A TRANQUIL STAR by PRIMO LEVI
Once upon a time, somewhere in the universe very far from here, lived a peaceful star, which moved peacefully in the immensity of the sky, surrounded by a crowd of peaceful planets about which we have not a thing to report. This star was very big and very hot, and its weight was enormous: and here a reporter’s difficulties begin. We have written “very far,” “big,” “hot,” “enormous”: Australia is very far, an elephant is big and a house is bigger, this morning I had a hot bath, Everest is enormous. It’s clear that something in our lexicon isn’t working.
GOOD PEOPLE by DAVID FOSTER WALLACE
They were up on a picnic table at that park by the lake, by the edge of the lake, with part of a downed tree in the shallows half hidden by the bank. Lane A. Dean, Jr., and his girlfriend, both in bluejeans and button-up shirts. They sat up on the table’s top portion and had their shoes on the bench part that people sat on to picnic or fellowship together in carefree times. They’d gone to different high schools but the same junior college, where they had met in campus ministries. It was springtime, and the park’s grass was very green and the air suffused with honeysuckle and lilacs both, which was almost too much.
CELL ONE by CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE
The first time our house was robbed, it was our neighbor Osita who climbed in through the dining-room window and stole our TV and VCR, and the “Purple Rain” and “Thriller” videotapes that my father had brought back from America. The second time our house was robbed, it was my brother Nnamabia, who faked a break-in and stole my mother’s jewelry. It happened on a Sunday.
HEIRS by AMOS OZ
The stranger was not a stranger. Something in his figure repelled but also intrigued Aryeh Zelnik at very first sight, if it was indeed first sight; it seemed to Aryeh Zelnik that he somehow remembered that face, those long arms, almost down to the knees. Remembered vaguely, as if from an entire lifetime ago.
BRAVADO by WILLIAM TREVOR
The leaves had begun to fall. All along Sunderland Avenue on the pavement beneath the beech trees there was a sprinkling, not yet the mushy inconvenience they would become when more fell and rain came, which inevitably would be soon. Not many people were about; it was after midnight, almost one o’clock, the widely spaced lampposts casting pools of misty, yellow illumination.
BEAR MEAT by PRIMO LEVI
Evenings spent in a mountain hut are among the most sublime and intense that life holds. I mean a real hut, the kind where you seek shelter after a four-, five-, or six-hour climb and where you find few so-called comforts.
ON CHESIL BEACH by IAN MCEWAN
They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. But it is never easy. They were sitting down to supper in a tiny room on the second floor of a Georgian inn in Dorset. In the next room, visible through the open door, was a fourposter bed, rather narrow, whose cover was pure white and stretched startlingly smooth, as though by no human hand. Edward did not mention that he had never stayed in a hotel before, whereas Florence, after many trips as a child with her father, was an old hand. Superficially, they were in fine spirits.
THE FIRST SENSE by NADINE GORDIMER
She has never felt any resentment that he became a musician and she didn’t. Could hardly call her amateur flute-playing a vocation. Envy? Only pride in the achievement that he was born for. She sits at a computer in a city-government office, earning, under pleasant enough conditions, a salary that has at least provided regularly for their basic needs, while his remuneration for the privilege of being a cellist in a symphony orchestra has been sometimes augmented by chamber-music engagements, sometimes not; in the summer, the off season for the orchestra, he is dependent on these performances on the side.
TANGO by THOMAS MCGUANE
L. Raymond Hoxey bought an old mansion in Livingston, Montana, and converted the third floor into a delightful apartment with views of several mountain ranges, including the Absarokas, the Bridgers, and the Crazies. The second floor kept his print collection in archival conditions, with humidifiers and air-quality equipment. The first floor was divided into two small, comfortable apartments, one of which housed his assistant, Tessa Larionov, and the other, in the summer, a textile historian, employed by the Metropolitan Museum in New York, who was also a trout fisherman.
A RIVER IN EGYPT by DAVID MEANS
The hot air in the sweat chamber—as the nurse had called it, ushering them in—was humidified to make it even more uncomfortable, and when he loosened his tie he was reminded that he was the type who felt it necessary to dress up for hospital visits, and for air flights, not so much because he had a residual primness left over from his Midwestern upbringing, which he did, but because he felt that he might receive more attentive service if he came dressed with a certain formality, so that the nurses and doctors tending his son might see him, Cavanaugh, as a big-shot banker instead of as an assistant art director who was known, if he was known at all, for his last-minute design fixes.
THE CONFIDENCE DECOY by ANN BEATTIE
Francis would be driving his Lexus back from Maine. His wife, Bernadine, had left early that morning, taking their cat, Simple Man, home to Connecticut with her. Their son, Sheldon, had promised to be home to help out when the moving truck arrived, but that was before he’d got a phone call from his girlfriend, saying that she would be flying into J.F.K. that afternoon. So he was gone—when was Sheldon not outta there?—though the moving men were perfectly capable of unloading furniture without anyone’s help. What had Bernadine imagined—that Sheldon would have ideas about decorating, about what should go where?
NIGHT TRAIN TO FRANKFURT by MARISA SILVER
They were going to boil Dorothy’s blood. Take it out, heat it, put it back in. The cancer would be gone. Well, that wasn’t exactly it. The treatment had a more formal-sounding name, thermosomethingorother, a word that was both trustworthy (because you recognized the prefix) and lofty, so that you didn’t really question it, knew you were too thick to really understand whatever explanation might be given you. “They’re going to boil my blood” is what it came down to, and this was what Dorothy had told her daughter, Helen, when she called her from New York.
GREENSLEEVES by HELEN SIMPSON
“Gardening!” the girl said, and tilted back in her chair the way she knew would get a reaction. “It’s like knitting, isn’t it.”
“Stop that, Lara,” her mother said. “You’ll break the chair.”
“A sign of middle age,” Lara continued. “Old age. It’s what old people do when there’s nothing left in their lives.”
PAPER LOSSES by LORRIE MOORE
Although Kit and Rafe had met in the peace movement, marching, organizing, making no-nukes signs, now they wanted to kill each other. They had become, also, a little pro-nuke. Married for two decades of precious, precious life, she and Rafe seemed currently to be partners only in anger and dislike, their old, lusty love mutated to rage. It was both their shame and demise that hate (like love) could not live on air. And so in this, their newly successful project together, they were complicitous and synergistic.
REPÚBLICA AND GRAU by DANIEL ALARCÓN
The blind man lived in a single room above a bodega, on a street not so far from Maico’s house. It was up a slight hill, as was everything in the neighborhood. There was nothing on the walls of the blind man’s room, nor was there anywhere to sit, and so Maico stood. He was ten years old. There was a single bed, a nightstand with a radio wrapped in duct tape, a washbasin. The blind man had graying hair and was much older than Maico’s father. The boy looked at his feet, and kicked together a small mound of dust on the cement floor while his father and the http://www.blogger.com/img/gl.italic.gifblind man spoke.
STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN by ALEKSANDAR HEMON
It was a perfect African night, straight out of Conrad: the air was pasty and still with humidity; the night smelled of burned flesh and fecundity; the darkness outside was spacious and uncarvable. I felt malarial, though it was probably just travel fatigue. I envisioned millions of millipedes gathering on the ceiling above my bed, a fleet of bats flapping ravenously in the trees below my window. But the most troubling thing was the ceaseless roll of drums: a sonorous, ponderous thudding that hovered around me. Whether it meant war, peace, or prayer, I couldn’t tell.
THE PHOTOGRAPH by RODDY DOYLE
Getting older wasn’t too bad. The baldness suited Martin. Everyone said it. He’d had to change his trouser size from 34 to 36. It had been a bit of a shock, but it was kind of nice wearing loose trousers again, hitching them up when he stood up to go to the jacks, or whatever. He was fooling himself; he knew that. But that was the point—he was fooling himself. He’d put on weight but he felt a bit thinner.
LANDFILL by JOYCE CAROL OATES
Tioga County landfill is where Hector, Jr., is found. Or his “remains”—battered and badly decomposed, his mouth filled with trash. He couldn’t have protested if he’d been alive, buried, as he was, in rubble and raw garbage. Overhead are shrieking birds; in the vast landfill, dump trucks and bulldozers and a search team from the Tioga County Sheriff’s Department in protective uniforms. For three weeks, Hector’s disappearance was in all the newspapers and on TV. Most of his teeth are broken at the roots, but those which remain are sufficient to identify Hector Campos, Jr., of Southfield, Michigan.
OTHER PEOPLE’S DEATHS by LORE SEGAL
The coroner’s men put James in the back of the truck and drove away, and the Bernstines, once again, urged Ilka to come home with them, at least for the night, or to let them take the baby. Again, Ilka was earnest in begging to be left right here, wanted the baby to stay here with her. No thank you, really, she did not need—did not want—anybody sleeping over.
FREIGHT by HENRY ROTH
In February of 1939, having failed to establish myself as a screenwriter in Hollywood, I decided to hitchhike back to New York, where my future wife waited. It was a bland California morning, pleasant and calm.
BLACK ICE by CATE KENNEDY
When I went up to check my traps, I saw that the porch lights at the lady’s place were still on, even though it was morning. “That’s an atrocious waste of power,” my dad said when I told him. His breath huffed in the air like he was smoking a cigar. The rabbit carcasses steamed when we ripped the skin off, and it came away like a glove.
KANSAS by ANTONYA NELSON
The girls left early, the two-year-old being driven to Montessori by her seventeen-year-old cousin. Three of their four parents lay in bed hungover; the fourth had risen unsteadily to fix breakfast, nauseated by her new pregnancy. Standing dazed at the stove, Anna had felt grateful to her niece, Kay-Kay, for her morning cheer, her willingness to dress little Cherry Sue, settle her in at the table, wash her face and hands—one of them bound in a bright-green cast—and then carry her off to school. Cherry Sue had been singing about babies, waving her bandaged fist like a maraca. She sang about everything these days, gesturing wildly, as if her life were a musical.
HOW WAS IT TO BE DEAD? by RICHARD FORD
The exact status of my marriage to Sally Caldwell requires, I believe, some amplification. It is still a marriage that’s officially going on, yet by any accounting has become strange—in fact, the strangest I know, and within whose unusual circumstances I myself have acted very strangely.
THE SPOT by DAVID MEANS
Jack Dunhill, a.k.a. Bone, a.k.a. the Bear, a.k.a. Stan Newhope, a.k.a. Winston Leonard, a.k.a. Michigan Pete, a.k.a. Bill Dempsey, a.k.a. Shank, said, Not those waves but that little pucker on the surface out there is where the Cleveland water supply is drawn in, right there, and if you were to dump enough poison on that spot you’d kill the entire city in one sweep. Believe me, I’ve thought it out.
BAD NEIGHBORS by EDWARD P. JONES
Even before the fracas with Terence Stagg, people along both sides of the 1400 block of Eighth Street NW could see the Benningtons for what they really were. First, the family moved in not on a Saturday or on a weekday but on a Sunday, which was still the Lord’s Day, even though church for many was now a place to visit only for a wedding or a funeral. Perhaps Easter or Christmas. And those watching that Sunday, from behind discreetly parted brocade curtains and from porches rarely used except to enter and leave homes, had to wonder why the Bennington family had even bothered to bring most of their furniture.
FIRST DEFEAT (1939) by ALBERTO MÉNDEZ
We now know that Captain Alegría chose his death blindly, without having met the ruthless gaze of the future which greets those who do not live by the rules. He chose to fade away discreetly, without fuss, and never raised his voice again after having made his way across the front line toward his disbelieving enemy, holding his hands in the air, but not so high as to seem imploring, and shouting repeatedly, “I have surrendered.”
FOLIE À DEUX by WILLIAM TREVOR
Aware of a presence close to him, Wilby glances up from the book he has just begun to read. The man standing there says nothing. He doesn’t smile. A dishcloth hangs from where it’s tucked into grubby apron strings knotted at the front, and Wilby assumes that the man is an envoy sent from the kitchen to apologize for the delay in the cooking of the fish he has ordered.
THE PHONE CALL by ALEKSANDR SOLZHENITSYN
The filigreed hands pointed to five minutes past four. The bronze of the clock was lustreless in the dying light of a December day. A tall window looked down on bustling Kuznetsky Most. Maintenance workers trudged doggedly to and fro, scraping up the fresh snow that was already caking and turning brown under the feet of pedestrians.
CARNIVAL, LAS TABLAS by CRISTINA HENRÍQUEZ
I enjoyed Carnival in the beginning. Back when I started going, I was like everyone else—that one weekend in February was all I looked forward to. But after going every year for the past eight years, since I was sixteen, and after going to Las Tablas, of all places, the bright and pulsing center of Carnival in Panama, after seeing thousands of people crammed into a few narrow streets and a town square, and being doused by water often enough that I slept in wet clothes, and being awakened by thumping tambourines, and dancing to the comparsas as they paraded down the streets alongside the elaborately attired queens, and baking in the sun, and feeding my flesh to the mosquitoes, and coming home four days later with my whole body sore, and realizing when someone asked if I’d had a good time at Carnival that I could hardly remember one thing that had happened the whole long weekend—after all of that, I’d had enough.
INNOCENCE by RUTH PRAWER JHABVALA
Dinesh never became a famous writer, but he did become a writer, and he published several novels. I translated one of these from the original Hindi into English and tried to get it published here, but I was told that the background was too unfamiliar to be of interest to an American audience. Of course, it was very familiar to me; I had actually lived in New Delhi and was not only a witness to the principal events but a part of them.
ACCIDENT BRIEF by KAREN RUSSELL
“Hooey,” Mr. Oamaru says, working his fork with silly urgency. A single pea is caught between his square front teeth. “That boy Rangi can sing. The boy just needs a friend is all. You be that, Tek. You be that friend.”
MY PARENTS’ BEDROOM by UWEM AKPAN
I’m nine years and seven months old. I’m at home playing peekaboo in my room with my little brother, Jean. It’s Saturday evening and the sun has fallen behind the hills. There’s silence outside our bungalow, but from time to time the evening wind carries a shout to us. Our parents have kept us indoors since yesterday.
DIMENSION by ALICE MUNRO
Doree had to take three buses—one to Kincardine, where she waited for one to London, where she waited again, for the city bus out to the facility. She started the trip on a Sunday at nine in the morning. Because of the waiting times between buses, it took her until about two in the afternoon to travel the hundred-odd miles. All that sitting, either on buses or in the depots, was not a thing she should have minded. Her daily work was not of the sitting-down kind.
GOD THE NOVELIST by HENRY ROTH
The Home Relief investigator called on Thursday: a dark-complexioned, middle-aged woman, Jewish, wearing glasses. As soon as she entered my room, having climbed three flights of stairs to get there, she made for a chair and, panting, ensconced herself. She asked me about my writing—information she had evidently obtained from my Home Relief dossier. Was I close to completing anything I could sell? According to statements made when I first applied, I had said I expected to sell my first short story by June of 1939. It was now May, she pointed out. I was in a psychological jam, I explained, and that was one of the reasons I had moved uptown: to be near my agent—to consult with her. “I don’t like this room,” I said. “It’s small and without ventilation. I’d like to move if I could find a better one.”
CINDERELLA SCHOOL by LARA VAPNYAR
The ad read, “CINDERELLA SCHOOL. Learn English to find your dream. Fast, affordable, flexible hours.” And, in smaller letters, “Russian-speaking English teacher wanted. English teacher’s diploma required.” I found it in Our Brooklyn, the thickest and the trashiest of all the Russian newspapers. I scrambled out of bed, dug up my diploma from the Moscow State Pedagogical University, and, without giving it much thought, carefully printed “and English” next to the words certifying that I could teach Russian language and literature.
ADINA, ASTRID, CHIPEWEE, JASMINE by MATTHEW KLAM
Saturday night Julia sat staring at a candle. It was after eight. She needed to eat. She hadn’t felt tired yet. She’d had a perfect pregnancy—no rashes, no fat feet, working full time, doing it all. A cartoonist couldn’t have drawn a more adorable creature: rosy cheeks, pudgy nose, lime-green pregnancy pants drawn up over her stomach, white maternity smock.
ONCE IN A LIFETIME by JHUMPA LAHIRI
I had seen you before, too many times to count, but a farewell that my family threw for yours, at our house in Inman Square, is when I begin to recall your presence in my life. Your parents had decided to leave Cambridge, not for Atlanta or Arizona, as some other Bengalis had, but to move all the way back to India, abandoning the struggle that my parents and their friends had embarked upon. It was 1974. I was six years old. You were nine.
AN AFTERNOON by WILLIAM TREVOR
Someone had left a comic paper on the seat near where he sat and he read the strips while he waited. All the way to the bus station he had hurried because he liked being early for things. He liked to take his time, to settle himself, and he did so now. He knew she’d come.
THE TROJAN SOFA by BERNARD MACLAVERTY
It’s dark—pitch black—and everything’s shaking and bumping. I’m not scared—just have some what-if knots in my gut. What if they have a dog? That would be me—well and truly. Or a burglar alarm, with laser beams, like they have in the movies. And when you walk through the beam, which you can’t see, the alarm goes off in the nearest cop shop. But my Da would’ve asked all these questions when he was selling. My Da sells anything and everything, bric-a-brac, furniture, you name it. He sells all over the place—fairs, car-boot sales, a stall in the Markets—but quality stuff, or as much of it as he can get. He’s good, friendly, knows what he’s doing.
IN THE REIGN OF HARAD IV by STEVEN MILLHAUSER
In the reign of Harad IV there lived at court a maker of miniatures, who was celebrated for the uncanny perfection of his work. Not only were the objects of his strenuous art pleasing to look at but the pleasure and astonishment increased as the observer, bending closer, saw that a passionate care had been lavished on the smallest and least visible details. It was said that no matter how closely you examined one of the Master’s little pieces you always discovered some further wonder.
A BETTER ANGEL by CHRIS ADRIAN
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” she told me the first time we met. Six years old, I was digging under a log, looking for worms. This was back when my father still had all his property, and I could walk for the whole afternoon without leaving his orange groves. I spent a lot of time amusing myself that way, making up games, inventing friends to play with, since I really had none of my own, or looking for buried treasure. My sisters were all much older and hated to have me underfoot, so they’d draw fake maps, age them by beating them in the sand with a baseball bat and burning them around the edges, then send me off on quests. I fell for this sort of thing for years.
GLEASON by LOUISE ERDRICH
John Stregg opened his front door wide and there was Gleason, his girlfriend Jade’s little brother. The boy stood, frail and skinny, in the snow with a sad look on his face and a gun in his hand. As the president of the New Otto Bank, of New Otto, North Dakota, Stregg had trained his employees to stay relaxed in situations like this. Small-town banks were vulnerable, and Stregg had actually been held up twice. One of the robbers had even been a methamphetamine addict. He did not flinch now.
THE TRENCH by ERRI DE LUCA
When I found the sewage pipe I was happy, but I couldn’t smile. Too many days of danger had hardened my nerves. With the pick, I made a hole in the top part of the drain, and inhaled the stink like the perfume of victory. I hadn’t gone crazy; on the contrary, I’d been saved.
THE BONE GAME by CHARLES D’AMBROSIO
They’d only taken a simple wrong turn somewhere—taken a wrong exit off the freeway, then got caught downtown in the maze of Seattle’s one-way streets—but to D’Angelo it was as if they’d travelled back in time to the nineteenth century. He looked out the Cadillac’s tinted window and saw, through a haze of watery green, a few Chinese men in loose slacks, old coolie stock, it seemed to him, struggling up the steep hill, stooped over as if shouldering the weight of a maul. “Look at those Chinks,” he said. “I bet they laid some track in their day.” Kype finally found the street he wanted and steered the car north through Pioneer Square.
MY FATHER’S TEARS by JOHN UPDIKE
Come to think of it, I saw my father cry only once. It was at the Alton train station, back when the trains still ran. I was on my way to Philadelphia to catch the train that would return me to Boston and college. I was eager to go, for already my home and my parents had become somewhat unreal to me, and college, with its courses and the hopes for my future they inspired and the girlfriend I had acquired in my sophomore year, had become more real every semester; it shocked me—threw me off track, as it were—to see that my father’s eyes, as he shook my hand goodbye, glittered with tears.
THE DEPOSITION by TOBIAS WOLFF
The witness was playing hard to get. Statements he had made earlier to his girlfriend, another nurse, statements crucial to Burke’s case, the witness now declined to repeat under oath. He claimed not to remember just what he had said, or even to recall clearly the episode in question: an instance of surgical haste and sloppiness amounting to malpractice. As the result of a routine procedure—removal of a ganglion cyst—outrageously, indefensibly botched, Burke’s client had lost the fine motor functions of her left hand. She’d worked the reservations desk at a car-rental office; what was to become of a fifty-eight-year-old booking agent who could no longer use a keyboard?
SUNDOWNERS by MONICA ALI
The Potts girl walked into the café preceded by her reputation so that everyone was obliged to stare. Even Stanton, who had been in Mamarrosa for less than a month, looked her over once more than was strictly necessary. Vasco, stuffed behind the grand Formica counter, served her with pineapple Sumol and unsmiling vigilance. The girl sat on the edge of the pool table, swinging her legs and examining her navel stud. Her hair fell forward, revealing an ugly brown hearing aid, and Stanton averted his eyes.
THREE DAYS by SAMANTHA HUNT
It’s starting to get dark. Beatrice walks along the highway from the bus depot up to her family’s house. She avoids the roadway by walking just outside the guardrail in the long, dry grass that’s been matted down by road salt and rain, strewn with trash and the surprisingly bloated body of a dead raccoon. Beatrice imagines that every car and truck passing holds someone she once knew in high school. Inside their cars they are shaking their heads and asking, “Is that Beatrice? What the hell is she doing with a bloated raccoon carcass?”
THE CRYPTOZOOLOGIST by TONY EARLEY
Fieldin was under round-the-clock hospice care, and the jagged, liquid rasp of his breathing made it almost impossible for Rose to think about anything other than his vain search for oxygen. Unable to sleep, she put on his old down jacket and stepped onto the back porch, closing the door quietly behind her. It was about two-thirty in the morning, the world silvered with frost. The orchard glittered in the harsh light of a near-full moon. The gnarled old apple trees seemed on the verge of movement, as if she had caught them marching in formation toward App Mountain, whose black shoulders sloped suddenly upward just beyond the last row of trees.
THE ALBANIAN WRITERS’ UNION AS MIRRORED BY A WOMAN
by ISMAIL KADARE
To compare the Albanian Writers’ Union to a whore seems extremely vulgar, like so many overused metaphors, particularly the ones that have become common since the fall of Communism. Yet my plan to put together an accurate history of the Union (or, at least, its history from 1962 to 1967) has always awakened in me the vision of a certain woman named Marguerite. I am unable to dissociate one from the other; they are bound together like a fragrance to an almost forgotten memory.
TWENTY GRAND by REBECCA CURTIS
On December 13, 1979, when my mother was thirty years old, she lost an old Armenian coin. That winter was cold, and she had been sleeping with my sister and me on a foldout couch in the living room to save on heat. We lived on a cleared ledge, a natural shelf, on a mountain high above a lake. The wind on the shelf was amazing. At night it leaped up to the blinking red light at the tip of the peak behind our house, then skidded back down across the pines and whistled past our windows, somehow inserting, through tiny cracks between the window and the frame, snow that piled, sloped and sparkling, on the sills.
LA CONCHITA by T. CORAGHESSAN BOYLE
In my business, where you put something like forty to forty-five thousand miles a year on your vehicle and the sweet suck of the engine at 3500 r.p.m. is like another kind of breathing, you can’t afford distractions. Can’t afford to get tired or lazy or lift your eyes from the road to appreciate the way the fog reshapes the palms on Ocean Avenue or the light slips down the flanks of the mountains on that mind-blowing stretch of Highway 1 between Malibu and Oxnard. Get distracted and you could wind up meat. I know that. The truckers know that. But just about everybody else—Honda drivers, especially, and I’m sorry—they don’t even know they’re behind the wheel and conscious half the time.
WENLOCK EDGE by ALICE MUNRO
My mother had a bachelor cousin a good deal younger than her, who used to visit us on the farm every summer. He brought along his mother, Aunt Nell Botts. His own name was Ernie Botts. He was a tall, florid man with a good-natured expression, a big square face, and fair curly hair springing straight up from his forehead. His hands, his fingernails were as clean as soap itself; his hips were a little plump. My name for him—when he was not around—was Earnest Bottom. I had a mean tongue.
LOVE AND OBSTACLES by ALEKSANDAR HEMON
Before I opened my eyes, I listened: above the sound wall of the clattering train, I heard two male voices. One of them was deep and spoke with a southern Serbian accent; the other was mumbly and uttered words with the slurry inflections of a Sarajevo thug—the soft consonants further softened, the vowels stuck in the gullet. I wasn’t sure what they were talking about, but there was the gurgling sound of liquid in a bottleneck, the crackling of a burning cigarette.
THE BEST YEAR OF MY LIFE by PAUL THEROUX
I got the appalling news as the whole family watched, all of them chewing and gabbling at the kitchen table, near where the phone hung on the wall. It was a few days before Christmas, so everyone was at home, all six of my siblings, the entire cast assembled at the footlights for this—not tragedy, since tragedy seldom visits the young—this cruel farce. I had just turned nineteen.
THE GOD OF WAR by MARISA SILVER
Ares couldn’t help himself. He’d be standing in the circle, waiting for big Ernesto and the opposing oversized twelve-year-old center to fight it out for the jump ball, and he’d find himself yelling, “Irritation!” or “Horrible lack of judgment!,” and the boy’s hand would reach into the air a millisecond too late, by which time Ernesto would have slapped the ball halfway down the court with his big paw. Or, when the teams were lined up for a free throw, Ares would repeat the word “shame” in a low hiss until it sounded as though the nearby Salton Sea had broken its bounds and was roaring beneath the basketball court.
THE CHILDREN by WILLIAM TREVOR
“We must go now,” Connie’s father said, and Connie didn’t say anything. The two men stood with their shovels, hesitating. Everyone else, including Mr. Crozier, who had conducted the funeral service, had gone from the graveside. Cars were being started or were already being eased out of where they were parked, close to the church wall on the narrow road. “We have to go, Connie,” her father said.
PATH LIGHTS by TOM DRURY
One day, a bottle almost hits us. It’s a brown quart bottle that falls out of the sky. We are in the arroyo, the dogs and me, walking. They look at the bottle; they look at me. My first guess is that somebody threw it down from the rim of the arroyo. But then it would have bounced down the slope—it wouldn’t have stopped dead like this.
EARLY MUSIC by JEFFREY EUGENIDES
As soon as he came in the front door, Rodney went straight to the music room. That was what he called it, wryly but not without some hope: the music room. It was a small, dogleg-shaped fourth bedroom that had been created when the building was cut up into apartments. It qualified as a music room because it contained his clavichord.
COMPANION by SANA KRASIKOV
Since she’d arrived in America and got divorced, Ilona Siegal had been set up three times. The first man was not an ordinary man but a Ph.D. from Moscow, the friend who’d arranged the date said. When Ilona opened her door, she’d found the Ph.D. standing on her front steps in a pair of paper-sheer yellow jogging shorts. He was thin, in the famished way of grazing animals and endurance athletes, with folds of skin around his kneecaps and wiry rabbit muscles braiding into his inner thighs.
COWBOY by THOMAS McGUANE
The old fella makes me go into the house in my stocking feet. The old lady’s in a big chair next to the window. In fact, the whole room is full of big chairs, but she’s only in one of them—though, big as she is, she could fill up several. The old man says, “I found this one in the loose-horse pen at the sale yard.”
COPING STONES by ANN BEATTIE
Cahill—Dr. Cahill to those who knew him in his small town in Maine—had decided that his screened porch should be relocated. Wouldn’t it be better to winterize the current porch, adding a door at the far end which would lead to a new, smaller porch, perpendicular to the original? That way, he could walk out of the kitchen in the winter with his cup of freshly brewed coffee and his vitamin drink (those mornings when he went to the trouble to make it) and enjoy the late-blooming flowers on an enclosed, heated porch. In the summer, he could set up a makeshift desk—probably just the card table—and not have to worry that rain would ruin his paperwork.
CLUB DES AMIS by TONY D’SOUZA
Wu’s story was simple: he’d come to West Africa from Shanghai in search of a better life. Throughout the nineteen-nineties, a number of Chinese herbalists had established themselves in the major and minor cities of Ivory Coast; Wu’s cousin was one of these, and he’d urged Wu to join him. Wu chose Séguéla, a dusty Muslim town in the north of the country, and spent his first few months there taking lessons in the rudiments of West African French and shelling out piles of his cousin’s CFA francs to entertain the city’s functionaries in the bars. Then he hung his shingle in the marketplace, and the patients began to come.
THE VIEW FROM CASTLE ROCK by ALICE MUNRO
On a visit to Edinburgh with his father when he is nine or ten years old, Andrew finds himself climbing the damp, uneven stone steps of the Castle. His father is in front of him, some other men behind—it’s a wonder how many friends his father has found, standing in cubbyholes where there are bottles set on planks, in the High Street—until at last they crawl out on a shelf of rock, from which the land falls steeply away. It has just stopped raining, the sun is shining on a silvery stretch of water far ahead of them, and beyond that is a pale green and grayish-blue land, a land as light as mist, sucked into the sky.
THICKER THAN WATER by GINA OCHSNER
In the spring of 1988, Vasya Brkic, waking from a dream in which she was a wolf, bit her husband's neck and killed him in the bed they shared. The following spring, Marti Cosic, a saxophonist in a klezmer band, went crazy and killed his fellow band members-all seven of them-then beat himself to death with his saxophone. One year later, after swimming naked in the newly thawed River Daugava, Semyon Iossel, an unemployed engineer, built a flying machine and died after falling from a great height. His grieving widow distracted herself for a year by giving lectures on the dangers of gravity, then succumbed to a mysterious urge to throw herself in front of the Riga-Tallinn train and was pulped on the tracks.
COMMCOMM by GEORGE SAUNDERS
Tuesday morning, Jillian from Disasters calls. Apparently an airman named Loolerton has poisoned a shitload of beavers. I say we don’t kill beavers, we harvest them, because otherwise they nibble through our Pollution Control Devices (P.C.D.s) and polluted water flows out of our Retention Area and into the Eisenhower Memorial Wetland, killing beavers.
AWAITING ORDERS by TOBIAS WOLFF
Sergeant Morse was pulling night duty in the orderly room when a woman called, asking for Billy Hart. He told her that Specialist Hart had shipped out for Iraq a week earlier. She said, “Billy Hart? You sure? He never said a word about shipping out.”
LONG-DISTANCE CLIENT by ALLEGRA GOODMAN
He was at work when it began. We offer a choice of two plans,” Mel told the new programmer on the phone. On the desk, his computer beamed at him, along with Sam and Annie, in their school pictures, his grown son and daughter fixed in first- and third-grade amber. The office was relatively quiet, the open-plan space still cavernous, although Mel was drawing up contracts and issuing I.D.s as fast as he could.
ASHES by CRISTINA HENRÍQUEZ
I’m at work on Saturday when I get the call. Carina, from the front counter, pages me over the intercom and when I finally get to the phone it’s my older brother, Jano, telling me I might want to sit down because he has upsetting news.
HAUNTING OLIVIA by KAREN RUSSELL
My brother Wallow has been kicking around Gannon’s Boat Graveyard for more than an hour, too embarrassed to admit that he doesn’t see any ghosts. Instead, he slaps at the ocean with jilted fury. Curse words come piping out of his snorkel. He keeps pausing to readjust the diabolical goggles.
A MOUTHFUL OF CUT GLASS by TESSA HADLEY
The house where Neil was born, in 1952, had been at the center of Birmingham, in a Victorian slum that was knocked down a few years later. Nobody lived there now; there were only roads and office blocks, and the people who’d lived in the slums had been moved out to the new estates that ringed the city. Neil told Sheila that the house he was born in had had a crack in the outside wall that let the rain and wind through, so that for the years he lived there he and his sister had had to sleep in his mum and dad’s room, because they couldn’t use the bedroom upstairs. His sister had slept in a cot until she was six; he had slept in the bed with his parents.
THE RUSSIAN RIVIERA by DAVID BEZMOZGIS
"Some businessmen” was how Skinny Zyama had described the two gangsters from New Jersey.
“You want me there for a meeting with businessmen?” Kostya had asked.
“You have other plans on a Wednesday afternoon?”
“Wear a jacket,” Zyama had said.
TWO’S COMPANY by JONATHAN FRANZEN
And then the perfect couple, Pam and Paul, who first hooked up in college, co-writing operettas and co-founding a cabaret, went on to amaze their classmates by marrying in Reno six months before they even graduated, and finally, at a combined age of forty-three, set up shop in California as a comedy-writing duo. They were still only twenty-seven when NBC picked up their pilot for a series about suburban teen-agers with funny yesteryear hair styles and funny yesteryear teen difficulties. Every Wednesday night, for the next five seasons, tens of millions of smiling Americans watched the heart icon in the show’s closing credit (“a pamela burger ♥ paul mather creation”) twinkle once to the sound of a little chime.
THE ROOM by WILLIAM TREVOR
"Do you know why you are doing this?” he asked, and Katherine hesitated, then shook her head, although she did know. Nine years had almost healed a soreness, each day made a little easier, until the balm of work was taken from her and in her scratchy idleness the healing ceased. She was here because of that, there was no other reason she could think of, but she didn’t say it.
ALONG THE HIGHWAYS by NICK ARVIN
The two people inside the convertible—the combination of the two of them together—had the appearance of an illusion. Graham switched lanes to follow them through a left turn. The top was down, and he watched the mouth of the driver, Doug, open and close, and watched the passenger, Lindsey, nod and laugh. The wind fidgeted with her hair, and her gaze lingered on Doug’s opening and closing face with warm, inexplicable intimacy. For the first several miles, Graham pursued them through the crowded, car-clogged suburbs of Detroit only to corroborate what he was seeing, to verify his sanity.
THE ORLOV-SOKOLOVS by LUDMILA ULITSKAYA
At first glance, they didn’t make much of an impression. Both seemed rather small, they weren’t particularly striking, and they were so taken with each other that they had no time for the rest of the world. A second glance, however, told you that they were kingpins, and after that it was impossible to recall the impression they had made at first. Nobody at the university could remember a time when they were not an item. They had met while taking the entrance exam, and even before the results went up, the two of them had hightailed it to his dacha. They returned five days later, on July 21st, the day the enrollment list was posted, and went straight to the dreaded bulletin board, which left all but three students trembling with fear. One of the three was Tonya Kolosova, an uninspired swot and, as they subsequently learned, the dean’s niece. They—Andrey Orlov and Tanya Sokolova—were the other two.
MALLAM SILE by MOHAMMED NASEEHU ALI
He was popularly known as mai tea, or the tea seller. His shop was situated right in the navel of Zongo Street—a stone’s throw from the chief’s assembly shed and adjacent to the kiosk where Mansa BBC, the town gossip, sold her provisions. Along with fried eggs and white butter bread, Mallam Sile carried all kinds of beverages: regular black tea, Japanese green tea, Milo, Bournvita, cocoa drink, instant coffee. But on Zongo Street all hot beverages were referred to just as tea, and it was common, therefore, to hear people say, “Mallam Sile, may I have a mug of cocoa tea?” or “Sile, may I have a cup of coffee tea?”
SOLACE by DONALD ANTRIM
They were children of parents who’d acted grotesquely, some might say violently, toward them, even when they were fairly little, and when, in their early thirties, they met and began sharing confidences, their discovery of this common ground—for that was how she thought of it—seemed to her a great, welcome solace. At last! she thought more than once during the weeks and months after they’d started going to bed together—always at friends’ places, because they were both in transitional periods and didn’t have anywhere comfortably private; she was saving money by sleeping on a foldout sofa in the living room of a one-bedroom apartment in the East Twenties that she shared with her friend Susan, while he, also recently forced to cut expenses, was installed uptown in a rented room in the apartment of an older, intimidating former co-worker, also named Susan. At last! Jennifer said to herself many times before falling asleep after sex in some friend’s or friend of a friend’s freshly changed bed. Then she would squeeze his hand.
A SECRET STATION by DAVID GATES
At a decent interval after his seventy-first birthday, Martine sat him down: she was leaving him, moving to New York. To be with a man he presumed she’d met at that conference—last fall, had it been?—from which she’d returned two days late, after supposedly seeing friends and taking in the new production of “Così” at the Met. She would come up a couple of days a week to teach the rest of her classes, then figure out what was next. She would ask for nothing in their settlement. Well, no blame to her: if she lived to be ninety, as more and more people were doing, she had half her life ahead of her. She said, “The one thing I swore not to do, I swore not to be trite and ask you to understand.” Oh? Had she not also sworn to forsake all others? But he couldn’t very well get on his high horse about that.
MEN OF IRELAND by WILLIAM TREVOR
The man came jauntily, the first of the foot passengers. Involuntarily he sniffed the air. My God! he said, not saying it aloud. My God, you can smell it, all right. He hadn’t been in Ireland for twenty-three years.
DELLA by ANNE ENRIGHT
Della thought again about the stream, which was black and broad, and about the naked boys who played on its sloping banks, all very white. One of them reached toward the water with a stick, but the stick did not touch the water. She could see him leaning sideways off the steep bank. There was a scrubby tree leaning in from the other bank, and the leaves were small and grayish against the black water.
THE GORGE by UMBERTO ECO
My memory is proglottidean, like the tapeworm, but unlike the tapeworm it has no head, it wanders in a maze, and any point may be the beginning or the end of its journey. I must wait for the memories to come of their own accord, following their own logic. That is how it is in the fog. In the sunlight, you see things from a distance and you can change directions purposefully in order to meet up with something particular. In the fog, something or someone approaches you, but you do not know what or who until it is near.
THE CONDUCTOR by ALEKSANDAR HEMON
In the 1989 “Anthology of Contemporary Bosnian Poetry,” Muhamed D. was represented with four poems. My copy of the anthology disappeared during the war, and I can’t recall the titles of the poems, but I do remember the subjects: one of them had all the minarets of Sarajevo lighting up simultaneously at sunset on a Ramadan day; another showed the deaf Beethoven conducting his Ninth Symphony, unaware of the audience’s ovations until the contralto touched his shoulder and turned him around. I was in my mid-twenties when the book came out, and compulsively writing poetry every day. I bought the anthology to see where I would fit into the pleiad of Bosnian poets. I found Muhamed D.’s poems silly and fake; his use of Beethoven struck me as pretentious and his mysticism alien to my own rock-and-roll affectations. But, in one of the few reviews the anthology received, the critic raved, in syntax tortured on the rack of platitudes, about the range of Muhamed D.’s poetic skills and the courage he had shown by shedding the primitive Bosnian tradition for more modern forms. “Not only is Muhamed D. the greatest living Bosnian poet,” the reviewer said, “he is the only one who is truly alive.”
UP NORTH by CHARLES D’AMBROSIO
We angled our heads back and opened our mouths like fledgling birds. Smoke gave the cool air a faintly burned flavor, an aftertaste of ash. A single flake lit on my wife’s eyelash, a stellar crystal, cold and intricate. I blew a warm breath over her face, melting the snow.
THE ROADS OF HOME by JOHN UPDIKE
In his rented beige Nissan, in a soft but steady November rain, David Kern exited from the Pennsylvania Turnpike at a new toll booth and was shot into an alien, majestic swirl of overpass and underpass. For some alarming seconds, he had no idea where he was; the little village of Morgan’s Forge—an inn, a church, a feed store—which should have been on his left, had vanished behind a garish stretch of national franchises and retail outlets. The southern half of the county, a woodsy stretch of rural backwardness when, soon after the Second World War, his family, at his mother’s instigation, had bought back the family farm, was now a haven for Philadelphians, who were snapping up the old stone farmhouses for weekend retreats. There were even, he had been told, daily commuters—more than an hour each way, but for them it was somehow worth it. For his part, fifty years ago, Kern couldn’t get out of the region fast enough.
ICE by THOMAS McGUANE
The drum major lived a short distance from my house and could sometimes be seen sitting pensively on his porch wearing his shako—a tall truncated cone of white simulated fur, with a strap that cut across his chin—while folding the Free Press for his paper route. I was reluctant even to wave to him, since this was a time in my life when my greatest worry—originating I have no idea where—was that I was a hopeless coward. Although we saw each other nearly every day at school, the greetings I had offered the drum major in the past had fallen on deaf ears, and I had long since given up on the idea of getting any sort of response from him at all. I did the route for the News, a competitor of the Free Press, so it wasn’t surprising that the drum major and I didn’t speak. But after he scored 156 on a school-administered I.Q. test, and then, one September day, single-handedly captured an awol sailor by boldly shouting, “Halt!,” and escorting him to the brig at the nearby base, I began to study him in a fixed and admiring way. I imagined that he might somehow hold the key to escaping my cowardice.
THE JUNIPER TREE by LORRIE MOORE
The night Robin Ross was dying in the hospital, I was waiting for a man to come pick me up—a man she had once dated, months before I began to—and he was late and I was wondering whether his going to see her with me was even wise. Perhaps I should go alone. Our colleague ZJ had called that morning and said, “Things are bad. When she leaves the hospital, she’s not going home.”
READING LESSONS by EDWIDGE DANTICAT
The first time Danielle remembers ever being aware of her breasts was when she was thirteen and her mother told her to rub crushed butterflies on them to make them grow. Not already dead butterflies but live ones, plucked from flower petals by her own hands. Saturns were preferable because it was easy to tell the pale females, which she needed, from the darker males, which she did not. Swallowtails and other species with black spots were considered unlucky. And she was not, no matter what, to mistake a thick-antennaed moth for a butterfly, for if she rubbed a poisonous moth on her dot of a nipple not only would she get a rash but she wouldn’t see another centimetre of growth for the rest of her life.
ADAM ROBINSON by EDWARD P. JONES
After the cab turned off East Capitol onto Eighth Street, Noah Robinson saw further evidence that trees were disappearing from Washington. Where were all the oaks and maples and birches, even the odd pear, apple, or peach tree, that had been there in the time when he did not yet know himself and the city seemed always as green as his grandparents’ idea of Heaven? Even when he had become responsible for a wife and children, the trees had still been there, reminding him year after hard year how far he had to go and how far he had come. Now the landscape of the city, high and low, seemed barren, no grand trees for children playing hide-and-go-seek, no spreading refuge for old people out in the fire of summer. Why had he not noticed the death of the trees before, at age forty, at fifty-five, at sixty? When he was seven and his family first arrived in Washington, he’d had a teacher at Stevens Elementary School who taught her students about the trees of the city. Mrs. Waters hung her eyeglasses on a pink string around her neck and told them how lucky they were to have trees in Washington. The boy loved the teacher and he loved learning about trees, and he loved the way the trees told him through the teacher’s words that he, pining for South Carolina, might yet be happy in this new world.
DISASTER STAMPS OF PLUTO by LOUISE ERDRICH
The dead of Pluto now outnumber the living, and the cemetery stretches up the low hill east of town in a jagged display of white stone. There is no bar, no theatre, no hardware store, no creamery or car repair, just a gas pump. Even the priest comes to the church only once a month. The grass is barely mowed in time for his visit, and of course there are no flowers planted. But when the priest does come, there is at least one more person for the town café to feed.
FOREIGNERS by ANDREW O’HAGAN
Aunt Jessie made a special effort to mispronounce our names, just to stress her hatred of my mother. She liked to sit for hours in the kitchen smoking those terrible Woodbines, chewing the air between puffs as if appraising the air’s goodness to breathe. It was all part of some ceremony of impatience, at the end of which she would open her mouth to free a volume of smoke, followed by whatever unkind words had been brewing in her head all day. “They have no business naming you all after precious stones, or exotic flowers, or birds from foreign places with giant beaks. I don’t mind telling you: it’s a piece of nonsense. They must think the rest of us were born in a sack of potatoes. Sean’s a good enough name for a person, or Bridget, or else Fergus, like your Uncle Fergus.”
THE JOKE by RODDY DOYLE
If he went now, he’d never come back. He’d go and she wouldn’t know, or care. He’d come back and the same thing: she wouldn’t care. So what was the point? He wasn’t going anywhere.
And that made it worse. And made him more annoyed. And angry. And stupid.
MY HEART IS A SNAKE FARM by ALLAN GURGANUS
I had a snake farm in Florida. Well, Buck really owned it, but I believe I’m still Board Chairlady. Almost overnight, he hand-sculpted a one-stop two-hundred-reptile exhibit right across the road from me here. At first it was very clean. It drew lively crowds from the day it opened: December 24, 1959.
TRIUMPH OF THE SOUTHSIDE LADYJACKS
by JAMES ELLIS THOMAS
"Get up there, ball!” They used to be called the Southside Ladybashers, but Brenda Summers had effectively argued that a softball team full of black women from the Acacia Heights housing projects could do without the unflattering connotations of the name “Ladybashers.”
BREAKUP STORIES by JONATHAN FRANZEN
Our friend Danni’s young husband had been intending, since before he was her husband, to talk about his feelings about having children, but because these feelings consisted mainly of reluctance and aversion, and because Danni, who was a few years older than he, was unmistakably determined to have a family, this conversation promised to be so unhappy that the young husband still hadn’t managed to begin it by the time Danni reached a career plateau and announced that she was ready. The young husband told her that he needed to go to Burlington, Vermont. He said he needed to replenish his store of antique lumber for his custom-renovation business. From Burlington he called Danni every few days, sounding worried about her emotional state, but it was not until Danni received a card from the postal service, confirming the young husband’s change of address, that she understood that he wasn’t coming back.
MEMOIRS OF A MUSE by LARA VAPNYAR
As a child, I used to think that Dostoyevsky’s second wife, Anna Grigorievna, was his muse. I knew her story before I knew anything else about Dostoyevsky, before I’d even read any of his books.
OLD FRIENDS by THOMAS MCGUANE
John Briggs was made aware of the fact that some sort of problem existed for his friend and former schoolmate Erik Faucher by the sheer accident of a request for information from their former class secretary, Everett Hoyt, who in the thirty years since they’d graduated from Yale had hardly set foot out of New Haven. With ancestors buried at the old Center Church, in spitting distance of both the regicide Dixwell and Benedict Arnold’s wife, Hoyt was paralyzed by a sense of generational permanence. People said that if he hadn’t got into Yale he wouldn’t have gone to college at all but would have remained at home, waiting to bury his parents. Now, in place of any real social life, he edited the alumni newsletter, often accompanying his requests for official items with small indiscretions. (He called these tidbits, which he delivered with a certain giddiness, “Entre News”; they generally concerned marital failures or business malfeasances, and they almost never made it into the alumni letter.)
THE ALPINE SLIDE by REBECCA CURTIS
The first summer I was old enough to work, Jacques Michaud opened the alpine slide. The slide was ten miles from the lake, in the mountains. Over the years, various businessmen had leased it for a summer or two and failed to make it a success. But Jacques Michaud was from Canada, and maybe he thought that made a difference. Or maybe he hadn’t heard or believed the stories of previous failures, or maybe he thought the economy had changed. At least that was what he said when he hired us, and the economists were saying it, too.
THE SCHEME OF THINGS by CHARLES D’AMBROSIO
Lance vanished behind the white door of the men’s room and when he came out a few minutes later he was utterly changed. Gone was the tangled nest of thinning black hair, gone was the shadow of beard, gone, too, was the grime on his hands, the crescents of black beneath his blunt, chewed nails. Shaving had sharpened the lines of his jaw and revealed the face of a younger man. His shirt was tucked neatly into his trousers and buttoned up to his throat. He looked as clean and bland as an evangelist. He bowed to Kirsten with a stagy sweep of his hand and entered the gas station. All business, he returned immediately with the attendant in tow, a kid of sixteen, seventeen.
THE DRESSMAKER’S CHILD by WILLIAM TREVOR
Cahal sprayed WD-40 on to the only bolt his spanner wouldn’t shift. All the others had come out easily enough but this one was rusted in, the exhaust unit trailing from it. He had tried to hammer it out, he had tried wrenching the exhaust unit this way and that in the hope that something would give, but nothing had. Half five, he’d told Heslin, and the bloody car wouldn’t be ready.
HANWELL IN HELL by ZADIE SMITH
I am looking to enter into correspondence with anyone who remembers my father, Mr. —— Hanwell, who was living in the central Bristol area between 1970 and 1973. Any details at all will be gratefully received by daughter trying to piece together the jigsaw. Please write back to P.O. Box 187.
I spent just one night with your father, in Bristol, thirty-four years ago. He was down on his luck at the time, as was I. We had both suffered dramatic reversals of fortune and recognized immediately that we had failure in common—a rare example of masculine intuition. Each sniffed out the other’s catastrophe. For my part, I had lost my livelihood and my house; I spent the spring of that year bewildered and outraged, almost unable to comprehend that I now lived in a gruesome basement flat in which lichen seemed to grow upon every damp surface. A crooked business partner who took cash under the counter, compounded by my own careless accounting, had separated me from my business (a small chain of Bristol off-licenses) so completely that I was reduced to a salesman’s existence. I hawked the new American fridge-freezers from a catalogue, door-to-door. It was a dismal job and one that required me to spend a humiliating amount of time—or so I thought then—with women. In the off-licenses, all my staff had been men, and I always appreciated the fact; emotionally men are so much simpler.
SPIDER BOY by JOYCE CAROL OATES
"There are places in the world where people vanish.”
His father had said this. His father had spoken flatly, without an air of mystery or threat. It was not a statement to be challenged and it was not a statement to be explained. Later, when he had not seen his father for a long time—or what seemed to him a long time, months, or maybe just weeks—he would try to summon the words again, exactly as his father had uttered them, but by this time he’d become uncertain, anxious. Had he said, Where people vanish, or where people can vanish?
KANSAS by MARILYNNE ROBINSON
Last night the two of us had a conversation. I doubt you will remember it. I told you that I might be gone sometime, and you said where, and I said to be with the Good Lord, and you said why, and I said, because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, you aren’t very old, as if that settled it. I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you’ve had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life. And you said, Momma already told me that. And then you said, Don’t laugh! because you thought I was laughing at you. You reached up and put your fingers on my lips and gave me that look I never in my life saw on any other face beside your mother’s. It’s a kind of furious pride, very passionate and stern. I’m always a little surprised to find my eyebrows unsinged after I’ve suffered one of those looks. I will miss them.
THE CAFETERIA IN THE EVENING AND A POOL IN THE RAIN
by YOKO OGAWA
Juju and I moved here on a foggy morning in early winter. There wasn’t that much to move—just an old wardrobe, a desk, and a few boxes. It was simple enough. Sitting on the enclosed porch, I watched the small truck rattle off into the mist. Juju sniffed around the house, checking the cinderblock wall and the glass panel in the door, as if to reassure himself about his new home. He made little grumbling noises as he worked, his head cocked to one side.
MOTHER’S SON by TESSA HADLEY
Someone told Christine that Alan Armstrong was going to get married again: the new girl was apparently half his age. Christine didn’t think she cared. She rarely spoke to Alan these days; there was no need for them to consult each other over arrangements for their son, now that Thomas was grown up and made his own arrangements. In fact, after the person told her the news, at a dinner party, Christine forgot it almost at once amid the noisy laughter and conversation, and remembered it again only the following afternoon, when she was sitting at home, writing.
THE FRACTIOUS SOUTH by GINA OCHSNER
As a young boy, I learned many things from many wise people. It was Baba Lyuba, for instance, who told me that if a bird shits on you, that is considered extremely good luck. Before my father left for Afghanistan, he taught me that in the north a falling star was lucky, but in the south—in, say, Stavropol or Nazran—it meant that a bomber had dropped for attack. From Grandpa Ilya I learned that water is life and the quiet fish swimming in it a connection between this world and the next. And, finally, from my mother, who worked in those days as a censor and translator for the Main Administration for Safeguarding State Secrets in the Press, I learned that because we were Jews we were invisible. This, she added, was a common enough ailment for Jews anywhere, east or west. The only people more invisible than Russian Jews, she said, were Gypsies, and Baba Lyuba explained that the Gypsies had learned it from us.
ADAMS by GEORGE SAUNDERS
I never could stomach Adams and then one day he’s standing in my kitchen, in his underwear. Facing in the direction of my kids’ room! So I wonk him in the back of the head and down he goes. When he stands up, I wonk him again and down he goes. Then I roll him down the stairs into the early-spring muck and am like, If you ever again, I swear to God, I don’t even know what to say, you miserable fuck.
THE SHORE by RICHARD FORD
My client for this morning’s 61 Surf Road showing is a welding contractor down from Parsippany, New Jersey, Mr. Clare Suddruth, with whom I’ve already done the toilsome but crucial real-estate spadework over the past months, which means that I’ve driven him around the Sea-Brite-Ortley Beach-Seaside Heights-Lavallette area on what I think of as a lay-of-the-land tour, during which the client gets to see everything for sale in his stated price range, endures no pressure from me, begins to think I’m his friend (since I’m squandering all these hours and gallons of gasoline with nothing in writing), comes in time to gab about his life—his failures, treacheries, and joys—lets me buy him a dozen lunches, and realizes that we’re both pretty much cut out of the same coarse fustian and share many core values (the economy, Vietnam, the need to buy American even though the Japs build a better product, the millennium non-event, America’s troubled youth, how much we’d hate to be young today), though we probably don’t agree about the current Election 2000 impasse in Florida, which has the country at a standstill while the Republicans figure out how to steal it back.
MIRACLE by JUDY BUDNITZ
"Don’t be surprised if he’s a little blue when he comes out.”
“A little . . . blue. All right.”
“I mean it,” the doctor says. “Before they start breathing properly, before the oxygen gets flowing. I don’t mean a bit blue, like a bruise. I mean blue blue, like this.” He taps her elastic-waist jeans.
“We’re not anticipating any problems, of course,” he says. “But it’s best to be prepared.”
“I won’t be surprised,” Julia promises. “I’ll act bored.”
ELSIE BY STARLIGHT by JOHN UPDIKE
It was his father, an accountant for a textile mill, who had urged Owen to get a practical, scientific education. Floyd Mackenzie’s experience of the Depression had been that engineers were the last people to be fired; he had seen it happen. “The kid needs to latch on to something practical,” he announced. “He’s in danger of dreaming his brains away.” The boy’s brains, he reasoned, could be best engaged by machinery, if not by the giant knitting machines, as long and heavy as freight cars, whose ill-rewarded servant he himself had been, then by some other kind of construction (bridges, dams, dynamos) whose indispensable utility was more obvious to the world than that of strict, honest accountancy. In a materialist age, matter must be trusted.
THE PLAGUE OF DOVES by LOUISE ERDRICH
Some years before the turn of the last century, my great-uncle, one of the first Catholic priests of aboriginal blood, put the call out to his congregation, telling everyone to gather at St. Gabriel’s, wearing scapulars and holding missals. From that place, they would proceed to walk the fields in a long, sweeping row, and with each step loudly pray away the doves. My great-uncle’s human flock had taken up the plow and farmed among Norwegian settlers. Unlike the French, who mingled with my ancestors, the Norwegians took little interest in the women native to the land and did not intermarry. In fact, they disregarded everybody but themselves and were quite clannish. But the doves ate their crops just the same. They ate the wheat seedlings and the rye and started on the corn. They ate the sprouts of new flowers and the buds of apples and the tough leaves of oak trees and even last year’s chaff. The doves were plump, and delicious smoked, but one could wring the necks of hundreds or even thousands and effect no visible diminishment of their number. The pole-and-mud houses of the mixed-bloods and the skin tents of the blanket Indians were crushed by the weight of the birds. When they descended, both Indians and whites set up great bonfires and tried to drive them into nets.
SZMURA’S ROOM by ALEKSANDAR HEMON
He stands at Szmura’s door, his left hand suspended in midair, reluctant to knock. Flanked by two suitcases, one of which is held together by a flayed rope, he is panting, out of shape and undernourished. He is clad in a dark coat, the collar striated with lint and dandruff, the sleeves tragicomically short, exposing his dirt-rimmed shirt cuffs. When Mike Szmura opens the door, wearing nothing but pajama bottoms and a front of frightening chest hair, Bogdan utters his lines in stuttering English. “Right off the boat,” Szmura says in a maliciously nasal voice and steps aside to let our boy enter the apartment, the roped suitcase banging at his ankles, the other one smashing against Szmura’s knee.
SUCKERS by V. S. NAIPAUL
My father was ill. Not yet close to dying. I used to go down from London at weekends to see him. I used to think how shabby his house was, more a cottage than a house, how dusty and smoky, how much in need of a coat of paint, and that was what my father thought, too. He thought that it was too little to be left with after a life of work and worry.
THE SECRET GOLDFISH by DAVID MEANS
He had a weird growth along his dorsal fin, and that gape-mouth grimace you see in older fish. Way too big for his tank, too, having outgrown the standard goldfish age limit. Which is what? About one month? He was six years old—outlandishly old for a fish. One afternoon, Teddy, as he was called then, now just Ted, took notice of the condition of Fish’s tank: a wedge of sunlight plunged through the window of his bedroom and struck the water’s surface, disappearing. The water was so clotted it had become a solid mass, a putty within which Fish was presumably swimming, or dead. Most likely dead. Where’s Fish? Where’s Fish? Teddy yelled to his mom. She came into his room, caught sight of the tank, and gave a small yelp. Once again, a fish had been neglected.
HELL-HEAVEN by JHUMPA LAHIRI
Pranab Chakraborty wasn’t technically my father’s younger brother. He was a fellow-Bengali from Calcutta who had washed up on the barren shores of my parents’ social life in the early seventies, when they lived in a rented apartment in Central Square and could number their acquaintances on one hand. But I had no real uncles in America, and so I was taught to call him Pranab Kaku. Accordingly, he called my father Shyamal Da, always addressing him in the polite form, and he called my mother Boudi, which is how Bengalis are supposed to address an older brother’s wife, instead of using her first name, Aparna.
THE ABANDONER by MA JIAN
In 1979, just a month before the one-child policy was introduced, the wife of the vice-chairman of the Municipal Treasury Board gave birth to a retarded daughter, Miaomiao. After the wife gave birth to a second daughter, who was normal, seven years later, the vice-chairman could often be spotted carrying Miaomiao down the street with a furtive look in his eye. His downturned mouth and sunken cheeks spoke of despair. Miaomiao’s expression was generally calm, but slightly bewildered. Neighbors remarked on how the pair of them seemed always to be on their way somewhere.
OLD BOYS, OLD GIRLS by EDWARD P. JONES
They caught him after he had killed the second man. The law would never connect him to the first murder. So the victim—a stocky fellow Caesar Matthews shot in a Northeast alley only two blocks from the home of the guy’s parents, a man who died over a woman who was actually in love with a third man—was destined to lie in his grave without anyone officially paying for what had happened to him. It was almost as if, at least on the books the law kept, Caesar had got away with a free killing.
CAT ’N’ MOUSE by STEVEN MILLHAUSER
The cat is chasing the mouse through the kitchen: between the blue chair legs, over the tabletop with its red-and-white checkered tablecloth that is already sliding in great waves, past the sugar bowl falling to the left and the cream jug falling to the right, over the blue chair back, down the chair legs, across the waxed and butter-yellow floor. The cat and the mouse lean backward and try to stop on the slippery wax, which shows their flawless reflections. Sparks shoot from their heels, but it’s much too late: the big door looms. The mouse crashes through, leaving a mouse-shaped hole. The cat crashes through, replacing the mouse-shaped hole with a larger, cat-shaped hole.
THE RABBIT HOLE AS LIKELY EXPLANATION
by ANN BEATTIE
My mother does not remember being invited to my first wedding. This comes up in conversation when I pick her up from the lab, where blood has been drawn to see how she’s doing on her medication. She’s sitting in an orange plastic chair, giving the man next to her advice I’m not sure he asked for about how to fill out forms on a clip-board. Apparently, before I arrived, she told him that she had not been invited to either of my weddings.
SUPER GOAT MAN by JONATHAN LETHEM
When Super Goat Man moved into the commune on our street, I was ten years old. Though I liked superheroes, I wasn’t familiar with Super Goat Man. His presence didn’t mean much to me or to the other kids in the neighborhood. For us, as we ran and screamed and played our secret games on the sidewalk, Super Goat Man was only another of the guys who sat on stoops in sleeveless undershirts on hot summer days, watching the slow progress of life on the block. The two little fleshy horns on his forehead didn’t make him especially interesting. We weren’t struck by his fall from grace, out of the world of comic-book heroes, among which he had been at best a minor star, to land here in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, in a single room in what was basically a dorm for college dropouts, a hippie group shelter, any more than we were by the tufts of extra hair at his throat and behind his ears. We had eyes only for Spider-Man and Batman in those days, superheroes in two dimensions, with lunchboxes and television shows and theme songs. Super Goat Man had none of those.
FATHER DAUGHTER by JIM HARRISON
"I hope you share my alarm over the reports of sexual misconduct at the Air Force Academy.”
“Oh, God, Dad, chill. We don’t date those dweebs.”
Norton and Laura were lunching in a faux-French bistro in Colorado Springs, not far from the upscale private college where she was now a junior. His massive buffalo cheeseburger and her chicken salad had just been brought to the table by a server named Matthew, who had a silver thumbtack in his tongue and a ring in his nose. Norton had been tempted to ask his daughter the meaning behind these ornaments but was distracted by the thought that “chill” was the equivalent of his generation’s “cool it.” There were several Air Force cadets having Saturday lunch nearby with their glowing parents, but these particular young men, at least, didn’t seem to be burbling with surly lust.
PASSION by ALICE MUNRO
When Grace goes looking for the Traverses’ summer house, in the Ottawa Valley, it has been many years since she was in that part of the country. And, of course, things have changed. Highway 7 now avoids towns that it used to go right through, and it goes straight in places where, as she remembers, there used to be curves. This part of the Canadian Shield has many small lakes, which most maps have no room to identify. Even when she locates Sabot Lake, or thinks she has, there seem to be too many roads leading into it from the county road, and then, when she chooses one, too many paved roads crossing it, all with names that she does not recall. In fact, there were no street names when she was here, more than forty years ago. There was no pavement, either—just one dirt road running toward the lake, then another running rather haphazardly along the lake’s edge.
LONG AGO YESTERDAY by HANIF KUREISHI
One evening just after my fiftieth birthday, I pushed against the door of a pub not far from my childhood home. My father, on the way back from his office in London, was inside, standing at the bar. He didn’t recognize me, but I was delighted, almost ecstatic, to see the old man again, particularly as he’d been dead for ten years, and my mother for five.
CHICXULUB by T. CORAGHESSAN BOYLE
My daughter is walking along the roadside late at night—too late, really, for a seventeen-year-old to be out alone, even in a town as safe as this—and it is raining, the first rain of the season, the streets slick with a fine immiscible glaze of water and petrochemicals, so that even a driver in full possession of her faculties, a driver who hadn’t consumed two apple Martinis and three glasses of Hitching Post pinot noir before she got behind the wheel of her car, would have trouble keeping the thing out of the gutters and the shrubbery, off the sidewalk and the highway median, for Christ’s sake. . . . But that’s not really what I want to talk about, or not yet, anyway.
LA RAGAZZA by ANDREA LEE
The first time Orso sees the new maid, he thinks she is a living doll. Not in the dated American slang sense—with which he is familiar because he was once married to a woman from New England (that overeducated and thorny beauty would never have used the phrase, but somehow in her chilly Puritan environs he brushed against it and picked it up like a burr)—but in a literal sense: she resembles a doll. The maid’s name is Caterina Zupancic, and she is Romanian, like so many of the maids in Turin these days, the ones whom Orso hears his wife, Lili, and her friends discussing in minute detail, as women always discuss their domestic help. Each maid is invariably referred to not by name but as either la colf—short for collaboratrice familiare, or family helper—or la ragazza, the girl. This particular girl has a flat, almost perfectly round face. Her cheeks, slightly scarred by acne, have a puffy droop that suggests childish sullenness or a case of the mumps. Then there are black eyes that seem to be set flush with the surface of her skin, a conventional rosebud mouth, and, barely restrained with a plastic clip, an almost inhumanly abundant mass of black hair, thick and wiry, with a coarse gleam that makes it look synthetic. Like the most successful maids, she is not beautiful and not too young. If she is a doll—Orso amuses himself by thinking—she is a slightly battered one, dragged around by the legs, left out in the rain, undressed with the cruel energy of an excessively loving little mistress.
THE LAST WORDS ON EARTH by NICOLE KRAUSS
When they write my obituary. Tomorrow. Or the next day. It will say, “Leo Gursky is survived by an apartment full of shit.” I’m surprised I haven’t been buried alive. I have to struggle to keep a path clear between bed and toilet, toilet and kitchen table, table and front door. If I want to get from the toilet to the front door, I have to go by way of the kitchen table. I like to imagine the bed as home plate, the toilet as first, the kitchen table as second, the front door as third: should the doorbell ring while I am lying in bed, I have to round the toilet and the kitchen table in order to arrive at the door. If it happens to be Bruno, I let him in without a word and then jog back to bed, the roar of the invisible crowd ringing in my ears.
DELICATE WIVES by JOHN UPDIKE
Veronica Horst was stung by a bee, and it should have produced no more than a minute of annoyance and pain, but she, in the apparent bloom of health at the age of twenty-nine, turned out to be susceptible to anaphylactic shock, and nearly died. Fortunately, her husband, Gregor, was with her, and threw her fainting body, all but blood-pressureless, into their car and speeded careening through the heart of town to the hospital, where she was saved. When Les Miller heard about the event, from his wife, Lisa, who was breathlessly fresh from a session of gossip and women’s tennis, he was stung by jealousy: he and Veronica had had an affair the previous summer, and by the rights of love he should have been the one to be with her and to save her heroically. Gregor even had the presence of mind, afterward, to go around to the local police and explain why he had been speeding and careening through stop signs. “It seems incredible,” Lisa innocently told her husband, “that here she’s nearly thirty and apparently has never been stung before, so nobody knew she would react this way. As a child I was always getting stung, weren’t you?”
EMINENT DOMAIN by ANTONYA NELSON
What caught Paolo’s attention was the smile, teeth extravagantly white and large, orthodontically flawless. Expensive maintenance in the mouth of a homeless girl. Around the smile was a pale, animated face, and around that a corona of wild purple hair. The owner of this gleeful mouth was drunk, her flame of a head swaying on the thin stick of her body, lit at nine in the morning on the front stoop of a condemned Baptist church.
BOHEMIANS by GEORGE SAUNDERS
In a lovely urban coincidence, the last two houses on our block were both occupied by widows who had lost their husbands in Eastern European pogroms. Dad called them the Bohemians. He called anyone white with an accent a Bohemian. Whenever he saw one of the Bohemians, he greeted her by mispronouncing the Czech word for “door.” Neither Bohemian was Czech, but both were polite, so when Dad said “door” to them they answered cordially, as if he weren’t perennially schlockered.
DAISY by CHANG-RAE LEE
The day that Daisy died was a lot like this one, early August, with the sun seemingly stuck right at the top of the sky, casting light and heat that made all the neighborhood kids vault over each other with glee and subdued everyone else, moms and dads and older folks and even the family pets. Daisy liked the heat, and though she didn’t know how to swim, she’d spend plenty of time in our back-yard pool, tanning in her plaid one-piece in the floating lounger or else dog-paddling with an old-fashioned life preserver looped under her arms. I tried to teach her how to swim a couple of times, but I’d end up all scratched around the neck and shoulders, Daisy lurching and pulling on me whenever I let her go, yelling if her face or scalp got wet. She wasn’t dainty or persnickety but for some reason she hated being submerged. She always showered with a cap and on alternate days shampooed her hair in the kitchen sink, the drain of which I’d have to unclog every couple of weeks, pulling out the thick black strands with a pair of chopsticks.
BROCCOLI by LARA VAPNYAR
"Here’s another one, seduced and abandoned,” Nina’s husband often said, pulling a bunch of wilted, yellowed broccoli from the refrigerator shelf. He held it, pinched between two fingers, his handsome face contorted in disgust, as though it smelled.
DEBARKING by LORRIE MOORE
Ira had been divorced for six months and still couldn’t get his wedding ring off. His finger had swelled doughily—a combination of frustrated desire, unmitigated remorse, and misdirected ambition was how he explained it. “I’m going to have to have my entire finger surgically removed,” he told his friends. The ring (supposedly gold, though now that everything he had ever received from Marilyn had been thrown into doubt, who knew?) cinched the blowsy fat of his finger, which had grown twistedly around it like a fucking happy challah. “Maybe I should cut the whole hand off and send it to her,” he said on the phone to his friend Mike, with whom he worked at the State Historical Society. “She’d understand the reference.” Ira had already ceremoniously set fire to his dove-gray wedding tux—hanging it on a tall stick in his back yard, scarecrow style, and igniting it with a Bic lighter. “That sucker went up really fast,” he gasped apologetically to the fire marshal, after the hedge caught, too—and before he was taken overnight to the local lockdown facility. “So fast. Maybe it was, I don’t know, like the residual dry-cleaning fluid.”
RECUPERATION by RODDY DOYLE
He walks. Every day, he walks. That was what the doctor had said. All the doctors. Plenty of exercise, they’d told him. It was the one thing he’d really understood.
—Are you a golf man, Mr. Hanahoe?
—Do you walk the dog?
He’d buried the dog a few years ago, in the back garden.
—We’ll have to get you exercising.
SCREENWRITER by CHARLES D’AMBROSIO
How was I supposed to know that any mention of suicide to the phalanx of doctors making Friday rounds would warrant the loss of not only weekend-pass privileges but also the liberty to take a leak in private? My first suicidal ideations occurred to me when I was ten, eleven, twelve, something like that, and by now I was habituated to them and dreams of hurting myself (in the parlance of those places) formed a kind of lullaby I often used to rock myself to bed at night. I got into trouble when I told my p-doc I couldn’t fall asleep until I’d made myself comfortable by drawing the blankets over my head and imagining I was closing the lid of my coffin. In confessing to him, I was only trying to be honest and accurate, a good patient, deserving. But no dice: the head p-doc put me on Maximum Observation and immediately I was being trailed around by a sober ex-athlete who, introducing himself, put a fatherly hand on my shoulder and squeezed and told me not to worry, he was a screenwriter, too—not as successful or rich as me, sure, but a screenwriter nonetheless. He said that his name was Bob and he let it be known that he’d only taken this position on the mental ward to gather material for his next script. Half the reason I was in the ward was to get away from the movies, but my whole time with Bob I kept wondering, Is this, or that, or this or that, or this, or this, or this going to be in a movie? Everywhere I went, he went, creeping along a few sedate paces back in soft-soled shoes, a shadow that gave off a disturbing susurrus like the maddening sibilance settling dust must make to the ears of ants.
SUNSTROKE by TESSA HADLEY
The seafront really isn’t the sea but the Bristol Channel: Wales is a blue line of hills on the other side. The district council has brought sand from elsewhere and built a complicated ugly system of concrete breakwaters to keep it in and make the beach more beachlike, but the locals say it’ll be washed away at the first spring tide. Determined kids wade out a long way into soft brown silt to reach the tepid water, which barely has energy to gather itself into what you could call a wave. It’s hard to believe that the same boys and girls who have PlayStations and the Internet still care to go paddling with shrimping nets in the rock pools left behind when the tide recedes, but they do, absorbed in it for hours as children might have been decades and generations ago.
TRESPASS by JULIAN BARNES
When he and Cath broke up, he thought about joining the Ramblers, but it seemed too obviously sad a thing to do. He could imagine the conversation:
“Hi, Geoff. Sorry to hear about you and Cath. How’re you doing?”
“Oh, fine, thanks. I’ve joined the Ramblers.”
HUNTING KNIFE by HARUKI MURAKAMI
Two rafts were anchored offshore like twin islands. They were the perfect distance to swim to from the beach—exactly fifty strokes out to one of them, then thirty strokes from one to the other. About fourteen feet square, each raft had a metal ladder, and a carpet of artificial grass covering its surface. The water, ten or twelve feet deep at this point, was so transparent you could follow the chains attached to the rafts all the way down to the concrete anchors at the bottom. The swimming area was enclosed by a coral reef, and there were hardly any waves, so the rafts barely bobbed in the water. They seemed resigned to being anchored in that spot with the intense sun beating down on them day after day.
TOOTH AND CLAW by T. CORAGHESSAN BOYLE
The weather had absolutely nothing to do with it—though the rain had been falling off and on throughout the day and the way the gutters were dripping made me feel as if despair were the mildest term in the dictionary—because I would have gone down to Daggett’s that afternoon even if the sun were shining and all the fronds of the palm trees were gilded with light. The problem was work. Or, more specifically, the lack of it. The boss had called at 6:30 a.m. to tell me not to come in, because the guy I’d been replacing had recovered sufficiently from his wrenched back to feel up to working, and, no, he wasn’t firing me, because they’d be on to a new job next week and he could use all the hands he could get. “So take a couple days off and enjoy yourself,” he’d rumbled into the phone in his low, hoarse, uneven voice, which always seemed on the verge of morphing into something else altogether—squawks and bleats or maybe just static. “You’re young, right? Go out and get yourself some tail. Get drunk. Go to the library. Help old ladies across the street. You know what I mean?”
HAVE YOU SEEN THE STOLEN GIRL? by TONY EARLEY
Jesse James, while hiding from the law in Nashville in 1875, lived for a time at the address where Mrs. Virgil Wilson’s house now stood. For years, Mrs. Wilson delighted in telling trick-or-treaters about the outlaw, but then one Halloween she noticed that the trick-or-treaters did not seem to know—or care—who Jesse James was. They also wore costumes that she didn’t recognize and that had to be explained to her—mass murderers, dead stock-car racers, characters from movies she’d never heard of, teen-age singers seemingly remarkable only for their sluttiness—and she realized that she had somehow become the crazy old lady whose tedious stories you had to endure in order to get the disappointing candy that such crazy old ladies invariably offered. For how many years, she asked herself, had she been boring children with her tales of Jesse James, and for how many years had they been laughing at her as they walked away? Every Halloween since then, Mrs. Wilson had sat in her kitchen in the dark, listening to the radio at low volume and pretending she wasn’t home.
LOVE SNARES by LOUISE ERDRICH
A man finds happiness so fleetingly, like the petals melting off a prairie rose. Even as you touch the feeling, it dries up, leaving only the dust of the emotion, a powder of hope. That is how it happened with me. No sooner had Margaret and I found happiness together in our old age than our joy was disrupted. Our peace was shattered. Our love was challenged. My life’s enemy, Shesheeb, returned to the reservation and set up his house down the road.
POND, WITH MUD by DONALD ANTRIM
"The yellow bird made from cloth and / vines sits better in the / window than / the red truck I built last / year of / bottles,” Patrick Rouse wrote, in the fifteenth volume of what he liked to refer to as his life’s work—in reality, a journal crammed with passages written in a metaphorized terminology that Patrick had borrowed, or so he told himself, from the Imagist poets, and which he used to describe his emotions and whatever objects aroused his emotions. The “yellow bird,” for instance, referred to a lingerie bikini set featuring yellow lace woven in a tropical-jungle motif, which he had purchased a few days before for his fiancée, Caroline, who, at that moment, was standing in the living room modelling it for Patrick and—though the boy could hardly appreciate the significance of his mother’s erotic poses in bare feet before the hearth . . . or could he?—for her son, the “three-eyed rabbit.” That being, of course, more of Patrick’s code, or poetry, in this case describing Gregory, Caroline’s five-year-old from her marriage to Roger, an unemployed chamber musician.
A STONE WOMAN by A. S. BYATT
At first she did not think of stones. Grief made her insubstantial to herself; she felt as if she were flitting lightly from room to room like a moth. The apartment seemed constantly twilit, although it must, she knew, have gone through the usual sequences of sun and shadow over the days and weeks since her mother had died. Her mother—a strong, bright woman—had liked to live among shades of mole and dove. Her mother’s hair had shone silver and ivory. Her eyes had faded from cornflower to forget-me-not. Ines had found her dead one morning, her bloodless fingers resting on an open book, her parchment eyelids down, as though she dozed, a wry grimace on her fine lips, as though she had tasted something not quite nice. She quickly lost this lifelikeness, and became waxy and peaked. Ines, who had been the younger woman, became the old woman in an instant.
IN DEFIANCE OF CLUB RULES by TIM PARKS
In defiance of club rules, Robert took to going out on the river alone. It had become difficult to fit in with other people’s plans. Arthur’s wife was about to give birth, and this hitherto loyal friend now had no time. To go on the group outings would mean hanging around for hours waiting for others to arrive and argue about what they were going to do and where. Instead, after work, Robert drove straight to the club, pulled his kayak down from the rack, and changed into his wetsuit.
VICIOUS CIRCLE by THOMAS McGUANE
John Briggs sat on his porch on a dreary hot August day, a glass of ice water sweating in his hand, listening to opera on the radio. The white borders of the screen doors were incandescent with mountain summer. Through them he could see the high windswept ridge above his house, where the low bunchgrass could not get a hold, leaving only a seam of shale to overlook the irrigated valley. Earlier, at the farmers’ market, he’d strolled among the pleasant displays of food and crafts. A bearded youth offered handmade walking sticks; next to him, with a cage full of rabbits, a woman in Chiapas folk costume sold angora tooth-fairy pillows while tugging strands of angora from a rabbit asleep in her lap. An extraordinary assortment of concrete yard animals surrounded a display of bird feeders with folded expired Montana license plates for roofs. A hearty woman with her fists on her hips offered English delphiniums, which, she explained again and again, had never been crossed with Pacific Giants, “not ever.” The Hutterites, in suspenders and straw cowboy hats, had a vast array of vegetables, and their long table faced lines of people five deep, eyes fixed on the produce. A girl in jeans and a bustier played a harp, almost inaudible over the sound of the crowd, beside a table displaying geodes and specimens of quartz.
THE SURROGATE by TESSA HADLEY
When I was twenty, I fell in love with one of the lecturers at my college. I know that this is a very ordinary thing to do. And I know now that lecturers, when they notice yet another smitten girl-child traipsing moonily around after them, simply sigh and feel anxious. They feel anxious and all the other things you would expect, too: flattered and confirmed and a little bit stimulated.
THE BRIEF HISTORY OF THE DEAD by KEVIN BROCKMEIER
When the blind man arrived in the city, he claimed that he had travelled across a desert of living sand. First he had died, he said, and then—snap!—the desert. He told the story to everyone who would listen, bobbing his head to follow the sound of their footsteps. Showers of red grit fell from his beard. He said that the desert was bare and lonesome and that it had hissed at him like a snake. He had walked for days and days, until the dunes broke apart beneath his feet, surging up around him to lash at his face, then everything went still and began to beat like a heart. The sound was as clear as any he had ever heard. It was only at that moment, he said, with a million arrow-points of sand striking his skin, that he had truly realized he was dead.