“The Bet” — Anton Chekhov

“The Bet” by Anton Chekhov

I

It was a dark autumn night. The old banker was pacing from corner to corner of his study, recalling to his mind the party he gave in the autumn fifteen years before. There were many clever people at the party and much interesting conversation. They talked among other things of capital punishment. The guests, among them not a few scholars and journalists, for the most part disapproved of capital punishment. They found it obsolete as a means of punishment, unfitted to a Christian State and immoral. Some of them thought that capital punishment should be replaced universally by life-imprisonment.

“I don’t agree with you,” said the host. “I myself have experienced neither capital punishment nor life-imprisonment, but if one may judge a priori, then in my opinion capital punishment is more moral and more humane than imprisonment. Execution kills instantly, life-imprisonment kills by degrees. Who is the more humane executioner, one who kills you in a few seconds or one who draws the life out of you incessantly, for years?”

“They’re both equally immoral,” remarked one of the guests, “because their purpose is the same, to take away life. The State is not God. It has no right to take away that which it cannot give back, if it should so desire.”

Among the company was a lawyer, a young man of about twenty-five. On being asked his opinion, he said:

“Capital punishment and life-imprisonment are equally immoral; but if I were offered the choice between them, I would certainly choose the second. It’s better to live somehow than not to live at all.”

There ensued a lively discussion. The banker who was then younger and more nervous suddenly lost his temper, banged his fist on the table, and turning to the young lawyer, cried out:

“It’s a lie. I bet you two millions you wouldn’t stick in a cell even for five years.”

“If you mean it seriously,” replied the lawyer, “then I bet I’ll stay not five but fifteen.”

“Fifteen! Done!” cried the banker. “Gentlemen, I stake two millions.”

“Agreed. You stake two millions, I my freedom,” said the lawyer.

So this wild, ridiculous bet came to pass. The banker, who at that time had too many millions to count, spoiled and capricious, was beside himself with rapture. During supper he said to the lawyer jokingly:

“Come to your senses, young roan, before it’s too late. Two millions are nothing to me, but you stand to lose three or four of the best years of your life. I say three or four, because you’ll never stick it out any longer. Don’t forget either, you unhappy man, that voluntary is much heavier than enforced imprisonment. The idea that you have the right to free yourself at any moment will poison the whole of your life in the cell. I pity you.”

And now the banker, pacing from corner to corner, recalled all this and asked himself:

“Why did I make this bet? What’s the good? The lawyer loses fifteen years of his life and I throw away two millions. Will it convince people that capital punishment is worse or better than imprisonment for life? No, no! all stuff and rubbish. On my part, it was the caprice of a well-fed man; on the lawyer’s pure greed of gold.” Continue reading ““The Bet” — Anton Chekhov”

“How to Write a Novel” — Gordon Lish

“How to Write a Novel” by Gordon Lish

First make sure you have enough time. It is crucial that you have enough time to make things up. Myself, I do not have time enough for anything like that.

But I’ll tell you what’s what. It will not be hard for you to follow me doing it.

Just listen.

Just watch.

I’m composing these instructions on an I.B.M. Selectric. I got it back in 1961. I did not buy it. I finessed it or I finagled it or I stole it.

The person who is the unexpressed direct object of one or the other of these verbs was rich. He said you can borrow this thing, use it for a while. Then he stuck his other thing in my wife’s thing. They still have their things and I have this thing and I’m not giving it up.

It’s given tip-top service. I really loved it when I first saw it, and I still love it just as much.

I never cover it over with anything. I don’t cover it over with anything like a cover or anything—because I like to look at it—the shape.  I.B.M. is good at giving a thing a nice shape. I always look at the shape of things before I snap of the light in a room.

I think 1961 was the Selectric’s first year.

I talk to engineers whenever I get a chance. I don’t mean the kind that build bridges. I mean the fellows that service things. Those are the engineers I talk to.

You know what one of those fellows once told me once? Buy the first of whatever it is! He said buy the first one of whatever it is because the maker of it is never going to knock himself out like that again—making, you know, all of the others after that. That’s why this one’s still going fine after so many wonderful, wonderful years.

The same goes for the Polaroid camera I’ve got. I’ve got the oldest one there is. You know how old that is? Here’s how old it is. It’s called, they call it, the Polaroid Land Camera.

That’s how goddamn old it is!

No shit, it was a first one—it was the very first Polaroid the Polaroid people made!

You want to see pictures? Look at these pictures! Tell me when in your life you ever saw in your life pictures as sharp as these pictures!

Because they’e this big when I start out with them. You see how big? Next to nothing, right? But then what? But then I go get them all blown up as big as life! See them? Look at them all over the walls if you don’t know what I mean!

That’s resolution for you , isn’t it?

Well, that’s my second wife, okay?

They’re framed all over the place.

People come in here and then they look at them and then they smack their heads.

My God, they say, such pictures!

I say, original issue, a maker knows his game.

“The Stranger” — Katherine Mansfield

“The Stranger” by Katherine Mansfield

It seemed to the little crowd on the wharf that she was never going to move again. There she lay, immense, motionless on the grey crinkled water, a loop of smoke above her, an immense flock of gulls screaming and diving after the galley droppings at the stern. You could just see little couples parading—little flies walking up and down the dish on the grey crinkled tablecloth. Other flies clustered and swarmed at the edge. Now there was a gleam of white on the lower deck—the cook’s apron or the stewardess perhaps. Now a tiny black spider raced up the ladder on to the bridge.

In the front of the crowd a strong-looking, middle-aged man, dressed very well, very snugly in a grey overcoat, grey silk scarf, thick gloves and dark felt hat, marched up and down, twirling his folded umbrella. He seemed to be the leader of the little crowd on the wharf and at the same time to keep them together. He was something between the sheep-dog and the shepherd.

But what a fool—what a fool he had been not to bring any glasses! There wasn’t a pair of glasses between the whole lot of them.

“Curious thing, Mr. Scott, that none of us thought of glasses. We might have been able to stir ’em up a bit. We might have managed a little signalling. ‘Don’t hesitate to land. Natives harmless.’ Or: ‘A welcome awaits you. All is forgiven.’ What? Eh?”

Mr. Hammond’s quick, eager glance, so nervous and yet so friendly and confiding, took in everybody on the wharf, roped in even those old chaps lounging against the gangways. They knew, every man-jack of them, that Mrs. Hammond was on that boat, and that he was so tremendously excited it never entered his head not to believe that this marvellous fact meant something to them too. It warmed his heart towards them. They were, he decided, as decent a crowd of people—Those old chaps over by the gangways, too—fine, solid old chaps. What chests—by Jove! And he squared his own, plunged his thick-gloved hands into his pockets, rocked from heel to toe. Continue reading ““The Stranger” — Katherine Mansfield”

“My Favorite Murder” — Ambrose Bierce

“My Favorite Murder” — Ambrose Bierce

Having murdered my mother under circumstances of singular atrocity, I was arrested and put upon my trial, which lasted seven years. In charging the jury, the judge of the Court of Acquittal remarked that it was one of the most ghastly crimes that he had ever been called upon to explain away.

At this, my attorney rose and said:

“May it please your Honor, crimes are ghastly or agreeable only by comparison. If you were familiar with the details of my client’s previous murder of his uncle you would discern in his later offense (if offense it may be called) something in the nature of tender forbearance and filial consideration for the feelings of the victim. The appalling ferocity of the former assassination was indeed inconsistent with any hypothesis but that of guilt; and had it not been for the fact that the honorable judge before whom he was tried was the president of a life insurance company that took risks on hanging, and in which my client held a policy, it is hard to see how he could decently have been acquitted. If your Honor would like to hear about it for instruction and guidance of your Honor’s mind, this unfortunate man, my client, will consent to give himself the pain of relating it under oath.”

The district attorney said: “Your Honor, I object. Such a statement would be in the nature of evidence, and the testimony in this case is closed. The prisoner’s statement should have been introduced three years ago, in the spring of 1881.”

“In a statutory sense,” said the judge, “you are right, and in the Court of Objections and Technicalities you would get a ruling in your favor. But not in a Court of Acquittal. The objection is overruled.”

“I except,” said the district attorney.

“You cannot do that,” the judge said. “I must remind you that in order to take an exception you must first get this case transferred for a time to the Court of Exceptions on a formal motion duly supported by affidavits. A motion to that effect by your predecessor in office was denied by me during the first year of this trial. Mr. Clerk, swear the prisoner.”

The customary oath having been administered, I made the following statement, which impressed the judge with so strong a sense of the comparative triviality of the offense for which I was on trial that he made no further search for mitigating circumstances, but simply instructed the jury to acquit, and I left the court, without a stain upon my reputation:

“I was born in 1856 in Kalamakee, Mich., of honest and reputable parents, one of whom Heaven has mercifully spared to comfort me in my later years. In 1867 the family came to California and settled near Nigger Head, where my father opened a road agency and prospered beyond the dreams of avarice. He was a reticent, saturnine man then, though his increasing years have now somewhat relaxed the austerity of his disposition, and I believe that nothing but his memory of the sad event for which I am now on trial prevents him from manifesting a genuine hilarity. Continue reading ““My Favorite Murder” — Ambrose Bierce”

“How the Whale Got His Throat” — Rudyard Kipling

“How the Whale Got His Throat” — Rudyard Kipling

IN the sea, once upon a time, O my Best Beloved, there was a Whale, and he ate fishes. He ate the starfish and the garfish, and the crab and the dab, and the plaice and the dace, and the skate and his mate, and the mackereel and the pickereel, and the really truly twirly-whirly eel. All the fishes he could find in all the sea he ate with his mouth—so! Till at last there was only one small fish left in all the sea, and he was a small ‘Stute Fish, and he swam a little behind the Whale’s right ear, so as to be out of harm’s way. Then the Whale stood up on his tail and said, ‘I’m hungry.’ And the small ‘Stute Fish said in a small ‘stute voice, ‘Noble and generous Cetacean, have you ever tasted Man?’

‘No,’ said the Whale. ‘What is it like?’

‘Nice,’ said the small ‘Stute Fish. ‘Nice but nubbly.’

‘Then fetch me some,’ said the Whale, and he made the sea froth up with his tail.

‘One at a time is enough,’ said the ‘Stute Fish. ‘If you swim to latitude Fifty North, longitude Forty West (that is magic), you will find, sitting on a raft, in the middle of the sea, with nothing on but a pair of blue canvas breeches, a pair of suspenders (you must not forget the suspenders, Best Beloved), and a jack-knife, one ship-wrecked Mariner, who, it is only fair to tell you, is a man of infinite-resource-and-sagacity.’

So the Whale swam and swam to latitude Fifty North, longitude Forty West, as fast as he could swim, and on a raft, in the middle of the sea, with nothing to wear except a pair of blue canvas breeches, a pair of suspenders (you must particularly remember the suspenders, Best Beloved), and a jack-knife, he found one single, solitary shipwrecked Mariner, trailing his toes in the water. (He had his mummy’s leave to paddle, or else he would never have done it, because he was a man of infinite-resource-and-sagacity.)

Then the Whale opened his mouth back and back and back till it nearly touched his tail, and he swallowed the shipwrecked Mariner, and the raft he was sitting on, and his blue canvas breeches, and the suspenders (which you must not forget), and the jack-knife—He swallowed them all down into his warm, dark, inside cup-boards, and then he smacked his lips—so, and turned round three times on his tail.

But as soon as the Mariner, who was a man of infinite-resource-and-sagacity, found himself truly inside the Whale’s warm, dark, inside cup-boards, he stumped and he jumped and he thumped and he bumped, and he pranced and he danced, and he banged and he clanged, and he hit and he bit, and he leaped and he creeped, and he prowled and he howled, and he hopped and he dropped, and he cried and he sighed, and he crawled and he bawled, and he stepped and he lepped, and he danced hornpipes where he shouldn’t, and the Whale felt most unhappy indeed. (Have you forgotten the suspenders?)

So he said to the ‘Stute Fish, ‘This man is very nubbly, and besides he is making me hiccough. What shall I do?’

‘Tell him to come out,’ said the ‘Stute Fish.

So the Whale called down his own throat to the shipwrecked Mariner, ‘Come out and behave yourself. I’ve got the hiccoughs.’

‘Nay, nay!’ said the Mariner. ‘Not so, but far otherwise. Take me to my natal-shore and the white-cliffs-of-Albion, and I’ll think about it.’ And he began to dance more than ever.

‘You had better take him home,’ said the ‘Stute Fish to the Whale.

‘I ought to have warned you that he is a man of infinite-resource-and-sagacity.’

So the Whale swam and swam and swam, with both flippers and his tail, as hard as he could for the hiccoughs; and at last he saw the Mariner’s natal-shore and the white-cliffs-of-Albion, and he rushed half-way up the beach, and opened his mouth wide and wide and wide, and said, ‘Change here for Winchester, Ashuelot, Nashua, Keene, and stations on the Fitchburg Road;’ and just as he said ‘Fitch’ the Mariner walked out of his mouth. But while the Whale had been swimming, the Mariner, who was indeed a person of infinite-resource-and-sagacity, had taken his jack-knife and cut up the raft into a little square grating all running criss-cross, and he had tied it firm with his suspenders (now, you know why you were not to forget the suspenders!), and he dragged that grating good and tight into the Whale’s throat, and there it stuck! Then he recited the following Sloka, which, as you have not heard it, I will now proceed to relate—

By means of a grating

I have stopped your ating.

For the Mariner he was also an Hi-ber-ni-an. And he stepped out on the shingle, and went home to his mother, who had given him leave to trail his toes in the water; and he married and lived happily ever afterward. So did the Whale. But from that day on, the grating in his throat, which he could neither cough up nor swallow down, prevented him eating anything except very, very small fish; and that is the reason why whales nowadays never eat men or boys or little girls.

The small ‘Stute Fish went and hid himself in the mud under the Door-sills of the Equator. He was afraid that the Whale might be angry with him.

The Sailor took the jack-knife home. He was wearing the blue canvas breeches when he walked out on the shingle. The suspenders were left behind, you see, to tie the grating with; and that is the end of that tale.

WHEN the cabin port-holes are dark and green

Because of the seas outside;

When the ship goes wop (with a wiggle between)

And the steward falls into the soup-tureen,

And the trunks begin to slide;

When Nursey lies on the floor in a heap,

And Mummy tells you to let her sleep,

And you aren’t waked or washed or dressed,

Why, then you will know (if you haven’t guessed)

You’re ‘Fifty North and Forty West!’

 

“The Four Fists” — F. Scott Fitzgerald

“The Four Fists” — F. Scott Fitzgerald

At the present time no one I know has the slightest desire to hit Samuel Meredith; possibly this is because a man over fifty is liable to be rather severely cracked at the impact of a hostile fist, but, for my part, I am inclined to think that all his hitable qualities have quite vanished. But it is certain that at various times in his life hitable qualities were in his face, as surely as kissable qualities have ever lurked in a girl’s lips.

I’m sure every one has met a man like that, been casually introduced, even made a friend of him, yet felt he was the sort who aroused passionate dislike—expressed by some in the involuntary clinching of fists, and in others by mutterings about “takin’ a poke” and “landin’ a swift smash in ee eye.” In the juxtaposition of Samuel Meredith’s features this quality was so strong that it influenced his entire life.

What was it? Not the shape, certainly, for he was a pleasant-looking man from earliest youth: broad-bowed with gray eyes that were frank and friendly. Yet I’ve heard him tell a room full of reporters angling for a “success” story that he’d be ashamed to tell them the truth that they wouldn’t believe it, that it wasn’t one story but four, that the public would not want to read about a man who had been walloped into prominence.

It all started at Phillips Andover Academy when he was fourteen. He had been brought up on a diet of caviar and bell-boys’ legs in half the capitals of Europe, and it was pure luck that his mother had nervous prostration and had to delegate his education to less tender, less biassed hands.

At Andover he was given a roommate named Gilly Hood. Gilly was thirteen, undersized, and rather the school pet. From the September day when Mr. Meredith’s valet stowed Samuel’s clothing in the best bureau and asked, on departing, “hif there was hanything helse, Master Samuel?” Gilly cried out that the faculty had played him false. He felt like an irate frog in whose bowl has been put goldfish. Continue reading ““The Four Fists” — F. Scott Fitzgerald”

“The Right Eye of the Commander” — Bret Harte

“The Right Eye of the Commander” — Bret Harte

The year of grace 1797 passed away on the coast of California in a southwesterly gale. The little bay of San Carlos, albeit sheltered by the headlands of the blessed Trinity, was rough and turbulent; its foam clung quivering to the seaward wall of the Mission garden; the air was filled with flying sand and spume, and as the Senor Commandante, Hermenegildo Salvatierra, looked from the deep embrasured window of the Presidio guardroom, he felt the salt breath of the distant sea buffet a color into his smoke-dried cheeks.

The Commander, I have said, was gazing thoughtfully from the window of the guardroom. He may have been reviewing the events of the year now about to pass away. But, like the garrison at the Presidio, there was little to review; the year, like its predecessors, had been uneventful—the days had slipped by in a delicious monotony of simple duties, unbroken by incident or interruption. The regularly recurring feasts and saints’ days, the half-yearly courier from San Diego, the rare transport ship and rarer foreign vessel, were the mere details of his patriarchal life. If there was no achievement, there was certainly no failure. Abundant harvests and patient industry amply supplied the wants of Presidio and Mission. Isolated from the family of nations, the wars which shook the world concerned them not so much as the last earthquake; the struggle that emancipated their sister colonies on the other side of the continent to them had no suggestiveness. In short, it was that glorious Indian summer of California history around which so much poetical haze still lingers—that bland, indolent autumn of Spanish rule, so soon to be followed by the wintry storms of Mexican independence and the reviving spring of American conquest.

The Commander turned from the window and walked toward the fire that burned brightly on the deep ovenlike hearth. A pile of copybooks, the work of the Presidio school, lay on the table. As he turned over the leaves with a paternal interest, and surveyed the fair round Scripture text—the first pious pothooks of the pupils of San Carlos—an audible commentary fell from his lips: “‘Abimelech took her from Abraham’—ah, little one, excellent!—’Jacob sent to see his brother’—body of Christ! that upstroke of thine, Paquita, is marvelous; the Governor shall see it!” A film of honest pride dimmed the Commander’s left eye—the right, alas! twenty years before had been sealed by an Indian arrow. He rubbed it softly with the sleeve of his leather jacket, and continued: “‘The Ishmaelites having arrived—'”

He stopped, for there was a step in the courtyard, a foot upon the threshold, and a stranger entered. With the instinct of an old soldier, the Commander, after one glance at the intruder, turned quickly toward the wall, where his trusty Toledo hung, or should have been hanging. But it was not there, and as he recalled that the last time he had seen that weapon it was being ridden up and down the gallery by Pepito, the infant son of Bautista, the tortilla-maker, he blushed and then contented himself with frowning upon the intruder. Continue reading ““The Right Eye of the Commander” — Bret Harte”

Read “The Honored Dead,” a Story by Breece D’J. Pancake

“The Honored Dead” by Breece D’J. Pancake

Watching little Lundy go back to sleep, I wish I hadn’t told her about the Mound Builders to stop her crying, but I didn’t know she would see their eyes watching her in the dark. She was crying about a cat run down by a car—her cat, run down a year ago, only today poor Lundy figured it out. Lundy is turned too much like her momma. Ellen never worries because it takes her too long to catch the point of a thing, and Ellen doesn’t have any problem sleeping. I think my folks were a little too keen, but Lundy is her momma’s girl, not jumpy like my folks.

My grandfather always laid keenness on his Shawnee blood, his half-breed mother, but then he was hep on blood. He even had an oath to stop bleeding, but I don’t remember the words. He was a fair to sharp woodsman, and we all tried to slip up on him at one time or another. It was Ray at the sugar mill finally caught him, but he was an old man by then, and his mind wasn’t exactly right. Ray just came creeping up behind and laid a hand on his shoulder, and the old bird didn’t even turn around; he just wagged his head and said, “That’s Ray’s hand. He’s the first fellow ever slipped on me.” Ray could’ve done without that because the old man never played with a full deck again, and we couldn’t keep clothes on him before he died.

I turn out the lamp, see no eyes in Lundy’s room, then it comes to me why she was so scared. Yesterday I told her patches of stories about scalpings and murders, mixed up the Mound Builders with the Shawnee raids, and Lundy chained that with the burial mound in the back pasture. Tomorrow I’ll set her straight. The only surefire thing I know about Mound Builders is they must have believed in a god and hereafter or they never would have made such big graves.

Continue reading “Read “The Honored Dead,” a Story by Breece D’J. Pancake”

That Time Werner Herzog Saved Joaquin Phoenix’s Life

Reading Chris Ware’s Building Stories / September 23rd, 2000

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September 23rd, 2000 is one of the longer pieces in Chris Ware’s box set, Building Stories. Part of the joy and frustration of Building Stories is its free form—the possibility of reading one piece before another, of getting one tale or perspective before another. I started with Branford, which seems in retrospective a fairly neutral opening—it introduces many of the themes that develop in Building Stories but none of the major characters. I then read I just met, which introduces a couple suffering a sour relationship.

September introduces (to me, anyway), two major “new” (again, “new” to me; these characters appear central in other books and pamphlets of the collection and obliquely in others): The “lonely girl,” a would-be artist sporting a prosthetic leg, and the “old lady,” landlord of the building. Most of September takes the form of lonely girl’s diary entries.

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I noted two characters (again, new to me), but the building itself also gets a voice and prominent role in September; its thoughts and memories frame the narrative:

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September frames the repetitions, the loops, the patterns that undoubtedly will resurface throughout Building Stories. We get access to the characters dreams, which seem to overlap and echo each other—and then repeat in real life, albeit in other forms. The landlady, recalling her youth, seems to echo the loneliness and despair of the lonely girl, as well as the pain of the woman in the sour relationship. We see that the building has in fact been a kind of prison for her, preventing her from forming real relationships:

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Other echoes are more subtle—a close up of a bee, for instance, either foreshadows or calls back to (or both, of course) Branford, the Best Bee in the World.

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We can see the Branford episode again, here in the tiny detail of a soda can, a major setting for that episode. I was more fascinated by the newspaper though, particularly the colorful squares of a comics section, a reference Ware’s medium and perhaps a visual suggestion of Building Stories itself. The detail is tiny, but meaningful:

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In a later part of September, we see a direct reference to the end of I just met:

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I imagine that there were other references, call backs, and echoes in September that I won’t get until later.

The story—well, it’s beautiful, a perfect short story, self-contained but thematically resonant with the larger project. The ending is so damn sweet and perfect that it brought a little tear to my eye. And yet: Was that the ending? Of course not. The sense of rhetorical resolution—that is to say the so-called happy ending—will almost surely be punctured, deflated, or otherwise complicated by one of the next texts I read. More to come.

“The Image of the Lost Soul” — Saki

 

“The Image of the Lost Soul” by Saki—

There were a number of carved stone figures placed at intervals along the parapets of the old Cathedral; some of them represented angels, others kings and bishops, and nearly all were in attitudes of pious exaltation and composure. But one figure, low down on the cold north side of the building, had neither crown, mitre, not nimbus, and its face was hard and bitter and downcast; it must be a demon, declared the fat blue pigeons that roosted and sunned themselves all day on the ledges of the parapet; but the old belfry jackdaw, who was an authority on ecclesiastical architecture, said it was a lost soul. And there the matter rested.

One autumn day there fluttered on to the Cathedral roof a slender, sweet-voiced bird that had wandered away from the bare fields and thinning hedgerows in search of a winter roosting-place. It tried to rest its tired feet under the shade of a great angel-wing or to nestle in the sculptured folds of a kingly robe, but the fat pigeons hustled it away from wherever it settled, and the noisy sparrow-folk drove it off the ledges. No respectable bird sang with so much feeling, they cheeped one to another, and the wanderer had to move on.

Only the effigy of the Lost Soul offered a place of refuge. The pigeons did not consider it safe to perch on a projection that leaned so much out of the perpendicular, and was, besides, too much in the shadow. The figure did not cross its hands in the pious attitude of the other graven dignitaries, but its arms were folded as in defiance and their angle made a snug resting-place for the little bird. Every evening it crept trustfully into its corner against the stone breast of the image, and the darkling eyes seemed to keep watch over its slumbers. The lonely bird grew to love its lonely protector, and during the day it would sit from time to time on some rainshoot or other abutment and trill forth its sweetest music in grateful thanks for its nightly shelter. And, it may have been the work of wind and weather, or some other influence, but the wild drawn face seemed gradually to lose some of its hardness and unhappiness. Every day, through the long monotonous hours, the song of his little guest would come up in snatches to the lonely watcher, and at evening, when the vesper-bell was ringing and the great grey bats slid out of their hiding-places in the belfry roof, the brighteyed bird would return, twitter a few sleepy notes, and nestle into the arms that were waiting for him. Those were happy days for the Dark Image. Only the great bell of the Cathedral rang out daily its mocking message, “After joy . . . sorrow.”

The folk in the verger’s lodge noticed a little brown bird flitting about the Cathedral precincts, and admired its beautiful singing. “But it is a pity,” said they, “that all that warbling should be lost and wasted far out of hearing up on the parapet.” They were poor, but they understood the principles of political economy. So they caught the bird and put it in a little wicker cage outside the lodge door.

     That night the little songster was missing from its accustomed haunt, and the Dark Image knew more than ever the bitterness of loneliness. Perhaps his little friend had been killed by a prowling cat or hurt by a stone. Perhaps . . . perhaps he had flown elsewhere. But when morning came there floated up to him, through the noise and bustle of the Cathedral world, a faint heart-aching message from the prisoner in the wicker cage far below. And every day, at high noon, when the fat pigeons were stupefied into silence after their midday meal and the sparrows were washing themselves in the street-puddles, the song of the little bird came up to the parapets — a song of hunger and longing and hopelessness, a cry that could never be answered. The pigeons remarked, between mealtimes, that the figure leaned forward more than ever out of the perpendicular.

One day no song came up from the little wicker cage. It was the coldest day of the winter, and the pigeons and sparrows on the Cathedral roof looked anxiously on all sides for the scraps of food which they were dependent on in hard weather.

“Have the lodge-folk thrown out anything on to the dust-heap?” inquired one pigeon of another which was peering over the edge of the north parapet.

“Only a little dead bird,” was the answer.

There was a crackling sound in the night on the Cathedral roof and a noise as of falling masonry. The belfry jackdaw said the frost was affecting the fabric, and as he had experienced many frosts it must have been so. In the morning it was seen that the Figure of the Lost Soul had toppled from its cornice and lay now in a broken mass on the dustheap outside the verger’s lodge.

     “It is just as well,” cooed the fat pigeons, after they had peered at the matter for some minutes; “now we shall have a nice angel put up there. Certainly they will put an angel there.”

“After joy . . . sorrow,” rang out the great bell.

 

“The Man with the Pumpkin Head” — Robert Walser

“The Tables Turned” — Thomas Bernhard

 

“The Tables Turned,” a microfiction from Thomas Bernhard’s The Voice Imitator:

Even though I have always hated zoological gardens and actually find that my suspicions are aroused by people who visit zoological gardens, I still could not avoid going out to Schönbrunn on one occasion and, at the request of my companion, a professor of theology, standing in front of the monkeys’ cage to look at the monkeys, which my companion fed with some food he had brought with him for the purpose. The professor of theology, an old friend of mine from the university, who had asked me to go to Schönbrunn with him had, as time went on, fed all the food he had brought with him to the monkeys, when suddenly the monkeys, for their part, scratched together all the food that had fallen to the ground and offered it to us through the bars. The professor of theology and I were so startled by the monkeys’ sudden behavior that in a flash we turned on our heels and left Schönbrunn through the nearest exit.

 

“The Starlight on Idaho” — Denis Johnson

“Hostess” — Amy Hempel

“Hostess” by Amy Hempel–

She swallowed Gore Vidal. Then she swallowed Donald Trump. She took a blue capsule and a gold spansule–a B-complex and an E–and put them on the tablecloth a few inches apart. She pointed the one at the other. “Martha Stewart,” she said, “meet Oprah Winfrey.” She swallowed them both without water.

(From Micro Fiction, edited by Jerome Stern).

Read (and Listen to) Another Unpublished Fragment from David Foster Wallace

Yesterday, we linked to an unpublished fragment by David Foster Wallace, and included the original audio from which it was transcribed. The Chief Howling Fantod himself, Nick Maniatis , was kind enough to point out that the fragments have been available for a few years now thanks to the transcription efforts of Matt Hale. You can get the pdf here, but we’ve gone ahead and reproduced our favorite section of the fragments (the audio is great too).

2nd FRAGMENT (Different boy mentioned in this; utterly different boy)

It is this boy who dons the bright-orange bandolier and shepherds the really small ones through the crosswalk outside school. This is after finishing the meals-on-wheels breakfast tour of the hospice downtown, whose administrator lunges to bolt her office door when she hears his cart’s wheels in the hall. He has paid out-of-pocket for the steel whistle and the white gloves held palm-out at cars while children who did not dress themselves cross behind him, some trying to run despite WALK DON’T RUN, the happy faced sandwich board he also made himself. The autos whose drivers he knows he waves at and gives an extra-big smile and tosses some words of good cheer as the crosswalk clears and the cars peel out and move through, some joshing around a little by swerving to miss him only by inches as he laughs and dances aside and makes faces of pretended terror at the flank and rear bumper. The one time that station wagon didn’t miss him really was an accident and he sent the lady several notes to make absolutely sure she knew he understood that and asked a whole lot of people he hadn’t yet gotten the opportunity to make friends with to sign his cast and decorated the crutches very carefully with bits of colored ribbon and tinsel and adhesive sparkles and even before the six weeks the doctor sternly prescribed, he’d given them away to the children’s wing to brighten up some other less lucky and happy kid’s convalescence and by the end of the whole thing he’d been inspired to write a very long theme to enter into the annual Social Studies theme competition about how a positive attitude can make even an accidental injury into an occasion for new friends and bright new opportunities for reaching out to others and while the theme didn’t even get honorable mention he honestly didn’t care because he felt like writing the theme had been its own reward and he’d gotten a lot out of the whole nine-draft process and was honestly happy for the kids whose themes did win awards and told them he was 100-plus percent sure they deserved it and that if they wanted to preserve their prize themes and maybe even make displayed items out of them for their parents, he’d be happy to type them up and laminate them and even fix any spelling errors he found if they’d like him to and at home his father puts his hand on Leonard’s shoulder and says he’s really proud that his son’s such a good sport and offers to take him to Dairy Queen as a kind of reward and Leonard tells his father he’s grateful and that the gesture means a lot to him but that in all honesty he’d like it even more if they took the money his father would have spent on the ice-cream and instead donated it either to Easter Seals or, better yet, to UNICEF to go toward the needs of famine-ravaged Biafran kids who he knew for a fact had probably never even heard of ice cream and says that he bets it’ll end up giving both of them a better feeling even then the DQ would and as the father slips the coins in the coin-slot at the special bright-orange UNICEF volunteer cardboard pumpkin bank, Leonard takes a moment to express concern about the father’s facial tick again and to gently rib him about his reluctance to go in and have the family’s MD look at it, noting again that according to the chart on the back of his bedroom door the father is four months overdue for his annual physical and that it’s almost eight months past the date of his recommended tetanus and T.B. boosters. He serves as hall monitor for period’s one and two but gives far more official warnings than actual citations. He’s there to serve he feels, not run people down. Usually with the official warnings he dispenses a smile and tells them you’re young exactly once so enjoy it and to go get-out here and make this day count why don’t they. Heroes UNICEF and Easter Seals and starts a recycling program in three straight grades. He is healthy and scrubbed and always groomed just well enough to project basic courtesy and respect for the community of which he is a part and he politely raises his hand in class for every question, but only if he’s sure he knows not only the correct answer but the formulation of that answer that the teacher’s looking for that will help advance the discussion of the overall topic they’re covering that day, often staying after class to double-check with the teacher that his take on her general objectives is sound and to ask whether there was any way that his answers could have been better or more helpful. The boy’s mom has a terrible accident while cleaning the oven and is rushed to the hospital and even though he’s beside himself with concern and says constant prayers former safety, he volunteers to stay home and field calls and relay information to an alphabetized list of concerned family friends and relatives and to make sure the mail and newspaper are brought in and to keep the home’s lights turned on and off in a random sequence at night as officer Chuck of the Michigan State police’s Crime Stoppers public school outreach program sensibly advises when grown-ups are suddenly called away from home and also to call the gas company’s emergency number, which he has memorized, to come check on what may well be a defective valve or circuit in the oven before anyone else in the family is exposed to risk of accidental harm and also, in secret, to work on massive display of bunting and penance and Welcome Homeland World’s Greatest Mom signs which he plans to use the garage’s extendible aluminum ladder—with a responsible neighborhood adult holding it and supervising—to very carefully affix to the front of the home with water-soluble glue so they’ll be there to greet the mom when she’s released from the I.C.U. with a totally clean bill of health which Leonard calls his father repeatedly at the I.C.U. payphone to assure the father that he has absolutely no doubt of (the totally clean bill of health), calling hourly, right on the dot, until there is some kind of mechanical problem with the payphone and when he dials it he just gets a high tone which he duly reports to the telephone company’s new automated 1618 Trouble Line. He can do several kinds of calligraphy and has been to origami camp twice and can do extraordinary free-hand sketches of local flora with either hand and can whistle all six of Telemann’s Nouveaux Equators and can imitate any birdcall Autobahn could even ever have thought of, don’t even mention spelling bees. He can make over twenty different kinds of admiral, cowboy, clerical and multi-ethnic hats out of ordinary newspaper and he volunteers to visit the school’s K-through-2nd classrooms teaching the little kids how, a proposal the Carl P. Robinson Elementary principal says he appreciates and has considered very carefully before turning down. The principle loathes the mere sight of the boy but does not quite know why. He sees the boy in his sleep, at nightmares’ ragged edges; the pressed checked shirt and hair’s hard little part, the freckles and ready, generous smile; anything he can do. The principle fantasizes about sinking a meat hook into Leonard Steel’s bright-eyed little face and dragging the boy face down behind his Volkswagen Beetle over the rough new streets of suburban Grand Rapids. The fantasies come out of nowhere and horrify the principal, who is a devout Mennonite. Everyone hates the boy. It is a complex hatred that makes the hater feel guilty and awful and to hate themselves for feeling this way and so makes they involuntarily hate the boy even more for arousing such self-hatred. The whole thing is totally confusing and upsetting. People take a lot of Aspirin when he’s around. The boy’s only real friends among kids are the damaged, the handicapped, the slow, the clinically fat, the last-picked, the non-grata. He seeks them out. All 316 invitations to his eleventh birthday Blow-Out Bash—322 invitations if you count the ones made on audiotape for the blind—are off, sent printed on quality velum with matching high-rag envelopes addressed in ornate Philippian calligraphy he spent three weekends on and each invitation details in Roman Numerated outline-form the itinerary’s half-day at Six Flags, private Ph.D.-guided tour of the Blanford Nature Center and reserved banquette-area-with-free-play at Shakey’s Pizza & Indoor Arcade on Remembrance Drive, the whole day gratis and paid-for out of the paper and aluminum drives the boy got up at 4 a.m. all summer to organize and spearhead, the balance of the drive’s receipts going to the Red Cross and the parents of a Kentwood, MI third-grader with terminal spina bifida who dreams above all-else of seeing Landry and Greer and ‘Night Train’ Lane live from his motorized wheelchair and the invitations explicitly call the party this: A Blow-Out Bash in balloon-shaped font as the caption to an illustrated explosion of good cheer and good will and no-holds-barred, let-out-all-the-stops fun with the bold-faced proviso: Please, no presents required in each of each card’s four corners and the 316 invitations—sent via first-class mail to every student, instructor, substitute, aid, administrator, custodian and physical plant employee at C. P. Robinson Elementary—yield a total attendance of nine celebrants, not counting parents and L.P.N.s of the incapacitated, and yet an undauntedly fine time was had by all was the consensus on the Honest Appraisal and Suggestion cards circulated at party’s end. The massive remainders of chocolate cake, Neapolitan ice cream, pizza, chips, caramel corn, Hershey’s kisses, United Way and Officer Chuck pamphlets on organ tissue donation and the correct procedures to follow if approached by a stranger respectively, kosher pizza for the Orthodox, biodegradable napkins and dietetic soda in souvenir Survived Leonard Steel’s Eleventh Birthday Blow-Out Bash, 1964 plastic glasses with built-in crazy-straws the guests were to keep as mementos all donated to the Kent County Children’s Home via procedures and transport that the birthday-boy had initiated even while the big Twister free-for-all was underway, out of concerns about melted ice cream and staleness and flatness and the waste of a chance to help the less blessed and his father, driving the wood-paneled station wagon and steadying his cheek with one hand, avowed again that the boy beside him had a large, good heart and that he was proud and that if the boy’s mother ever regained consciousness as they so very much hoped, he knew she’d be just awful proud as well.

 

“Midnight in Dostoevsky” — New Short Fiction from Don DeLillo

Want to read to read the latest from Don DeLillo? Of course you do. Check out “Midnight in Dostoevsky,” via The New Yorker. Still not intrigued? Here’s the first paragraph:

We were two sombre boys hunched in our coats, grim winter settling in. The college was at the edge of a small town way upstate, barely a town, maybe a hamlet, we said, or just a whistle stop, and we took walks all the time, getting out, going nowhere, low skies and bare trees, hardly a soul to be seen. This was how we spoke of the local people: they were souls, they were transient spirits, a face in the window of a passing car, runny with reflected light, or a long street with a shovel jutting from a snowbank, no one in sight.