- At the Swing Tree
- Barnyard ElectionThe barnyard was not safe. People were disappearing, being snatched. Someone had to keep the place under surveillance at night. They would elect a watchman. At first, it seemed the obvious choice was Mother Goose. She had been around a long time, was familiar with the barnyard, was wise and experienced. And she had always especially loved the children, who were most at risk. But some thought she had been around too long. Factions sprang up. “We need someone with a loud voice to sound an alarm,” said her supporters. “Geese are famous for their loud voices.” “True enough,” said others, “but she’s old. She sleeps a lot. She isn’t as alert as we need.” There were alternatives.Read more
- Beyond the ReefAfter breakfast they waded through the shallows, wearing reef shoes that seemed absurdly thick -- until they clambered onto the reef, a narrow flat walkway of razor-sharp coral that made them glad for those heavy soles. It was low tide, no breeze yet astir, the sea lake-calm. He explained to his city-bred wife how generations of coral polyps built the reef, contributing their skeletons to communal growth. A rainbow kaleidoscope of fish shimmered through slanting sunshine in the deeper water just off the reef. Hundreds of sea urchins clung to the edge, golfball-sized reddish orbs with toxic spines as long as darning needles. Despite the ominous-looking urchins, it seemed a friendly reef.Read more
- Buying VotesThe revolution began with a Washington Post estimate that, collectively, presidential candidates and their backers spent $25 for each vote cast in 2016. A truck driver, Horace Smith, wrote the editor: “All that money to clutter my TV with attack ads? Just send us the money, please, and give us some peace! I’d sell my vote for $20."Read more
- Chip Off the Old Block
- Connubial Counsel
- ConsultantsRead more
“It’s too long.”
“There’s a lot to say.”
“Jamie, no president ever delivered an inaugural this long. A damned oration.” Even after Dan Webster’s editing, it had taken him two hours to read it aloud last night.
“You owe your election to a lot of people.” Jamie fancied himself a political guru as well as speechwriter. “They all expect to be mentioned.”
“Listen, I’m 68 years old.” He wasn’t sure he could stand up that long, let alone on an outdoor platform.
- Customer Service“Good morning. I need to return a purchase.” “I’m sure I can help. Can you hold just a moment while I look up your account?” “Of course. What luck! You answered on the third ring, I didn’t have to wade through one of those long menus, and I got a real live person! Are you allowed to tell me your name?” “My family calls me A-I, but you can call me Alice Irene.” “Well, Alice Irene, you tell Tudbury’s they get points in my book!”Read more
- Dawn Babel
- Earthworm Ruminations
- Empty Nest
- First BuckRead more
Eddie saw the deer first, as they brushed teeth at the pump in the frosty first light.
Peter was studying the barren talus slope behind the cabin, memorizing phrases for his journal: fractured gneiss, craggy as ice cubes, climbing to a staccato of stunted junipers at the crest, etched against a pale sky. He planned to be a writer.
“Hey, kid!” Eddie whispered.
- FirstbornRead more
She looks for Stanley every morning in the vastness of Saint Anthony’s Cathedral. Walking slowly down the long center aisle, she glances discreetly at the few others who have come for the seven o’clock Mass. At the altar rail, she genuflects to the Christ silhouetted against the brightness of the stained glass, and turns right to light a candle at the statue of the saint, patron of lost things and missing persons. She kneels a moment by the flickering bank, then stands to survey the sea of hard-backed pews, still nearly empty, before retreating to her usual spot near the back.
- Millie’s ManeRead more
She turned from the mirror, still brushing her hair: ten, eleven, twelve. Clothes put away, bed as tautly made as a soldier’s; big fat, faded Pooh-Bear, showing his advanced years, propped on the lone pillow; Mother’s seascape behind the bed the only splash of real color on pale peach wallpaper. Not to complain about the watercolor, but all her friends had puffy pillows, bedspreads and drapes in bold colors, and rock groups’ posters on their walls. “Mother,” she’d complained last week, “my room is so juvenile!”
- Mountain Test
- Open Carry
- Parting CompanyHe felt in his pocket for the key. The place belonged to the bank or the auctioneer now, but they would hardly mind his coming for a last look around. By the end of the day there might be nothing left but the empty walls with which he’d started four decades ago. Rudy’s Hardware, in old-fashioned huge neon script, stood out in the infant dawn. Good: They’d had the decency to leave the sign switched on. In the plate-glass window, his tall, lanky reflection had a ruby cast that gave way, as he neared the door, to the pallor of the overnight lights inside. He smiled at himself under his wide-brimmed canvas bush hat, the trademark image he’d adopted on his first day of business. Taking a deep breath to expand his chest, he gave himself a toothy grin, then deftly opened the door, strode to the counter and reached over to disarm the alarm system and turn up the lights. He didn’t want the beat cop seeing a dim mysterious figure in here; better to be easily recognized as good old Rudy.Read more
- Quake LakeRead more
The path through the brush-thick meadow disappeared into a tangle of alder and willow. Jupiter was a growing pinpoint in a fading northern evening; the Madison River clamored unseen down its stony bed only a few yards away.
Tom was tired after a day on that river. Fishing well demands concentration, forcing out of mind workaday problems, stifling distractions, recollections, ruminations. This was where he had waited, four decades ago, for a bride-to-be who never came. He had managed not to think of her all day.
This evening, ambivalent about poking up the embers of memory, he had almost stayed at the camper. Perhaps should have. He was about to give up for the day when the park ranger materialized, beckoning from a dark patch in the thicket. “Can I help you, mister?”
- Sweet Charity
- TattoosTattoos I’ve written this responding to an unusual challenge by a literary magazine called “Barnaby Snopes”: To write a short story entirely in dialog, without even a “she said.” Tattoos “Excuse me for being personal, but that’s a handsome tattoo on your arm.” “Thank you. Have you decided what you’re going to have, ma’am?” “I was thinking about the blue plate special. Does it hurt, making it?” “Shall I put you down for the blue plate, then?” “Yes, please. I suppose I shouldn’t ask such personal questions. But does it?”Read more
- The Appearance of MaryRead more
“Joey, I need you to come live with me.” Grandma got him aside after the funeral. He wasn’t surprised that she was already planning ahead: Although Gramps’ death was unexpected and her grief was unmistakable, he knew her as a practical woman. “I’ll have to take in boarders, and I don’t want strangers in the house without a man around,” she said.
- The Good Seed
- The HandkerchiefRead more
A lacy handkerchief stood perkily in the driveway at number 245, caught momentarily in a shaft of dawn sunlight on the passenger side of a sporty red convertible. Relatively new neighbor, 245: Bruce something, a coach at the university. White man. A bachelor, Charles thought he’d heard; maybe Sally told him. He might have broken stride, gone up the drive, put the handkerchief on the windshield where it wouldn’t be missed. He was already past it, though, and did not turn back.
- The Man Who Cancelled the NewspaperRead more
He called The Courier the day after they buried Priscilla. As town librarian for decades, she’d been the one who read it, occasionally calling his attention to local news. His only consistent use of the paper was to clip the crossword they did in bed together each night before turning out the light. He tried a puzzle the night after the funeral, but didn’t complete it. And he clipped the obituary, of course. Worried it from pocket to pocket, and finally folded it into his leather-bound copy of Alcestis. The wife who died before her husband.
- The TerroristThe agents at the Direction – the Direction générale de la sécurité extérieure -- were certain the killer was an Arab, probably from Algerie; they’d given him the sobriquet Mahomet. A latter-day Jackal. Three ministres of the cabinet killed by rifle fire outside their homes – all, it appeared, shot from a block or two away by a sniper of uncommon prowess. Jules had undertaken to hunt down and kill the assassin two months ago, expecting to have it done by now. A terroriste reube would be no match for a veteran in this game, and the récompense would be substantial. Now it had become, unexpectedly, a duel.Read more
- The TreeTroy discovered the tree hut in the spring of his first year in middle school. He hadn’t noticed before, perhaps because it was high up in the massive oak at the edge of the forest, hardly visible unless you knew where to look. “Why don’t you go for a walk until you feel better,” Mother had said. It was not a question, and meant what she sometimes said aloud: “until you are decent company again.” So he stomped through the knee-high grasses of the newly-verdant meadow, warm in the afternoon sun, and into the woods, where he threw himself face-down on the soft duff under a hemlock. After a time he rolled over, and saw that the feathery branches brushed the bole of the oak. And a few feet off the ground, a weathered board was nailed into the tree.
- The Trombone
- The WatchmakerThe old man peers into the case. “I worked on this watch.” He says it ‘vorked on this vatch’. He screws the loupe from his eye. “A good timepiece. Your grandfather’s? He is still living?” The fusty workspace, redolent of watch oil, is smaller than the one Henry visited with Granddad, at street level on Main Street, its sign in Gothic gilt letters: D.A. Gordon, Watchmaker. This is in a tired building in a decaying downtown block, neighbored by social-service providers, lawyers, tax preparers, a home-loan agency, a cell phone shop. Like all clients and customers, Henry announced himself on an intercom outside the street door to be buzzed in. The plain-box elevator, as slow as time passing, deposited him in a dim sixth floor hallway. He found the door, the name in smaller Gothic letters, plain black on a frosted-glass window with mesh reinforcement. “Yes, my grandfather’s. He died last year. I came here with him at least a dozen years ago. No, more.” Granddad had called it a conductor’s watchRead more
- The Whole Truth“Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” “I’m sorry, young man. I affirm.” “What?” “I’m a Jehovah’s Witness, sir. We’re supposed to refrain from taking the Lord’s name in vain. Aren’t you supposed to refrain, too? You’re a district attorney, for goodness’ sake.” “Never mind. Do you swear or affirm to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help. . . . Do you so affirm?” “I do, young man.” “You’re not holding your hand up, ma’am.” “That’s because I’m not taking an oath.”Read more
- WildlifeThe new people fed birds. “We just love songbirds,” the wife said. Susan something. I made a mental note to have Jerry look up their names on the Internet when he got home that night. I’d gone over to say hello when the moving van pulled up. I could have just cut through the back yard, but I went all the way around the block to be polite and meet the new neighbor at the front door. I should have saved the effort: Susan Something was already in her back yard, a few feet from our line, screwing a two-armed pole into the ground, tube feeders full of birdseed on the ground waiting to be hung.Read more
- StrawberriesThe weather lady predicts a scorcher, unusual for early June. If Lucinda goes now, in the dewy cool, she can pick a flat and be home before it's too hot. The rest of the news will just be more Obama-Republican yammering anyway. She finishes her granola, turns the TV off, puts the yogurt in the fridge and goes back to the bedroom to put on a long dirndl skirt and a long-sleeved white blouse. "And sunscreen, Mom," Carol insisted when she phoned last night.Read more
- SurveillanceRead more
Ernie’s first awareness of the government’s spying was through the late news. It disturbed his civil libertarian sensibilities, but not his slumber. The government was monitoring people’s e-mail. Outrageous. Still, not a personal concern: He and Susan had agreed from the start never to e-mail each other. There would be more detail by morning; he punched off the television and spooned up next to Penny, who was almost asleep.
- AnticipationRead more
The doorbell. Peter ignored it. He was near deadline for the piece on his computer screen -- puffery to accompany the statistics of a corporate report. After two days of starts and stops, he had a handle on it. Finish this, and get back to the novel. The doorbell again, more insistent. He sighed, left his study and went to the big Dutch door in the kitchen that served as front door. A small man, graying, with a black bag. "Mr. Keating? I'm here to tune the piano."