A Short Story For Saturday

The New Yorker just made available Saul Bellow’s “A Silver Dish” from their archive, first published in September 1978. How it begins:

What do you do about death—in this case, the death of an old father? If you’re a modern person, sixty years of age, and a man who’s been around, like Woody Selbst, what do you do? Take this matter of mourning, and take it against a contemporary background. How, against a contemporary background, do you mourn an octogenarian father, nearly blind, his heart enlarged, his lungs filling with fluid, who creeps, stumbles, gives off the odors, the moldiness or gassiness of old men. I mean! As Woody put it, be realistic. Think what times these are. The papers daily give it to you—the Lufthansa pilot in Aden is described by the hostages on his knees, begging the Palestinian terrorists not to execute him, but they shoot him through the head. Later they themselves are killed. And still others shoot others, or shoot themselves. That’s what you read in the press, see on the tube, mention at dinner. We know now what goes daily through the whole of the human community, like a global death-peristalsis.

Read the rest here. For more of Bellow’s short fiction, check out Mosby’s Memoirs and Other Stories. Previous SSFSs here.

A Short Story For Saturday

Recently, we touched on John Cheever’s influence on Mad Men. This weekend, we’re highlighting one of Cheever’s most-loved stories, “The Swimmer.” The opening lines:

It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, “I drank too much last night.” You might have heard it whispered by the parishioners leaving church, heard it from the lips of the priest himself, struggling with his cassock in the vestiarium, heard it from the golf links and the tennis courts, heard it from the wildlife preserve where the leader of the Audubon group was suffering from a terrible hangover. “I drank too much,” said Donald Westerhazy. “We all drank too much,” said Lucinda Merrill. “It must have been the wine,” said Helen Westerhazy. “I drank too much of that claret.”

Keep reading here (pdf), or look for it in The Stories of John Cheever. You can also hear the story from the lips of the author himself, in a 1977 recording, above. Previous SSFSs here.

(Hat tip: Dan Colman)

A Short Story For Saturday

This weekend’s selection is a relatively obscure short story from Marilynne Robinson, “Connie Bronson,” published in the 1986 Summer-Fall issue of The Paris Review. How it begins:

I had one friend named Connie Bronson who lived two houses up the street from me and was one year younger than I and two grades behind because she had had brain fever. She had blood-red hair and a freckle-spattered face, and was called Bones by the boys at school, who regarded her with intense loathing and in bad weather often spent whole recesses devising other, more terrible epithets for her.

All of this was a source of great sorrow to her mother, who took a job in a drugstore so that Connie could have piano and tap-dancing lessons, and gave parties for her on every pretext, ordering huge cakes from the bakery encrusted with coarse, dusty frosting and blowsy sugar-roses, calling the mothers of each of the children in Connie’s class to be sure that the parties were well-attended.

She had once even bought the girl a pony which, since her means were limited, was very old and sickly and ill-tempered, and was put up for sale again a few weeks later because it bit Connie’s hand, breaking her little finger, which, though it was set and re-set, healed veering outward at the first knuckle. This, of course, cast a shadow over those of her mother’s hopes that rested with the piano lessons, and provided another theme for the inventions of the little boys at school.

Keep reading here. For more of Robinson’s fiction, check out one of her most loved novels, Gilead. Previous SSFSs here.

A Short Story For Saturday

by Matthew Sitman

The last few weeks we have tracked the responses to Adam Begley’s Updike, the new biography of the late novelist and critic, who also was an accomplished poet and short story writer. Today’s featured story is “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” which Updike published in The Atlantic just over a year after the September 11th terrorist attacks. Here are its memorable opening paragraphs:

There is no God: the revelation came to Dan Kellogg in the instant that he saw the World Trade Center South Tower fall. He lived in Cincinnati but happened to be in New York, visiting his daughter in Brooklyn Heights, with a top-floor view of Lower Manhattan, less 9/11 Terrorist Attack on World Trade Centerthan a mile away. He was still puzzling over the vast quantities of persistent oily smoke, and the nature of the myriad pieces of what seemed to be white cardboard fluttering within the smoke’s dark column, and who and what the perpetrators and purpose of this event might have been, when, as abruptly as a girl letting fall her silken gown, the entire skyscraper dropped its sheath and vanished, with a silvery rippling noise. The earth below, which Dan could not see, groaned and spewed up a cloud of ash and pulverized matter that slowly, from his distant perspective, mushroomed upward. The sirens filling the air across the river continued to wail, with no change of pitch or urgency; the mob of uninvolved buildings, stone and glass, held their pose of blank, mute witness. Had Dan imagined hearing a choral shout, a cry of protest breaking against the silence of the sky—an operatic human noise at the base of a phenomenon so pitilessly inhuman? Or had he merely humanized the groan of concussion? He was aware of looking at a, for him, new scale of things—that of Blitzkrieg, of erupting volcanoes. The collapse had a sharp aftermath of silence; at least he heard nothing for some seconds.

Ten stories below his feet, two black parking-garage attendants loitered outside the mouth of the garage, one seated on an aluminum chair, carrying on a joshing conversation that, for all the sound that rose to Dan Kellogg, might have been under a roof of plate glass or in a silent movie. The garage attendants wore short-sleeved shirts, but summer’s haze this September morning had been baked from the sky. The only cloud was man-made—the foul-colored, yellow-edged smoke drifting toward the east in a solid, continuously replenished mass. Dan could not quite believe that the tower had vanished. How could something so vast and intricate, an elaborately engineered upright hive teeming with people, mostly young, be dissolved by its own weight so quickly, so casually? The laws of matter had functioned, was the answer. The event was small beneath the calm dome of sky. No hand of God had intervened, because there was none. God had no hands, no eyes, no heart, no anything.

Read the rest here. For more of his short stories, check out the two-volume John Updike: The Collected Stories, from the Library of America. Previous SSFSs here.

(Photo: New York Daily News staff photographer David Handschuh is carried from site after his leg was shattered by falling debris while he was photographing the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. By Todd Maisel/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

A Short Story For Saturday

The first paragraph of Erika Schmidt’s “Story of a Family,” winner of the 2013 Nelson Algren prize for short fiction:

This is how the family looks in 1988: a husband, a wife, a daddy, a mama; two girls, two sisters, two daughters. One daughter is 5. The other is 2. They both have white-blonde hair that turns green in the chlorine at the country-club pool. The older daughter, the 5-year-old, takes swimming lessons there in the summer. The younger daughter, the 2-year-old, almost drowns one day when she falls into the big pool while the daddy isn’t looking. He gets her out with plenty of time to spare but he loses sleep over the image of her little body turned upside down under the water and the feeling of his bare feet trying to gain traction on the wet cement as he runs to her and the searing smell and taste of the chlorinated water rushing into his nose as he jumps in and her cold, wet bathing suit against his arms as he leans into the side of the pool crushing her to his chest while the 5-year-old cries watching from the fold-up lounge chair wrapped in a big towel.

Read the rest here. The story also can be downloaded as a PDF here. Previous SSFSs here.

A Short Story For Saturday

April Ayers Lawson’s “Virgin,” from the Fall 2010 Paris Review, begins this way:

Jake hadn’t meant to stare at her breasts, but there they were, absurdly beautiful, almost glowing above the plunging neckline of the faded blue dress. He’d read the press releases, of course. He recalled, from an article, her description of nursing her last child only six months before her first radiation treatment. Then he noticed she wasn’t wearing a bra.

What did they have inside them: saline or silicone? And how did these feel, respectively? He probably stared too long. (But how could she expect people not to stare when she wore a dress cut like that?)

She’d noticed.

Had his wife noticed? Doubtful. She noticed so little about him these days.

Read the rest here. Previous SSFSs here.

A Short Story For Saturday

Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” can be read in just a few minutes – and you’ll want to make it all the way to the end. Here are its opening paragraphs:

Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband’s death.

It was her sister Josephine who told her, in broken sentences; veiled hints that revealed in half concealing. Her husband’s friend Richards was there, too, near her. It was he who had been in the newspaper office when intelligence of the railroad disaster was received, with Brently Mallard’s name leading the list of “killed.” He had only taken the time to assure himself of its truth by a second telegram, and had hastened to forestall any less careful, less tender friend in bearing the sad message.

She did not hear the story as many women have heard the same, with a paralyzed inability to accept its significance. She wept at once, with sudden, wild abandonment, in her sister’s arms. When the storm of grief had spent itself she went away to her room alone. She would have no one follow her.

Read the rest here. For more of Chopin’s work, check out her Complete Novels and Stories. Previous SSFSs here.

A Short Story For Saturday

The Dish recently remembered the life and work of the Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez, who died last week at age eighty-seven.  Here’s the opening passage of one of his short stories, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings“:

On the third day of rain they had killed so many crabs inside the house that Pelayo had to cross his drenched courtyard and throw them into the sea, because the newborn child had a temperature all night and they thought it was due to the stench. The world had been sad since Tuesday. Sea and sky were a single ash-gray thing and the sands of the beach, which on March nights glimmered like powdered light, had become a stew of mud and rotten shellfish. The light was so weak at noon that when Pelayo was coming back to the house after throwing away the crabs, it was hard for him to see what it was that was moving and groaning in the rear of the courtyard. He had to go very close to see that it was an old man, a very old man, lying face down in the mud, who, in spite of his tremendous efforts, couldn’t get up, impeded by his enormous wings.

Read the rest here. For more, check out his Collected Stories. Previous SSFSs here.

A Short Story For Saturday

The opening passage of Zadie Smith’s “Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets,” from the latest issue of The Paris Review:

“Well, that’s that,” Miss Dee Pendency said, and Miss Adele, looking back over her shoulder, saw that it was. The strip of hooks had separated entirely from the rest of the corset. Dee held up the two halves, her big red slash mouth pulling in opposite directions.

“Least you can say it died in battle. Doing its duty.”

“Bitch, I’m on in ten minutes.”

When an irresistible force like your ass . . .

“Don’t sing.”

“Meets an old immovable corset like this . . . You can bet as sure as you liiiiiive!

“It’s your fault. You pulled too hard.”

“Something’s gotta give, something’s gotta give, SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE.”

“You pulled too hard.”

“Pulling’s not your problem.” Dee lifted her bony, white Midwestern leg up onto the counter, in preparation to put on a thigh-high. With a heel she indicated Miss Adele’s mountainous box of chicken and rice: “Real talk, baby.”

Keep reading here. Smith’s most recent novel is NW. Previous SSFSs here.

A Short Story For Saturday

The opening paragraphs of Ramona Ausubel’s “Tributaries,” a story in which love becomes more than a feeling:

THE GIRLS ARE WORMED OUT ACROSS THE FLOOR under down comforters even though daytime is hardly over, getting a jump-start on the slumber party. “My parents both have perfect love-arms,” Genevieve tells her friends. “Both of them can write. They write love letters to each other. It’s almost sick.” No one thinks this is sick. Everyone wants this. Pheenie, Marybeth, Sara P., and Sara T. all want the proof.

Though the girls know many two-armers, even some that seem happy and in love, what they talk about are those with love-grown arms. “My mom doesn’t have anything and my dad just has fingers growing out of his chest. He can’t control them and they grab at anything that is close enough,” says Pheenie.

“My grandmother has seven, but she has always been married to my grandfather. She says she fell in love with him over and over,” Sarah T. adds. Seven is an unusual number. Two sometimes, maybe three, but past that something important must have gone wrong. And still, the girls are greeted every morning by the television news anchors, their teeth white, their hair unyielding and their single, perfect love-grown arms, offering no hint of uncertainty.

Read the rest here. This story, among others, can be found in Ausubel’s collection A Guide to Being Born. Previous SSFSs here.