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Fiction Pick of the Week: "Peacetime"

An Iraq War veteran, now a paramedic, runs into trouble.

"I rewarded the man with another hit of naloxone, which made him even more alive, even less happy. Karen was busy with the gear, and I thought for sure that the coast was clear. It wasn’t. As soon as I put the note in my pocket, I saw the boy. He stood in the doorway, watching me with a basically impassive expression. He chewed his gum. He blew a splendid bubble."

Savage Breast

Strange beasts reenact scenes and memories from a woman's childhood.

"In the kitchen, the beast was pushing onions around in a pan. It glanced up, not minding me at all. I could hear a rustling sound just around the corner, where our kitchen table used to be, like the sound of my sister doing her homework or cutting pictures out of magazines. There was a small beast doing exactly that, holding a pair of red plastic scissors, snipping out pictures of animals. She was arranging the cutouts on the table: a cow, a giraffe, two dogs, and a bear."

The Alaska of Giants and Gods

A single mother and her children attend an Alaskan cruise ship magic show.

"The magician from Luxembourg did his tricks, which seemed more sophisticated than those of his predecessors. Maybe because they involved roses? Before him there had been merely carnations. The roses, this was a step up. Women holding roses appeared in boxes, boxes on wheels, and the man from Luxembourg turned these boxes around and around. Then he opened the boxes, and the women were not there; they were somewhere else. Behind screens! In the audience!"

Debarking

A divorcee attempts to get back on his feet.

"Ira had been a married man for fifteen years, a father for eight (poor little Bekka, now rudely transported between houses in a speedy, ritualistic manner resembling a hostage drop-off), only to find himself punished for an idle little nothing, nothing, nothing flirtation with a colleague, punished with his wife’s full-blown affair and false business trips (credit-union conventions that never took place) and finally a petition for divorce mailed from a motel. Observing others go through them, he used to admire midlife crises, the courage and shamelessness and existential daring of them, but after he’d watched his own wife produce and star in a fabulous one of her own he found the sufferers of such crises not only self-indulgent but greedy and demented, and he wished them all weird unnatural deaths with various contraptions easily found in garages."

Thank You For the Light

On F. Scott Fitzgerald's birthday, a repost from 2012: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."

One Saturday Morning

A day in the life of a child in 1960s England.

"Carrie’s father was studying, in the evenings and on weekends, for a degree in politics, but on the day of a party he had to leave his books and submit to the different laws of the female domain, obeying the instructions that his wife rapped out, vacuuming and tidying, setting up the drinks tray. She followed impatiently after him, because he had no feeling for arranging the cushions or the flowers; he thought these things were not worth having a feeling for. The children exchanged sly looks and jokes with their father behind their mother’s back, conspiring against her remorselessness. But as soon as the guests arrived she relaxed into smiles, as if that other, sterner self had never existed."

Roy Spivey

A chance encounter with a movie star on an airplane.

"Roy Spivey shifted in his seat, waking. I quickly shut my own eyes, and then slowly opened them, as if I, too, had been sleeping. Oh, but he hadn’t quite opened his yet. I shut mine again and right away opened them, slowly, and he opened his, slowly, and our eyes met, and it seemed as if we had woken from a single sleep, from the dream of our entire lives. Me, a tall but otherwise undistinguished woman; he a distinguished spy, but not really, just an actor, but not really, just a man, maybe even just a boy."

The Dungeon Master

Teens struggle to find their bearings in both their fantasy lives and their real ones.

"He sits behind his screen, which he’s ordered us never to touch. We never do, not even when he's at detention. He shuffles some papers—his maps and grids. Dice click in his stubby hand. Behind him, on the wall, hang Dr. Varelli's diplomas. The diplomas say that he’s a child psychiatrist, but he never brings patients here, and I’m not sure he ever leaves the house."

Yesterday

Young people consider changes to their personalities, and to their relationships.

"When I moved from Kansai to Tokyo to start college, I spent the whole bullet-train ride mentally reviewing my eighteen years and realized that almost everything that had happened to me was pretty embarrassing. I’m not exaggerating. I didn’t want to remember any of it—it was so pathetic. The more I thought about my life up to then, the more I hated myself. It wasn’t that I didn’t have a few good memories—I did. A handful of happy experiences. But, if you added them up, the shameful, painful memories far outnumbered the others. When I thought of how I’d been living, how I’d been approaching life, it was all so trite, so miserably pointless. Unimaginative middle-class rubbish, and I wanted to gather it all up and stuff it away in some drawer. Or else light it on fire and watch it go up in smoke (though what kind of smoke it would emit I had no idea). Anyway, I wanted to get rid of it all and start a new life in Tokyo as a brand-new person. Jettisoning Kansai dialect was a practical (as well as symbolic) method of accomplishing this. Because, in the final analysis, the language we speak constitutes who we are as people. At least that’s the way it seemed to me at eighteen."

The Naturals

A son goes to visit his dying father in a story about various forms of storytelling.

"He ripped open his shirt and crushed the mutilated tomato against his chest. Juice glistened in dark burls of hair. He thought that maybe he was about to make a serious declaration, or even try to laugh the whole thing off, when he felt a twinge, a test cinch for another spell of nervous woe. The Belt of Intermittent Sorrow, which he somehow now named the moment it went tight, squeezed him to the kitchen floor."

Symbols and Signs

Russian immigrant parents attempt to visit their troubled son in a mental hospital.

"He excludes real people from the conspiracy, because he considers himself to be so much more intelligent than other men. Phenomenal nature shadows him wherever he goes. Clouds in the staring sky transmit to each other, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him. His in- most thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees. Pebbles or stains or sun flecks form patterns representing, in some awful way, messages that he must intercept. Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme."

The Headstrong Historian

A mother defends her family lineage against disruption from envious cousins in this 2008 story by National Book Critics Circle award-winner Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

"His cousins, during the funeral, took his ivory tusk, claiming that the trappings of titles went to brothers and not to sons. It was when they emptied his barn of yams and led away the adult goats in his pen that she confronted them, shouting, and when they brushed her aside she waited until evening, then walked around the clan singing about their wickedness, the abominations they were heaping on the land by cheating a widow, until the elders asked them to leave her alone. She complained to the Women’s Council, and twenty women went at night to Okafo’s and Okoye’s homes, brandishing pestles, warning them to leave Nwamgba alone. But Nwamgba knew that those grasping cousins would never really stop. She dreamed of killing them. "

First Husband

Modern family structures are explored when an ex-stepdaughter asks for emergency babysitting help.

"Without Aaron, there would be no Caleb. Lovey had to remind herself of this sad fact. Her ex-stepson-in-law caused a lot of trouble, but, because of him, here before her was a boy for her to love, who loved her. Caleb would grow up and perhaps grow away from her—there was no shared blood, and someday he would understand that. Someday he might untie the knots of those prefixes that labelled Lovey, ex- and step-. He would turn into a teen-ager and disappear, like his father, into the night."

All That

A child's difficult obsession with a toy cement mixer.

It was a simple toy—no batteries. It had a colored rope, with a yellow handle, and you held the handle and walked pulling the cement mixer behind you—rather like a wagon, although it was nowhere near the size of a wagon. For Christmas, I'm positive it was. It was when I was the age where you can, as they say, 'hear voices' without worrying that something is wrong with you. I 'heard voices' all the time as a small child. I was either five or six, I believe. (I’m not very good with numbers.)

Find the Bad Guy

An estranged husband recaps his odd marriage to a German woman.

"Back then, though, we weren’t sleeping together. That didn’t happen till later. In order to pretend to be my fiancée, and then my bride, Johanna had to spend time with me, getting to know me. She’s from Bavaria, Johanna is. She had herself a theory that Bavaria is the Texas of Germany. People in Bavaria are more conservative than your normal European leftist. They’re Catholic, if not exactly God-fearing. Plus, they like to wear leather jackets and such. Johanna wanted to know everything about Texas, and I was just the man to teach her. I took her to SXSW, which wasn’t the cattle call it is today. And oh my Lord if Johanna didn’t look good in a pair of bluejeans and cowboy boots."

The Stare

A clash of culture, sex, and need between an English wife and her Greek husband.

"On this day Mary goes home excited and restless and sits in front of her looking glass and examines herself. She often does this. She is plump, pretty, with ruddy cheeks, black curls, and a lot of well-placed dimples, and Dmitri calls her his little blackberry. But she has gray eyes, and he says that if it weren’t for those cool English eyes he could believe she has Greek blood. His black eyes easily smolder, or burn, or reproach. Mary leans her forearms among the little bottles of scent, the lipsticks, the eye paint, and tries out expressions. She puts a long unsmiling unblinking stare on her face and frightens herself with it."