Six Short Stories

 

 

There’s a good chance you’ve heard the following well-travelled quote many times:

“If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”

You’ve likely seen it attributed to Mark Twain. Until recently, I would’ve thought that was correct. It was, in fact, originally written by French mathematician, physicist, inventor, and writer Blaise Pascal (thanks for that nugget of knowledge, Eric).

But let’s get back to the quote…

What does it mean when it’s applied to writing short fiction, as it regularly is? Well, if it isn’t obvious, it means short stories take a lot of time to perfect — they’re difficult. You need time to trim the fat, or kill your darlings as the literati like to say. Some of the greatest novelists who’ve put pen to paper didn’t, or don’t, have the skill (or, perhaps, the temperament) to write short fiction. Many authors over the years have said writing a short story is far more difficult than writing a novel; there’s less room to play, there’s certainly less time to say all that you want to say — basically, you’re more restricted in the short-fiction world.

I’ve been writing short fiction on and off for a number of years while working on a number of screenplays and a novel. Am I near as strong as I’d like to be when it comes to the shorter work? No, but the more I write the better I get. And I’m putting together a short story collection that I hope to publish in the future (out of all the titles I’ve created over the years, this one is my favourite).

I’ve also been reading short stories for a long time. Some writers I’ve been reading for years, some I’ve only discovered, and some I’ve known about but have only gotten round to devouring recently.

With that in mind, I thought I’d list a few short stories worth reading written by American writers. I won’t go into much detail, as going in blind is always better. Of course, I do recommend buying the collections in which these stories feature.

So, here they are:

 

 

1. Nathan Englander — The Twenty-Seventh Man

From the collection ‘For the Relief of Unbearable Urges’ (1999).

Englander 1

Nathan Englander made an immediate impact on the literary world with the release of his debut short story collection ‘For the Relief of Unbearable Urges’. The first story in the collection, The Twenty-Seventh Man, is an allusion to the Night of the Murdered Poets  the execution of 13 Soviet Jews on the orders of Stalin, on August 12, 1952.

The short story isn’t available online, but you can read the script for the play based on it here. Or, you could go buy the collection in your favourite second-hand bookstore (for you Irish readers, it’s gotta be Chapters on Parnell Street).

 

2. Jennifer Egan — The Stylist

From the collection ‘Emerald City’ (1993).

Egan - Emerald City 1

Jennifer Egan is probably best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning work of fiction ‘A Visit from the Good Squad’. I say ‘work of fiction’ because the book has been characterised as both a short story collection and a novel — Egan herself has stated that she doesn’t consider it to be either of the aforementioned.

What is unequivocal about her first published work ‘Emerald City’ is that it’s most definitely a collection of short stories. The Stylist, the first story in the collection, focuses on a divorced fashion stylist on a shoot in Africa with a photographer and three teenage models.

Read it here.

 

3. Raymond Carver — Errand

From the collection ‘Cathedral’ (1983).

Carver - Cathedral 1

Raymond Carver has inspired countless short and long fiction writers since he became one of America’s best-loved writers with the publication of his collections ‘Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?’ and ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ (the latter of which has had its title borrowed by a number of writers, including Haruki Murakami and Mr. Englander mentioned above).

One of the greatest influences on Carver was the great Russian playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov. In Errand — a tribute to his idol — Carver re-imagines the final hours of Chekhov’s life, but brings the focus of attention on a young bellboy.

(Note: This idea has prompted me to develop a short story about Carver’s final hours, the same way he wrote about his idol. I’m still working on it…)

You can read Errand here.

 

4. John Updike — Pigeon Feathers

From the collection ‘Pigeon Feathers’ (1962).

pigeon-feathers

The American heavyweight John Updike is considered by many to be the greatest writer of the 20th century. He’s most famous for his ‘Rabbit’ series, which centres around the life of former high-school basketball star Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. Two novels from the series — ‘Rabbit Is Rich’ and ‘Rabbit at Rest’ — won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

In Pigeon Feathers, a young boy adjusting to life at the farmhouse he’s recently been moved to with his parents and ailing grandmother, faces a spiritual crises after reading a work by H.G. Wells.

Read it here.

 

5. Stephen  King — Premium Harmony

From the collection ‘The Bazaar of Bad Dreams’ (2015).

Stephen King 2

Stephen King. He’s probably the most famous author around; the man who’s seen countless stories and novels he’s written find their way onto the big screen, who’s been on the bestsellers list more times than he can remember. He’s not someone this writer has read very often (honestly, I just haven’t been able to get into his books), but he has written a short story in a similar vein to Raymond Carver, which is probably why I like it so much. In his introduction to Premium Harmony in the collection, King confesses that he’d only discovered the work of Carver shortly before writing the story, which is quite surprising since the work was published in 2009 — some 21 years after the short-story master’s death.

In Premium Harmony — which is unquestionably a pastiche  a car ride to a birthday party takes a turn when a couple stop off at a gas station to pick up a gift. This one is darkly comic, and hugely enjoyable.

You can read it here.

 

6. S.J. Coules — Photographs

From the collection ‘You Can Call Me What You Like as Long as You Don’t Call Me’

photographs-3

You’re damn right I’m plugging my own work.

My short story collection ‘You Can Call Me What You Like as Long as You Don’t Call Me’ is definitely a work in progress. Out of all the short stories I’ve completed, four, maybe five will feature in this collection. The rest are to be written  many have been fleshed out and partially developed, some I haven’t even thought of yet. Of the completed works that I plan to include in the book, one has been published, the others have either been submitted to literary magazines, or are sitting on the laptop, eagerly waiting to be read.

In Photographs — my first published short story  a crotchety man who’s found himself old and with nothing but pictures, alcohol, and television to pass the time, encounters an irritating local kid.

You can read it here.

 

Anyway, last orders have been called.

Until next time, I will be in the bar, with my head on the bar . . .

 

Youth

 

The boy is stirred by the sound of bickering.

His eyes do not open, though he can tell that it is morning. He lies still. His ears translate the scene to his brain which creates the imagery. His mind has already mapped out this austere room; the single mattress, the bare concrete walls, the dusty floor, the paneless window. The entire one-story home made of concrete is etched into his memory like the face of a loved one. Like the loved ones who argue outside. He needn’t open his eyes. Soon he will have to, but for now he keeps them shut.

He’s curled up on the thin mattress, sheltered under a ragged Najafi abaya, which he found while wandering along the Tigris a few days earlier with his friend, Aban. He thought about all the possible prominent figures who may have worn such a luxurious cloak, hand-woven from refined wool; an oil-rich sheikh, a prominent politician, a visiting emissary. Most abaya weavers had stopped working after the US invasion of 2003, and the market was flooded by foreign goods not long after Hussein’s trade embargoes were lifted. His abaya was an original—however tattered it may be now—and had it been brand new it would have been the most expensive thing he’d held in his hands.

The bickering is between husband and wife. Nothing more natural, nothing more human. In his abaya cocoon he brings his knees to his chest. He feels safe here. Here he feels inviolate despite the inimical nature of the world outside. He takes a deep breath, and as he exhales as quietly as a gentle breeze, he hears a series of distant thuds, one after another, and then the journeying cacophony of chaos.

And the bickering ends.

Born Quitter

Well, I decided I’d quit after I’d heard about Stuart Frost’s father. I’d just turned 21, and Stuart’s father thought he had a year or two left in him. But it wasn’t to be: he died after a short battle with lung cancer a few days after my 21st birthday, aged 51. I decided there and then, on the spot, that I would never smoke a cigarette again.

Then I had a beer in Stuart’s father’s memory and said a few smokes with a beer was all right.

 

I was determined. I’d think about Stuart’s father, and I’d think about the toxins and all the horrible things smoking does to the body. I’d read up on it, you see. That book by that guy. It was all in my head. I got myself some of the gum that’s supposed to help with the cravings. This was a year after Stuart’s dad’s death, so, needless to say, I hadn’t done incredibly well in my early endeavours to quit following his passing. But, like I said, I was determined. For two weeks I chewed the gum and I only wanted a cigarette around four times a day, which wasn’t too bad.

At the time I was dating Lorraine O’Neal. Now, there was a babe. Jesus, she was wild. We’d been together a few months after I’d met her at a fair, and there was this chemistry between us right away; only a few hours after meeting we were tearing each other’s clothes off and going at it like rabbits at her friend Wendy’s apartment.

Jesus, she was wild.

And things were going well with us, I thought. I thought that that kind of physical chemistry was something unique. Hell, it was to me. But to Lorraine, well, I soon learned that she experienced it with a lot of guys, and on the night I found her in Wendy’s apartment with Ritchie Landis I must’ve smoked about two packs. I deserved them, of course. In the event of heartbreak I was entitled to allow myself some form of comfort. I never saw Lorraine again.

Jesus, she was wild.

 

So a few years passed and I hadn’t quite managed to quit. But I’m a pretty determined individual, and I found myself in the midst of a new attempt at kicking the habit. They say the years go by and, boy, do they go by. I was 28 and it felt like only yesterday that I was hanging out with Stuart Frost and smoking cigarettes on the hood of his car. Now it was seven years to the day since his old man had bit the dust and I was back in town for a special service being held for Mr. Frost and poor Stuart’s poor grandma who’d died a few days earlier.

I was feeling good at the time. I felt healthy, and fit. I looked good, too. I hadn’t smoked in three weeks. When I saw Stuart I shook his hand and we embraced.

‘Cigarette?’ he asked, holding out a pack.

‘Sure,’ I said.

 

I met Sarah Jane when I was 31 (10 years after the death of Mr. Frost). SJ was so damn beautiful. God, she blew my mind the moment I laid eyes on her. She took a bit of work, mind you. She wasn’t as keen on me as I was on her. But I got there in the end. I was cigarette-free, too. I’d been cigarette-free for seven months (apart from one before bed and a maximum of five with beers, allowing myself a maximum of three drinking nights per week). Well, SJ and me eventually got together after I’d hounded the life out of her. I’d told her. I’d said, ‘I’m going to marry you. As God is my witness I will marry you.’ And she’d rolled her eyes at me and said she wasn’t interested in getting married until she was at least 35, but two years after we met we were hitched and on a honeymoon in Italy, where I allowed myself full licence to smoke as often as I liked—you only get one honeymoon, after all.

Well, sometimes.

We had our first child, James, a year later. The kid—for the first two years of his life—was a  goddamn nightmare. Every time that little monster screamed his head off I’d have the urge to smoke a full pack there and then, right in front of the exasperating little bastard. Then I’d calm down and regret thinking like that and I’d hug him and kiss his forehead and tell him ‘daddy loves you’ and then I’d feel bad for a day or two for thinking that way. Of course those days would be filled with regular smoking intervals at the office as a way to help assuage the guilt.

 

You know, some things stick with you, and some things fade from your memory like fog on a spring morning. One thing that never seemed to leave me was poor Stuart Frost’s father. No matter how many years passed by, I’d always think of Stuart’s old man. How he’d once been so healthy, only to croak after less than a few months of being sick. If anything was gonna make me quit smoking, well, that poor man’s end was going to do it. He’d been dead twenty years when I crumpled up my last pack of cigarettes and tossed them in the trash next to the back porch. I kept one from the box to celebrate my intentions, of course: one last smoke.

Me and SJ? Well, we were great, still. Never did a day pass by without us laughing. Not one day. No matter how stressed we got, we’d always laugh, be it first thing in the morning or right before bed. We’d laugh. In between those laughs we’d argue, of course. What couple doesn’t argue? And SJ would know when she’d see a cloud of smoke on the front porch that she’d pushed me too far. She’d have to take some responsibility when she’d driven me to drive to the store to buy a fresh pack. And as for when her parents visited. Jesus, you may as well have sparked up ten at a time and stuck them in my mouth. It’s typical, isn’t it, that the mother-in-law is a nightmare? How clichéd. But, God help me, a vegetarian would work in a slaughterhouse if it would help shut that woman up. She never stops talking.

 

When my parents died within a year of each other it was a difficult period, and I told myself I’d quit once I’d allowed myself time to grieve.

 

When I was 49, coming up fast and furiously to the ‘Big Five-O,’ I decided I’d quit smoking. I really meant it this time. I was only a couple of years away from being the age Stuart Frost’s father was when he died all those years ago, and so I said ‘no more mucking about, for real this time.’

I arrived at my 50th birthday a non-smoker. We toasted the big night with whiskey and cigars and I thought, Okay, this is nice. My youngest, Sophie, had brought her boyfriend (who, if we’re being honest, was a little bit of a wiener, and I knew she could do much better – I’d even told James to do something about it but he told me he’d ‘do it later’). When I noticed The Wiener getting a little touchy-feely with Sophie, I grabbed him by the shirt collar and slapped him upside the head, and warned him to keep his hands off of my daughter and to get out of my party. I knew the little bastard smoked so before he left I told him to give me his pack and I shared a cigarette with him before I told him to take a hike.

 

I’d just turned 63. My doctor told me it’d be a good idea to quit smoking. I told him that I’m a determined man—always have been. He told me he’d been a smoker, but he’d quit seven years earlier and hadn’t smoked since.

I asked him, ‘What’s the trick?’

He said, ‘I got divorced (hahaharr)!’

Sophie’s wedding was happening a few weeks after my appointment with the doc. She was marrying The Wiener. It was a long time coming, but he was all right. Her mother wouldn’t stop encouraging James to pop the question to his girlfriend but that was about as likely as peace in the Middle East, I’d told her.

Sophie took me aside one day. She said, ‘Daddy, I want you to do something for me. For my wedding gift, I want you to promise me that you’ll quit smoking. It’s something I’ve never liked, and the thoughts of you getting sick and leaving mom and James and me. . .’ Here she got a little emotional. ‘That’s all I want. And I want you to know I’ll help you every step of the way.’ And she kissed me on the forehead like I’d kissed her and her brother when they were kids.

I said, ‘Okay, sweetie. Right after the wedding.’

 

After Sophie had her first kid I made a promise to myself. I reminded myself that I was a determined man—had been all my life. I’d worked hard, raised my kids, provided for my family. The promise I made to myself was that I would quit smoking. It was having the first grandkid, you see. Well, it tickles the heart; made me as emotional as my wife watching Titanic. So I’ve decided that I’m going to kick the habit once and for all. And I bumped into Stuart Frost, too. Yeah, a few weeks back. Good ol’ Stuart Frost. Looks well, he does. His old man, huh, I remember his old man well. Gave me my first pack of cigarettes, he did.