Fiction Pick of the Week: "Stay A While"
An elderly woman renovates her basement for renters and discovers uncomfortable truths about herself.
An elderly woman renovates her basement for renters and discovers uncomfortable truths about herself.
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."
A woman claims the ability to detect illnesses by taste.
"If Libby had claimed divine intervention, Celia would have been dubious, but Libby sounded completely rational, like a scientist investigating a rare but naturally occurring phenomenon."
Leo Gursky, author and former locksmith, reflects on mortality and the past.
"When they were ten, he asked her to marry him. When they were eleven, he kissed her for the first time. When they were thirteen, they got into a fight and for three terrible weeks they didn’t talk. When they were fifteen, she showed him the scar on her left breast. Their love was a secret they told no one. He promised her he would never love another girl as long as he lived. 'What if I die?' she asked. 'Even then,' he said. For her sixteenth birthday, he gave her a Polish-English dictionary and together they studied the words. 'What’s this?' he’d ask, tracing his index finger around her ankle, and she’d look it up. 'And this?' he’d ask, kissing her elbow. ''Elbow'! What kind of word is that?' And then he’d lick it, making her giggle. When they were seventeen, they made love for the first time, on a bed of straw in a shed. Laterwhen things had happened that they never could have imaginedshe wrote him a letter that said, 'When will you learn that there isn’t a word for everything?'"
A worker in a slaughterhouse observes the ups and downs of generational differences.
"This morning is always pig-killing. This afternoon is always cleaning. Tomorrow is sheep-killing. It is the same each week. Tuesday, pigs. Wednesday, lambs. Just after we had opened the gates this morning a young farmer came. He is one of those who are the amateur farmers. I like them. They are unlike any farmers I know at home. They wear farming, as if it were a jacket. It never truly fits their shoulders. They farm not because they have to but because they think it is good for them, or for their children, or for society. They believe in the soil and in hard work and they add farming to their office jobs. In this factory, we can recognize them from afar. They drive their jeeps like they would drive a car, and they are always a little frightened of their animals. When they leave off their animals for slaughter they stare at the killing equipment.
Confusion and nervousness ensue when items slowly go missing at a nursing home.
"After that conversation, more glasses went missing. Sometimes we found them on the wrong peoples’ faces. Sometimes a pair showed up, perched in the middle of a bowl of oatmeal. Everyone was confused; Miss Marilyn panicked. Even my grandma had her theories—a rat had carried things off and dropped them in sly places. But I knew who was responsible and I kept quiet. I couldn’t break a man’s spirit.
Loss, redemption, and magic highlight a friendship between two different men.
"He was standing beside the Cutlass, looking at Billy with an old man's expectant smile, waiting for him to unlock the door and hold it for him till he'd placed his still-calcium-rich but nonetheless old bones in the passenger seat. Billy stared at him, trying to figure out what was at risk if he unlocked that door. Then he snorted a tiny laugh, unlocked the door, held it for Gaspar as he seated himself, slammed it and went around to unlock the other side and get in. Gaspar reached across and thumbed up the door lock knob. And they drove off together in the rain."
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."
A profile of 101-year-old marathoner Fauja Singh.
A widow meets the acquaintance of a mysterious, frightening young girl.
"Miriam ate ravenously, and when the sandwiches and milk were gone, her fingers made cobweb movements over the plate, gathering crumbs. The cameo gleamed on her blouse, the blond profile like a trick reflection on its wearer. 'That was very nice,' she sighed, 'though now an almond cake or a cherry would be ideal. Sweets are lovely, don’t you think?' Mrs. Miller was perched precariously on the hassock, smoking a cigarette. Her hairnet had slipped lopsided and loose strands straggled down her face. Her eyes were stupidly concentrated on nothing and her cheeks were mottled in red patches, as though a fierce slap had left permanent marks."
An elderly widower tries to convince his son to go on an overseas excavation.
"He thinks I’m an old man. I can see pity in his eyes when he talks to me, which, these days, isn’t so often. I want the tickets to be a surprise for two reasons. One, the money. I’ve already put out feelers to two New York-based auction houses and three high-end retail stores. Factor in the backstory, and I suspect the revenues will be hefty, at least $2,000 per bottle. Play a few interested parties off one another, and I’m sure that number will creep up. Allowing for 25 percent breakage over time, I calculate revenues of close to $12 million. Amortize the sales over ten years to prevent market saturation, subtract expenses, and I’d still reel in enough profit to have a pied-a-terre in the city plus a four-bedroom tax-haven in Nassau."
For New Year's Eve, a Times Square encounter chronicled by the author of Open City.
"Low and I stood under the cold blazing lights of Times Square, smoking, and I asked him what he had eaten. Oysters, he said, the pleasure coming back into his voice, in a row on a ridge of ice, eager to be eaten. Fluke, caviar, octopus, some champagne but not a lot."
An exploration of an old couple with mystical powers.
"He lifted his arms like a high-diver preparing to jump, closed his eyes, and opened his mouth toward the sky. As he did this his body came apart in twelve pieces, each falling and forming into a tiny complete man. The men landed with a soft crunch in the snow, then hopped together and ran remarkably fast: under the deer carcass, past the oak tree, and into the bare forest, smaller and smaller to her eye, until their naked running bodies and small puffs of breath were lost among the trees."
An elderly couple attempts a series of adventurous forays into crime.
"She grinned back, but her heart was wilting. This crumbling of old values must be a sign of dementia, mustn't it. Perhaps his was an encapsulated dementia, confined to mild misbehavior. Maybe petty crimes would stave off worse senility. She knew some poor old fellows who tried to fondle waitresses."
The author on his mother’s deteriorating health and the “price of longevity.”
A widow balances a new hobby and her interactions with her grown children.
"She signed up for an introductory course at the Museum of Natural History, sending her check in the mail with a slip of paper wrapped around it. It was the sort of thing that her children made fun of her for, but Marjorie had her ways. The class met twice a week at seven in the morning, always gathering on the Naturalist’s Bridge just past the entrance to the park at 77th Street. Marjorie liked that, the consistency. Even on days when she was late—all year, it had only happened twice, and she’d been mortified both times—Marjorie knew just where to find the group, as they always wound around the park on the same path, moving at a snail’s pace, a birder’s pace, their eyes up in the trees and their hands loosely holding onto the binoculars around their necks."
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."
An Indian woman is torn between Hinduism and Christianity.
"We were all somewhat worried by this, but Gold Teeth's religious nature was well known to us, her husband was a learned pundit and when all was said and done this was an emergency, a matter of life and death. So we could do nothing but look on. Incense and camphor and ghee burned now before the likenesses of Krishna and Shiva as well as Mary and Jesus. Gold Teeth revealed an appetite for prayer that equalled her husband's for food, and we marvelled at both, if only because neither prayer nor food seemed to be of any use to Ramprasad."
A couple's history, told through eleven moments in their erotic life.
"She throws her head back in a deep, genuine, womanly laughter, her eyes flashing, and where did the girl go, he wonders, and who is this?"
Two older writersliterary alliesdiscuss their memories, their past relationships, and their past conflicts.
"Their own sales were holding up, just about. A couple of thousand in hardback, twenty or so in paper. They still had a certain name recognition. Alice wrote a weekly column about life's uncertainties and misfortunes, though Jane thought it would be improved by more references to Alice's own life and fewer to Epictetus. "
A group of children transfix themselves with the mania of creative destruction.
"'All this hate and love,' he said, 'it's soft, it's hooey. There's only things, Blackie,' and he looked round the room crowded with the unfamiliar shadows of half things, broken things, former things."
A potential pickpocket is set straight by an old woman's kindness.
"Sweat popped out on the boy’s face and he began to struggle. Mrs. Jones stopped, jerked him around in front of her, put a half-nelson about his neck, and continued to drag him up the street."
From the classic collection Dubliners, two truant schoolboys encounter an unsettling old man.
"A slap on the hand or a box on the ear was no good: what he wanted was to get a nice warm whipping. I was surprised at this sentiment and involuntarily glanced up at his face. As I did so I met the gaze of a pair of bottle-green eyes peering at me from under a twitching forehead. I turned my eyes away again."
This house has a power. Happy Halloween.
"She said she rang the bell and then waited until she heard the sound of it coming up from the basement and could sense it there behind the door. And then she opened the slit of the letterbox and spoke into it."
A woman working on a Cuban sugar plantation ruminates on her family and secret love.
"When Papá talks of making myself necessary, I cringe. Necessary would mean a lifetime in the field, just as Papá has “necessaried” himself into stained hands and bent fingers. So different from my own. I can still straighten mine when I put my machete down for the day. I don’t know how much longer that will be true, however."