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Before longtime contributor Pravesh Bhardwaj works on his writing projects, he seeks inspiration by reading and sharing short stories that are freely available on the web. In 2023, he posted 256 stories to X, tagged with #Longreads, from “The Big Quit“by David Means at Harper’s Magazine to “Bitch Baby” by Helle Hill at Oxford American. Of that 256, here are the 10 he loved most.
Andre Dubus III’s immersive novella is about a couple that lives separately in the densely forested acreage they co-own.
Through the screened windows of her bedroom she can hear them, hundreds, maybe thousands of them munching on the leaves of her oaks and maples and other trees she cannot name, even though she has lived in these woods for over twenty years. It’s after midnight, and beside her in the darkness Michael sleeps, his big hairless chest rising and falling. When they made love earlier, his smooth back had felt like rubber to her and she imagined that he was not real, that this man she’s been seeing for over a year now is just some device she bought to ease her loneliness, to ground her away from the nagging sense that she’s hanging as still in the air as a nightgown on a branch.
Some nights she asks him to go sleep at his own place, and she wished she’d asked him that tonight too. If only so can be alone as she listens to the gypsy caterpillars decimate her trees. Their tiny waste rains down through the branches, and she does not know why she wants to listen to this, but she does.
It is late May and the air coming through the screens is cool. She can smell her magnolias and cherry blossoms but also the broken green of leaves that had only just begun their season, and now a hot anger opens up in her at these tiny fuckers that her husband Kai had warned her were coming again. It had been almost nine years since the last generation of them, and Kai had missed the signs then but not this time.
“I Won’t Let You Go” by Hiromi Kawakami (Granta)(Translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell)
Hiromi Kawakami has won several Japanese literary prizes and is one of Japan’s most popular contemporary authors. This story’s plot reveals her fascinating imagination.
I came by something strange while I was travelling. This was what Enomoto had said to me about two months ago.
Enomoto is a painter-slash-high school teacher who lives in the apartment directly above mine. We met when we both served on the local residents’ association, and have been friendly ever since. He would call me on the phone every so often and say, I’m brewing some nice coffee. I would traipse up the stairs to Enomoto’s apartment to enjoy his delicious coffee. We would make small talk and then I would trudge back down the stairs and return to my own apartment. That was the extent of our relationship.
Enomoto’s apartment is exactly the same layout as mine, but it has quite a different feel. It’s tidy, for a bachelor’s flat, but what with his painting supplies and his hobby cameras and his magazines on those subjects, there were things all over the place. Interestingly, though, his apartment gave the overall impression of being much more clearly delineated than mine.
Enomoto only ever referred to the coffee that he brewed as ‘nice’. He would grind the beans on a hand-operated coffee mill, and use a cloth filter. Then he would gently pour it into warmed coffee mugs. The aroma and the taste were both extremely sophisticated. Which is why, whenever Enomoto called me for coffee, I would abandon whatever I was doing and traipse up the stairs to his place.
Lately, though, there haven’t been any invitations from Enomoto for ‘nice coffee’. Ever since the call, two months ago, when he mentioned that he had come by something strange, he hasn’t invited me over.
A Lucky Man, Jamel Brinkley’s first short story collection, was a finalist for a National Book Award. His 2023 collection, Witness—in which this story appears—has received strong reviews.
There are times when a family has an aura of completion. Remembering such a time feels like gazing at a masterpiece in an art gallery. You might find yourself taking one or two steps backward to absorb the harmonious perfection of the entire image. Or you may be lured by it, drawn to it, inching closer to study every fine detail of composition, the faultless poise with which each element confirms the necessary presence of the others. Take the figure of the son, who hurtles into the foreground of the picture, claiming his position in a web of femaleness, affixing himself to the very center of its adhesive heart, because he belongs there, or so he believes with the wild unblemished certainty of a boy’s imagination. Like everything else in the image, he never changes. Yes, that is my mother, his presence announces. And those are my aunts, he seems to say. And this—of the girl closest to him, her expression as breathless as his own—this is my cousin. My companion. My closest friend. Her soul is the identical twin of mine. The absence of the father doesn’t matter one bit. The absence of the siblings doesn’t matter much either, even though the son will love them hopelessly. Recklessly. They belong to a different elsewhere, a time yet to come, with another father to come, and the circumstances of their lives will frenzy the family, purpling it, cloying it until it is spoiled. Then it will be no different from any ordinary clan. Unpleasant to regard. An eyesore.
Jonathan Escoffery’s If I Survive You—short-listed for the Booker Prize and long-listed for a National Book Award—is a collection of interlinked short stories following a Jamaican family living in Miami.
The summer he turned thirteen, Cukie Panton set out for the Florida Keys to meet his father for the first time. By then, Ox meant little more to Cukie than a syllable spat from his mother’s lips. What he knew of Ox was that he was American— the catalyst for Cukie having been born in Baptist Hospital, right on Kendall Drive—and that Ox had stuck out the first two months of fatherhood, then bounced, leaving to Cukie the dried ink on his birth record that spelled out Lennox Martin.
More than a dozen years after this abrupt departure, Cukie’s mom answered the phone to hear a remorseful Ox, saying he should know his boy. By this time Cukie felt ambivalent. It didn’t help that Daphne Panton figured that the drink or else some brush with death must have resuscitated Ox’s conscience to bring him calling. Perhaps Andrew had inspired Ox’s reemergence, the hurricane having wiped away so much that would have to be rebuilt, not even a year ago. Whatever the affliction, Cukie’s mother assumed it was ephemeral. The calls continued, though, and when plans grew specific, she told Cukie to pack his duffel and they departed Kendall for Smuggler’s Key.
A new short story by the author of the novel Pull Me Under and the collection Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail.
After Carl left me for a woman he met buying manure off Craigslist, I put in for an out-of-state letter carrier transfer with the postal service. I wanted a fresh start, a chance to discover something. It didn’t matter what. I wanted to learn something I never would have learned in Jacksonville while married to Carl. To feel like the person I’d once been, a person I’d liked being. The first trade that came up was in Happy, Texas, a town of 603 souls outside of Amarillo. The carrier there was eager to move to Florida to be near his twin grandsons. My new route consisted mostly of cluster boxes I could drive right up to.
Happy’s motto was “the town without a frown.” I set up a bank account at Happy Bank, got my Texas driver’s license at Happy City Hall, and waited for a line of pickup trucks to follow a hearse into Happy Cemetery. I found an apartment on Happy’s main street, Main Street, above an event hall called Marcy’s Wedding Pavilion. The apartment had two bedrooms—plenty of space for my equipment. The stove didn’t work and there were no closets, but the ceilings were high and there was a filthy skylight in the kitchen that Randall, the property manager, told me was put in after a meteorite came through the roof in 1999. The meteorite sold me on the place.
“The Pink House at the End of the Street on the Other Side of the Town” by Manuel Muñoz (Virginia Quarterly Review)
Manuel Muñoz is the author of the story collections Zigzagger, The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue, The Consequences, as well as the novel What You See in the Dark. He received a 2023 MacArthur fellowship for “depicting with empathy and nuance the Mexican-American community of California’s central valley.”
Silvio, whom everyone called El Sapo, had been coming the longest, but only during the wet times when the fields ran muddy and no one else would brave the kind of cold that would lock your knuckles, no matter how thick the gloves. By spring, he’d return to a pueblito called Pozos, which made everyone ask why he’d go back to a hole in the ground. A frog crawling under the mud to wait out the heat. That was El Sapo, leaving sometime in early April before the heat came. And then the others would arrive. Fidelio and his twin brother, Modesto, who for some reason was several inches shorter than him. Jerónimo, quiet and stark, who claimed to know Silvio, but nobody knew for sure. Baldomero El Mero Mero, who boasted that he was the one who had shown the others how to start with a bus in Celaya, take it to the outskirts of Tijuana, and, right over there, at a llantería owned by his old friend Raimundo, you could sneak through the dust yard of Raimundo’s old tires and cross to the other side, get to the highway on foot, and, if you were smart enough to hide your money, catch a Greyhound to a place called Goshen, where you’d go to the phone booth outside of the station, look out at the cotton fields as you dialed a number and told a man named Poldo that you’d made it across. A cousin by way of another cousin. A friend of the family. From Celaya. From Ojo de Agua. From La Cuevita. From Charco Blanco. Yes, yes, of course. A third yes if you promised you had the money to pay a little rent for a month. That’s how Eliseo showed up. And poor Casimiro, who wore thick glasses and peered into the fruit trees with his whole face to see what he was picking. But you’d have to know Spanish to know why all the other men laughed at his name.
In a doomed world in which robots are taking over, a lonely transgender woman explores her sexuality.
The robots have taken Seattle and I am on the apps again. I can no longer sleep in my half empty queen bed without another body. More than India, I miss her dog, Binky, who diagonally draped himself across the mattress every night. Whether it was a soggy July evening or one of Baltimore’s cruelly dry winter nights, I could count on a furry dog blanket. Now, my nighttime hands grab only limp fabric and empty air. I miss the warmth and I miss having something living to pull towards me, which in the last several months had always been Binky. Even before she left, I could tell India was pulling away. So, now I’m spending my nights during the machine uprising swiping through the singles of the greater Chesapeake Bay area.
I’m not alone in this at least. It turns out that the oncoming annihilation of organic life makes loneliness even more lonely.
“You picked the right time to start messing around,” Krista told me over bloody marys two weeks back. “Even the straightest of straight guys are sleeping with transsexuals now. There’s no room for pickiness.”
An Iranian immigrant remembers a retirement community resident she cared for during her early years in in the United States.
The first time I met you, I thought you looked like a dried peach, sweet but aged. Please forgive my crude description. I’d just turned seventeen and oddly enough, a young girl’s imagination sometimes defies delicacy. I close my eyes and imagine you now after all these years. It has become an old game. How much of you can I still remember? Your hands, wrinkled, slender fingers with soft tips which had typed up many articles on your old typewriter and hardly ever had held anything heavier than a ball-point pen. Your honey-colored eyes, marble-like, in the folds of your wrinkled eyelids. By the time I met you, you had barely any hair left, the remaining survivors white and fuzzy. You see now why the peach was an apt metaphor?
We met during my first week at Hillside Retirement Community, a place you had already been calling home at that point for more than five years. Being so young and naive and having immigrated from Iran with my mother and grandmother only a year before that, I felt alive to have a job of my own. Life in America was finally beginning to pay off, I’d thought. Despite my shaky grasp of the English language, Mrs. Hazelwood had hired me for four hours every day after school as a dining room server. The trick to getting hired had been to appear like I understood more than I actually did, achieved chiefly this through vigorous head nods and readily dispensed yes replies.
Sindya Bhanoo is the author of the story collection, Seeking Fortune Elsewhere. “Different” appears in this collection.
For three decades, Chand gave his Indian graduate students his house keys when he and Raji left town. He told them to relax and use his spacious home as a place to rest and study, to use the hot tub in the back, and the grill, as long as they did not put beef on it. “Sleep in the guest bedroom,” he said. “Escape your dreary apartments.” It gave him pleasure to offer comforts that graduate student stipends could not afford. In his home, students could watch satellite channels like Zee TV and TV Asia and catch up on episodes of Koffee with Karan and Kaun Banega Crorepati. Before Skype and WhatsApp and FaceTime, some students made long distance phone calls from his landline. Chand never charged them for it. He treated them like family, because their own families were so far away.
He had been a graduate student once, in a small town in Montana, tens of thousands of miles away from Vellore, his hometown in South India. Things were different then. When he moved to America, he called his parents once every three months, and was careful to think through what to say before dialing. Back then, calls cost three dollars for the first minute and one dollar for every minute thereafter. He remembered the loneliness, the immense sorrow that came from going months without uttering a word of Tamil. There was no way for him to express certain thoughts, certain feelings, in the English language. He remembered the warmth he felt when the one Indian professor on campus, a Punjabi chemical engineer named Dr. Gupta, occasionally invited him to his home for dinner.
For Pravesh, this story was love at first read.
The difficulty with waiting, Rosalie thought, is that one can rarely wait in absolute stillness. Absolute stillness?—that part of herself, which was in the habit of questioning her own thoughts as they occurred, raised a mental eyebrow. No one waits in absolute stillness; absolute stillness is death; and when you’re dead you no longer wait for anything. No, not death, Rosalie clarified, but stillness, like hibernation or estivation, waiting for . . . Before she could embellish the thought with some garden-variety clichés, the monitor nearby rolled out a schedule change: the 11:35 train to Brussels Midi was cancelled.
All morning, Rosalie had been migrating between platforms in Amsterdam Centraal, from Track 4 to Track 10 then to Track 7 to Track 11 and back to 4. The trains to Brussels, both express and local, had been cancelled one after another. A family—tourists, judging by their appearance, as Rosalie herself was—materialized at every platform along with Rosalie, but now, finally, gave up and left, pulling their suitcases behind them. A group of young people, with tall, overfilled backpacks propped beside them like self-important sidekicks, gathered in front of a monitor, planning their next move. Rosalie tried to catch a word or two—German? Dutch? It was 2021, and there were not as many English-speaking tourists in Amsterdam that June as there had been on Rosalie’s previous visit, twenty years before.
She wondered what to do next. Moving from track to track would not deliver her to the hotel in Brussels. Would cancelled trains only lead to more cancelled trains, or would this strandedness, like ceaseless rain during a rainy season or a seemingly unfinishable novel, suddenly come to an end, on a Sunday afternoon in late May or on a snowy morning in January? Years ago, an older writer Rosalie had befriended inquired in a letter about the book she was working on: “How is the novel? One asks that as one does about an ill person, and a novel that’s not yet finished is rather like that. You reach the end and the thing is either dead or in much better shape. The dead should be left in peace.”