My short stories, and sometimes short-short stories.
Charlie found a dead cat once. It was 1978, the summer she turned nine, and she was staying at her grandparents’ farm. Her parents shipped her there every summer for six weeks, as much for themselves as for her…Read More
Zachary can’t sleep. Insomnia is rare for him, but when it decides to pay a visit, it stays awhile. Once his brain is used to waking up at a certain nonsensical and pointless hour, it keeps at it night after night. It’s persistent and annoying and there is nothing he can do but grit his teeth and wait it out, like a little kid kicking the back of his seat on a crowded airplane. For lack of any better idea, he gets out of bed and wraps himself in his robe. The house is dark and heavy and he wanders aimlessly into the living room and sinks into a chair. Leaning his head back, he closes his eyes. Gradually the tension that has gathered in his back and shoulders from worrying about not sleeping ebbs away, and he melts into listening to the city. Night sounds are nothing like day sounds. Common noises are magnified, out of context. The sound of tires on wet pavement cuts through the velvet silence at odd intervals. Others are out early, or maybe late, everyone at this hour a little private satellite of existence, everything focused inward with no one else around to help diffuse the crowding thoughts that press in, jockeying for space, trying to prioritize themselves but doing it badly. During the day, the world feels enormous, bright and shiny, but daylight only shows you what the city wants you to see. Wide-eyed tourists, laughing children with brightly colored backpacks that make them look like happy turtles as they swarm to school, window boxes full of flowers, quality stores and clean sidewalks. But at night, the sleeping city can’t hide its soul. Like a post-coital lover, it is defenseless, stripped of its accoutrements, drowsy and vulnerable. It’s then you can see a city for what it truly is. Dark, dripping alleyways, neon signs, cracked, flickering, struggling to stay awake, shadows and secrets slipping quietly out to play after the sun goes down. Daylight joins people, a blanket of consciousness that’s thrown over everyone, making them aware of others whether they want to be or not. Stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk, wave to an acquaintance, hold the door, hand your money to the cashier, smile vacantly at a stranger, not sure what message you’re supposed to convey with that but feeling it’s your duty just the same. Maybe it’s nothing more than an acknowledgement that you see them. That they exist. That they are momentarily in the middle of your consciousness and so they matter. Awake in the middle of the night, no one feels they matter. Outside the window, Zachary hears a worker, maybe two, unloading boxes from a truck and taking them into a nearby store. A morning delivery, scheduled so that shelves will be stocked and neat when customers arrive and they’ll never have to wonder how everything got there, about the night sounds that carried it all in, past Zachary sitting by his window in the dark. He can hear that the cardboard in the truck smells wet, the earthy cold odor of grocery store stock rooms and discarded pizza boxes. He hears the lift gate buzz and clang shut, and the truck drives away. Voices bubble up from the street. A man laughs. A streak of orange and pink is beginning to seep through the curtains, and Zachary realizes he isn’t ready to let go of the night yet. He gets up quietly and goes back to bed, the city whispering to life behind...Read More
It was interesting, she thought, how the subway worked. Not the electricity of it, nor the detailed system of underground tunnels that spread out under the city like some kind of rat-filled, vibrating bedrock, not even how fast it moved. Those were engineering details that held no particular fascination for her. What she found interesting were the details inside the subway cars. Everyone at any given time who was riding the subway had one thing in common: they were going someplace else. But didn’t that hold true of anyone she saw out and about, riding on a crosstown bus or in the back of a taxi? That was different. There was a freedom in getting around above ground, an openness. You could wave to people outside as the sunshine gathered extra warmth from the window glass before settling on your arms and your face. Hi guys! Look at me! On the bus! To walk down the steps into the rank-breathed mouth of the subway system was to surrender yourself to the underworld of the transportation industry. It was dark, dank, and moody, like the graduate student she once dated who chain smoked and wore turtlenecks and a beret non-ironically. To ride the subway was to make the conscious decision to step down, to where the only ones who could see you were the others who had made the same decision. Yet she rode the subway every day. From the first day she’d moved to the city, she knew that her overpriced and undersized address in the village would only get her so far. If she wanted to be a real New Yorker, she had no choice but to step down. Taxis and buses were for tourists and locals who lacked imagination. The subway was for hard-core New Yorkers, who got on and off the trains with a bored expression, if they even looked up from their book at all, and never trailed a finger over the red or yellow lines on the map or strained to hear what the conductor said. They just knew. They always knew. Ask any New Yorker on the street what subway to take to Times Square, or Battery Park, or Junior’s Cheesecake, and they’d rattle it all off, including any place where you’d have to change trains, without hesitation. Instead of finding this intimidating when she’d first moved to the city, she’d been intrigued. She wanted to learn this language, to crack their code. For awhile, it didn’t seem she ever would, but one day she found herself getting on the train and getting off four stops later without thinking about it. She’d become fluent when she wasn’t paying attention. Riding the subway was hardcore. It was about getting from one place to another without seeing anything along the way apart from aged tiles flashing past in the cracked yellow light. Sometimes the cars were virtually empty, but during rush hour people were pressed together, feet fitting around each other like puzzle pieces, bodies bumping, hands jockeying for pole space, armpits swaying closer to faces than faces would be comfortable with in any other setting. But on the subway, it was just a fact of life. Even the times the train would abruptly stop and go dark, everyone shrugged and waited it out. Coming up from the subway always made her feel like a mole, surfacing, blinking, trying to get her bearings and refamiliarize herself with everything she’d left behind just moments before. She’d jumped on a blind bullet that transported her to another part of the city and anyone who didn’t find that fascinating was, as far as she was concerned, missing a vital point the city was always trying to make about what it really is,...Read More
It was dawn when the taxi dropped me off outside my office building. I paid the driver, narrowly stopping myself from suggesting he use it to buy himself a map of New York and maybe some glasses. He sped off down Fifth Avenue and I detoured to the news stand on the corner for a Times and a small paper cup of coffee. Standing in the gray-black slush that New Yorkers accept as snow, I took a sip of coffee and glanced at the front page of the paper while I waited for my change. The date caught my eye: February 14. I groaned aloud. That meant the office would be full of bouquets and bouquets and balloons and more bouquets, and the front door would buzz all day like an angry fly against the window as an endless stream of messengers brought more. Productivity would be nil. I hate Valentine’s Day. Not that I verbalized it, of course. Let them have their fun. But I just don’t get it. I never have. Like most holidays, the earliest reasons for it have long dissolved into an orgy of cloying television commercials and gaudy plastic pink displays winking cheaply from every end cap in any store I entered starting December 26. I also didn’t verbalize my distaste for Valentine’s Day because I knew, without ever testing the theory, that everyone would think I was bitter over some failed love affair that still haunted me. Oh sure, I had plenty of failed love affairs, but none of them were haunt-worthy. There was no bitterness in me, no poignant longing, no heartbreaking loss. I just didn’t like Valentine’s Day. No, I decided, turning on the heel of my boot and striding up Fifth Avenue with my paper beneath my arm and the steam from my coffee warming my face, I wasn’t going into work today. February in New York always has a feeling of suspended animation, like intermission in a play. The tourist crush of Christmas and New Year’s is gone, the glitter has been swept away, the store windows have calmed down, and everything takes on a muted sameness, waiting, waiting, waiting for so long I sometimes forget what we’re waiting for until the day the trees burst out in color and Central Park is suddenly alive with birdsong and rollerblades and laughing children and then I remember. I passed a coffee roaster, a bookstore, and a tiny cramped shop with everything a tourist could possibly need to prove they’d braved the Big Apple. Inside a small bakery, glowingly lit and emanating the smell of warm sugar, I saw her. She was sitting at the window, a cup of coffee in front of her, staring out the window but not at me. Past me. Past everything. I hesitated. I hadn’t seen her in years, since she’d abruptly ended our decades-long friendship without an explanation, without a word, without a goodbye. I’d tried for months to mend a fence in which I could see no break, but eventually pride had reigned me in. I had heard nothing more from her or about her at all, until today. I dropped my empty paper cup into a nearby garbage can and walked into the bakery, past her table, and up to the counter where I ordered a cup of coffee and a cinnamon bun. And with nothing but a deep breath and caffeine to bolster me, I walked up to her table. “Is this seat taken?” She looked up at me, her face void of anything including recognition until her mind finished connecting the dots. Her eyes went wide. “Oh my God, I can’t believe it.” Taking that as all the invitation I was going to get, I put my cup and plate on the table and sat down across from her. “I saw you in the window,” I said. “Thought I’d say hello.” “Hello,” she said, studying me with a disconcerting frankness. “It’s good to see you.” It wasn’t, of course, that was written all over here face in big, bold reality. “You...Read More
She always felt the same toward the end of summer – somewhere between melancholy and resigned. She knew she had to accept that it was over, but she didn’t have to be happy about it. She tried, various years, to pretend autumn wasn’t coming, insisting it was still early August until well past the 20th, until people started to argue with her. It didn’t matter anyway, how much she tried to deny summer’s end. Even if she stopped looking at the calendar altogether, she felt it in her spirit – the slight shift of energy, that vague sense of impending change, the feeling of veiled urgency in those around her who were trying, as she was, to wring every bit of summer out of what was left. They crowded onto the beach, into the farmers’ market, the pool, the museum, forced jollity thick in the air as everyone tried not to glance over their shoulder at what was coming. Oddly, this autumn dread was a fairly recent development for her. As a child, she had enjoyed summer, like any kid, swimming and going to camp and chasing fireflies and savoring the faintly naughty feeling of staying up well past her school-year bedtime. But she had also loved autumn – going back-to-school shopping with her mother and sisters, picking out school supplies and stiff new jeans, wondering who her teacher would be, anticipating seeing all her classmates again. Autumn had always felt to her like a clean slate, a chance to start over, to be something she’d never been, and to leave behind all the squirmy stuff she’d rather forget. But now… well, now she was crowding up on middle age, and autumn was just different. What had once felt like a beginning now was tinged with sadness, finality. She knew, in the part of her brain where she kept her rational thoughts, that the year was a circle, a cycle, and she’d get summer back again in a few months. But like Brussels sprouts standing in the way of ice cream, it wasn’t easy to swallow. She’d tried, last year, to cheer herself up by buying school supplies. At a tiny, ancient dime store downtown, she’d found a cigar box and filled it with glittery pencils and a rubber eraser and a pen that wrote in pink ink that smelled like bubble gum, and in the very back of the store she discovered, with a little cry of happiness, a Big Chief tablet. Her feeling of elation lasted until she got home. Then she looked at her school supplies, remembered that she was 42, opened a bottle of wine, and spent the evening writing depressing poems and bubble gum-scented expletives in the Big Chief tablet. She could easily identify when she’d fallen out of love with autumn. She was just never quite sure why. Maybe it was the reminder that she was getting older, that her own seasons were changing. The color-shifting leaves now just made her dwell on her own mortality, on missed chances and wasted time, on spilled milk and spilled Chanel No. 5, on what had been and what never would be. These days, autumn wrapped her in a feeling of sadness and dread, and in quiet introspection that lasted until the first crocuses made their appearance. Well this year she wasn’t going to let that happen. It was a spontaneous decision she made one morning as she drank coffee at her kitchen table, absently stroking the cat with her bare foot. This year she was going to learn how to love autumn again. In fact, she was going to start today. In fact, she was going to start right now. She was filled with a sudden, surprising determination that carried with it a lightness she hadn’t felt in ages. She was relieved, revived, reborn. In five minutes, she was dressed and out the door, her heart pounding hard. She knew what she had to...Read More
Summer, Amanda thought as she looked out the window at hot metallic Manhattan spread out so far below her it looked like a big board game, used to be fun. Actually, it had been more than fun. It had been everything. When you’re an adult, she thought, summer isn’t really any different than its three seasonal counterparts. Maybe it was to truck drivers, to whom icy roads and soaring temperatures were important daily factors. Maybe it was to construction workers and road maintenance guys and gardeners. Amanda felt an unfamiliar longing wrap itself around her throat and squeeze until she was overwhelmed with the desire to run her Harvard MBA through the shredder and go ask one of those beautiful, blissfully free people for a job. Summer didn’t matter up here, in her office on the 98th floor of the Empire State Building. The climate was controlled, her hours were controlled, her every movement was controlled, choreographed. “Work-life balance is vital to your well-being and success,” the HR rep droned with mechanical, practiced enthusiasm at the quarterly staff meeting. He’d apparently never been given the script that explained how exactly to do that, or at any rate it never came up, and Amanda would go back to her office to find that her work had multiplied during the hour she’d been gone. Her boss always seemed to use that time to slip her ludicrous revisions to projects she’d nearly finished, and sent “Where’re we at on this?” email about projects she hadn’t had time to even look at yet. Work-life balance had become a punch line. She’d be happy enough just to balance work. Amanda had reached the age when thinking back on her childhood was a luxury her mental health could ill afford, at least not the happy parts. The parts her parents had meticulously and doggedly destroyed through years of the subtlest form of child abuse – making her doubt herself – those years had been dragged out and inspected in soothingly-lit therapists’ offices so many times over the years that Amanda now tended to remember them with the vague distaste one feels when recalling a movie they saw once and didn’t like. The happy parts were what hurt to remember now. Especially summer. Summer is like parole to a kid. That last day of school in June, the weather already hot and waiting impatiently just outside the building’s double doors, watching the clock that definitely must be broken, fidgeting, not making any attempt to concentrate, and the teacher, used to this, expecting this, had planned nothing more for that last afternoon than popcorn and a movie, and even those rare-in-school treats couldn’t keep the kids focused. Some thirty years later and the smell of popcorn when she wasn’t expecting it still gave Amanda a quick, excited jump of anticipation in her belly. The last minutes had always been the longest, stretching out agonizingly while she sat, every muscle on taut alert like a sprinter waiting for the crack of the starter pistol, so that by the time the dismissal bell rang, she almost screamed, grabbing her backpack and bolting out the door of the classroom and streaming down the hall with the other kids in a flood of eager, sweaty puppybodies, until they burst through the doors and sucked in great, hot breaths of sweet, sweet freedom. Summer always carried with it a bit of mystery to Amanda. She would sometimes see kids from school at the pool, or at the townwide Fourth of July fireworks and watermelon festival, but for the most part they splintered apart during the summer, going off to camp or on family vacations, living their own little private lives for those few months, and when fall came and they all went back to school – a slower stream this time, weighed down by stiff new jeans and backpacks full of school supplies that had traitorously appeared in the stores in early August – they were familiar strangers to each other. Bodies had grown a little taller, faces had slimmed down, sun-darkened...Read More