Sex

By Michael Madonick

Featured Art: Nude Lying On Bed by Anders Zorn

nobody is asking but I’m ready to say there are things we should not speak of the private convoluting movements of embrace that is why there is night for the unspoken the unspeakable the sand lily’s up-turn of its cup in darkness moisture makes much of itself enough said enough unsaid but there cannot be an end to it the need to lose the self find the self escape to matters consequential involving arms legs the mouth attaching in certain and uncertain ways fingertips toes the octopus’ obsession with its den the Egyptian threaded membrane behind the knee a gasp that pleads for god though nobody really wants a god to show recline on the chaise-lounge score such a thing though god knows we do the best we can ducks are different nearly drowning in it the neck bite back-driven furious flurry of it a kind of underwater consecration of a devious sects’ commingling no one should watch such a thing be vigilant in fact to not observe that should be a given that we should close our eyes to it be under the covers lights off candles blown only during an eclipse be the prisoner moving to a courthouse our cuffs shielded by the daily news hide in a raincoat from the paparazzi the fabric of our lust the uncontainable stupor that brings us to our innocence our knees our inexhaustible innocence unknowing in its rhythms over and over again and again

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The Vacuum

By Julie Hanson

Featured Art: Woman Bathing by Mary Cassatt

Don’t ask what it was all about.
Ask instead how sudden it was, how complete.
One minute I was an ordinary woman
vacuuming, a thing it seemed I had too recently done,
and the next minute sobbing,
emitting sounds loud, rapid, and long.
It was the kind of sobbing that makes you feel five—
five years old, or housing a feeling five people wide.
I was seated, my left elbow on my left knee,
my glasses hanging from my left hand
as if they were the problem,
(no use in wearing them, no use in putting them down)
and the vacuum, part pet, part sculpture,
sprawled awkwardly, still shrieking
on the floor in front of me.
The sorrow seemed pulled from outside, unselectively,
as if I had swallowed a magnet.
Each time I felt that I could silence this,
that something had been spent, something settled,
I opened my eyes to that canister,
attachments on its back, hose, and extension,
reality-piece which had withstood the worst of me,
had witnessed, and was unaffected.

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The Mixer

By Leslie Daniels

Featured Art: Cock and Hen by Kawabata Gyokushō

When I was a child of two and my mother was mixing my birthday cake, she let me pull my pants down and sit in a plate of cake flour. I remember the paper plate on the floor, and her pretty ankles going between countertop and stove. She was a child psychologist and she understood that you need to feel things to know them. The bottom test was my own invention. I remember the exquisite sensation, and the hum of the mixer.

Many years later I was the mother making the birthday cake, the oven preheating, mixing with an electric mixer. It was the morning of the party and I was making All-Occasion Downy Yellow Butter Cake from The Cake Bible. It’s the only cookbook I own for which I have too much respect to mess around with the recipes. I don’t care much about cakes, though they are a good meeting place of butter and sugar, but to other people in my life—my daughter who was turning three—cake is important.

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Bad

By Steven Cramer

Featured Art: Bolete & Bird by Dylan Petrea

It got bad; pretty bad; then not
so bad; very bad; then back to bad.
Jesus, let’s let things not get even worse.

A weird fall. Nearly ninety
one day, leaf mold making our house
all red eyes and throats. Don’t think

about Thanksgiving, but hope
for a decent Halloween. Everywhere
gas-powered leaf-blowers growling—

Christ, let’s let things not get even worse.

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November

By Richard Cecil

Featured Art: Stacks of Wheat (End of Summer) by Claude Monet

November is the time between conviction
and sentencing, when you’re still out on bail.
You’re sort of free, pending the rejection
of your appeal, but you are bound for jail.
There’s no point pleading that your weren’t guilty
of stealing pleasure from warm summer air—
you were caught, grinning, on camera. The penalty
is ninety days in winter’s prison. Unfair!
I only did what everybody does
when tempted irresistibly to strip
wool socks and parkas off and take a dip
in summer heat. You can’t tell bees, “don’t buzz.”
November shrugs in answer to your pleas:
Ninety days for you. Death for the bees.

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Climber

By Richard Cecil

Featured Art: The Belated Party on Mansfield Mountain by Jerome B. Thompson

I set out from Poor Valley to climb Mt. Rich.
Light’s failing now. I’ll have to stop to rest
somewhere below the summit. But my palms itch
to clutch at higher handholds, though, at best,
I’d claw up to an outcrop of a cave
to hole up in. I’ll never reach the peak.
Why not just plant my flag here, grin and wave
at my camera set on auto-shoot? Why seek
a slightly higher level of success?
I’ll never, never make it to the top.
I’m told the middle of the mountain’s best.
The slope grows steeper past halfway; the drop
precipitous. But oh, to be one of the few!
Although they die and lose their money, too.

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Yet

By Eric Torgersen

Featured Art: The Enchanted Mesa by William Henry Holmes

a voice I haven’t sung from yet
—Bruce Springsteen

Hang him from a tree he hasn’t hung from yet.
Fling him off a bridge no one’s been flung from yet.

Send succor, in whatever dark disguise:
a hornet’s nest he’s not gone running, stung, from yet.

He’d have it be a tower, not a steeple—
the height in him no bell has rung from yet.

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Scenario

By Eric Torgersen

Featured Art: Elk and Buffalo Making Acquaintance, Texas by George Catlin

Had enough of the old lonesome-and-blue scenario?
Up for a shot at the old I-love-you scenario?

Man enough to leave your comfort zone
in the good old get-drunk-and-screw scenario?

Let’s be real. Love hurts. Even you, you stud, you.
Sure you can handle the old boo-hoo scenario?

Don’t even try to guess what she really wants;
be ready for the old you-don’t-have-a-clue scenario.

Tell her, “I’ll always honor your personhood.”
What’s more of a drag than the old I’m-a-person-too scenario?

It’s never not a good time to say, “My bad.”
Don’t lean too hard on the old I-never-knew scenario.

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Pharaoh

By David Wojahn

Featured Art: The Great Pyramid, Giza by Adrien Dauzats

We had eaten the placenta in a soup that someone based on a family recipe 

for menudo, though someone else—

it was Bill, I think—joked that it tasted just like chicken. This Year’s Model 

was brand new & the needle stuck

on “Lipstick Vogue,” Costello snarling not just another mouth, not just 

another mouth, until Joe

set down the bong & flicked the tone arm forward from the scratch. 

& anyway, by this time

Amy was shouting from the bedroom that she’d finally gotten Star to sleep, 

that the music should be

Mozart or something. I’ve forgotten the midwife’s name, but she sat 

sprawled on a patio lawn chair,

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Foreign Excellent

By Michelle Herman

Featured Art: The Last Dance by Mackenzie Siler

It wasn’t that I didn’t like her. I liked her fine—that’s what I would have said if anyone had asked me. But I knew better than to get too attached to the women who dated my next-door neighbor, John. Women cycled through his life pretty quickly, and so far all the ones I’d met had been crazy, anyway—too crazy for me, if not for him. John pursued crazy; he thought crazy was charming. And while she didn’t necessarily seem crazy, I’d learned that you couldn’t always tell at first (that actually you could hardly ever tell at first).

Did she like me? It was impossible to judge. She was friendly enough, always polite if not warm. Certainly she was more guarded than I (but then just about everyone I have ever met is more guarded than I). I could not have read her even if I’d tried. But I didn’t try, because we weren’t friends.

And then she cracked her skull—she almost died—and suddenly we were.

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Why Men Don’t Write About Their Wives

By Dennis Sampson

Featured Art: Crouching Nude in Shoes and Black Stockings, Back View by Egon Schiele

It took him a lifetime to figure out
he hadn’t the slightest idea
who she was. Rereading
Milton’s Paradise Lost one night,
he elected to set things right. He would recall

what had never dawned on him
in an epithalamion of all their vows,
her face as gray and drawn and haunted now
as that which miraculously appeared
to Milton in his sonnet “Methought I Saw.”
He’d been blind

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My Daughter’s Narcolepsy

By Keith Taylor

Featured Art: The Public Viewing David’s “Coronation” at the Louvre by Louis Léopold Boilly

Before we received the official
diagnosis, we loved to recount
her sleep episodes. My favorite:
the Louvre, in front of those gigantic
paintings David made celebrating
the coronation of Josephine
and Napoleon before the French
nobles. My daughter drooled on the bench.


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Anthropomorphic Duck

By Robert Wrigley

Featured Art: A Green-winged Teal by Jagdish Mittal

Every morning, the solitary blue-winged teal drake
swam the east-to-west length of the high mountain lake
in silence. Every evening he’d fly back
uttering on his way a single sad quack.
What we wondered, my sons and I, was why.

Why here, an otherwise duckless nowhere? The sky
was wide and blue above him; surely the flyways beckoned.
Though we also knew we had no way of reckoning
what kind of inner life he might have possessed,
if inner life is what instinct is, or if he was lost,

or if—and this, we understood, was as much about ourselves—
there was something he himself had lost. Was our blue wing
blue because, like certain geese, his kind mates for life?
This was how we came to refer to her as his wife,
as Mrs. Teal, the missing one, for whom he mourned,

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Horse, Alone, November

By Joyce Peseroff

Featured Art: Prancing Horse by Jean Louis André Théodore Géricault

She’s teaching him
no harm will slither up his legs
like chilly steam above a pond at night,
or plummet from almost leafless trees
when she saddles his pasture-mate
and they swish between the pointed firs
into spectral woods. Left behind,
alone, he paces the golden perimeter
of fence post and electric wire,
a fragment of eternity falling
red on his rolling shoulder
when he jars the ground beneath
the gnomon in a field
a single maple makes.

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The Gray Museum

By Sydney Lea

Featured Art: Canal Scene Near Bruges, Belgium by William Stanley Haseltine

Flat on their tapestry, hawks and hounds
and a corps of horsemen showed that much flatter
for the sleeted windows. All of Manhattan
seemed a great gray museum.
Our words went blurry. It was never romance.
Or do you insist?
I thought how mountains sag into deltas

with time. From a sill outside drab pigeons
flushed into haze—and were erased.
The horsemen’s woven reins went slack.
In a hotel bed
later that night, even sleep turned gray:
in my dream, a train
huffed till the station misted like glass;

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Feature: Stories You May Have Missed

We asked 15 writers to reflect on under-appreciated contemporary short stories. Their responses follow.

Lydia Davis
Stuart Dybek
Carol Anshaw
Max Apple
Alan Cheuse
Erin McGraw
Robert Cohen
Nicholas Delbanco
Lynne Sharon Schwartz
Tracy Daugherty
Steven Schwartz
Andrea Barrett
Francine Prose
Jim Shepard
Rosellen Brown

“Dog Heaven” by Stephanie Vaughn

By Carol Anshaw

Featured Art: Little Girl and Dog by Hablot Knight Browne

I could have chosen this story for its first line alone:

“Every so often that dead dog dreams me up again.”

But much more awaits the reader in this tightly controlled yet seemingly casual narrative. Gemma, the story’s protagonist, goes on to say, “It’s twenty-five years later, I’m walking along 42nd Street in Manhattan, the sounds of the city crashing beside me—horns, gearshifts, insults—somebody’s chewing gum holding my foot to the pavement, when that dog wakes from his long sleep and imagines me.

“I’m sweet again. I’m sweet-breathed and flat-limbed. Our family is stationed at Fort Niagara, and the dog swims his red heavy fur into the black Niagara River.” [all Sweet Talk, 176]

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“The Moon In Its Flight“ by Gilbert Sorrentino

By Robert Cohen

Featured Art: Monk Meditating near a Ruin by Moonlight by Frederik Marinus Kruseman

I first came upon “The Moon In Its Flight” as a graduate student in my mid- twenties, in a book called Many Windows, a now long out of print anthology put together by Ted Solotaroff from his seminal literary magazine of the seventies, New American Review. It’s fair to say it blew my mind. This was not entirely unusual. I had my mind blown pretty regularly at that time: the rest of me wasn’t getting much, and I was nothing if not impressionable. But twenty-odd years later, having reread the story for teaching and other purposes, oh, about a hundred times now, it still blows my mind—if anything more so than before. What this says about me I’m not sure I even want to think about. But what it says about “The Moon In Its Flight” I do want to think about, if not emulate, if not imitate, if not crassly and slavishly steal.

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“The Ebony Tower“ by John Fowles

By Nicholas Delbanco

Featured Art: Sunset Over Tower and River by Arnold William Brunner

Post-mortems in prose fiction are risky to pronounce; the dead do have a way of quickening again. This week’s much-celebrated text will be, in thirty years, forgotten; what’s lost may reappear. And in this particular instance I’m not rescuing arcana; Sir Laurence Olivier played the protagonist of John Fowles’s “The Ebony Tower” for a television film. Too, the short story collection of which this is the title piece lodged comfortably on the New York Times Best Seller List for six full months in 1974-75.

It’s possible, however, that Fowles’s reputation as a “serious” author has been undermined by commercial success; in England particularly, it would seem—though I have only anecdotal evidence for this—he was thought of as a popular and therefore unimportant writer. “If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?” gets transformed, in critical discourse, to, “If you’re so wealthy, how could you be smart?” and Fowles has been devalued in part because of fame.

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“The Accompanist” by Anita Desai

By Lynne Sharon Schwartz

Featured Art: Female performer with tanpura by Unknown

For a short story to linger in the mind as long and as tenaciously as “The Accompanist” has in mine, it must hit a sensitive nerve. So in revisiting the story, which I first came upon years ago in Anita Desai’s early collection, Games at Twilight, I looked for what had struck me so keenly in this first-person account of an Indian musician from a poor background who dedicates his life to the most humble of accompanying instruments, the tanpura.

The narrator’s father makes musical instruments and music is “the chief household deity.” Soon after Bhaiyya’s lessons begin at the age of four, his talent is obvious: “My father could see it clearly—I was a musician . . ., a performer of music, that is what he saw. He taught me all the ragas, the raginis, and tested my knowledge with rapid, persistent questioning in his unmusical, grating voice.” The father is stern and rough, never offering praise or encouragement, only calling his son a “stupid, backward boy.”

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“Enough” by Alice McDermott

By Tracy Daugherty

Featured Art: Wild Femininity Series: Giraffe by Mackenzie Siler

It is always fascinating when a novelist tries her hand at short fiction. If the endeavor succeeds, it is because the novelist’s expansiveness finds expression in its opposite: intense compression. On April 10, 2000, Alice McDermott, best known for such novels as The Bigamist’s Daughter, That Night, At Weddings and Wakes, and Charming Billy, published a short story called “Enough” in the New Yorker. In nineteen carefully-orchestrated paragraphs, the story traces the life of a middle-class American woman, from childhood to old age, using such rich domestic imagery, the reader feels as if an entire era has been fitted into a neat container, like a child’s shoebox full of keepsakes.

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“In Miami, Last Winter” by James Kaplan

By Steven Schwartz

Featured Art: Untitled (Seascape with Houses on Beach) by Unknown

I was worried. Thirty years had passed since I looked at the story. Every writer has a list of stories he carries around in his head, if only he were to put together that anthology of personally selected hits. To go back and pick one . . . well, a lot rested on it.

“In Miami, Last Winter,” by James Kaplan, was first published in Esquire in 1977. I came across it then—at twenty-six years old—and then again the following year when it was anthologized in Best American Short Stories 1978. The second—and last time—I read it I admired it even more, a sure test of a story’s staying power. You know the plot, you know the characters’ dilemmas, you know the story’s stakes, yet you’re still dazzled by its force to catch you up in its immediacy. Indeed every story works toward establishing a renewable present: the ability to make the reader experience its effects anew. In short, you fall helplessly under its spell once more.

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