5 short stories

Top Five Short Story Reads for June 2017

Father’s Day falls on June 18th. So here are a few short stories of fathers-and-sons and fathers-and-daughters — another double bonanza collection because there are far too many good ones out there. I had to put some aside to share for next year or this list would get too long.

As always, these are free to read online — just click the story titles — so please do share and read with your own families. The stories are from these amazing writers: Ben Marcus, Jesmyn Ward, Premchand, Yu Hua, Junot Diaz, Amy Bloom, Rick Attig, Sharon Telfer, Grace Paley, Lesley Nneka Arimah, and Ian Frazier.

An upfront warning: these are not all the warm, fuzzy, happy ending narratives. They are, however, all about the difficulties of fatherhood and the journey many men have to take to father their children. Interestingly, this fiction sub-genre has seen a bit of growth in recent years, even though it has not yet reached the level of mother-daughter storytelling out there. And, as you might expect, there are more father-daughter stories written by women writers than there are father-son stories written by male writers. I do hope that ratio begins to shift too.

1/ Cold Little Bird by Ben Marcus (The New Yorker)

[Featured earlier in ‘Top Five Short Story Reads From January 2017‘.]

I remember reading this one when it first came out in The New Yorker. It unsettled me then and it unsettled me again when I reread it in the Best American Short Stories 2016 collection. But, I guess, “unsettled” in a good way because we rarely come across stories about parenting that are from the point of view of a father. Or, at least, I have not come across any other yet that has stayed with me so much.

A ten-year-old kid begins to withdraw coolly from his parents, which not only alters his relationships with them but, of course, also impacts the couple’s relationship. Parenting is a lifelong struggle for most and, here, an intelligent, urban couple is trying to hack their way through it.

He told Rachel about this later in the morning, the boy’s unsettling calm, his odd response.

 

“Yeah, I don’t know,” she said. “I mean, good for him, right? He just wanted to read, and he told you that. So what?”

 

“Huh,” Martin said.

 

Rachel was busy cleaning. She hadn’t looked at him. Their argument last night had either been forgotten or stored for later activation. He’d find out. She seemed engrossed by a panicked effort at tidying, as if guests were arriving any second, as if their house were going to be inspected by the fucking U.N. Martin followed her around while they talked, because if he didn’t she’d roam out of earshot and the conversation would expire.

 

“He just seems like a stranger to me,” Martin said, trying to add a lightness to his voice so she wouldn’t hear it as a complaint.

 

Rachel stopped cleaning. “Yeah.”

 

For a moment, it seemed that she might agree with him and they’d see this thing similarly.

2/ ‘Flayed’ (excerpt) by Jesmyn Ward (Oxford American)

I’m cheating a bit here because this is a novel excerpt and not a complete short story. But it stands alone so well and is so beautifully written, I had to include it. It is from Ward’s upcoming novel, ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing‘.

Also, another bit of a cheat is that this is not a biological father but a grandfather who is raising the son in question. And, yes, that is still relevant, don’t you think? Step-fathers, foster fathers, grandfathers, older brothers — so many men often stand in as proxy for the real fathers and for all kinds of reasons.

There is a lot going on here: JoJo, a thirteen-year-old boy is with his grandfather, who he calls ‘Pop’, in rural Mississippi and watching him kill a goat. But, underneath the surface gore (yes, Ward is unflinching in her description and yet, somehow, still manages to make the language, well, sing beautifully), there is a compounded pain and growing self-awareness from parental abandonment, poverty, racism, and more.

Back when I was younger, back when I still called Leonie Mama, she told me flies eat shit. That was when there was more good than bad, when she’d push me on the swing Pop hung from one of the pecan trees in the front yard, or when she’d sit next to me on the sofa and watch TV with me, rubbing my head. Before she was more gone than here. Before she started snorting crushed pills. Before all the little mean things she told me gathered and gathered and lodged like grit in a skinned knee. Back then I still called Michael Daddy. That was when he lived with us before he moved back in with Big Joseph. Before the police took him away three years ago, before Kayla was born.

3/ The Shroud by Premchand (translated from the Urdu and Hindi by Frances W. Pritchett)

Premchand is well-known in India for his short stories and novels and is still considered the finest Urdu/Hindi short story writer of all time. Pritchett, the translator, considers this to be one of his best stories — actually, one of the best South Asian short stories in any language she has read.

It certainly has all of Premchand’s famous trademarks: rural realism, the tragic and comic blending together, evocation of sympathy for even the worst-behaved characters, descriptive language, and more. The themes here are also ones Premchand often wrote about — religious hypocrisy, the exploitation of women, and caste dynamics.

A father and son — both wayward, selfish, lazy, and slaves to their physical appetites — ignore the son’s wife as she is dying with a labor gone bad. What happens next is inevitable but not simply for the obvious reasons. It is evident where the son got his habits and behaviors from and that, to me, is the most telling aspect of this particular story.

At the door of the hut father and son sat silently by a burnt-out fire; inside, the son’s young wife Budhiya lay in labor, writhing with pain. And from time to time such a heart-rending scream emerged from her lips that they both pressed their hands to their hearts. It was a winter night; everything was drowned in desolation. The whole village had been absorbed into the darkness.

 

Ghisu said, “It seems she won’t live. She’s been writhing in pain the whole day. Go on–see how she is.”

 

Madhav said in a pained tone, “If she’s going to die, then why doesn’t she go ahead and die? What’s the use of going to see?”

 

“You’re pretty hard-hearted! You’ve enjoyed life with her for a whole year–such faithlessness to her?”

 

“Well, I can’t stand to see her writhing and thrashing around.”

4/ Appendix by Yu Hua (Words Without Borders)

Yu Hua is a Chinese writer who practiced dentistry for five years and later turned to fiction writing because he didn’t like “looking into people’s mouths the whole day.” Having grown up during the Cultural Revolution (Mao’s communist China), a lot of Hua’s fiction is about that, naturally. He is both widely-translated and widely-read in and out of China.

This story is about a father, a surgeon, who often tells his young boys brave tales of surgery. One particular story, about how a British surgeon operated on his own appendix, stays with them. So you can imagine what might happen when the father himself has an inflamed appendix and needs them to fetch a couple of doctors to help him. I won’t spoil it but, suffice to say, it is both sad and funny.

Interestingly, it is another story about how a son looks up to a father and believes everything the latter says. It made me think of how we use the label “father figure” for the authoritative men who greatly influence our lives. And yet, the label “mother figure” — for the nurturing women who might have shaped us — is not at all common.

By the way, this story is from a new online campus of world literature by the folks from Words Without Borders. I’m still enjoying browsing through it and discovering new stories.

As my father spoke, he lay back. We knew he was going to tell a story. He closed his eyes and gave a contented yawn, then turned to face us. He said that one day the British surgeon arrived on a small island. This small island had no hospital, and no doctor, and not even a medical kit, but his appendix became inflamed, and he lay underneath a palm tree, racked with pain for a whole morning. He knew that if there was any further delay in operating, his appendix would perforate . . .

 

“And what happens if the appendix perforates . . .” My father propped himself up and asked us.

 

“He’ll be dead.” My brother said.

 

“It will turn into peritonitis, and then he’ll die.” My father corrected my brother’s way of putting it.

 

My father said, “The British surgeon had no choice but to operate on himself. He had two locals hold up a large mirror, and looking at himself in the mirror, in this particular spot . . .”

5/ Fiesta, 1980 by Junot Diaz (Selected Shorts: Audio)

Diaz is one of my favorite short story writers now. This is one of the ten short stories included in the collection, ‘Drown‘. You can download a scanned copy and read it from here.

Yunior, a recurring Diaz character, is a teenage narrator from a family of Dominican Republic immigrants in the US. He likes sparring with his older brother and thinks his baby sister is cute. But he’s worried about his parents’ marriage and dreads any family outing:  “We were a Doomsday on wheels.” In this story, the father is an authoritiarian, abusive figure who is having an affair with a Puerto Rican woman (a fact that Yunior believes everyone in the family knows but pretends not to.) This family dysfunction plays itself out in different ways among all its members, and most notably in Yunior’s physical reaction to car journeys. Diaz’ colloquial language, how he gets us inside the head of this complex protagonist, and how he balances many moods and emotions throughout — these are the things I love about his storytelling.

Mami’s youngest sister–my tía Yrma–finally made it to the United States that year. She and tío Miguel got themselves and apartment in the Bronx, off the Grand Concourse, and everybody decided we should have a party. Actually, my pops decided, but everybody–meaning Mami, tía Yrma, tío Miguel, and their neighbors–thought it a dope idea. On the afternoon of the party, Papi came back from work around six. Right on time. We were all dressed by then, which was a smart move on our part. If Papi had walked in and caught us lounging in our underwear, he would have kicked our asses something serious.

 

He didn’t say nothing to nobody, not even my moms. He just pushed past her, held up his hand when she tried to talk to him, and headed right into the shower. Rafa gave me the look and I gave it right back to him; we both knew Papi had been with that Puerto Rican woman he was seeing and wanted to wash off the evidence quick.

6/ Between Here and Here by Amy Bloom (Narrative Magazine)

[This site needs a free login but it is worth it as this magazine has a lot of gems in its archives.]

I’ve always enjoyed a Bloom story and this is no different — sad as it is. Another abusive father, I’m sorry, but such is the reality for many kids out there. And I firmly believe that we need to write and talk about the mud and the stars and even what lies beneath and beyond both. Pretending that terrible things do not exist in our lives/worlds does not do anyone any good, except maybe the expensive therapists eventually. In fact, reading stories like these is a way of exercising our emotional muscles and building their strength so that, in real life, we may then face similar challenges better — so say the cognitive scientists.

Still, it doesn’t quite go like you think it might. And, through the father’s journey here, we’re reminded of what’s in store for all of us — whether we’re kind or cruel to our children. Also, for children of difficult parents, this story shows how we do not always have to turn out like our parents, even when those individuals are the only real experience we may have of parenthood.

I had always planned to kill my father. When I was ten, I drew a picture of a grave with “Alvin Lowald” on the tombstone, on the wall behind my dresser. From time to time I would add a spray of weeds or a creeping vine. By the time I was in junior high, there were trees hung with kudzu, cracks in the granite, and a few dark daisies springing up. Once, when my mother wouldn’t let me ride my bike into town, I wrote “Peggy Lowald is a fat stupid cow” behind the dresser, but I went back the same day and scribbled over it with black Magic Marker because most of the time I did love my mother and I knew she loved me. The whole family knew that my mother’s feelings were Sensitive and Easily Hurt. My father said so, all the time. My father’s feelings were also sensitive, but not in a way that I understood the word, at ten; it might be more accurate to say that he was extremely responsive.

7/ Malheur Refuge by Rick Attig (The Masters Review)

This story about a foster father is both moving and beautifully written. Foster fathers often get a bad rap in fiction, I find. They tend not to be good fathers, for the most part, but they also tend to be, at the other extreme — sexual predators and such. In this case, the father is a sympathetic figure but also someone who, well, is not necessarily up to the job for various reasons.

What I like most about this one is that, although both main characters have rather sad events to deal with, and they are not doing a great job with that either, the ending is an uplifting note. It’s a simple, tiny moment of joy — the kind that we often miss when we are trying to cope and struggle on through things. Stories like this remind us to notice such moments in our own lives — for whatever they may be worth eventually.

Late at night, Lee sits on his unmade bed with a tumbler of melted ice and looks through a gap in the window blinds, searching the darkness for the flash of headlights. He’s still in his sweat-stained uniform, the patch with a leaping salmon and a fleeing duck high on the shoulder of his khaki shirt. Mia told him she was going to a dance with her new boyfriend, then maybe out to grab a burger afterward. She was supposed to be home by midnight, but now it’s almost one-thirty. Lee’s called twice and sent three texts. She’s not answering.

8/ Terra Incognita by Sharon Telfer (Bath Flash Fiction 2016 First Prize)

Here is a lovely little story about a father and daughter who are mapmakers. It’s also a story about writing or storytelling, as Telfer describes in this interview. For me, she packs so much into such a small space that I find it stunning. Here’s what the judge’s report said:

The close attention to detail and sounds make this a memorable story from the very first encounter. The round vowels of the opening phrasings roll in the mouth like the sea. Intentional alliteration, consonance and repetitions drive the rhythms of the lines but are never obtrusive: from ‘stumbling over cobbles’ to ‘ducking the jutting houses’ to the stories spilling… The carefully painted images create a closely observed scene with an economy of words. It’s as if the reader is in the room with the mapmaker and his daughter: the ripe cheese and cherries, the landscapes (‘smoking mountains, shrieking ice’), the ‘swell and dip’ of the ‘billowing dress’. I am sitting there in the dark with the girl and her father as they whisper over their task. And what a task, too – the ending brings the reader from the quiet of the small space to the expanse of the world, and the delicate balance between mapmakers and all they see and convey. A quiet knockout.

See what I mean? There’s so much craft, emotion, and storytelling here.

They spill their stories before the solid ground can make them fast. They tell of days when the sun never sets or never rises, birds that swim but cannot fly, great fish that sing, of smoking mountains, shrieking ice, forests where men become trees, one-footed men, dog-headed men, waves as high as cathedral bells, seas as still as death. They have sailed so far they have gazed at unfamiliar stars and wondered how they are to find their way back.

9/ A Conversation With My Father by Grace Paley (The Guardian UK: Audio)

Speaking of fathers and daughters and their storytelling reminded me of this terrific story (you can also read it here.)

Paley has written several stories about fathers and mothers. This is her most popular one about fathers (although, here’s another one in case you’re interested: My Father Addresses Me On the Facts of Old Age.) This particular story has been widely anthologized and analyzed — just google it. For my part, I will simply say that it is has all of Paley’s characteristic wit, energetic dialogue, and profound truth-telling.

A daughter, who is also a writer, visits her father in the hospital. He complains about her stories and how she needs to write simpler ones. She tries to create one on the go while he gives her editorial feedback. And, through the narrative, we get to see not only the new story taking shape through their argumentative banter, but we also see their own story over the course of their lives and, of course, we get to see some of Paley’s own fiction-making process. And this is what Paley does with each of her deceptively simple stories — she gives us so many different things at once that you just cannot unpack them all in a first read. A Paley story has to be reread several times to truly get to its essence. Enjoy.

My father is eighty-six years old and in bed. His heart, that bloody motor, is equally old and will not do certain jobs any more. It still floods his head with brainy light. But it won’t let his legs carry the weight of his body around the house. Despite my metaphors, this muscle failure is not due to his old heart, he says, but to a potassium shortage. Sitting on one pillow, leaning on three, he offers last-minute advice and makes a request.

 

“I would like you to write a simple story just once more,” he says, “the kind de Maupassant wrote, or Chekhov, the kind you used to write. Just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them next.”

 

I say, “Yes, why not? That’s possible.” I want to please him, though I don’t remember writing that way. I would like to try to tell such a story, ifhe means the kind that begins: “There was a woman…” followed by plot, the absolute line between two points which I’ve always despised. Not for literary reasons, but because it takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.

10/ Light by Lesley Nneka Arimah (Granta — The Commonwealth Writers’ Winning Stories for Africa and the Pacific)

Here is another story about a father raising his daughter single-handedly — the mother is away studying in the US — quite the role reversal already there. And, in the end, it is not the fathering that causes trouble but, well, you’ll see. All I want to say is that I hope there are more fathers like Enebeli here in the world and long may their tribe thrive.

When Enebeli Okwara sent his girl out in the world, he did not know what the world did to daughters. He did not know how quickly it would wick the dew off her, how she would be returned to him hollowed out, relieved of her better parts. Before this, they are living in Port Harcourt in a bungalow in the old Ogbonda Layout. Her mother is in America reading for a Masters in Business Administration. She has been there for almost three years in which her eleven-year-old bud of a girl has bloomed. Enebeli and the girl have survived much in her absence, including a disturbance at the market which saw him and the girl separated for hours while people stampeded, trying to get away from a commotion that turned out to be two warring market women who’d had just about enough of each other’s tomatoes. They survived a sex talk, birthed by a careless joke an uncle had made at a wedding, about the bride taking a cup of palm wine to her husband and leaving with a cup of, well, and the girl had questions he might as well answer before she asked someone who might take it as an invitation to demonstrate. They survived the crime scene of the girl’s first period, as heavy a bleeder as she was a sleeper, the red seeping all the way through to the other side of the mattress. They survived the girl discovering this would happen every month.

BONUS: Lamentations of the Father by Ian Frazier (The Atlantic)

This is just one of the funniest literary things I’ve read. It is a set of rules and exhortations for children written in a Biblical or religious tract style. Not much more to say except that if there is only one you read from this list, please make it this one. You can even enjoy the author himself reading it here. It has been featured on NPR’s Selected Shorts and The Prairie Home Companion a few times too.

Of the beasts of the field, and of the fishes of the sea, and of all foods that are acceptable in my sight you may eat, but not in the living room. Of the hoofed animals, broiled or ground into burgers, you may eat, but not in the living room. Of the cloven-hoofed animal, plain or with cheese, you may eat, but not in the living room. Of the cereal grains, of the corn and of the wheat and of the oats, and of all the cereals that are of bright color and unknown provenance you may eat, but not in the living room. Of the quiescently frozen dessert and of all frozen after-meal treats you may eat, but absolutely not in the living room. Of the juices and other beverages, yes, even of those in sippy-cups, you may drink, but not in the living room, neither may you carry such therein. Indeed, when you reach the place where the living room carpet begins, of any food or beverage there you may not eat, neither may you drink.

There are many other favorite father-daughter stories I have left out this time, including those by Alice Munro — one of my all-time favorite writers. Not to worry. We’ll meet back here in 12 months and enjoy another set of these lovely gems, won’t we? It’s a date.

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