Fiction Pick of the Week: "Secondhand"
Various time passages in an old home.
Various time passages in an old home.
On the way to a reading, an academic stumbles into a mysterious infrastructure.
"For some reason he couldn’t put his finger on he was feeling happy. Naturally it had been a relief to come in out of the rain—though this particular brand of happiness seemed unrelated to anything as simple as relief. No, there was something about being in the tunnel that was making him feel very happy, almost ecstatically so. Against the wall just inside the door someone had arranged cleaning implements—several brooms, a bucket with a mop in it, a pile of rags—but other than that the tunnel was empty. The walls at this end had been painted with the green, glossy paint beloved of institutions the world over, the paint having been applied in what seemed like a spirit of gay abandon. The smooth concrete floor was splashed with it, and it depended in hardened drips from a series of thin pipes running lengthwise along the ceiling."
A woman takes a very odd job as a human pipe defroster.
"And none of the customers are what she had expected. They don’t stare, googley-eyed, while she slips out of her coat. They don’t try to touch her or make jokes. If they stick around at all, it’s to chat about thermodynamics and temperature gradients and conduction and convection and spray foam insulation and all the boring things Sheila has never been interested in herself. She nods politely and pretends to understand it all, waiting for them to leave her alone with the pipe."
A story of assessments as the end of the world nears.
"I'm afraid to look at first, but then I get my bearings and turn in the direction where the river should be. On the other side is home and if I'm right, the towers. There's no bright, white plume of smoke on the horizon to help me, now. The towers will be quiet. Shut down and dead."
An abused woman reacts to her downstairs neighbor's murder.
"Laurie thinks he tries to cry, and she appreciates the effort. She kisses Jimmy in return, pretends it doesn’t hurt when he scrapes his teeth over her collarbone, and ignores the phone when it rings. If it’s her mother, she’ll call again soon enough; if it’s another reporter, well, Laurie doesn’t have much to say."
Three ambassadors find themselves on a familiar yet alien planet.
"He sees a red and white building that looks just like the pharmacy where he once filled prescriptions. He recognizes a squat building with a black awning and patio that looks similar to a restaurant where he and his wife once dined on Sunday afternoons. He spots a building that looks exactly the same as a bar all three men visited after their final training session at the space station across the city, sharing the last pitchers of beer they drank together before rocketing from earth."
A study in building spaceships.
"Mostly, the spaceship builders did not come out of their trailers or houses, though our local guides claimed they didn't mind the occasional tour. They were so serious they could not see that others might laugh. Some of their grounds looked measured and neat; some were spilling over or scraped to dust. Most were single, a few married, some widowed or divorced. The married ones interested us most—what sorts of agreements had they come to? were the ships built for two?"
An elderly man's work on a complex sculpture confuses those close to him.
" I sit on the plastic pot bench with my feet dangling in the water, drinking beer with my son, and it occurs to me that this is the first time in a long while that we have done something together that wasn’t planned to death or didn’t involve other people. I keep my mouth shut because I don’t want to spoil the moment. But Wallace spoils it for me. He starts telling me about his speech. At first I don’t understand what he is talking about, but then I start to hear something. He says that expectations are changing, and that the things that sustain us are not always recognizable as such. But what I hear him saying is that he thinks this thing I am building is what I believe is keeping me alive. He still doesn’t get it. He thinks maybe I am depressed, so I turn the conversation to something more capitalistic."
An isolated apartment sitter sees apparitions of mysterious beings.
"And then, after a few days, I returned to the living room, to sit in the blank and quiet night and watch them pass in darkness. And after a few more nights, I crept closer to the curtains. One night, having left them closed, I peeled one back as the last of them passed. I watched them proceed down the street in their own strange strides, walking steadily, not turning a corner, not entering some structure, not vanishing in mid-air."
An island house; a series of apparations, dreams, and mysteries.
"Sara put trances on Leigh in the middle of the night, while Leigh was sleeping. Leigh knew but didn't tell Mum or say anything about it to Sara. All three had terrible secrets they kept safe. They kept them safe for so long and so devotedly that they were no longer secrets—they were alternate ways of navigating the world."
A dead son's markings appear in household mold, thus beginning a new form of Butler's surreal, creepy family dramas.
"I’d always felt my boy would live forever. He seemed strung with a different make of vein. I’d once watched him bang his head hard on a lathe out in my workshop in the midst of chasing moths, and instead of crying, whining for mother, his body shook with hiccupping elation, a brook of blood tracing his cheek down to his diapers. Only months alive he’d had large canines. When I’d let him, in his mother’s absence, he liked pounding nails with the tiny hammer I’d provided. I’d caught him more than once chewing on hunks of dirt or even glass, which he’d swallow grinning as I tried to make him spit. How he could stare straight into a blowtorch, beg for me to lay the hot blue light in his hands and sit like that for as long as I could stand to hold it with him. Three years old and already beyond anything I had imagined in a son."
A woman's ex-lover moves into her duplex apartment.
"I wanted to be with Mitch again the way we were after college, with that safety of the late-night sex call, the backup-plan date who was not really a date to parties filled with couples. But I did not have the courage to tell him that I wanted to pick up where we had left off before he married Janet any more than I could have told him I had loved him all those years ago. By the time he was free again (and moving into the duplex I owned), I had learned to seal off my heart from his casual, unofficial kind of love."
A weary tenant gets lost in his vast apartment complex.
"The fourth floor is the same as the third. I again turn left outside the elevator, but take fewer steps before again realizing my error. Turning around, the numbers climb: 418, 420, 422. I put my key in my door and it slides all the way in, and I pause, surprised, though unsure why I should be. I can feel the door respond to me opening it, but then it stops. I've never once locked that deadbolt when leaving the apartment. Sometimes I lock it when home, inside the apartment, though just as often I don't. The door itself locks automatically when I leave, and the apartment building is locked as well, so I've never stopped and taken the time nor precaution for the extra lock of the deadbolt. I try my same key in the second lock—it fits, but won't turn. It won't unlock, but I knew it wouldn't. I stand still and silent, listening, wondering again if someone inside heard me trying to let myself in. I try to think of as simple an explanation as possible, should someone open the door, though who might that be? Who else would be in my apartment, why would they open the door?"
What starts as a mouse infestation turns into a complex study of a marriage and a husband's place in the world.
"But in the evening I did the bills at the dining table and one ran across my foot. I could see it through the glass top, looking exactly like the one I’d released. I realized I’d sort of imagined only one, maybe two. Mice are so identical, appearing on one and then another side of the room as if by magic, moving through walls. All that damage. Now they could be filling the walls and if I slit one with a machete they’d spill out like organs, or like corn from a sack. This could make the species more impressive, or less."
A series of mysterious, dangerous interactions in a Mexican bathhouse.
"In every public bath, there tends to be a fight from time to time. We never saw or heard any there. The clients, conditioned by some unknown mechanism, respected and obeyed every word of the orphan’s instructions. Also, to be fair, there weren’t very many people, and that’s something I’ll never be able to explain, since it was a clean place, relatively modern, with individual saunas for taking steam baths, bar service in the saunas, and, above all, cheap. There, in Sauna 10, I saw Laura naked for the first time, and all I could do was smile and touch her shoulder and say I didn’t know which valve to turn to make the steam come out."
A man wakes up to find his city changing its physical properties.
"The soft blob nature of everything was making him drowsy. He sat down on what appeared to be a concrete staircase. It felt as soft as it looked. He let himself doze off, the vague swirl of drab color around him giving way to darkness."
While being stripped and sold, old ships reflect on their long histories and the generations of men associated with them.
"But we were the ones they came back to, dawn after dawn, year after year. We were the ones who brought them home, hoary and frail, to Snug Harbor. The nurses tucked them into wooden wheelchairs. They spent the landlocked hours making models of us in bottles, the Nellie P. and the Golden Eagle, the Sallie Ann and the Spirit of Victory. Hunched between the wall with the clock and the wall with the crucifix, they assembled us from memory. Their fingers traced each narrow bottleneck. They slipped inside as far as they could reach."
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."</p>
A whirlwind of city observations; people and spaces explored with precision and skepticism.
"On weekend nights, the building was an inferno of noise. People had parties and people fought and argued into the early hours, glass shattering, timber cracking, objects making dull thuds against the walls and floors. Wild cries of sexual pleasure, not easily distinguished from cries of distress, rang out. The police cars and the fire tenders and the ambulances wailed around the streets. Then towards dawn when everything fell silent for an hour, my thoughts became my own again, able at last to hear the chime of the neighbour’s clock."
A metaphorical tale of a wayward younger brother and his icy relationship with his siblings.
"The fifth brother, Joseph, was much younger. By the time he came of age, there were no comfortable rooms left for him, and so he was given the raw rooms in the mansion's newer wing. Joseph was a strange, solitary, somewhat frightening child, and although his brothers loved him, they were relieved to have him out of their hair. Joseph wished to be a gentleman like his brothers, but life was difficult in the raw wing of the mansion. The new wing was a place of Protestant industry, and Joseph went to work."
After being caught in a downpour, a traveler takes refuge in the home of a twisted old man; Happy Halloween.
"As the man mumbled on in his shocking ecstasy the expression on his hairy, spectacled face became indescribable, but his voice sank rather than mounted. My own sensations can scarcely be recorded. All the terror I had dimly felt before rushed upon me actively and vividly, and I knew that I loathed the ancient and abhorrent creature so near me with an infinite intensity. His madness, or at least his partial perversion, seemed beyond dispute. He was almost whispering now, with a huskiness more terrible than a scream, and I trembled as I listened."
Two shorts: 'Dear Creatures' examines a relationship and a chance observation; 'Imaginary Birds' examines place, potential creations, and identity.
"Some of you will leave, break through the walls to build more in someone else’s country, uninvited and entirely necessary. You will bring tablets to make the water drinkable, pieces of printed paper to explain your theories; scrawl pictures in the dust when words become too heavy in the mouth. You will wipe soot from leaves, soak oil from birds. You will weave shelters from torn branches with ends still weeping sap. You will build things up for others to break down."
A futuristic nursery room, controlled by their children's thoughts, wreaks havoc on a husband and wife.
"As for the nursery, thought George Hadley, it won't hurt for the children to be locked out of it awhile. Too much of anything isn't good for anyone. And it was clearly indicated that the children had been spending a little too much time on Africa. That sun. He could feel it on his neck, still, like a hot paw. And the lions. And the smell of blood. Remarkable how the nursery caught the telepathic emanations of the children's minds and created life to fill their every desire. The children thought lions, and there were lions. The children thought zebras, and there were zebras. Sunsun. Giraffesgiraffes. Death and death."
A father and his daughter observe the emergence of mysterious, animal-like oil rigs.
"Only the most violent post-return decommissioning could stop all this, only second deaths, from which the rigs did not come back again, kept them from where they wished to go, to drill. Once chosen, a place might be visited by any one of the wild rigs that walked out of the abyss. As if such locations had been decided collectively. UNPERU observed the nesting sites, more all the time, and kept track of the rigs themselves as best they could, of their behemoth grazing or wandering at the bottom of the world."