The Internet is full of great short fiction, both in literary webzines and on the websites of traditional print journals. Below are links to a few stories I’ve recently enjoyed.
Freight Stories is a relatively new online journal of literary fiction that publishes good work in a clean, easy-to-read format. I’m working my way through Issue #5 and wanted to recommend two pieces published there.
Bryan Furuness’ “Portrait of Lucifer as a Young Man” is a short magical-realist piece that generates, so to speak, sympathy for the devil–maintaining a delicate balance between tenderness and menace:
Lucifer’s father was a portrait painter for hire. If you mailed him a photograph and a check for four hundred dollars, he would paint your likeness in dark, smoky oils. Not a bad deal for a vintage ego trip and the surest way to make new money look old. It was the nineteen-eighties. His business boomed.
He wasn’t the world’s greatest portrait painter, truth be told, but his clients didn’t complain, and he loved the work. Loved it so much, in fact, that when he was finished with paying jobs for the day, he liked to paint Hoosiers of guttering fame—men like Hoagy Carmichael or Booth Tarkington, men whose names rang a faint bell, but you weren’t sure why, though you thought they might have pitched for the Cubs or served in your grandfather’s platoon.
The idea behind these unpaid portraits was to revive some of the subjects’ former fame, but since no museum or gallery had commissioned them (or would accept them, even as donations), they ended up lining the living room wall in rows, a jury box of befuddled uncles.
Growing up, Lucifer thought portraits were ridiculous, and that his father’s clients were shallow and stupid. But around the time of his twelfth birthday, curiosity began to gnaw at him. If his father could make a grain dealer look like a university president, how dignified would Lucifer look in oil?
Victoria Patterson’s “The First and Second Time” takes an unflinching look at the sexual awakening of a teenage girl who is struggling to cope with her parents’ divorce:
…Rosie had once been Daddy’s little princess. Before the divorce, her father had slept in the guest room on the foldout sofa bed. Above the sofa was a crudely drawn picture of ice skaters. Her room was next to this room, and often her father would climb into her bed, on top of her beige silk comforter.
He would fall asleep easily. She never got accustomed to having her father’s adult-size body in her bed, and she would not sleep. It made her feel weird, as if she was the wife and not the daughter, but she would let him stay because she knew he was desperately lonely.
She would become hyper-aware of his breathing, the way it would develop into a snore, counting the seconds between her breaths and his long breaths. She would try to time her breaths to his, but she could not.
He had hair on his arms; his lips parted when he fell asleep; a scar divided his left eyebrow; his mustache brushed against his top lip; his face relaxed. Eventually, he would stir and turn, curling into a fetal position. She would move her body if his arm or leg touched.
Always, he would wake, startled by one of his more resonant snores, or for no predictable reason. She would pretend to be asleep. She didn’t want him to feel guilty about keeping her awake.
Sometimes, smelling of moist sleep, his lips would touch her cheek, his mustache brushing against her skin. He always returned to the sofa bed. She would feel relief when he left, although she would curl into the warm spot his body had created on her bed, and finally drift to sleep.
Boston Review is a well-regarded magazine of poetry and progressive politics which offers several annual contests. A lot of their content is available online. Tiphanie Yanique’s lush and haunting story “How to Escape from a Leper Colony” won their 13th annual short story contest in 2006. It’s the title story of her new collection, coming in 2010 from Graywolf Press.
…When I left Trinidad for Chacachacare it was 1939 and I was only 14. I came for two reasons. The first was to bury my father, who had lived there for three years and had just died. The second was because I had become a leper. It was in my arm. The same arm my mother held as she walked me to the dock and left me there. Her cotton sari swishing the ground as she ran back to the main street, to catch a bus that would take the whole day to get her back to San Fernando, way down in South. I thought of her sitting in the bus for hours, her face against the glass, the hole in her nose empty because she had sold the gold to buy me a used sari and a bag of sweets as a gift for my new caretakers.
I also sat that whole day. I was waiting for the nuns to come get me. I pretended I could hear the sounds of the junction that the driver had dropped us off at. It wasn’t Port-of-Spain, but it was the biggest, loudest place I had ever been to. It was like a wedding in my village with all the food laid out for me to stare at. Men crowded around a small stand that sold raw oysters. They dipped the shells in hot pepper sauce before slurping the meat down their throats. Women reached up for brightly colored buckets and brooms that hung on display. My mother and I rushed by, avoiding getting close to people.
During our long walk, the busy road turned into a dusty path. And then we were walking along a wood dock with the sea beneath us. My mother sat me down with my legs hanging over the side and pointed to the small mound many miles out into the ocean. That would be my new home, she told me, where the nuns would take me in and bless me with the sacrament of confirmation when I was older. She did not say, if I lived to be older. Instead she kissed me on the mouth and made me promise not to eat the sweets. And she left. And then it was so quiet, with only the waves and the breeze as sounds of life, that I closed my eyes and pretended that I was back in the junction, eating oysters in pepper sauce, putting them in my mouth with my good hand.
My arm was wrapped and in a sling. Even in my mind I could not forget how my elbow was hurting me in a funny way that wasn’t about pain. Even alone on the dock I was too afraid to touch it, to give that arm the healing power of the other one. It is a dangerous thing when a girl is afraid to touch her own body. I was afraid to touch places on me that weren’t even private. And I was going to die for it. Die for having those places.