Fiction Pick of the Week: "A Friendly Game"

A story of growth, regression, and divergent paths.

"But mostly, Joan sat for hours in her favorite spot of their old living room couch where she breastfed Phil. It felt sometimes like he was resting in the crook of her arm. And other times, her breasts would drip milk and she’d sit with a throbbing ache in her chest. Her husband returned twice a week, a different person each time as if trying on new identities: laughing, angry, sedate, stoic. Sometimes he brought the rocks with him. Sometimes Joan would have to go out on her own looking for them."

I Can See Right Through You

Vampire movies, sex tapes, aging, and complicated relationships: new fiction from the great Kelly Link.

"It’s not much fun, telling a ghost story while you’re naked. Telling the parts of the ghost story that you’re supposed to tell. Not telling other parts. While the woman you love stands there with the person you used to be."

Fragmented Instructions for Half-Formed Girls

A series of instructions for a woman in a small town.

"Purport, coyly, that you are dating a tall pile of driftwood arranged in an aesthetically pleasing way, and let’s say this wooden statue’s name is Chad and that he is generally a little slow on the uptake. Say Chad is like a Nordic carving of a real person in that he is extremely beige, even his hair, and he can go for a long time without blinking or saying anything of substance. Say you might as well be dating a Hummel, except Chad is more durable."

The God of the Living Room

Struggling with sobriety, a man considers faith in all its complications.

"Wishes pour out of me, spilling onto the couch like blood from a bull on an altar. Big wishes for the whole of humanity—world peace and things like that— then, medium wishes—a better job, a wife, kids even, which I’ve never, ever wanted before, and even small wishes I laugh at but still mean—the Cubs in the Series, for example. I wish to hate booze, wish that my stomach would catch fire and burn me to death from the inside out if I ever take another drink. I wish for a better life, for a new me, for a better spirit. Without knowing exactly what that means, I wish for a better spirit."

This Young Man's Father Died In an Ice Storm. You Won't Believe What Happened Next.

An interactive fiction: a son and the illusion of his dead father; the intersection of technology and real life.

"Once I created his page I tried to return to my life. I was twenty-six years old, a man of inconsistent employment. During the winter I shoveled snow for the elderly. They paid me in germs and butterscotch candy. My landlord, an independently wealthy sexagenarian, accepted the candy as payment. She also insisted I tidy the complex. I changed light bulbs. I dusted the parking lot. I swept cigarette butts into the street. I clubbed the occasional beehive. My life was guarded and lonely, and susceptible, I soon discovered, to the distraction my father provided."

Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets

Cultural, sexual, and generational clashes surround an aging New York drag queen.

"Clinton Corset Emporium. No awning, just a piece of cardboard stuck in the window. As Miss Adele entered, a bell tinkled overhead – an actual bell, on a catch wire – and she found herself in a long narrow room – a hallway really – with a counter down the left-hand side and a curtained-off cubicle at the far end, for privacy. Bras and corsets were everywhere, piled on top of each other in anonymous white cardboard boxes, towering up to the ceiling. They seemed to form the very walls of the place. 'Good afternoon,' said Miss Adele, daintily removing her gloves, finger by finger. 'I am looking for a corset.'

The Twitches

Middle school and family unease; a mysterious neurological condition.

"I knew something bad was about to happen right before it did. My face heated. All the sound cut out, like a huge furry helmet had been dropped over my skull. The room, it didn’t look right. I’m trying to think how to explain it, but all I can come up with is that the colors separated, kind of fizzed around—the green and red marks on the dry-erase board hovered like insects, the purple of Mr. Franz’s tie pixilated. I had that greasy swirl in my stomach like when you’re about to fart and are still praying there’s a way it will be silent, like when you go to the bathroom after a science lab of intolerable closeness to your intolerably cute lab partner and see that yes, the tingle on your nose was actually a tumor-sized whitehead erupting."

Hide and Seek

A young man's struggle with his mother and his physical traits.

"When it was my turn to hide, I dreaded the moment of being found. What I hated more was the thought of all my mother’s attention focused on me. My father was out the door, smoke between her fingers. I didn’t know him, my mother having removed any evidence of his existence, but I knew that I resembled him. Darkness was the only place that gave way to my imagination. I pictured his face, laughing at our state of incompleteness. Crouched in a laundry hamper and waiting for the game to end, I’d grow fearful, then angry. My mother was husbandless, and I was squatting in a basket. She was too pretty to work. There was nothing she could do, but there was nothing I could do. I thought about really being lost."

Mere Increments [Excerpt]

The life of a conflicted IT worker from Iowa.

</blockquote><p>“Roger Jeffries is given to bouts of fantasy in which he speculates the possibilities suppressed by his current set of circumstances: that, indeed, he could have, if he had chosen to make the effort, packed a moving truck full of his stuff and left UNI for more cultivated frontiers. The Twin Cities, maybe, or Chicago, or back East to New York. Westward to the Pacific, perhaps, a destiny realized in Los Angeles. At any rate, he frequently imagines a young self packing up his stuff and driving for days—regardless of how close this destination might actually have been to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, home of the UNI Panthers, he always envisions driving for days, young, stubbled, over-caffeinated and chain smoking—to some more prestigious or renowned place.”</p></blockquote>

Dial Tone

An unsettling story of murder and telemarketing; originally published in 2007 and recently anthologized in The New Black, edited by Richard Thomas.

"There is a noise—the noise teeth might make biting hurriedly into melon—punctuated by a series of screams. It makes me want to tear the headset away from my ear. And then I realize I am not alone. Someone is listening. I don't know how—a certain displacement of sound as the phone rises from the floor to an ear—but I can sense it."

Wild Hearts

Two shorts about cowboys, love, and unhappiness.

"We’d been too young, too passionate. We lived wearing blinders: we only saw each other. After pay days, we had nothin’ left but a few dollars for a six pack and a pack of smokes, but that’s all we needed. We’d sit on the back porch, drinking and smoking, watching evening fall. And once it got dark, we’d go inside, make love, have a drink and another smoke, and then make love again."

"I drove past Low’s house, saw his truck out front. I didn’t slow down. My body ached, I prayed for rain—a purple-blue tempest, lightning slicing sky."

Orcinus Pas de Deux

A woman--rather, a whale trapped in a woman's body--gets a performance job at Ocean World.

"I arrive at Ocean World before dawn. My plan is to swim with Keiko an hour before everyone is scheduled to arrive, which I’m not supposed to do, but sometimes you just have to ignore the protocols—when you’re a whale among whales, human rules don’t apply."

Artists in Residence

A woman discovers artistic integrity during an ill-fated relationship.

"Melanie finally knew their relationship wasn’t going anywhere while in the contemporary art hall of the museum. Andy stopped every few feet and brought his hand to his mouth. She couldn’t look at him for more than a few seconds without getting irritated. It was like a performance piece. He exhaled through his fingers, rubbed his chin, and circled a pile of Styrofoam chunks. He circled counterclockwise."

James Yates is a contributing editor to Longform.org.

Scumbag

A drunkard with a past becomes the hero in this contemporary-yet-classic fairytale.

"The wall before you, which had appeared to be made from stone like all the others in the castle, actually burns quickly, charring like a piece of newspaper under a match. As it begins to vanish, you see that the hall continues on the other side. This was actually a test. And you actually completed it correctly. When the wall burns through completely, the fire suddenly extinguishes, as if doused in invisible water. You continue on down the hallway with, dare you say, a sense of purpose."

Writing From the Black, Twitchy Place

A fiction/essay hybrid on the lies of storytelling.

</blockquote>“This stuff you don’t recall so much as suspect. Usually dark, not-so-nice things you think you could have witnessed, or had done to you, or – even worse — did unto others. Maybe there’s even a dim recollection – your cousin Johnny’s gray eyes with the bottom half flooded for instance, or your mother’s grim little smeared-lipstick smile, or the sound of your sister throwing up on the other side of the bathroom door. But really, these things are so shadowy and faint you can’t be certain of any part of them. You’d have forgotten these ghost-memories a long time ago were it not for one thing that seems completely unrelated and it’s this: there’s a dark and oversensitive stain on your heart.”</p></blockquote>

The Answer

A man heads to Key West in a quest for sobriety.

"At the piano a black man in dark glasses set the tempo with hands the size of catcher’s gloves. He never looked down at the keys. Instead he seemed to be staring straight at Daniel. It was unnerving at first, but soon Daniel got used to it. Perhaps because he was sober, it seemed as if he could hear all the notes. He didn’t miss a moment. He smiled at the piano man. He nodded his head when the piano man did a whirling riff and clapped when he finished a mind-boggling solo."

Who Can Shave Thirteen Times a Day

A hairdresser confronts class issues and a local murder.

"During my lunch break, I thought about what I thought about Elena Czarinsky. Honestly, I’d never liked her much. She was one of those women who flashed her electronics around to remind everyone she had a real job where she was irreplaceable. She tipped with the generous lunacy of a woman who’s had to take her clothes off for a living. Once she told me she got off bad guys just to show she knew the law better than the next guy, and it wasn’t an apology. Actually, I could have hated the woman."