All through my growing up, whenever the family got together, at some random point during the celebration only he could predict, my uncle Peter would sing "Danny Boy." Wedding, wake, or baptism he'd raise his wrecked chin and blast it out, always starting too high so his voice cracked on “’tis I’ll be here...” Great Aunt Grace once told me that he had a fine voice when he was young, but for as long as I can remember it was somewhere between a lost cat and a bent trumpet. Smoke and drink had done most of the damage, but a fight that broke two front teeth didn't help either. It made his singing into what my brother Jack and I call "bad weather."
Karen Dietrich's memoir, The Girl Factory, is available now from skirt/Globe Pequot.
My father murdered five people before I was born.
I don’t know my father in the way a child usually knows a parent, so I don’t know if murder fits him, the way a certain type of clothing fits a certain type of body. I only know what my mother tells me, what my grandmother tries to tell me before my mother stops her, what I hear teachers say to each other as I walk the worn carpet of the school hallway.
I haven’t read anything about him or his case. For now, I’ll let the information build, those stories and articles and court transcripts that surely exist out there, information strung between satellites and underground wires. It will be there when I’m ready, I tell myself.
The thing that I refer to as myself is simply an accumulation of memories: an incomplete set of sensory experiences as recorded by my personal organic data-collecting machine. All other aspects of self—my shy nature, my belief in karma, my preference for buttered asparagus with broiled fish—all result from these memories. The way one’s personality might change, for example, after recording a new set of sensory experiences during an automobile accident: the sound of another human shattering her jaw on a steering wheel, the touch of a street sign’s metal carving skin from one’s arm, the sight of a world upside-down. The smell of smoke. The way one’s beliefs might change after recording the sound of someone talking—about, for example, the inconsistencies of a sacred text.
Courtney peered into the rearview mirror and Michael was gone. She knew he hadn’t abandoned her, that he had only gone in to pay for the gas, but that kind of sudden disappearance grabbed her in a delicate spot in the lining of her stomach. And then just as suddenly, the thunk of the door opening and the huge, firing electricity of his presence. It was early in the morning, and she felt things more.
They had crossed into Colorado in the dark, so she was just beginning to see it, the hardness of it. They were on their way to Michael’s step-father’s funeral in Parker.
First published in Joyland Retro vol. 1 no. 2, The Underside of Charm has been selected as a Notable Story in Best American Short Stories 2013.
Ava sat in bed with Gretchen, a woman she’d met the day before in an AA meeting. Gretchen had been sober for eight years and it was her bed, her story.
When I was in the fourth grade this little girl in my class got killed.
I showed up at school one Monday morning and Randy Doogan was telling me all about it, “Hey Scott did you hear about Jenny Sugar? She got killed in a car crash yesterday. Yeah a tractor trailer hit her Mom’s car and they’re both dead.”
You and Sarah both live in the same direction and what she’s just said doesn’t change that. Jason and Gill have left already to smoke cigarettes. Sarah is telling you how much she enjoys their love, which is a lot.
You walk two steps and then stop because your phone is vibrating in your pocket. You don’t recognize the number, but you answer. Your mother’s voice is thin and empty, much farther away than the three time zones separating you.
“I’m at the General Hospital,” your mother says. “Dad is having a heart attack. He’s in the operating room.”
You put your hand on Sarah’s arm.
“Are you okay?” your mother asks.
“Where are you?”
You’re at an Italian restaurant. With some other people.
“I’m glad. I’m really glad,” she says. A long, black car purrs through the spaces between her words. “I’m glad you’re not alone. I’ll call you back. The operation should be over in an hour.” She hangs up.
I know the stare of someone sleeping with their eyes open. My therapist has struggled to remain focused in my last few sessions. She’s always saying, That must have been very hard for you. And then that stare, that warm, out-of-focus stare. But this last time I had moved on from the dissection of parents and religion to the fact that I had finally had the conversation I’d been meaning to have with my girlfriend and it had gone well. I was feeling good. Open. Ready for past, present and future to align, on their way.
My mother thought the best way to teach me to be a woman was to teach me to be alone.
The morning of my thirteenth birthday, I woke from a throbbing, inexorable dream in the dark, seized by pain. The crippling waves flooded my middle. I lay doubled over, clutching my pink mouse to my stomach, until light broke between the curtains and the phone picked up on its first ring, as though my mother’s hand in sleep had been resting on the receiver. Her murmuring moved down the hall, and like an old-fashioned cradle tugged by its cord, my body lifted as one piece from the bed. I didn’t want to describe to her what I’d discovered, so I simply stepped from the underpants and brought them balled into the kitchen.
The girl had an unusual talent. She could make noises with her mouth, like a door creaking open and slamming shut, or like an old man huffing up the stairs. When my back was turned she’d do it: the sound of breaking glass or something. Tall for her age, I thought. Why she wore such dirty white tennis shoes I couldn’t understand. You’d think a girl her age would opt for something prettier. Look down and you got pale freckled ankles cut off in dirty canvas, like she’d just crawled across a muddy lawn. Curly brown hair, silver braces with lime-green rubber bands, careful to tear the corner from her notebook and fold her gum inside before she started to tune.
She was a horrible violin student.
“Uh huh,” was her answer when I asked if she was happy with her progress.
“Amy, do you think Kabalevsky would be happy?”
Jonathan Lethem's new novel, Dissident Gardens, is available now. "Walking the Moons" appeared on Joyland during its first year.
“Look,” says the mother of The Man Who Is Walking Around the Moons of Jupiter, “he’s going so fast.”
She snickers to herself and scuttles around the journalist to a table littered with wiring tools and fragmented mechanisms. She loops a long, tangled cord over her son’s intravenous tube and plugs one end into his headset, jostling him momentarily as she works it into the socket. His stride on the treadmill never falters. She runs the cord back to a modified four-track recorder sitting in the dust of the garage floor, then picks up the recorder’s microphone and switches it on.
Baton went up into the blue sky, whipping around so fast it seemed to bend. Baton came down, the spin slowing just before seven long purple fingers grasped it twice around and pulled it to the chest of an auburn felt uniform.
“She’s good.” There was a whole team of majorettes on the field, but somehow Lydia knew exactly where I was looking. We were sitting on the hill above the field, far enough from the smoking quad that we wouldn’t be collateral damage to the usual lunch-hour fistfight, but near enough that we could hear the shouts and smacks. Deek was on the other side of Lydia. Since Deek started guarding her, Lydia always had to be in the middle.
“Think she’s the hottest one, Carmina? The Martian?”
A version of this story also appears in Cosmo, available now from Coach House Books.
...the sentence itself is a man-made object, not the one we wanted of course, but still a construction of man, a structure to be treasured for its weakness, as opposed to the strength of stones
— From “The Sentence,” Donald Barthelme
I bought a 3D printer the other day. I’d been reading about them in magazines over the past year or so, watched videos of guys in lab coats huddle solemnly around fabricated guns and waffles, and when I saw one on eBay I snapped it up without hesitating. It wasn’t listed as a 3D printer but a “dual extrusion autoforge.” When UPS rang downstairs I only nodded and signed my name, the same as if it were a shipment of boxer shorts.
My marriage is ending and it's my fault. In the other room, Andrew is snoring. I’m on the couch. Here is the buttery weight of polar fleece on bare skin, the entire length of my body unblemished by a goose bump. Try not to anticipate the cold. Squint at the dark window, listen for the rain, but only to harden against the inevitable. At five I get up: sweater, housecoat, slippers on the floor within reach. Pull them under the covers first. To turn on the gas fireplace is to risk making inside too comfortable. Kettle on while I dress for work: long underwear, fleece vest, wool sweater. Two layers of socks, even though that's not a good idea. Cuts off circulation, Andrew says.
Ethel Rohan's new collection of fiction, Goodnight Nobody, is now available for preorder from Queen's Ferry Press. Here's a repost of Rohan's 2011 Joyland story.
Roberta refused to move past the antiques shop, its grimy front window crowded with Korean furniture, ornaments and bric-a-brac. Anna protested her immovable mother; they were on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Seoul and en-route to Chanddokkung Palace, why delay in a creepy antiques shop? Roberta pulled Anna past the colossal stone creatures on either side of the shop entrance. Anna couldn’t decide if the bizarre-looking statues were supposed to be dogs or lions. She and her mother separated immediately, Anna drawn to the rustic urns and Roberta elsewhere.
The family resides in what was once a famous crack house. Their neighborhood, at the edge of a city park, has been revitalized. The city received a grant from the state. Tax incentives were offered to those willing to buy the once stately homes. The mayor enlisted the aid of certain renegade members of the police force, and also some union organizers, to usher criminal elements from the area, although this was not reported and is not known.
The park is beautiful again, as it was near the beginning of the last century, when, the mother imagines, ladies in hoop skirts walked their tiny dogs and young couples wheeled past on bicycles built for two.
Still, there are vestiges of the neighborhood’s darker years.
The mother, on an early morning run through the center of the park, stumbles across a goat with its throat cut, tied with a rope to a tree. It wavers on its legs, nose grazing a puddle of its own dark blood.
Excerpted from the in-progress book RAD: a twisted memoir of a fierce teenage girl in 1982. Halpern’s latest film, with co-director Chris Quilty, is the documentary Llyn Foulkes One-Man Band, which premiered at the LA Film Festival.
I am 16 and not invited to my mom’s third wedding. Apparently, it’s a ‘no kids allowed’ affair, which is scandalous considering I menstruate, I have touched three penises (two with my eyes open), and tonight, I am pretty sure I will lose my virginity. When I march in my mom’s bedroom to tell her what I think, she laughs and says of course you’re invited. We said it to keep the Bialy kids from coming, the ones who always pee in the pool. That’s a relief, I say. I thought you guys didn’t want me there. My Stepdad-To-Be says nothing as he pulls on his shoes and leaves.
Minutes after the cathedral tour, I was with this boy at Hesburger on Vilnius Street. Just two casual acquaintances on vacation, as they say. We each ordered the number four: double-stacked burgers with fries and pop. I chose orange Fanta and the boy, who seemed eager to please me, got the same.
He sat adjacent to me; I was on a stupid bench and he got to sit on a chair. But it wasn't like we were at the Blu Astorija Hotel, so we unwrapped the plastic from our big number fours and began to nibble.