The Janitor in Space

A space station custodian reflects on her terrestrial past.

"She scrubs the fingerprints from the instrument panels, watches the lights flicker and dim. She wonders how many rags she’ll go through, how many surfaces have to get clean before she can finally empty herself of the past. She doesn’t know about metaphors but she knows that even the smallest human vessel has boundless storage for sorrow. Was there a right way to take in so much sorrow it burned clean through the lungs and heart? Was there a right way to atone?"

An Object in Motion

An outtake from Backswing, Burch's latest story collection from Queen's Ferry Press.

"It started getting too big! I hadn’t planned ahead – didn’t stop and realize its size until it was too late. It was too big to fit through the garage door and the pieces were so interlocked and crosshatched, it took me a week just to break the thing down into manageable pieces to be able to move it. For a couple days, I was worried I might lose more of the work I’d done up to that point than I did."

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."

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."

Authority [Chapter One]

The director of a covert organization arrives for his first day at work.

"Control took his time staring at the women, although their appearance told him little. They had all been given the same generic uniforms, vaguely army- issue but also vaguely janitorial. Their heads had all been shaved, as if they had suffered from some infestation, like lice, rather than something more inexplicable. Their faces all retained the same expression, or could be said not to retain any expression. Don't think of them by their names, he'd told himself on the plane. Let them carry only the weight of their functions at first. Then fill in the rest. But Control had never been good at remaining aloof. He liked to burrow in, try to find a level where the details illuminated without overwhelming him."

What People Are Made Of

A young man works as an apprentice to his mortician uncle.

"I have learned a number of corollaries to that in my time as an apprentice. I have learned that, sometimes, your relatives will ask us to remove gold fillings from your teeth so that they can sell them. I have learned that some of your acquaintances will wear jeans to your funeral. I have learned that, all too often, your closest friends will not come at all. They will text during the service. They will sneak outside to the parking lot when it’s time to sing hymns to smoke cigarettes and steal swigs from flasks of whiskey, telling each other that you would’ve wanted it that way."

More or Less

Tensions eat away at a relationship between a musician and his girlfriend.

"Something in her cadence caught my attention. What if…? I imagined the bass line with a new syncopation, a little shift in the rhythm that might liven the song. I ran the part in my head, but I wanted the instrument in my hands, to be certain. Somehow, Anna had wound up at the pier, although it would have been out of her way."

Counterparts

Joyce's classic study of a man at odds with the world.

"A very sullen-faced man stood at the corner of O’Connell Bridge waiting for the little Sandymount tram to take him home. He was full of smouldering anger and revengefulness. He felt humiliated and discontented; he did not even feel drunk; and he had only twopence in his pocket. He cursed everything. He had done for himself in the office, pawned his watch, spent all his money; and he had not even got drunk. He began to feel thirsty again and he longed to be back again in the hot reeking public-house. He had lost his reputation as a strong man, having been defeated twice by a mere boy. His heart swelled with fury and, when he thought of the woman in the big hat who had brushed against him and said Pardon! his fury nearly choked him."

What Happened In There

Young love in an rural American town is beset by ominous setbacks.

"The only person he could make out was Reverend Kelly, a traveling preacher from England. He sat by a lamp, which illuminated his sharp cheekbones and pointy nose, his sagging mouth formed into a smirk. And those beady eyes. Willie didn’t like the way he’d seen those eyes following Lena around earlier in the night."

Atlantic City

The interactions and memories of a gas station attendant on the outskirts of Atlantic City.

"I make coffee at 4:30 in the morning: the parking lot full of idling big-rigs, their headlights on, their cabins dark. I arrive before the guys who work the pumps. All of my prep work is done in the dark, without the store’s lights. The men watch me moving in the lone gas station on a highway through South Jersey. The store a box of windows."

Deluge

Horror--physical and psychological--grips a cockroach-infested Navy ship.

"I reached down and slapped his hands, sent his pals flying. The roaches were scuttling around, I was trying to step on them, when Thurman’s foot shot out. His toe-claw speared me in the leg between my calf and shinbone. I fell to one knee, gripping the wound. Thurman stood up and started shouting at me.

Myopathy

A father struggles after a layoff.

"Now John was paralyzed. For three weeks he’d been on the couch, drinking whiskey out of a dirty glass, or stretching out and turning away from the TV, burying his face in the back cushions and trying to coax a nap out of his subconscious. All the while he felt consumed by a quickening in his heartbeat, or he’d stare at his hands until he was sure that he saw his pinky finger start to shake. He breathed in on a count of four, held it for a count of four, out for a count of four, hold for a count of four. During one of the safety trainings at the mill they’d told the workers that it was a way to regulate your heartbeat during times of shock."

Miss Kelly Citation Tire

A young woman is hired to hand out pamphlets at a seedy racetrack.

"When the supply of flyers was gone, I walked over to the snack bar to get more from Al. The crowd was thinning now. People either looked me over or tried not to look. Without the stack of paper in hand, I felt self-conscious again. The pumps hurt my feet."

Neshoba

A woman takes a job as a typist for a Southern con man.

"Nor did he notice that her bag was packed and sitting at her feet where she waited by the window, twisting the curtains in her hands. But then, Cal has no reason to notice these things. He is not her lover, not really her friend. Just a man who pays her to take notes, a man she has known only a few months, a drunk, a liar, and when he suggested this outing, when he asked her if she’d like to take a break from her note-taking, have some fun, she should have known better."

With My Dog-Eyes [Excerpt]

A professor of mathematics "disconnects" from his work and broods on his past.

"As a child, he never figured out how to explain himself. A hurricane of questions whenever he’d taken an aimless walk, just over that way to see the neighbors’ dog or the flock of parakeets that came around in the late afternoon, I just went overthatway, that’s all. They’d say: why? What for? What dog? At this hour? To see what about the dog, what parakeet? I’d respond: Over that way because they’re pretty. He’d blush saying the words over that way because they’re pretty. Later, he’d get furious, when they’d ask him about feelings."

A Modest Book Proposal From Pete Maynard, Author of M__y Dick

On literary mashups, double entendres, and questionable choices.

"Maybe you’ve heard of M__y Dick? I would bet you haven’t read it, and I bet I’d win that bet because I’d be leaving nothing up to chance. Here’s why: nobody has read M__y Dick. Scratch that. Nobody but me has read M__y Dick, because there’s only one copy in existence and it’s right here in my apartment, right here on this very desk I am writing to you from. That was the whole point. M__y Dick was just for me, for my own self-improvement. Of course, that didn’t stop them from talking about it, which was fine at first, and then it was not."

Eugenia Will Come Back To You Someday

A primer on services for the afterlife.

"So you’ll start by taking a ride in the flatbed truck with Gurtie, and she’ll drop you off at the ARF center. You’ll probably be pretty disoriented. It’s okay. You’ve been riding in the back of a white flatbed truck with a bunch of recently dead people for several hours through the Afterlife—which looks basically like North Dakota. None of you will be happy campers, and some of your traveling companions will look downright alarming, what with death not being such a photogenic moment for most people. We understand and we sympathize. It’s an unpleasant time for you, but like I said, we are understaffed. Do we wish there were a better way? Yes, we do. Is there a better way? Not yet, there’s not."

Sweat

An abusive, neglectful husband gets his comeuppance; Zora Neale Hurston's 123rd birthday.

"Delia’s work-worn knees crawled over the earth in Gethsemane and up the rocks of Calvary many, many times during these months. She avoided the villagers and meeting places in her efforts to be blind and deaf. But Bertha nullified this to a degree, by coming to Delia’s house to call Sykes out to her at the gate. Delia and Sykes fought all the time now with no peaceful interludes. They slept and ate in silence. Two or three times Delia had attempted a timid friendliness, but she was repulsed each time. It was plain that the breaches must remain agape."

Pizza World

A pizza restaurant employee goes to extreme lengths to sabotage a rival.

"I normally hopped on my Honda scooter and went straight home after work, but not that day. I stood by the gumball machine near the front entrance and peered out the blinds, staring daggers into the Pizza World facade. Their parking lot was full, even though the lunch rush had been over for two hours. I looked at the intersection and their guy was still dancing, waving his arms like a buffoon, no rhythm at all, nothing choreographed. I had a three-minute routine I would do and then repeat, over and over like a fucking pro (three different one-minute variations of the Macarena dance, choreographed by yours truly). Pizza World had clearly put a rookie in the suit, and I thought: that’s one strike against you."

Cursed Rain

A rural worker conjures up fantastical mythologies to hide his own troubled past.

"Several days after re-wiring the fence, Shuck asked Boss if he could take me to town for new tractor parts. Shuck drove Boss’s truck and smoked with the windows up, filling the cab with thick tendrils of burnt and cheap tobacco. He took the long way into town and told me that they gypsy had been the most beautiful girl to ever exist back in Spain. She had been the daughter of a rich soldier. But after some incident that Shuck wasn’t entirely sure of, she had joined with a vagabond group of gypsies, travelling the foothills of Spain, marking her new group’s travels by the patterns of stars and their gathered constellations. Shuck said that she had been the most beautiful girl to ever set foot on the entire European continent. But she grew old so quickly that soon her limbs began to tangle and go numb."

The Inker

An older brother attempts to break free from his wayward younger sister.

"And at once Avi knew it all—his sister was head over heels in love with him, the inker. Just as she had been head over heels in love with the recovering junkie stand-up comedian in the East Village, a guy whose entire routine centered around his days trading oral sex for heroin. Or the peach farmer named Karma, a man-boy who had wanted to marry her in spite of the fact that he was, well, already married."