The misadventures of two hospital workers, from the 1992 collection Jesus' Son.

"The eye man was on vacation or something. While the hospital’s operator called around to find someone else just as good, the other specialists were hurrying through the night to join us. I stood around looking at charts and chewing up more of Georgie’s pills. Some of them tasted the way urine smells, some of them burned, some of them tasted like chalk. Various nurses, and two physicians who’d been tending somebody in I.C.U., were hanging out down here with us now."


A Profile Auditor goes sniffing after anomalies in the consumption habits and personal data of an unsuspecting hotel clerk.

"Through the Demosphere we fly, we men of the Database Maintenance Division, and although the Demosphere belongs to General Communications Inc., it is the schmos of the world who make it - every time a schmo surfs to a different channel, the Demosphere notes that he is bored with program A and more interested, at the moment, in program B. When a schmo's paycheck is delivered over the I-way, the number on the bottom line is plotted in his Profile, and if that schmo got it by telecommuting we know about that too - the length of his coffee breaks and the size of his bladder are an open book to us. When a schmo buys something on the I-way it goes into his Profile, and if it happens to be something that he recently saw advertised there, we call that interesting, and when he uses the I-way to phone his friends and family, we Profile Auditors can navigate his social web out to a gazillion fractal iterations, the friends of his friends of his friends of his friends, what they buy and what they watch and if there's a correlation."

Gedney Goes Bohemian

In pursuit of "cool," a man immerses himself in a subculture of kite enthusiasts. From the newly-online archives of The Baffler.

"Gedney had read an article in Men’s Journal on the kite craze in Europe, and he knew he wanted to be a part of it. He had grown tired of his rollerblades and his mountain bike; he hungered for a new lifestyle, a new set of accessories. After reading the article, though, Gedney had made a terrible mistake: he dusted off the old single piece bat-wing kite he had flown on the beach as a youth and headed for Sheep’s Meadow. There he was astonished to see a vast number of kite practitioners, most of them proudly and skillfully flying double-tails, box kites, even a few difficult Chinese dragons. 'How did I get so far behind so quickly?' Gedney thought as he somewhat shamefully unfurled his childish kite."


A disillusioned actress, retiring from show business, moves to the Midwest.

"And so she left Hollywood. Phoned her agent and apologized. Went home to Chicago, rented a room by the week at the Days Inn, drank sherry, and grew a little plump. She let her life get dull—dull, but with Hostess cakes. There were moments bristling with deadness, when she looked out at her life and went 'What?' Or worse, feeling interrupted and tired, 'Wha--?' It had taken on the shape of a terrible mistake. She hadn't been given the proper tools to make a real life with, she decided, that was it. She'd been given a can of gravy and a hairbrush and told, "There you go." She'd stood there for years, blinking and befuddled, brushing the can with the brush.

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."

Close Your Eyes and Think of England

A day in the life of a twelve year-old girl: feminine sacrifice and reversed parenting/gender roles.

"When she's not ricocheting between coasts to spearhead corporate sales and yoga retreats, our mother is skipping off to islands (Cuba, the Canaries, Greenland) and leaving me typed notes that become more and more blunt and encoded. She doesn't spend much time with our father--none of the mothers do--and they have all become so hard and muscular and breastless that you wouldn't want a hug from them even if you were feeling bad."

A Small Wild Road

A niece's tense, monotonous visits with her bedridden aunt; an unexpected, grisly turn of events.

"Uncongenial was the word for that atmosphere; but not painful, not ugly. Then, quite soon, with the utmost perverseness, it turned very ugly indeed. Sophie faithlessly developed a horrifying and terminal, but not very promptly terminal, illness. And after a series of live-in nurses (friendly, but beset by all the normal misadventures of daily life) had held the fort spasmodically, Sophie had ended at Holly Hill, and Edie in the first major possession of her life: a midget and not particularly nice apartment, but sunny, quiet, except for music and casual voices, and never, never, never a source of shock."

Under Ice

An incident on a frozen stream, excerpted from Banks' 1993 novel, Complicity.

"We were told not to do this, told not to come here, told to sledge and throw snowballs and make snowmen all we wanted, but not even to come near the loch and the river, in case we fell through the ice; and yet Andy came here after we'd sledged for a while on the slope near the farm, walked down here through the woods despite my protests, and then when we got here to the river bank I said well, as long as we only looked, but then Andy just whooped and jumped down onto the boulder-lumped white slope of shore and sprinted out across the pure flat snow towards the far bank."

The Harvest

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."

Brief Interviews With Hideous Men

A one-sided interview about a one night stand and a detailed, harrowing story about a sexual assault.

"That it was a titanic struggle, she said, in the Cutlass, heading deeper into the secluded area, because whenever for a moment her terror bested her or she for any reason lost her intense focus on the mulatto, even for a moment, the effect on the connection was obvious—his profile smiled and his right eye again went empty and dead as he recrudesced and began once again to singsong psychotically about the implements in his trunk and what he had in store for her once he found the ideal secluded spot, and she could tell that in the wavering of the soul-connection he was automatically reverting to resolving his connectionary conflict in the only way he knew. And I clearly remember her saying that by this time, whenever she succumbed and lost her focus for a moment and his eye and face reverted to creepy psychotic unconflicted relaxation, she was surprised to find herself feeling no longer paralyzing terror for herself but a nearly heartbreaking sadness for him, for the psychotic mulatto. And I’ll say that it was at roughly this point of listening to the story, still nude in bed, that I began to admit to myself that not only was it a remarkable postcoital anecdote but that this was, in certain ways, rather a remarkable woman, and that I felt a bit sad or wistful that I had not noticed this level of remarkability when I had first been attracted to her in the park."

The Crossing [Excerpt]

With a mix of danger and empathy, a teenager attempts to save an injured wolf.

"She turned and wheeled away. So quick. He hardly had time to get one heel in front of him in the dirt before she hit the end of the rope. She did a cartwheel and landed on her back and jerked him forward onto his elbows. He scrambled up but she was already off in another direction and when she hit the end of the rope again she almost snatched him off the ground. He turned and dug both heels in and took a turn of the rope around his wrist. She had swung toward the horse now and the horse snorted and set off toward the road at a trot with the reins trailing. She ran at the end of the rope in a circle until she passed the cholla that had first caught the trapchain drag and here the rope brought her around until she stood snubbed and gasping among the thorns."

How To Tell A True War Story

Tim O'Brien's meditation on war and peace, reality and fiction, truth and lies. From The Things They Carried.

"You admire the fluid symmetries of troops on the move, the great sheets of metal-fire streaming down from a gunship, the illumination rounds, the white phosphorus, the purply orange glow of napalm, the rocket's red glare. It's not pretty, exactly. It's astonishing. It fills the eye. It commands you. You hate it, yes, but your eyes do not. Like a killer forest fire, like cancer under a microscope, any battle or bombing raid or artillery barrage has the aesthetic purity of absolute moral indifference—a powerful, implacable beauty—and a true war story will tell the truth about this, though the truth is ugly."

Everyone Please Be Careful

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."

Shiva Dancing

An astrophysicist's long walk to avoid distraction turns into a mysterious journey.

"One day Thackeray has to leave the house; he is overcome by a feeling that is not familiar to him seeing Maria’s legs, and he’s on the brink of discovering the mathematical secret of the universe, and he must think, by God, clearly now, women’s legs of all the absurd things, so he walks out the door and along the streets up to the college, across the millstream, losing himself in thought, out past the observatory and up an old mining trail and finally into the wilderness as the light among the great trees thins to dust."

Oliver's Evolution

The mishaps and growth of an accident-prone child.

"But Oliver had come late in their little pack of offspring, at a time when the challenge of child rearing was wearing thin, and he proved susceptible to mishaps. He was born with inturned feet and learned to crawl with corrective casts up to his ankles. When they were at last removed, he cried in terror because he thought those heavy plaster boots scraping and bumping along the floor had been part of himself."

The Paper Age

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 Bedford Quarry

Residents of a small New Hampshire town deal with various problems and hardships.

"I unchained my bike and rode out through the center of Carlisle towards Jack’s house. A couple of times, I had told Wesley that I was done being a thief. It was like when Jack decided to stop drinking. Quitting’s easy, Jack told me, I’ve done it hundreds of times. I was scared at night, when I would hear cars pull up, and wonder if someone I had ripped off was after me."

Death By Landscape

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."

Elevation Of The Prison Bed

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."

Quiet Please

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."

The Intuitionist [Excerpt]

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."

What Shock Heard

In the midst of unspoken emotions, a horseback riding trip goes terribly awry.

"And he was right, it did, but I kept on talking and soon I was telling him about the pain in my mouth and the back of my head and what Billy had done that day in the barn, and the ghosts I carry with me. Blood was coming out with the words and pieces of tooth, and I kept talking till I told him everything, but when I looked at his face I knew all I’d done was make the gap wider with the words I’d picked so carefully that he didn’t want to hear."

The Lesbian Morticians Association

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."

South For The Winter

A man "borrows" the car of a blind friend and enjoys a very short roadtrip.

"I suppose Eric knew exactly what was up when I started up the engine on his big red Ford. He probably recognized the sound right away. It also made a lot of noise as I pulled out onto the road--clattering and clunking about--but it was too late for Eric to stop me then. I was headed south."