This weekend’s short story selection is Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,” which begins with these arresting paragraphs:
Anders couldn’t get to the bank until just before it closed, so of course the line was endless and he got stuck behind two women whose loud, stupid conversation put him in a murderous temper. He was never in the best of tempers anyway, Anders – a book critic known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed.
With the line still doubled around the rope, one of the tellers stuck a “POSITION CLOSED” sign in her window and walked to the back of the bank, where she leaned against a desk and began to pass the time with a man shuffling papers. The women in front of Anders broke off their conversation and watched the teller with hatred. “Oh, that’s nice,” one of them said. She turned to Anders and added, confident of his accord, “One of those little human touches that keep us coming back for more.”
Anders had conceived his own towering hatred of the teller, but he immediately turned it on the presumptuous crybaby in front of him. “Damned unfair,” he said. “Tragic, really. If they’re not chopping off the wrong leg, or bombing your ancestral village, they’re closing their positions.”
Read the rest here. For more of Wolff’s short fiction, including “Bullet in the Brain,” check out his collection Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories. Previous SSFSs here.
It seems fitting to feature a story about depression this week, and few wrote about what it feels like with more acuity than David Foster Wallace. Here’s the opening paragraph of his “The Planet Trillaphon As It Stands In Relation To The Bad Thing” (pdf), published in 1984 in The Amherst Review:
I’ve been on antidepressants for, what, about a year now, and I suppose I feel as if I’m pretty qualified to tell what they’re like. They’re fine, really, but they’re fine in the same way that, say, living on another planet that was warm and comfortable and had food and fresh water would be fine: it would be fine, but it wouldn’t be good old Earth, obviously. I haven’t been on Earth now for almost a year, because I wasn’t doing very well on Earth. I’ve been doing somewhat better here where I am now, on the planet Trillaphon, which I suppose is good news for everyone involved.
Read the rest here. Check out another story of his we highlighted, “The Depressed Person,” here. Previous SSFSs here.
Here are the opening paragraphs of Martin Amis’ 1992 short story, “Career Move“:
When Alistair finished his new screenplay, Offensive from Quasar 13, he submitted it to the LM, and waited. Over the past year, he had had more than a dozen screenplays rejected by the Little Magazine. On the other hand, his most recent submission, a batch of five, had been returned not with the standard rejection slip but with a handwritten note from the screenplay editor, Hugh Sixsmith. The note said:
I was really rather taken with two or three of these, and seriously tempted by Hotwire, which I thought close to being fully achieved. Do please go on sending me your stuff.
Hugh Sixsmith was himself a screenplay writer of considerable, though uncertain, reputation. His note of encouragement was encouraging. It made Alistair brave.
Boldly he prepared Offensive from Quasar 13 for submission. He justified the pages of the typescript with fondly lingering fingertips. Alistair did not address the envelope to the Screenplay Editor. No. He addressed it to Mr. Hugh Sixsmith. Nor, for once, did he enclose his curriculum vitae, which he now contemplated with some discomfort. It told, in a pitiless staccato, of the screenplays he had published in various laptop broadsheets and comically obscure pamphlets; it even told of screenplays published in his university magazine. The truly disgraceful bit came at the end, where it said “Rights Offered: First British Serial only.“
Read the rest here. The story also can be found in Amis’ collection, Heavy Water and Other Stories. Previous SSFSs here.
Given that The New Yorker has made their archives, going back to 2007, available all summer, now seems like a good opportunity to dip into their fiction. Here’s the beginning of a short story they published in July of 2012, Junot Díaz’s “The Cheater’s Guide to Love“:
Your girl catches you cheating. (Well, actually she’s your fiancée, but hey, in a bit it so won’t matter.) She could have caught you with one sucia, she could have caught you with two, but because you’re a totally batshit cuero who never empties his e-mail trash can, she caught you with fifty! Sure, over a six-year period, but still. Fifty fucking girls? God damn! Maybe if you’d been engaged to a super-open-minded blanquita you could have survived it—but you’re not engaged to a super-open-minded blanquita. Your girl is a bad-ass salcedense who doesn’t believe in open anything; in fact, the one thing she warned you about, that she swore she would never forgive, was cheating. I’ll put a machete in you, she promised. And, of course, you swore you wouldn’t do it. You swore you wouldn’t. You swore you wouldn’t.
And you did.
Read the rest here. For more of Díaz’s work, check out his latest novel, This is How You Loser Her. Isaac Fitzgerald has a good round-up of New Yorker fiction you should read while their archives are open, including the above selection, here. Previous SSFSs here.
Today’s short story, Ann Beattie’s “Eric Clapton’s Lover,” first appeared in the Summer 1976 issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review. How it begins:
Franklin Fisher and his wife, Beth, were born on the same day of March, two years apart. Franklin was 39 years old, and Beth was 41. Beth liked chiles relenos, Bass ale, gazpacho; Franklin liked mild foods: soufflés, quiche, pea soup. How could she drink Bass ale? And it was beginning to show on her figure. It wasn’t just beginning to show—it was showing in more places, bulging actually, so that now she had big, fat hips and strongman arms. Her disposition had changed, too; as she got larger, she got more vehement, less willing to compromise. Now she cooked two dinners and ate spicy lamb shish-kebob, smacking her lips, shaking on more salt, while Franklin, across from her, lifted a forkful of unseasoned spinach soufflé.
Things got worse between Franklin and Beth after Franklin Junior (“Linny” to his mother) got married and moved to San Bernardino. Their son’s bride was “learning to drive a rig.” She demonstrated how to turn a truck wheel coming down an incline by leaning forward on their sofa, spreading her legs, and moving her arms in what seemed to be two separate circles. Neither Franklin nor Beth knew what to talk to her about. Franklin Junior said, “Yes, sir!” as his bride-to-be simulated steering the truck, She talked about her rig, drank a shot of scotch, declining water or an ice cube, and left after half an hour.
Read the rest here. For more, check out here Park City: New and Selected Stories. Previous SSFSs here.
This week, Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell published his latest short story, “The Right Sort,” on Twitter. The narrator, a teenager hopped up on his mom’s Valium, begins the story this way:
Keep reading the story in chronological order here, or check out Mitchell’s Twitter feed here. Previous featured short stories here.
This week’s story is Amy Bloom’s “Silver Water,” in which a woman movingly describes her older sister’s descent in mental illness. How it begins:
My sister’s voice was like mountain water in a silver pitcher; the clear blue beauty of it cools you and lifts you up beyond your heat, beyond your body. After we went to see La Traviata, when she was fourteen and I was twelve, she elbowed me in the parking lot and said, “Check this out” And she opened her mouth unnaturally wide and her voice came out, so crystalline and bright that all the departing operagoers stood frozen by their cars, unable to take out their keys or open their doors until she had finished, and then they cheered like hell.
That’s what I like to remember and that’s the story I told to all of her therapists. I wanted them to know her, to know that who they saw was not all there was to see. That before her constant tinkling of commercials and fast-food jingles there had been Puccini and Mozart and hymns so sweet and mighty you expected Jesus to come down off his cross and clap. That before there was a mountain of Thorazined fat, swaying down the halls in nylon maternity tops and sweatpants, there had been the prettiest girl in Arrandale Elementary School, the belle of Landmark Junior High. Maybe there were other pretty girls, but I didn’t see them. To me, Rose, my beautiful blond defender, my guide to Tampax and my mother’s moods, was perfect.
She had her first psychotic break when she was fifteen. She had been coming home moody and tearful, then quietly beaming, then she stopped coming home. She would go out into the woods behind our house and not come in until my mother went after her at dusk, and stepped gently into the briars and saplings and pulled her out, blank-faced, her pale blue sweater covered with crumbled leaves, her white jeans smeared with dirt. After three weeks of this, my mother who is a musician and widely regarded as eccentric, said to my father, who is psychiatrist and a kind, sad man, “She’s going off.”
Read the rest here. The story also can be found in Bloom’s collection, Come to Me. Previous SSFSs here.
Today’s short story, “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” by Rachel Swirsky, won’t take you long to read; it’s just under a thousand words. It won a 2014 Nebula Award from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and begins with these charming lines:
If you were a dinosaur, my love, then you would be a T-Rex. You’d be a small one, only five feet, ten inches, the same height as human-you. You’d be fragile-boned and you’d walk with as delicate and polite a gait as you could manage on massive talons. Your eyes would gaze gently from beneath your bony brow-ridge.
If you were a T-Rex, then I would become a zookeeper so that I could spend all my time with you. I’d bring you raw chickens and live goats. I’d watch the gore shining on your teeth. I’d make my bed on the floor of your cage, in the moist dirt, cushioned by leaves. When you couldn’t sleep, I’d sing you lullabies.
Read the rest here. Previous SSFSs here.
This weekend’s short story is Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?“, first published in 1966. Its opening paragraphs:
Her name was Connie. She was fifteen and she had a quick, nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors or checking other people’s faces to make sure her own was all right. Her mother, who noticed everything and knew everything and who hadn’t much reason any longer to look at her own face, always scolded Connie about it. “Stop gawking at yourself. Who are you? You think you’re so pretty?” she would say. Connie would raise her eyebrows at these familiar old complaints and look right through her mother, into a shadowy vision of herself as she was right at that moment: she knew she was pretty and that was everything. Her mother had been pretty once too, if you could believe those old snapshots in the album, but now her looks were gone and that was why she was always after Connie.
“Why don’t you keep your room clean like your sister? How’ve you got your hair fixed—what the hell stinks? Hair spray? You don’t see your sister using that junk.”
Her sister June was twenty-four and still lived at home. She was a secretary in the high school Connie attended, and if that wasn’t bad enough—with her in the same building—she was so plain and chunky and steady that Connie had to hear her praised all the time by her mother and her mother’s sisters. June did this, June did that, she saved money and helped clean the house and cookedand Connie couldn’t do a thing, her mind was all filled with trashy daydreams. Their father was away at work most of the time and when he came home he wanted supper and he read the newspaper at supper and after supper he went to bed. He didn’t bother talking much to them, but around his bent head Connie’s mother kept picking at her until Connie wished her mother was dead and she herself was dead and it was all over. “She makes me want to throw up sometimes,” she complained to her friends. She had a high, breathless, amused voice that made everything she said sound a little forced, whether it was sincere or not.
Read the rest here. For more of Joyce Carol Oates’ short fiction, check out her High Lonesome: New and Selected Stories 1966-2006. Previous SSFSs here.
The opening paragraphs of Leo Tolstoy’s 1885 story, “Where Love Is, God is“:
IN A CERTAIN TOWN there lived a cobbler, Martin Avdéiteh by name. He had a tiny room in a basement, the one window of which looked out on to the street. Through it one could only see the feet of those who passed by, but Martin recognized the people by their boots. He had lived long in the place and had many acquaintances. There was hardly a pair of boots in the neighbourhood that had not been once or twice through his hands, so he often saw his own handiwork through the window. Some he had re-soled, some patched, some stitched up, and to some he had even put fresh uppers. He had plenty to do, for he worked well, used good material, did not charge too much, and could be relied on. If he could do a job by the day required, he undertook it; if not, he told the truth and gave no false promises; so he was well known and never short of work.
Martin had always been a good man; but in his old age he began to think more about his soul and to draw nearer to God. While he still worked for a master, before he set up on his own account, his wife had died, leaving him with a three-year old son. None of his elder children had lived, they had all died in infancy. At first Martin thought of sending his little son to his sister’s in the country, but then he felt sorry to part with the boy, thinking: ‘It would be hard for my little Kapitón to have to grow up in a strange family; I will keep him with me.’
Read the rest here. For more check out Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy. Previous SSFSs here.