Homecoming

A high school athlete from a troubled Brooklyn family tries to stay on the right path in a small Virginia town.

"But it didn’t take long for Marcus to get around to missing Brooklyn. On weeknights his granny would be in bed by eight, and since the television in the living room got such poor reception Marcus would go to his room. The windows in Granny’s house had no curtains or blinds, so when it was dark he got a creepy feeling, like he was being watched. There were no yellow streetlights, no sirens or car stereos, nobody calling out to anybody else outside. Just unfamiliar sounds rising and filling up the air until it sounded like they were invading the room itself. Frogs? Crickets? He couldn’t tell. He’d make up his bed and lie down in it and put on his headphones and close his eyes and think about home."

The Fixed Idea

A grieving writer, a jealous actor, and sudden eruptions of [mock?] violence.

"Alvin Lightman, though I did not yet know his name, was sitting in the front parlor, designated the 'lounge,' his long legs stretched out across a wicker ottoman. As he later told me, he watched my arrival circumspectly, from behind the traditional screen of an open newspaper. He thought I looked 'ghastly' but 'possibly interesting.'"

Big 32

A woman who works in road maintenance reflects on the dangers and pleasures of temperatures.

"37.5—at this temperature, the yearly tally of accidents officially due to inclement weather begins. This tally will only grow and grow."

Winter Montage, Hoboken Station

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."

The Company Of Ashes

After a friend's death, three people take a trip to scatter the ashes.

"The will assigned the task of scattering the ashes to Megan and Nolan, high school friends, and me. We were to scatter the ashes in a ravine on Levi’s uncle’s farm in Henderson, Kentucky. A year passed before Megan, Nolan and I agreed on a weekend to make the trip. By that time I was out of the halfway house and working max hours as manager of a dingy apartment complex in Louisville. I couldn’t believe Levi, at twenty-two, had written a will."

The Sexual Lives Of Missionaries

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."

Getting Together

Sketches of late nights, drinking, friendships, and worries.

"We get drunk at the bar. We yell and sway. We hold up fingers in each other's faces. We wave our arms and say, But-but-but. We drink the cheapest beer we can find. Or we drink the beer with the highest alcohol content. Or we drink bottles of beer, not mixed drinks, in the bar down the street because the owner, Maria, has a weak pour. We stay up all night. We watch the sky start to grey and we feel sick, like we're seeing something we shouldn't, though it feels as if we missed something, too."

One-Horned and Wild-Eyed

Marriages and friendships are upended after a man buys a supposed unicorn.

"When I got there I found Ralph sitting in his chair dressed in his robe, and by the drape of it and by a flap of it that hung open at the top of his thigh, I could tell he wasn't wearing anything underneath. Worried I might have intruded on some private and disturbing moment, I stopped and was about to turn back around but then saw the heavy rise and fall of his chest and realized he had fallen asleep. I was quiet then as I opened the gate and took my seat next to him, gently flipping the robe back in place to cover his nethers. The unicorn hardly noticed me or my quiet administrations. As far as I could tell from watching it, the unicorn hardly noticed anyone. It was generally quite still, or not still, not exactly still. It seemed to have a way of standing still that made it look like it was in constant motion, or as if it existed in another place at the same moment it existed in our place, a shimmering, jittery, vibrating kind of stillness."

All The Summers Ahead

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."

What Are You Doing With Your Clothes Still On?

A young woman with Tourette's syndrome spends time with her wayward friends.

"I am secretly hoping that the haloperidol (that Betty stole from my dad’s medicine cabinet) will allow me to feel as free as Betty seems to, moving through the world as a lobster skitters on the ocean floor. Though she is my best friend, I am never free of the suspicion that Betty is unfamiliar with my most basic mindset. I don’t think she’s ever been really depressed or picked at a mosquito bite until it bled or called somebody in the middle of the night and cried inconsolably when they answered. She rarely questions the wisdom or consequences of her impulsiveness, tongue-kissing strangers and spearheading midnight road trips, creating an ongoing mosaic of haphazard worldly heat that never needs revising or regretting."

A Teen Tale

A comical imagining of a teenager's story about teenager drama.

"Arnold, a shy sophomore, was a real loser. Everyone hated him, even his guidance counselor; meanwhile, he was crazy for Julie, a senior cheerleader whose father drank and whose mother was having an affair with a dairy farmer. But since Julie was the most popular senior in the school, no one knew about her crummy home life except her best friend Suzie, who everyone in school hated because she was the most popular girl’s best friend and therefore thought she was all that."

The American

A nameless, interlocking conversation about a tryst.

"Of course he was American, but I courted him, not the other way around. And now he's returned to the United States and you miss him. B-- removes a cigarette from her silver case. Please don't light that, A-- says, I haven't finished my meal. All right, go on then, tell us about him. When was the affair? C-- asks. He went home two weeks ago. You didn't tell us, D-- says. I didn't think you would understand. I understand that you're my friend and should have said something. So I was right, you don't understand."

Thank God For Facebook!

The trials and silliness of Facebook, from beyond the grave.

"In a last, desperate attempt to recapture our imaginations, Madeline began posting pictures of herself with dead celebrities like Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe, even Benjamin Franklin. But they were doing things like high-fiving, watching TV, and playing darts. As a community, we agreed it was in bad taste."

The Mere Weight Of Words [Excerpt]

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."

Chico

Sketches from the violent, troubled life of a Middle Eastern man.

"The boy’s name was Mokhtar, but no one ever called him anything but Chico. I first got to know him when he was fifteen. He had grown up healthy and handsome. His pockets were always stuffed with money, and that was what was special about him. His life consisted of sitting in cafes, day and night, and he learned to drink alcohol and to sleep with whores. He was generous and goodhearted, but if he got angry he could be dangerous, and he often got angry when he was drunk. When Chico was seventeen his aunt died, leaving him her bank account, three houses and a bakery in the city, and a big farm out in the country. He began to give large parties, buying great quantities of food and drink for many friends, and spending even more on girls."

Las Casas

Two under-the-influence friends discuss a history of human violence.

"...for years and years they would do this, it’s all in the Las Casas, and for years and years Spanish soldiers were just like falling over themselves, they couldn’t believe it, just completely climbing over one another, trying to get out of their boats and get to their swords fast enough to get a quick, easy lead-off beheading of a holy tribal king without even thinking that maybe it might violate, oh, I don’t know, the entire Christian moral code or, that whole thing aside, that it might go against just obvious, timeless, and basic human good versus evil restraint, you know, something like that was around even with cavemen, the totally simple idea that maybe needlessly causing excruciating, savage, horrifying, life-ending pain to another being, to a brother, to somebody like yourself, might not be the thing you should do. They found their heaven and they turned it into a hell. On purpose."

Stupid Girls Never Go Crazy

Two troubled high school friends cope with their families and depressions.

"A half-an-hour later, Bambi slipped through her front door, hoping to sneak upstairs unnoticed by the mass of humanity that lived at her house. She shared her space with four younger brothers who’d been born so close together that they all resembled the same kid in a different stage of metamorphosis. So much testosterone flowed through the house that she had gotten lost in the shuffle. Her dad really didn’t know quite what to do with her and tried to avoid the discomfort of female emotional interaction. He focused on the easy rapport he had with her brothers and spent most of his free time talking sports or taking them fishing. Her mom was usually frazzled and easily irritated. She was starting her cocktail hour a bit earlier every day and was usually comfortably anesthetized by dinner time. She seemed to have slipped into a complacency that bordered on being in a coma."

What To Do?

A man embarks on a troubled relationship with a psychic.

"She called it, so, fine, I gave her twenty bucks. But I forgot all her predictions, being the king of the drunken blackout. My brain tries its best to sweep up, and most times I do appreciate it. I had some residuals the next morning from her reading, mainly of outrage and disappointment at what she saw for me, but no specifics. It really wasn’t fair having her walk around the bar like that. Everyone was there to meet their future, and then she walks by, selling it. And then those of us who are ugly. And those of us that can’t dance. We’re gluttons for punishment: we’re desperate for good news."

Some Of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby

After a mutual friend "goes too far," his friends plan a get-together for his hanging.

"We asked him what sort of music he would like played at the hanging. He said he'd think about it but it would take him a while to decide. I pointed out that we'd have to know soon, because Howard, who is a conductor, would have to hire and rehearse the musicians and he couldn't begin until he knew what the music was going to be. Colby said he'd always been fond of Ives's Fourth Symphony. Howard said that this was a 'delaying tactic' and that everybody knew that the Ives was almost impossible to perform and would involve weeks of rehearsal, and that the size of the orchestra and chorus would put us way over the music budget."

Cell Buddy

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."

Sweet Potato Fries Please

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."

Of Love: A Testimony

A man enters an ill-fated relationship with his friend's ex-lover.

"They sat in a small, downstairs living-room with an upright piano against the wall and above the piano a portrait of her. She was wearing a dark green sweater in the picture and looking disinterestedly into her lap. The sweater had a broad neck, showing her prominent shoulder bones. She was wearing the same sweater that evening. That night they didn’t do anything but sit around and talk. There were some scores on the piano and Morgan wondered if she played. Her hair was fair and lustreless and drawn loosely back from her face. She smoked all of the time. He wondered what her relations with Sears were. She had evidently known him for a long time."

Dump

Two men, one recently abandoned by his wife and child, engage in mundane activities.

"I want to love but know I never will. Or is it that I want to be loved and know that that, too, I can prevent? Or must prevent? I can locate the object, it is in the method I fall down. Do not quite have the hang of it. This is a difficult idea to get your brain on, in the truck with Driggers, who is calmed into an earthly earthy mania. You could not hold the idea in your head that you did not quite get the hang of, say, eating."