“Good-bye to the Fruits” — John Barth

“Good-bye to the Fruits”

by

John Barth

I agreed to die, stipulating only that I first be permitted to rebehold and bid good-bye to those of Earth’s fruits that I had particularly enjoyed in my not-extraordinary lifetime.
What I had in mind, in the first instance, was such literal items as apples and oranges. Of the former, the variety called Golden Delicious had long been my favorite, especially those with a blush of rose on their fetchingly speckled yellow-green cheeks. Of the latter–but then, there’s no comparing apples to oranges, is there, nor either of those to black plums: truly incomparable, in my opinion, on the rare occasions when one found them neither under- nor overripe. Good-bye to all three, alas; likewise to bananas, whether sliced transversely atop unsweetened breakfast cereal, split longitudinally under scoops of frozen yogurt, barbecued in foil with chutney, or blended with lime juice, rum, and Cointreau into frozen daiquiris on a Chesapeake August late afternoon.
Lime juice, yes: Farewell, dear zesty limes, squeezed into gins-and-tonics before stirring and over bluefish filets before grilling; adieu too to your citric cousins the lemons, particularly those with the thinnest of skins, always the most juiceful, without whose piquance one could scarcely imagine fresh seafood, and whose literal zest was such a challenge for us kitchen-copilots to scrape a half-tablespoonsworth of without getting the bitter white underpeel as well. Adieu to black seedless grapes for eating with ripe cheeses and to all the nobler stocks for vinting, except maybe Chardonnay. I happened not to share the American yuppie thirst for Chardonnay; too over-flavored for my palate. Give me a plain light dry Chablis any time instead of Chardonnay, if you can find so simple a thing on our restaurant wine-lists these days. And whatever happened to soft dry reds that don’t cost an arm and a leg on the one hand, so to speak, or, on the other, taste of iron and acetic acid? But this was no time for such cavils: Good-bye, blessed fruit of the vineyard, a dinner without which was like a day without et cetera. Good-bye to the fruits of those other vines, in particular the strawberry, if berries are properly to be called fruits, the tomato, and the only melon I would really miss, our local cantaloupe. Good-bye to that most sexual of fruits, the guava; to peaches, plantains (fried), pomegranates, and papayas; to the fruits of pineapple field and coconut tree, if nuts are fruits and coconuts nuts, and of whatever it is that kiwis grow on. As for pears, I had always thought them better canned than fresh, as Hemingway’s Nick Adams says of apricots in the story “Big Two-Hearted River”–but I couldn’t see kissing a can good-bye, so I guessed that just about did the fruits (I myself preferred my apricots sun-dried rather than either fresh or canned).

Read the rest of “Goodbye to the Fruits” — and two other John Barth shorts — in the Spring ’94 issue of Conjunctions.

“Forever Overhead” — David Foster Wallace

“Forever Overhead”

by

David Foster Wallace

Happy Birthday. Your thirteenth is important. Maybe your first really public day. Your thirteenth is the chance for people to recognize that important things are happening to you.

Things have been happening to you for the past half year. You have seven hairs in your left armpit now. Twelve in your right. Hard dangerous spirals of brittle black hair. Crunchy, animal hair. There are now more of the hard curled hairs around your privates than you can count without losing track. Other things. Your voice is rich and scratchy and moves between octaves without any warning. Your face has begun to get shiny when you don’t wash it. And two weeks of a deep and frightening ache this past spring left you with something dropped down from inside: your sack is now full and vulnerable, a commodity to be protected. Hefted and strapped in tight supporters that stripe your buttocks red. You have grown into a new fragility.

And dreams. For months there have been dreams like nothing before: moist and busy and distant, full of yielding curves, frantic pistons, warmth and a great falling; and you have awakened through fluttering lids to a rush and a gush and a toe-curling scalp-snapping jolt of a feeling from an inside deeper than you knew you had, spasms of a deep sweet hurt, the streetlights though your window blinds cracking into sharp stars against the black bedroom ceiling, and on you a dense white jam that lisps between legs, trickles and sticks, cools on you, hardens and clears until there is nothing but gnarled knots of pale solid animal hair in the morning shower, and in the wet tangle a clean sweet smell you can’t believe comes from anything you made inside you.

The smell is, more than anything like this swimming pool: a bleached sweet salt, a flower with chemical petals. The pool has a strong clear blue smell, though you know the smell is never as strong when you are actually in the blue water, as you are now, all swum out, resting back along the shallow end, the hip-high water lapping at where it’s all changed.

Around the deck of this old public pool on the western edge of Tucson is a Cyclone fence the color of pewter, decorated with a bright tangle of locked bicycles. Beyond this a hot black parking lot full of white lines and glittering cars. A dull field of dry grass and hard weeds, old dandelions’ downy heads exploding and snowing up in a rising wind. And past all this, reddened by a round slow September sun, are mountains, jagged, their tops’ sharp angles darkening into definition against a deep red tired light. Against the red their sharp connected tops form a spiked line, an EKG of the dying day.

[Read the rest of “Forever Overhead.”]

“The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio” — Ernest Hemingway

“The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio”

by

Ernest Hemingway

THEY brought them in around midnight and then, all night long, everyone along the corridor heard the Russian.
‘Where is he shot?’ Mr. Frazer asked the night nurse.

‘In the thigh, I think.’
‘What about the other one?’
‘Oh, he’s going to die, I’m afraid.’
‘Where is he shot?’
‘Twice in the abdomen. They only found one of the bullets.’

They were both beet workers, a Mexican and a Russian, and they were sitting drinking coffee in an all-night restaurant when someone came in the door and started shooting at the Mexican. The Russian crawled under a table and was hit, finally, by a stray shot fired at the Mexican as he lay on the floor with two bullets in his abdomen. That was what the paper said.

The Mexican told the police he had no idea who shot him.
He believed it to be an accident.

‘An accident that he fired eight shots at you and hit you twice, there?’
‘Si, señor,’ said the Mexican, who was named Cayetano Ruiz, ‘An accident that he hit me at all, the cabron,’ he said to the interpreter.
‘What does he say?’ asked the detective sergeant, looking across the bed at the interpreter.
‘He says it was an accident.’
‘Tell him to tell the truth, that he is going to die,’ the detective said.
‘Na,’ said Cayetano. ‘But tell him that I feel very sick and would prefer not to talk so much.’
‘He says that he is telling the truth,’ the interpreter said.
Then, speaking confidently, to the detective, ‘He don’t know who shot him. They shot him in the back.’
‘Yes,’ said the detective. ‘I understand that, but why did the bullets all go in the front?’
‘Maybe he is spinning around,’ said the interpreter.
‘Listen,’ said the detective, shaking his finger almost at Cayetano’s nose, which projected, waxen yellow, from his dead-man’s face in which his eyes were alive as a hawk’s, ‘I don’t give a damn who shot you, but I’ve got to clear this thing up. Don’t you want the man who shot you to be punished? Tell him that,’ he said to the interpreter.
‘He says to tell who shot you.’
‘Mandarlo al carajo,’ said Cayetano, who was very tired.
‘He says he never saw the fellow at all,’ the interpreter said. ‘I tell you straight they shot him in the back.’
‘Ask him who shot the Russian.’
‘Poor Russian,’ said Cayetano. ‘He was on the floor with his head enveloped in his arms. He started to give cries when they shoot him and he is giving cries ever since. Poor Russian.’
‘He says some fellow that he doesn’t know. Maybe the same fellow that shot him.’
‘Listen,’ the detective said. ‘This isn’t Chicago. You’re not a gangster. You don’t have to act like a moving picture. It’s all right to tell who shot you. Anybody would tell who shot them. That’s all right to do. Suppose you don’t tell who he is and he shoots somebody else. Suppose he shoots a woman or a child. You can’t let him get away with that. You tell him,’ he said to Mr. Frazer. ‘I don’t trust that damn interpreter.’
‘I am very reliable,’ the interpreter said. Cayetano looked at Mr. Frazer.
‘Listen, amigo,’ said Mr. Frazer. ‘The policeman says that we are not in Chicago but in Hailey, Montana. You are not a bandit and this has nothing to do with the cinema.’
‘I believe him,’ said Cayetano softly. ‘Ya lo creo.’
‘One can, with honour, denounce one’s assailant. Every one does it here, he says. He says what happens if after shooting you, this man shoots a woman or a child?’
‘I am not married,’ Cayetano said.
‘He says any woman, any child.’
‘The man is not crazy,’ Cayetano said.
‘He says you should denounce him,’ Mr. Frazer finished.
‘Thank you,’ Cayetano said. ‘You are of the great translators. I speak English, but badly. I understand it all right. How did you break your leg?’
‘A fall off a horse.’
‘What bad luck. I am very sorry. Does it hurt much?’
‘Not now. At first, yes.’
‘Listen, amigo,’ Cayetano began, ‘I am very weak. You will pardon me. Also I have much pain; enough pain. It is very possible that I die. Please get this policeman out of here because I am very tired.’ He made as though to roll to one side; then held himself still.
‘I told him everything exactly as you said and he said to tell you, truly, that he doesn’t know who shot him and that he is very weak and wishes you would question him later on,’ Mr. Frazer said.
‘He’ll probably be dead later on.’
‘That’s quite possible.’
‘That’s why I want to question him now.’
‘Somebody shot him in the back, I tell you,’ the interpreter said.
‘Oh, for Chrisake,’ the detective sergeant said, and put his notebook in his pocket.
Outside in the corridor the detective sergeant stood with the interpreter beside Mr. Frazer’s wheeled chair.
‘I suppose you think somebody shot him in the back too?’
‘Yes,’ Frazer said. ‘Somebody shot him in the back. What’s it to you?’
‘Don’t get sore,’ the sergeant said. ‘I wish I could talk spick.’
‘Why don’t you learn?’
‘You don’t have to get sore. I don’t get any fun out of asking that spick question. If I could talk spick it would be different.’
‘You don’t need to talk Spanish,’ the interpreter said. ‘I’m a very reliable interpreter.’
‘Oh, for Chrisake,’ the sergeant said. ‘Well, so long. I’ll come up and see you.’
‘Thanks. I’m always in.’
‘I guess you are all right. That was bad luck all right. Plenty bad luck.’
‘It’s coming along good now since he spliced the bone.’
‘Yes, but it’s a long time. A long, long time.’
‘Don’t let anybody shoot you in the back.’
‘That’s right,’ he said. ‘That’s right. Well, I’m glad you’re not sore.’
‘So long,’ said Mr. Frazer.

Mr. Frazer did not see Cayetano again for a long time, but each morning Sister Cecilia brought news of him. He was so uncomplaining she said and he was very bad now. He had peritonitis and they thought he could not live. Poor Cayetano, she said. He had such beautiful hands and such a fine face and he never complains. The odour, now, was really terrific. He would point toward his nose with one finger and smile and shake his head, she said. He felt badly about the odour. It embarrassed him, Sister Cecilia said. Oh, he was such a fine patient. He always smiled. He wouldn’t go to confession to Father but he promised to say his prayers, and not a Mexican had been to see him since he had been brought in. The Russian was going out at the end of the week. I could never feel anything about the Russian, Sister Cecilia said. Poor fellow, he suffered too. It was a greased bullet and dirty and the wound infected, but he made so much noise and then I always like the bad ones. That Cayetano, he’s a bad one. Oh, he must really be a bad one, a thoroughly bad one, he’s so fine and delicately made and he’s never done any work with his hands. He’s not a beet worker. I know he’s not a beet worker. His hands are as smooth and not a callous on them. I know he’s a bad one of some sort. I’m going down and pray for him now. Poor Cayetano, he’s having a dreadful time and he doesn’t make a sound. What did they have to shoot him for? Oh, that poor Cayetano! I’m going right down and pray for him.
She went right down and prayed for him.

Read More

Read James Purdy’s short story “The White Blackbird”

“The White Blackbird”

by

James Purdy

EVEN BEFORE I REACHED my one hundredth birthday, I had made several wills, and yet just before I put down my signature

Delia Mattlock

my hand refused to form the letters. My attorney was in despair. I had outlived everyone and there was only one person to whom I could bequeath much, my young godson, and he was not yet twenty-one.
I am putting all this down more to explain the course of events to myself than to leave this as a document to posterity, for as I say, outside of my godson, Clyde Furness, even my lifelong servants have departed this life.
The reason I could not sign my name then is simply this: piece by piece my family jewels have been disappearing over the last few years, and today as I near my one hundred years all of these precious heirlooms one by one have vanished into thin air.
I blamed myself at first, for even as a young girl I used to misplace articles, to the great sorrow of my mother. My great grandmother’s gold thimble is an example. You would lose your head if it wasn’t tied on, Mother would joke rather sourly. I lost my graduation watch, I lost my diamond engagement ring, and, if I had not taken the vow never to remove it, my wedding ring to Will Mattlock would have also taken flight. I will never remove it and will go to my grave wearing it.
But to return to the jewels. They go back in my family over two hundred years, and yes, piece by piece, as I say, they have been disappearing. Take my emerald necklace — its loss nearly finished me. But what of my diamond earrings, the lavaliere over a century old, my ruby earrings — oh, why mention them? For to mention them is like a stab in the heart.
I could tell no one for fear they would think I had lost my wits, and then they would blame the servants, who were I knew blameless, such perfect, even holy, caretakers of me and mine.
But there came the day when I felt I must at least hint to my godson that my jewels were all by now unaccounted for. I hesitated weeks, months before telling him.
About Clyde now. His Uncle Enos told me many times that it was his heartbroken conviction that Clyde was somewhat retarded. “Spends all his time in the forest,” Enos went on, “failed every grade in school, couldn’t add up a column of figures or do his multiplication tables.”
“Utter rot and nonsense,” I told Enos. “Clyde is bright as a silver dollar. I have taught him all he needs to know, and I never had to teach him twice because he has a splendid memory. In fact, Enos, he is becoming my memory.”
Then of course Enos had to die. Only sixty, went off like a puff of smoke while reading the weekly racing news.
So then there was only Clyde and me. We played cards, chess, and then one day he caught sight of my old Ouija board.
I went over to where he was looking at it. That was when I knew I would tell him — of the jewels vanishing, of course.
Who else was there? Yet Clyde is a boy, I thought, forgetting he was now twenty, for he looked only fourteen to my eyes.
“Put the Ouija board down for a while,” I asked him. “I have something to tell you, Clyde.”
He sat down and looked at me out of his handsome hazel eyes.
I think he already knew what I was to say.
But I got out the words.
“My heirloom jewels, Clyde, have been taken.” My voice sounded far away and more like Uncle Enos’s than mine.
“All, Delia?” Clyde whispered, staring still sideways at the Ouija board.
“All, all. One by one over the past three years they have been slipping away. I have almost wondered sometimes if there are spirits, Clyde.”
He shook his head.
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“The Ethnographer” — Jorge Luis Borges

“The Ethnographer”
by
Jorge Luis Borges

I was told about the case in Texas, but it had happened in another state. It has a single protagonist (though in every story there are thousands of protagonists, visible and invisible, alive and dead). The man’s name, I believe, was Fred Murdock. He was tall, as Americans are; his hair was neither blond nor dark, his features were sharp, and he spoke very little. There was nothing singular about him, not even that feigned singularity that young men affect. He was naturally respectful, and he distrusted neither books nor the men and women who write them. He was at that age when a man doesn’t yet know who he is, and so is ready to throw himself into whatever chance puts in his way — Persian mysticism or the unknown origins of Hungarian, the hazards of war or algebra, Puritanism or orgy. At the university, an adviser had interested him in Amerindian languages. Certain esoteric rites still survived in certain tribes out West; one of his professors, an older man, suggested that he go live on a reservation, observe the rites, and discover the secret revealed by the medicine men to the initiates. When he came back, he would have his dissertation, and the university authorities would see that it was published. Murdock leaped at the suggestion. One of his ancestors had died in the frontier wars; that bygone conflict of his race was now a link. He must have foreseen the difficulties that lay ahead for him; he would have to convince the red men to accept him as one of their own. He set out upon the long adventure. He lived for more than two years on the prairie, sometimes sheltered by adobe walls and sometimes in the open. He rose before dawn, went to bed at sundown, and came to dream in a language that was not that of his fathers. He conditioned his palate to harsh flavors, he covered himself with strange clothing, he forgot his friends and the city, he came to think in a fashion that the logic of his mind rejected. During the first few months of his new education he secretly took notes; later, he tore the notes up — perhaps to avoid drawing suspicion upon himself, perhaps because he no longer needed them. After a period of time (determined upon in advance by certain practices, both spiritual and physical), the priest instructed Murdock to start remembering his dreams, and to recount them to him at daybreak each morning. The young man found that on nights of the full moon he dreamed of buffalo. He reported these recurrent dreams to his teacher; the teacher at last revealed to him the tribe’s secret doctrine. One morning, without saying a word to anyone, Murdock left.

In the city, he was homesick for those first evenings on the prairie when, long ago, he had been homesick for the city. He made his way to his professor’s office and told him that he knew the secret, but had resolved not to reveal it.

“Are you bound by your oath?” the professor asked.

“That’s not the reason,” Murdock replied. “I learned something out there that I can’t express.”

“The English language may not be able to communicate it,” the professor suggested.

“That’s not it, sir. Now that I possess the secret, I could tell it in a hundred different and even contradictory ways. I don’t know how to tell you this, but the secret is beautiful, and science, our science, seems mere frivolity to me now.”

After a pause he added: “And anyway, the secret is not as important as the paths that led me to it. Each person has to walk those paths himself.”

The professor spoke coldly: “I will inform the committee of your decision. Are you planning to live among the Indians?”

“No,” Murdock answered. “I may not even go back to the prairie. What the men of the prairie taught me is good anywhere and for any circumstances.”

That was the essence of their conversation.

Fred married, divorced, and is now one of the librarians at Yale.

(Translation by Andrew Hurley).

Read Barry Hannah’s perfect short story “Even Greenland”

I was sitting radar. Actually doing nothing.

We had been up to seventy-five thousand to give the afternoon some jazz. I guess we were still in Mexico, coming into Mirimar eventually in the F-14. It doesn’t much matter after you’ve seen the curvature of the earth. For a while, nothing much matters at all. We’d had three sunsets already. I guess it’s what you’d call really living the day.

But then, “John,” said I, “this plane’s on fire.”

“I know it,” he said.

John was sort of short and angry about it.

“You thought of last-minute things any?” said I.

“Yeah. I ran out of a couple of things already. But they were cold, like. They didn’t catch the moment. Bad writing,” said John.

“You had the advantage. You’ve been knowing,” said I.

“Yeah. I was going to get a leap on you. I was going to smoke you. Everything you said, it wasn’t going to be good enough,” said he.

“But it’s not like that,” said I. “Is it?”

The wings were turning red. I guess you’d call it red. It was a shade against dark blue that was mystical flamingo, very spaceylike, like living blood. Was the plane bleeding?

“You have a good time in Peru?” said I.

“Not really,” said John. “I got something to tell you. I haven’t had a ‘good time’ in a long time. There’s something between me and a good time since, I don’t know, since I was was twenty-eight or like that. I’ve seen a lot, but you know I haven’t quite seen it. Like somebody’s seen it already. It wasn’t fresh. There were eyes that used it up some.”

“Even high in Mérida?” said I.

“Even,” said John.

“Even Greenland?” said I.

Read the rest of Barry Hannah’s short story “Even Greenland.”

“Dreams” — Guy de Maupassant

“Dreams”

by

Guy de Maupassant

They had just dined together, five old friends, a writer, a doctor and three rich bachelors without any profession.

They had talked about everything, and a feeling of lassitude came over them, that feeling which precedes and leads to the departure of guests after festive gatherings. One of those present, who had for the last five minutes been gazing silently at the surging boulevard dotted with gas-lamps, with its rattling vehicles, said suddenly:

“When you’ve nothing to do from morning till night, the days are long.”

“And the nights too,” assented the guest who sat next to him. “I sleep very little; pleasures fatigue me; conversation is monotonous. Never do I come across a new idea, and I feel, before talking to any one, a violent longing to say nothing and to listen to nothing. I don’t know what to do with my evenings.”

The third idler remarked:

“I would pay a great deal for anything that would help me to pass just two pleasant hours every day.”

The writer, who had just thrown his overcoat across his arm, turned round to them, and said:

“The man who could discover a new vice and introduce it among his fellow creatures, even if it were to shorten their lives, would render a greater service to humanity than the man who found the means of securing to them eternal salvation and eternal youth.”

The doctor burst out laughing, and, while he chewed his cigar, he said:

“Yes, but it is not so easy to discover it. Men have however crudely, been seeking for—and working for the object you refer to since the beginning of the world. The men who came first reached perfection at once in this way. We are hardly equal to them.”

One of the three idlers murmured:

“What a pity!”

Then, after a minute’s pause, he added:

“If we could only sleep, sleep well, without feeling hot or cold, sleep with that perfect unconsciousness we experience on nights when we are thoroughly fatigued, sleep without dreams.”

“Why without dreams?” asked the guest sitting next to him.

The other replied:

“Because dreams are not always pleasant; they are always fantastic, improbable, disconnected; and because when we are asleep we cannot have the sort of dreams we like. We ought to dream waking.”

“And what’s to prevent you?” asked the writer.

The doctor flung away the end of his cigar.

“My dear fellow, in order to dream when you are awake, you need great power and great exercise of will, and when you try to do it, great weariness is the result. Now, real dreaming, that journey of our thoughts through delightful visions, is assuredly the sweetest experience in the world; but it must come naturally, it must not be provoked in a painful, manner, and must be accompanied by absolute bodily comfort. This power of dreaming I can give you, provided you promise that you will not abuse it.”

The writer shrugged his shoulders:

“Ah! yes, I know—hasheesh, opium, green tea—artificial paradises. I have read Baudelaire, and I even tasted the famous drug, which made me very sick.”

But the doctor, without stirring from his seat, said:

“No; ether, nothing but ether; and I would suggest that you literary men should use it sometimes.”

The three rich bachelors drew closer to the doctor.

One of them said:

“Explain to us the effects of it.”

And the doctor replied:

“Let us put aside big words, shall we not? I am not talking of medicine or morality; I am talking of pleasure. You give yourselves up every day to excesses which consume your lives. I want to indicate to you a new sensation, possible only to intelligent men—let us say even very intelligent men—dangerous, like everything else that overexcites our organs, but exquisite. I might add that you would require a certain preparation, that is to say, practice, to feel in all their completeness the singular effects of ether.

“They are different from the effects of hasheesh, of opium, or morphia, and they cease as soon as the absorption of the drug is interrupted, while the other generators of day dreams continue their action for hours.

“I am now going to try to analyze these feelings as clearly as possible. But the thing is not easy, so facile, so delicate, so almost imperceptible, are these sensations.

“It was when I was attacked by violent neuralgia that I made use of this remedy, which since then I have, perhaps, slightly abused.

“I had acute pains in my head and neck, and an intolerable heat of the skin, a feverish restlessness. I took up a large bottle of ether, and, lying down, I began to inhale it slowly.

“At the end of some minutes I thought I heard a vague murmur, which ere long became a sort of humming, and it seemed to me that all the interior of my body had become light, light as air, that it was dissolving into vapor.

“Then came a sort of torpor, a sleepy sensation of comfort, in spite of the pains which still continued, but which had ceased to make themselves felt. It was one of those sensations which we are willing to endure and not any of those frightful wrenches against which our tortured body protests.

“Soon the strange and delightful sense of emptiness which I felt in my chest extended to my limbs, which, in their turn, became light, as light as if the flesh and the bones had been melted and the skin only were left, the skin necessary to enable me to realize the sweetness of living, of bathing in this sensation of well-being. Then I perceived that I was no longer suffering. The pain had gone, melted away, evaporated. And I heard voices, four voices, two dialogues, without understanding what was said. At one time there were only indistinct sounds, at another time a word reached my ear. But I recognized that this was only the humming I had heard before, but emphasized. I was not asleep; I was not awake; I comprehended, I felt, I reasoned with the utmost clearness and depth, with extraordinary energy and intellectual pleasure, with a singular intoxication arising from this separation of my mental faculties.

“It was not like the dreams caused by hasheesh or the somewhat sickly visions that come from opium; it was an amazing acuteness of reasoning, a new way of seeing, judging and appreciating the things of life, and with the certainty, the absolute consciousness that this was the true way.

“And the old image of the Scriptures suddenly came back to my mind. It seemed to me that I had tasted of the Tree of Knowledge, that all the mysteries were unveiled, so much did I find myself under the sway of a new, strange and irrefutable logic. And arguments, reasonings, proofs rose up in a heap before my brain only to be immediately displaced by some stronger proof, reasoning, argument. My head had, in fact, become a battleground of ideas. I was a superior being, armed with invincible intelligence, and I experienced a huge delight at the manifestation of my power.

“It lasted a long, long time. I still kept inhaling the ether from my flagon. Suddenly I perceived that it was empty.”

The four men exclaimed at the same time:

“Doctor, a prescription at once for a liter of ether!”

But the doctor, putting on his hat, replied:

“As to that, certainly not; go and let some one else poison you!”

And he left them.

Ladies and gentlemen, what is your opinion on the subject?

“The Crystal Crypt” — Philip K. Dick

“The Crystal Crypt” by Philip K. Dick

“ATTENTION, Inner-Flight ship! Attention! You are ordered to land at the Control Station on Deimos for inspection. Attention! You are to land at once!”

The metallic rasp of the speaker echoed through the corridors of the great ship. The passengers glanced at each other uneasily, murmuring and peering out the port windows at the small speck below, the dot of rock that was the Martian checkpoint, Deimos.

“What’s up?” an anxious passenger asked one of the pilots, hurrying through the ship to check the escape lock.

“We have to land. Keep seated.” The pilot went on.

“Land? But why?” They all looked at each other. Hovering above the bulging Inner-Flight ship were three slender Martian pursuit craft, poised and alert for any emergency. As the Inner-Flight ship prepared to land the pursuit ships dropped lower, carefully maintaining themselves a short distance away.

“There’s something going on,” a woman passenger said nervously. “Lord, I thought we were finally through with those Martians. Now what?”

“I don’t blame them for giving us one last going over,” a heavy-set business man said to his companion. “After all, we’re the last ship leaving Mars for Terra. We’re damn lucky they let us go at all.”

“You think there really will be war?” A young man said to the girl sitting in the seat next to him. “Those Martians won’t dare fight, not with our weapons and ability to produce. We could take care of Mars in a month. It’s all talk.”

The girl glanced at him. “Don’t be so sure. Mars is desperate. They’ll fight tooth and nail. I’ve been on Mars three years.” She shuddered. “Thank goodness I’m getting away. If—”

“Prepare to land!” the pilot’s voice came. The ship began to settle slowly, dropping down toward the tiny emergency field on the seldom visited moon. Down, down the ship dropped. There was a grinding sound, a sickening jolt. Then silence.

“We’ve landed,” the heavy-set business man said. “They better not do anything to us! Terra will rip them apart if they violate one Space Article.”

“Please keep your seats,” the pilot’s voice came. “No one is to leave the ship, according to the Martian authorities. We are to remain here.”

A restless stir filled the ship. Some of the passengers began to read uneasily, others stared out at the deserted field, nervous and on edge, watching the three Martian pursuit ships land and disgorge groups of armed men.

The Martian soldiers were crossing the field quickly, moving toward them, running double time.

This Inner-Flight spaceship was the last passenger vessel to leave Mars for Terra. All other ships had long since left, returning to safety before the outbreak of hostilities. The passengers were the very last to go, the final group of Terrans to leave the grim red planet, business men, expatriates, tourists, any and all Terrans who had not already gone home.

“What do you suppose they want?” the young man said to the girl. “It’s hard to figure Martians out, isn’t it? First they give the ship clearance, let us take off, and now they radio us to set down again. By the way, my name’s Thacher, Bob Thacher. Since we’re going to be here awhile—”

Read the rest of “The Crystal Crypt” at Project Gutenberg.

“What Have You Done?” — Ben Marcus

When Paul’s flight landed in Cleveland, they were waiting for him. They’d probably arrived early, set up camp right where passengers float off the escalator scanning for family. They must have huddled there watching the arrivals board, hoping in the backs of their minds, and the mushy front parts of their minds, too, yearning with their entire minds, that Paul would do what he usually did—or didn’t—and just not come home.

But this time he’d come, and he’d hoped to arrive alone, to be totally alone until the very last second. The plan was to wash up, to be one of those fat guys at the wall of sinks in the airport bathroom, soaping their underarms, changing shirts. Then he’d get a Starbucks, grab his bag, take a taxi out to the house. That way he could delay the face time with these people. Delay the body time, the time itself, the time, while he built up his nerve, or whatever strategy it was that you employed when bracing yourself for Cleveland. For the people of Cleveland. His people.

They had texted him, though, and now here they were in a lump, pressed so tightly together you could almost have buckshot the three of them down with a single pull. Not that he was a hunter. Dad, Alicia, and Rick. The whole sad gang, minus one. Paul considered walking up to them and holding out his wrists, as if they were going to cuff him and lead him away. You have been sentenced to a week with your family! But they wouldn’t get it, and then, forever more, he’d be the one who had started it, after so many years away, the one who had triggered all the difficulty yet again with his bullshit and games, and why did he need to queer the thing before the thing had even begun, unless, gasp, he wanted to set fire to his whole life

Read the rest of Ben Marcus’s story “What Have You Done?” at The New Yorker.

Read “Jumping the Line,” A Very Short Story by Mikhail Bulgakov

“Jumping the Line”

by

Mikhail Bulgakov

There was a line outside the Moscow Criminal Investigations Department.
“Oh. . . Geez . . . all this waiting and waiting!”
“Even here there’s a line!”
“What can you do? Do you happen to be a bookkeeper, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Nope, I’m a cashier.”
“Did you come to get arrested?”
“Yeah, what else!”
“That’s good. So how much were you caught with, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Three thousand smackers.”
“That’s nothing, young man. You’ll just get a year. But if you take your heartfelt repentance into consideration . . . and the fact that the Bolshevik Anniversary is coming up . . . so, all in all, you’ll do three months, and then, the sweet bird of freedom!”
“You sure? You’re comforting me no end. I was already real desperate. Yesterday I went to see a lawyer, and he scared the living daylights out of me–the article, he tells me, is such that you won’t get away with less than two years’ hard labor.
“Pure twaddle, young man! Trust my experience. Hey, you there! Where do you think you’re going? Get back in line!”
“Citizens! Let me pass! I filched some official money! My con- science is biting me!”
“Everyone’s conscience is biting them! You’re not the only one!”
“I squandered the entire holdings of the Moscow Agrarian Industry Store in drink!” a low voice kept mumbling.
“Quite a fellow, aren’t you! You’ll pay for it now! You’ll never see the light of day again!”
“That’s not true! What if I’m ignorant? And not educated? And there are hereditary social conditions, huh? And my previous con- viction? And being an alcoholic?”
“How come they put you, an alcoholic, in charge of the wine store?”
“I did warn them!”
“Hey you! Where do you think you’re going?”
“Citizen Officer! I am tortured by remorse!”
“Hey, stop pushing! I’m tortured too!”
“Excuse me! I’ve been waiting here since ten in the morning to get arrested!”
“Just give me your last name, place of employment, amount!”
“Fioletov, Misha, tortured by remorseful conscience!”
“How much?”
“In Makrettrest–two hundred smackers.”
“Sidorchuk! Process this Fioletov!”
“May I take my toothbrush with me?”
“You may! And you, what was the amount?”
“Seven people.”
“A family?”
“Exactly.”
“And how much was it you took?”
“Two hundted in cash, a robe, a watch and some candlesticks.”
“I don’t get it. An official’s robe?”
“What do you mean? Us guys don’t deal with officials. It was a private family. Shtippelman.”
“You’re Shtippelman?”
“Me? No!”
“Then what’s Shtippelman got to do with it?”
“What he’s got to do with it is we knifed him. I’m reporting seven people: his wife, five children and their granny.”
“Sidorchuk! Kakhrushin! Take preventive measures! Now!”
“Excuse me, Citizen Officer! Why is this man getting preferential treatment?”
“Please, citizens! Be conscientious! this man is a murderer!”
“Big deal! You’re telling us he’s a big shot or something? For all you know I might have blown up a state institution!”
“This is an outrage! Bureaucracy! We will complain!”

Translated from Russian by Anneta Greenlee and published in the Fall ’98 issue of Conjunctions—read more Bulgakov stories there.

“Gavin Highly” — Janet Frame

Did it happen this way? The land lay like stone, and one night, all night long, rain pelted down on it the way people, they say, hammer hard on a stone to find blood. And in the morning the land was cut in two by a deep flow of creek, clotted with red weed—Gavin Highly’s creek.

But all this was a long time ago. I did not know back then that hearts could be laid out like land and cut in two by storms coming out of the sky, or that dreams could be thrown, as Gavin Highly threw the ashes of his fire or his oyster shells or his old tins and bottles or his scraps of food, deep into the dark flowing divided heart to be buried there. I did not know, and my brother did not know. We cared more about plums—ah, they were yellow and dusty blue and hung on trees, over Gavin Highly’s fence, and in the early autumn the sun burned on each plum till its tight yellow or blue dusty skin gave in and rolled up like a blind to let in more sun. The plums split and were ripe and we ate them and, if Gavin Highly caught us, all he said, in one breath, was “Hop-it-you.” I think he understood about plums.

Read the rest of Janet Frame’s story “Gavin Highly” at The New Yorker.

“Jon” — George Saunders

Back in the time of which I am speaking, due to our Coördinators had mandated us, we had all seen that educational video of “It’s Yours to Do With What You Like!” in which teens like ourselfs speak on the healthy benefits of getting off by oneself and doing what one feels like in terms of self-touching, which what we learned from that video was, there is nothing wrong with self-touching, because love is a mystery but the mechanics of love need not be, so go off alone, see what is up, with you and your relation to your own gonads, and the main thing is, just have fun, feeling no shame!

And then nightfall would fall and our facility would fill with the sounds of quiet fast breathing from inside our Privacy Tarps as we all experimented per the techniques taught us in “It’s Yours to Do With What You Like!” and what do you suspect, you had better make sure that that little gap between the main wall and the sliding wall that slides out to make your Gender Areas is like really really small. Which guess what, it wasn’t.

That is all what I am saying.

Read the rest of George Saunders’s short story “Jon” at The New Yorker.

“The Toll-Gatherer’s Day” — Nathaniel Hawthorne

“The Toll-Gatherer’s Day”

by

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Methinks, for a person whose instinct bids him rather to pore over the current of life than to plunge into its tumultuous waves, no undesirable retreat were a toll-house beside some thronged thoroughfare of the land. In youth, perhaps, it is good for the observer to run about the earth, to leave the track of his footsteps far and wide, to mingle himself with the action of numberless vicissitudes, and, finally, in some calm solitude to feed a musing spirit on all that he has seen and felt. But there are natures too indolent or too sensitive to endure the dust, the sunshine or the rain, the turmoil of moral and physical elements, to which all the wayfarers of the world expose themselves. For such a man how pleasant a miracle could life be made to roll its variegated length by the threshold of his own hermitage, and the great globe, as it were, perform its revolutions and shift its thousand scenes before his eyes without whirling him onward in its course! If any mortal be favored with a lot analogous to this, it is the toll-gatherer. So, at least, have I often fancied while lounging on a bench at the door of a small square edifice which stands between shore and shore in the midst of a long bridge. Beneath the timbers ebbs and flows an arm of the sea, while above, like the life-blood through a great artery, the travel of the north and east is continually throbbing. Sitting on the aforesaid bench, I amuse myself with a conception, illustrated by numerous pencil-sketches in the air, of the toll-gatherer’s day. Read More

“The Emerald” — Donald Barthelme

Hey buddy what’s your name?
My name is Tope. What’s your name?
My name is Sallywag. You after the emerald?
Yeah I’m after the emerald you after the emerald too?
I am. What are you going to do with it if you get it?
Cut it up into little emeralds. What are you going to do with it?
I was thinking of solid emerald armchairs. For the rich.
That’s an idea. What’s your name, you?
Wide Boy.
You after the emerald?
Sure as shootin’.
How you going to get in?
Blast. That’s going to make a lot of noise isn’t it?
You think it’s a bad idea?
Well…What’s your name, you there?
Taptoe.
You after the emerald?
Right as rain. What’s more, I got a plan.
Can we see it?
No it’s my plan I can’t be showing it to every—
Okay okay. What’s that guy’s name behind you?
My name is Sometimes.
You here about the emerald, Sometimes?
I surely am.
Have you got an approach?
Tunneling. I’ve took some test borings. Looks like a stone cinch.
If this is the right place.
You think this may not be the right place?
The last three places haven’t been the right place.
You tryin’ to bring me down?
Why would I want to do that? What’s that guy’s name, the one with the shades?
My name is Brother. Who are all these people?
Businessmen. What do you think of the general situation, Brother?
I think it’s crowded. This is my pal, Wednesday.
What say, Wednesday. After the emerald, I presume?
Thought we’d have a go.
Two heads better than one, that the idea?
Yep.
What are you going to do with the emerald, if you get it?
Facet. Facet and facet and facet.

Read the rest of Donald Barthelme’s short story “The Emerald.”

 

“A Night at the Opera” — Janet Frame

We acted the cliché. We melted with laughter. Not the prickly melt that comes from sitting on a hot stove but the cool relaxing melt, in defiance of chemistry, like dropping deep into a liquid feather bed. We did not know or remember the reason for laughing. There was a film, yes: a dumb sad man with hair like wheat and round eyes like paddling pools; another man with a mustache like a toy hearth brush; and many other people and things—blondes, irate managers, stepladders, whitewash, all the stuff of farce. And there was a darkened opera house growing cardboard trees and shining wooden moons.

I shall never know why we laughed so much. Perhaps other films had been as funny, but this one seemed to contain for us a total laughter, a storehouse of laughter, like a hive where we children, spindly-legged as bees, would forever bring our foragings of fun to mellow and replenish this almost unbelievably collapsing mirth.

Nor was it the kind of laughter that cheats by turning in the end to tears, or by needing reinforcement with imagery. It was, simply, like being thrown on a swing into the sky, and the swing staying there, as in one of those trick pictures we had seen so often and marvelled at—divers leaping back to the springboard, horses racing back to the starting barrier. It was like stepping off the swing and promenading the sky.

After the film, we managed somehow to walk home. The afternoon was ragged with leaves and the dreary, hungry untidiness of a child’s half past four. Faces and streets seemed wet and serious. The hem of sky, undone, hung down dirty and gray.

But the laughter stayed with us, crippling, floating, rolling, aching, dissolving.

“It must have been a comic picture,” our mother said, not knowing, not knowing, when she saw our faces.

Read the rest of Janet Frame’s short story “A Night at the Opera.”

“The Royal Command,” A Surreal Short Story by Leonora Carrington

“The Royal Command”

by

Leonora Carrington

I had received a royal command to visit the rulers of my country.

The invitation, in gold letters in relief and adorned with roses and swallows, was bordered in lace.

I went to look for my car, but the chauffeur, who lacks practical sense, had buried it.

“It’s to grow mushrooms,” he told me. “Nothing better for mushrooms.”

“Brady,” I said to him, “you are an imbecile of the first degree. You have ruined my car.”

Actually, since the car was completely ruined, I had to rent a horse-pulled buggy.

Upon reaching the palace, an impossible servant, dressed in red and gold, said to me: “The queen went crazy yesterday; she is in her bathtub.”

“How unfortunate!” I exclaimed. “How did that happen?”

“It’s the heat.”

“Can I see her in any event?” (I hoped I hadn’t made the long voyage for nothing.)
Read More

“Food” — Donald Barthelme

I was preparing a meal for Celeste-a meal of a certain elegance, as when arrivals or other rites of passage are to be celebrated.

First off there were Saltines of the very best quality and of a special crispness, squareness, and flatness, obtained at great personal sacrifice by making representations to the National Biscuit Company through its authorized nuncios in my vicinity. Upon these was spread with a hand lavish and not sitting Todd’s Liver Pate, the same having been robbed from geese and other famous animals and properly adulterated with cereals and other well-chosen extenders and the whole delicately spiced with calcium propionate to retard spoilage. Next there were rare cheese products from Wisconsin wrapped in gold foil in exquisite tints with interesting printings thereon, including some very artful representations of cows, the same being clearly in the best of health and good humor. Next there were dips of all kinds including clam, bacon with horseradish, onion soup with sour cream, and the like, which only my long acquaintance with some very high-up members of the Borden company allowed to grace my table. Next there were Fritos curved and golden to the number of 224 (approx.), or the full contents of the bursting 53c bag. Next there were Frozen Assorted Hors d’Oeuvres of a richness beyond description, these wrested away from an establishment catering only to the nobility, the higher clergy, and certain selected commoners generally agreed to be comers in their particular areas of commonality, calcium propionate added to retard spoilage. In addition there were Mixed Nuts assembled at great expense by the Planters concern from divers strange climes and hanging gardens, each nut delicately dusted with a salt that has no peer. Furthermore there were cough drops of the manufacture of the firm of Smith Fils, brown and savory and served in a bowl once the property of Brann the Iconoclast. Next there were young tender green olives into which ripe red pimentos had been cunningly thrust by underpaid Portuguese, real and true handwork every step of the way. In addition there were pearl onions meticulously separated from their nonstandard fellows by a machine that had caused the Board of Directors of the S&W concern endless sleepless nights and had passed its field trails just in time to contribute to the repast I am describing. Additionally there were gherkins whose just fame needs no further words from me. Following these appeared certain cream cheeses of Philadelphia origin wrapped in costly silver foil, the like of which a pasha could not have afforded in the dear dead days. Following were Mock Ortolans Manques made of the very best soybean aggregate, the like of which could not be found on the most sophisticated tables of Paris, London and Rome. The whole washed down with generous amounts of Tab, a fiery liquor brewed under license by the Coca-Cola Company which will not divulge the age-old secret recipe no matter how one begs and pleads with them but yearly allows a small quantity to circulate to certain connoisseurs and bibbers whose credentials meet the very rigid requirements of the Cellarmaster. All of this stupendous feed being a mere scherzo before the announcement of the main theme, chilidogs.
“What is all this?” asked sweet Celeste, waving her hands in the air. “Where is the food?”
“You do not recognize a meal spiritually prepared,” I said, hurt in the self-love.
“We will be very happy together,” she said. “I cook.”

From Donald Barthelme’s short story “Daumier.”

Read Barry Hannah’s Short Story “The Spy of Loog Root”

THE OUTCAST NEPHEW was farhearinged. That is a difficult word and concept, but as with farsighted, his ear could not participate with sounds up close, only those far away, up to a quarter mile, a distance of course at which the rest of us townsmen can hear little at all except explosions and aircraft. It seemed to work that if voices were soft enough, faint enough, they could penetrate his tympana. One thought of the sound waves, but how, in his case? I don’t know, but imagine the tenderness of his ears, bent by the incredible bawling of noise he must have sensed up close, so that he ran away, holding both ears in agony, dispossessed of normal human intercourse.

He was one of those exceptional children, ghostly with long blond hair, to whom none of his family out at Loog Root Pass felt kin, except the mother. We never got, because of his affliction, a definite reckoning on his intelligence before he ran off, alone, into the hills.

Read the rest of Barry Hannah’s short story “The Spy of Loog Root” at The Oxford American.

“An Arrest” — Ambrose Bierce

“An Arrest”

by

Ambrose Bierce

Having murdered his brother-in-law, Orrin Brower of Kentucky was a fugitive from justice.  From the county jail where he had been confined to await his trial he had escaped by knocking down his jailer with an iron bar, robbing him of his keys and, opening the outer door, walking out into the night.  The jailer being unarmed, Brower got no weapon with which to defend his recovered liberty.  As soon as he was out of the town he had the folly to enter a forest; this was many years ago, when that region was wilder than it is now.

The night was pretty dark, with neither moon nor stars visible, and as Brower had never dwelt thereabout, and knew nothing of the lay of the land, he was, naturally, not long in losing himself.  He could not have said if he were getting farther away from the town or going back to it – a most important matter to Orrin Brower.  He knew that in either case a posse of citizens with a pack of bloodhounds would soon be on his track and his chance of escape was very slender; but he did not wish to assist in his own pursuit.  Even an added hour of freedom was worth having.

Suddenly he emerged from the forest into an old road, and there before him saw, indistinctly, the figure of a man, motionless in the gloom.  It was too late to retreat: the fugitive felt that at the first movement back toward the wood he would be, as he afterward explained, “filled with buckshot.”  So the two stood there like trees, Brower nearly suffocated by the activity of his own heart; the other – the emotions of the other are not recorded.

A moment later – it may have been an hour – the moon sailed into a patch of unclouded sky and the hunted man saw that visible embodiment of Law lift an arm and point significantly toward and beyond him.  He understood.  Turning his back to his captor, he walked submissively away in the direction indicated, looking to neither the right nor the left; hardly daring to breathe, his head and back actually aching with a prophecy of buckshot.

Brower was as courageous a criminal as ever lived to be hanged; that was shown by the conditions of awful personal peril in which he had coolly killed his brother-in-law.  It is needless to relate them here; they came out at his trial, and the revelation of his calmness in confronting them came near to saving his neck.  But what would you have? – when a brave man is beaten, he submits.

So they pursued their journey jailward along the old road through the woods.  Only once did Brower venture a turn of the head: just once, when he was in deep shadow and he knew that the other was in moonlight, he looked backward.  His captor was Burton Duff, the jailer, as white as death and bearing upon his brow the livid mark of the iron bar.  Orrin Brower had no further curiosity.

Eventually they entered the town, which was all alight, but deserted; only the women and children remained, and they were off the streets.  Straight toward the jail the criminal held his way.  Straight up to the main entrance he walked, laid his hand upon the knob of the heavy iron door, pushed it open without command, entered and found himself in the presence of a half-dozen armed men.  Then he turned.  Nobody else entered.

On a table in the corridor lay the dead body of Burton Duff.