Amelia Kahaney, “The Temp”

9780547241609_p0_v4_s260x420An office falls in love with their glamorous temp. 

(from The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2009)

So, Karen, what’s your story, we asked.

It turned out the temp was writing a novel! It was going to be the Filipino version of One Hundred Years of Solitude. She was stuck on a particular chapter, and she was here, she said, to put her novel on the back burner of her mind and fill the front burner with easily accomplished tasks.

Well, we thought, that’s certainly unusual. We had never considered our tasks easy to accomplish. We had always found them virtually impossible to accomplish. But we nodded sagely, like we got it.

This story takes place over the course of one week and is divided into tiny chapters labeled Monday-Friday. It’s told from the perspective of all of the office workers, all of whom are women. With each passing day, the women become more and more obsessed with the temp, who is “slim and tanned–some kind of Asian.”

On Tuesday, the temp does their charts with a computer program and tells the women that they don’t belong there, that they are wasting their lives in a “watery office”: “‘Yes,’ we thought. This is just what we’d always suspected.”

At the end of the week, they don’t want to let Karen go. I won’t give away the ending but it’s good.

Having spent years in a “watery office,” I could relate to this story to an uncomfortable degree. It’s nearly perfect in its focus and scope. “The Temp” isn’t online but here is Amelia Kahaney’s website. Also, this edition of Best American Nonrequired Reading is excellent.

Rajesh Parameswaran, “The Infamous Bengal Ming”

500x500_1864193_fileA tiger realizes he loves the zookeeper, but isn’t quite sure how to show it.

(from I Am An Executioner)

I stretched and smacked my mouth and licked my lips, tasting the familiar odours of the day. Already, I somehow sensed that this morning would be different from all the other mornings of my life. On the far side of the wall hippos mucked and splashed, and off in the distance the monkeys and the birds who had been up since pre-dawn darkness started their morning chorus in earnest, their caws and kee-kees and caroo-caroo-caroos echoing out over the breadth of our little kingdom. These were the same sounds I heard morning after morning, but this morning it was all more beautiful than ever; yes, this morning was different. It took me a little while to puzzle out the reason, but once I did, it was unmistakable.

I was in love.

If you like unreliable narrators you will love unreliable tiger narrators. Such a heightened state of being. Like so many lovesick fools, poor Ming doesn’t know what he’s doing or how doomed he is. But of course you’re rooting for him. This story’s a blast

I found “The Infamous Bengal Ming” on Flavorwire, in a piece on the “50 of the Scariest Short Stories of All Time.” I would say this one is more darkly funny than straight-up scary, but that’s beside the point. I’m sure I’ll be returning to this listicle for more suggestions. Listen to this story here.

 

Elizabeth McCracken, “The Lost & Found Department of Greater Boston”

51vAWyA+csL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Karen Blackbird goes missing, leaving behind a son, a father and a town. The manager of a grocery store never met her but can’t let go.

(from Thunderstruck)

The Hi-Lo was a run-down, bare-bones concern with more fruit flies than customers. Anyone with a car went to the Purity Supreme a mile away. The Hi-Lo was where kids got sent by parents on orders to buy cartons of milk. If there was change, they fed the coins into the gumball and prize machines at the front of the store, the heaviest machinery they’d ever operated by themselves. Broke, they fiddled with the big, cold silver keys that worked the machines and hopefully lifted the metal doors over the chutes. They stole things: candy, the terrible toys in the terrible toy section, the school-supply kits with pygmy plastic rulers and pug–nosed scissors. They drank coffee milk in the parking lot, sitting on the concrete blocks at the ends of spaces.

Good writers should know that when they do things to their characters they are doing them to their readers at the same time. Heartbreak leaps of the page and down our throats. Losses are beamed across the short distance, and lodged like chalky mints. It’s the transitive property of well enunciated emotion. This is classified as a good hurt.

Julie Hayden, “Walking with Charlie”

thelistsofthepastA woman takes her seventeen-month-old nephew for a walk in the park on Halloween. 

(from The Lists of the Past)

…We wave farewell to the moon, to the Park and all its kind and dangerous inhabitants. On the sidewalks outside the Park, the first small pirates and witches and Batmen will already be out begging; next year Charlie will be among them. I wish there were more that I could do for him.

Did I ever care so much for another person that even his clothes were holy to me?

I am thirty years old and I have no child and no attachments. If Robert came to me barefoot across the meadow I would turn my back on him, having mastered the knowledge that you can love someone and not be able to live with him, and that there are no grownups who can tell you what to do.

Upon first read I was slightly underwhelmed by this story. Like many people, I was introduced to Julie Hayden’s work via “Day-Old Baby Rats,” which was chosen by Lorrie Moore for The New Yorker Fiction Podcast (3/19/2010). It is a masterpiece that led to the reprinting of Hayden’s collection.

“Walking with Charlie,” though not as affecting as “Day-Old Baby Rats,” is moving in its own right. It is the story of a thirty-year-old childless woman who takes her nephew for a walk in Central Park on Halloween. It’s filled with wonder, nursery rhymes, and lost love. I wish I had mastered the knowledge that I can love someone and not be able to live with him. I think I’m pretty close to having mastered the knowledge that there are no grownups who can tell me what to do, however, which may be one of the reasons that I can love people I can’t live with, or who can’t live with me.

It is difficult to read this story without thinking of the author. Hayden died in her early 40s, an unmarried and childless alcoholic. The end of her life was horrible. She was diagnosed with cancer but did not follow through with chemotherapy: “She grew overweight, rarely showered, and kept odd hours.”

I wish Hayden had lived to write more books for me to read. I wish she had lived long enough to find someone to love that she could also live with.

Paula Bomer, “Eye Socket Girls”

9781616953096A young woman awaits release from the anorexia-ward of a hospital. 

(from Inside Madeleine)

Here in the ward, we outnumber them. They may walk around with charts and fancy white outfits, but we’re all starving to death. Sure, the IVs fatten us up for awhile, but then we go home. Then we resume life as we know it. Life is a battle of will. And we’re winners.

That’s why people fight us. No one likes to see a young girl win.

“Eye Socket Girls” is the first story in Bomer’s third book, Inside Madeleine, which was released in May by Soho Press. I’m a longtime fan of Bomer’s. She writes so well about women, the expectations of being a woman: “We’re supposed to be nice, well behaved things. Pliable, fearful things that cry a lot, especially when we have our periods. I don’t get my period anymore. I haven’t bled since I was fourteen.” It makes me remember how much it sucked to be a girl: growing breasts earlier than my friends, realizing that I would BLEED every month for the next four decades, the constant worry over getting fat. What a whole bunch of suck. And a lot of it never really goes away. I like my breasts, at least, now. And it can be fun making people uncomfortable with period-talk. So there’s that.

Paula Bomer is unrelenting. She deserves more readers. You should be one of them.

You can read “Eye Socket Girls” here. And here is her website with links to reviews and interviews and such. I’m going to read the next story now.

Connie Willis, “At the Rialto”

9780345540652Whose idea was it to hold this quantum physics conference at a Hollywood hotel?

(from The Best of Connie Willis)

Seriousness of mind was a prerequisite for understanding Newtonian physics. I am not convinced it is not a handicap in understanding quantum theory. Excerpt from Dr. Gedanken’s keynote address to the 1989 International Congress of Quantum Physicists Annual Meeting, Hollywood

I got to Hollywood around one-thirty and started trying to check into the Rialto.

“Sorry, we don’t have any rooms,” the girl behind the desk said. “We’re all booked up with some science thing.”

“I’m with the science thing,” I said. “Dr. Ruth Baringer. I reserved a double.”

“There are a bunch of Republicans here, too, and a tour group from Finland. They told me when I started work here that they got all these movie people, but the only one I’ve seen so far was that guy who played the friend of that other guy in that one movie. You’re not a movie person, are you?”

“No,” I said. “I’m with the science thing. Dr. Ruth Baringer.”

“My name’s Tiffany” she said. “I’m not actually a hotel clerk at all. I’m just working here to pay for my transcendental posture lessons. I’m really a model-slash-actress.”

This was a fun one, although I found the tone shifts a bit annoying, and it show its age a little. At times I found myself trying to wrap my head around quick snippets of quantum Newtonian theoretical concepts. And then, just a moment later, I’m enduring some rather broad, over-the-top wacky comedy about how everybody in Weirdowood is so befuddlingly, adorably, somehow harmlessly weird. I’m not sure why I resisted at first. Best way to enjoy this ridiculous story is to just relax and play along. Seriousness of mind indeed. Read it here.

tumblr_kx8svwbe5l1qa2rjoo1_1280

Elizabeth McCracken, “Hungry”

summer-of-76-wrapA grandmother finds out her sick son will be taken off life support while she’s watching his daughter.

(from Thunderstruck)

The grandmother was a bright, cellophane-wrapped hard candy of a person: sweet, but not necessarily what a child wanted. She knew it, to. That sad bicentennial summer, her son in the hospital recovering from surgery, she and her granddaughter look for comfort all over Des Moines: at the country club, the dinner club, the miniature-golf-course snack bar, the popcorn stand at the shopping mall, the tea room at Younkers, every buffet, every branch of Bishop’s Cafeteria. What the girl liked best: to choose your own food, not just chocolate cream pie, but a particular, considered wedge. To stand before the tall, toqued brunch chef, who minted Belgian waffle after Belgian waffle and rendered them unto you. The world of heat lamped fried chicken and tall glasses of cubed Jell-O and dinner rolls with pats of butter so refrigerated you had to warm them in the palm of your hand before they’d spread.

Read that. It aches with sweet, vaguely ugly nostalgia. This story is a heartbreaker. Even the really funny stuff — “it was so hot you could hear the mayonnaise go bad” — is almost unbearably sad. This is the story of a grandmother racked with guilt but also trying to defend herself from the judgment of hindsight. Sylvia’s son, like her husband, has a weight problem. Her daughter does not, but feels scarred by how she was raised to think about food. (That’s one item on a long laundry list of grievances she reads to her mom one day.) And Sylvia’s granddaughter, visiting for the summer around the bicentennial, seems to have gained a lot of weight under her grandmother’s generous watch.

[79 to go in 2014]

Elizabeth McCracken, “The House of the Two Three Legged Dogs”

51vAWyA+csL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_A couple who likes to collect animals is being evicted from their giant French house by their son.

(from Thunderstruck)

In the December rain the buildings around the town square were the color of dirty fingernails. Still, the French had tried to jolly things up a bit. Decorations hung from streetlamps, though at midday you couldn’t tell what lit bulbs would reveal at night: A curried prawn? A goiter? People had dangled toddler-size nylon Father Christmases out their windows, each with a shoulder-borne sack of presents. There were dozens of Father Christmases, and they hung slack, sodden, like snagged kites. They looked lynched.

Tony drove the old Escort around the covered market a second time. He and Izzy and the kids had lived outside Bazaillac for eleven years. At the start, people in town called them Les Anglais, because they were the only ones. Now the whole valley was overrun with English. You could fly into Bergerac for three quid on Ryanair, flash the mere cover of your EU passport to the on-duty Frenchman, and strike out. You could buy an old presbytery or millhouse for next to nothing, turn the outbuildings into gites and rent them for the summer, and then sit back and live the good life — or so they thought. They renovated or half renovated the properties and then lost heart, complained about how many other English were in the area: you couldn’t go into a market without being assaulted by the terrible voices of your countrymen. Tony had heard that Slovenia and Macedonia were the new places to go. He wished Slovenia and Macedonia luck.

hereLooking back on this story after hours of contemplation and sleep, I can see that McCracken’s really laying the patheticness on pretty thick here: the titular three-legged dogs and other stray animals, the old parents who have barely a euro to their names, the excess of alcohol, the obese friend who lives in his truck, etc. But this only added up in a general sort of way while I reading it, and I didn’t once think I was being manipulated by unfortunate (or unlikely) forces. The story is what it is: beautiful. Especially the room full of budgies. But also the sad spectacle of this giant, withering house and the people within, also withering giants, in a way. Even Sid’s magnificent belly, which McCracken lingers on with awe, is afforded some semblance of respect. Read it here.

 

pic from budgiesareawesome.com

pic from budgiesareawesome.com

Words This Story Taught Me:

  • presbytery (n) the residence, or former residence, of one or more priests or ministers of religion
  • gîte (n) a holiday home which is available for rent; gîtes are usually fully furnished and equipped for self-catering
  • pineau (n) a regional French aperitif, made in the départements of Charente, Charente-Maritime and, to a much lesser extent, Dordogne in western France. It is a fortified wine (mistelle or vin de liqueur), made from a blend of lightly fermented grape must and Cognac eau-de-vie

Sam Lipsyte, “The Worm in Philly”

2592412_origA junkie decides he’s going to write a children’s book and goes looking for a publisher.

(from The Paris Review)

Classic American story: I was out of money and people I could ask for money. Then I got what the Greeks, or even the Greek Americans, call a eureka moment.

I would write a book for children about the great middleweight Marvelous Marvin Hagler. My father had been a sportswriter before he started forgetting things, like the fact he had been a sportswriter, so the idea did not seem crazy. Probably it’s like when your father is president. You think: if that fuck could do it.

Why Marvelous Marvin Hagler? He was one of the best of his time, my time, really, the time I was a boy. His marvels meant something to me. Why for children? Children were people you could reach. You could really reach out and reach them. Plus, low word count. That meant I’d get the money faster. I was experimenting with unemployment. I was no longer experimenting with drugs. I was more in what you’d call an implementation phase.

I love the way this story takes it for granted that I’m interested enough to figure out what’s going on, that it doesn’t stop to explain every little thing. It just keeps chugging along fast, to keep up with its wandering narrator and his wandering thoughts. This is what I’d hoped I find when I tried to read a Philip K. Dick novel (the name of which escapes me). Maybe I’m talking out of my ass here, but I think drug culture, in the hands of a good writer, can have a dystopian quality, the feeling that there’s this harsh system out there built for everybody but you, pushing you into the margins. This story’s beautiful, with a healthy respect for its tragicomically flawed subjects. Read it here.

Connie Willis, “A Letter from the Clearys”

9780345540652A girl living with her family deep in the woods finds a long lost letter.

(from The Best of Connie Willis)

My hands are a real mess. This winter I’ve gotten about a hundred burns on the back of my hands from that stupid wood stove of ours. One spot, just above my wrist, I keep burning over and over so it never has a chance to heal. The stove isn’t big enough and when I try to jam a log in that’s too long the same spot hits the inside of the stove every time. My stupid brother David won’t saw them off to the right length. I’ve asked him and asked him to please cut them shorter, but he doesn’t pay any attention to me.

I asked Mom if she would please tell him not to saw the logs so long, but she didn’t. She never criticizes David. As far as she’s concerned he can’t do anything wrong just because he’s twenty-three and was married.

Yeah, that’s the stuff. I love a story that offers a ground-level view of a worldwide incident. In this case, civilization seems to have been brought down by nuclear war. “A Letter from the Clearys” was first published in 1983, when nuclear annihilation was a more popular nightmare. This story reminded me of Peter Heller’s 2012 novel The Dog Stars, Which I read earlier this year. It also offered a rural and solitary view of post-civilization survivors (if I recall correctly, disease was the killer in that one). I bet you both will hold up for a long time; Willis and Heller are tapping into a thrilling/terrifying question we’ve all probably asked ourselves: If society went to hell, could we go back to living like pioneers?

Music purists turn up their noses at greatest hits compilations, but this thick, cheap collection was hard to resist (even though I was looking for a Willis novel at the time). Each story here comes with a postscript; in this one the author talks about the mountain town that inspired this story and offers advice for struggling writers facing rejection letters.