes get the waves, white water foam at the edges, rolling toward the center, blurring my vision. It feels like someone ripping off the film of my eye, Doc. Like someone's pulling the lid off my eye if my eye were a pudding. Cold plastic chair. A bright light. He looks disconcerted and leaves the room and is gone for awhile and then comes back in."
An American ESL teacher faces a potential crime investigation, mirrored by a crumbling relationship.
" The absurdity strikes him again – Jude the Midwestern philosophy major, worrying about a Thai jail sentence for counterfeiting – and he bites back a smile. He lives too much in his head, he knows, blowing up hypotheses and imaginings. The bills read ‘legal tender’; surely they are."
The classic novella of refusal.
"I looked at him steadfastly. His face was leanly composed; his gray eye dimly calm. Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him. Had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence in his manner; in other words, had there been any thing ordinarily human about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises."
Two writers, one young, one old, share a varied correspondence about writing, politics, and family matters.
" The Alcoy Council sent me his address without delay—he lived in Madrid—and one night, after dinner or a light meal or just a snack, I wrote him a long letter, which rambled from Ugarte and the stories of his that I had read in magazines to myself, my house on the outskirts of Girona, the competition (I made fun of the winner), the political situation in Chile and in Argentina (both dictatorships were still firmly in place), Walsh's stories (along with Sensini, Walsh was my other favourite in that generation), life in Spain, and life in general."
An office misunderstanding.
"A guy in a suit, I don't know him, walks by my cubicle holding one of the paper plates, his mouth full, chewing his last bite, folds the plate around his napkin and fork and cake crumbs, leans into my cubicle, reaches around a corner and stuffs the plate in my garbage can. No look, no excuse me, no nothing."
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."