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Photograph by Katie Martin / The Atlantic

The Atlantic Presents: Shorter Stories

Fiction is often described as a mirror through which we see the world. What happens when a shard of glass must tell the entire story?

In a lecture written shortly before his death, the Italian writer Italo Calvino extolled the virtues of lightness in literature. After decades of writing stories, novels, and essays, he had reached a realization: “My method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight.” Life is heavy, and the writerly task of conveying its truths can be equally weighty. Calvino has chosen not to represent the world in all its overwhelming detail, arguing that the task often inhibits the art.

What happens to a narrative when it collapses into a few hundred words, or even a few sentences? Think of Vladimir Nabokov’s famous moment from Lolita, when Humbert Humbert recalls how his mother died: picnic, lightning. Those 15 letters contain a world, a painful memory that almost refuses to be fleshed out. Yet as readers, we can’t resist. Our minds are kick-started and set loose to imagine the unseen, the unwritten. Perhaps a reader and writer are never in closer contact than at these sites of intense collaboration.

This month, The Atlantic is excited to present five shorter stories displaying the virtue of lightness. Through a diversity of style, voice, and perspective, these writers build worlds with precision and economy, speaking to love, belief, loss, and, most important: possibility.

A Recently Divorced Man Dreams Uneasily in His New Apartment

By Daniel Smith

Art by Joya Logue

On the morning they were to leave for Orange Island—he had packed their clothes and beach things the night before—his wife told him she was no longer attracted to him.

The problem, it seemed, was his moles. He had—he’d had since puberty—three dark moles on his lower belly, between his groin and his navel on his right side. The moles were arranged in a triangle with a dime-size spot at the center, and although they weren’t very large, they were raised, and they sometimes sprouted coarse hairs.

“I’ll get them removed,” he said. “I’ll call the dermatologist as soon as we get back.”

His wife sat cross-legged on the carpet.

“What?” he said. “What is it?”

“It isn’t the moles,” she said. “It’s the way you smell.”

This surprised the man; he’d always been scrupulous about hygiene.

“The way I smell?” he said. “I smell bad?”

“Not bad,” she said. “But not good.”

The man asked his wife, as calmly as he could, to describe his smell. She pulled a shawl over her bare shoulders. He asked her again.

“Like carrots,” she said. “You smell like cooked carrots.”

The man was dumbfounded. “But haven’t I always smelled the same?” he asked.

No, she answered. When they met, in their mid-20s, he had smelled like Thomas Fine, a boy she had known in junior high. Then things had changed and now he smelled like cooked carrots.

The man asked his wife to describe the old smell for him—the Thomas Fine smell.

“Actually, I was lying just then,” she said. “You’ve always smelled like cooked carrots.”

What could the man do? He agreed with his wife that they had to separate. I am still a relatively young man, he thought, and virile. I will attract someone else. For a long while the man and his wife sat without talking. Then the man said he was going to go tell the kids.

“Be gentle,” the woman said. “They have their tests next week.”

The man put on a shirt and walked down the hall. Their daughters shared a room with a window overlooking the harbor. They were at their desks, studying their test manuals. When Lucinda saw the man at the door, she flinched.

“Something grown-up has happened!” she cried.

“Yes, something grown-up has happened,” he said. “That’s very perceptive. You’re a very perceptive child.”

“And I’m an idiot,” Antonia said.

“No, my love, you aren’t an idiot,” he said. “You just have different skills.”

Antonia’s eyes grew bright. “What are they, Daddy?” she asked. “What are my skills?”

He answered honestly that he didn’t know. “That’s what the test will tell us.”

“I’m going to fail it,” said Antonia.

“No one fails,” he said. “It’s not that kind of test.”

Then Lucinda said that Billy Bradfield’s older brother had failed his test, and that he’d been transferred to a special school far inland, where his parents could visit him only on bank holidays. Hearing this, the man became upset and told both of his daughters to quiet down, he had something important to say.

Lucinda wiped her eyes on a stuffed dolphin. “It’s about Charles, isn’t it?” she said.

“No, it isn’t about Charles,” he said. Then: “Who’s Charles?”

Antonia, brushing her hair, said, “Mommy’s friend. The one she has coffee with.”

“On Tuesdays,” Lucinda said. “While you’re at work. They go to coffee and Mommy comes back looking happy.”

“Not happy,” Antonia said, and her face seemed to lengthen. “Satisfied. Mommy comes back looking satisfied.”

“That’s right,” Lucinda said. “Satisfied. Satisfied is the better word.”

The man felt faint, and the girls took him by the hands and led him to a beanbag chair in a corner. They sat him down gently and stood above him. They looked very sweet to him standing there, with the light behind them and the breeze in their hair.

“Don’t worry,” Lucinda said. “We won’t forget you.”

“How could we?” Antonia said.

“Impossible,” Lucinda said.

“You’re a part of us,” Antonia said.

“Indelible,” Lucinda said.

“Absolutely,” Antonia said.

The man pleaded with his daughters to tell him all they knew about Charles. He said that he hated Charles and wished he were dead. He said that he would find and murder Charles.

The girls frowned.

“That’s absurd,” Lucinda said.

“An absurd male fantasy,” Antonia said.

“We expect better of you,” Lucinda said.

They told the man that Charles seemed like a decent-enough person, no better or worse than any other. He had lost his way for a while, they said. He’d struggled with addiction. Pills. But he was better now.

“More or less,” Antonia added.

“Yes, more or less,” Lucinda said.

“But I want to know more,” the man said. “You have to tell me more. I want to know everything about him.”

The girls looked at each other sadly and then nestled into the crooks of the man’s arms. They sat in the beanbag chair like that for a long while, listening to the gulls and the harbormaster’s horn. Every so often the man pressed his face into the tops of his daughters’ heads and breathed in their scent. The sun went down and they began to hear the girls’ mother calling them from the dock.

“It’s time to go,” Lucinda said.

“We don’t want to miss the ferry,” Antonia said.

Their mother called again.

“We’ve decided it would be best if you don’t come,” Lucinda said.

“It’s a matter, we think, of which sadness is worse,” Antonia said. “It will be sadder for us to have you with us than for us to miss you.”

They had each packed a little suitcase. One had a ladybug on it, the other butterflies. The man had bought the suitcases himself, and attached little bottles of hand sanitizer to the zippers. The girls pulled their suitcases out from under their desks and wheeled them to the door.

“Well, so long,” Lucinda said.

“Goodbye, Daddy,” Antonia said.

The man told his daughters that he would call them every day, and that they should check each other for ticks every night before bed, even on their privates, because ticks like warm places and you could never be too careful.

From the beanbag chair the man could hear the little suitcases thump heavily down the stairs. He waited to hear the wheels rattle across the old dock and, faintly, up the aluminum ramp to the ferry. The wind had died down. It would be an easy crossing for them. On the other end they would have to drag their suitcases through the sand to the bungalow, where they would be tired from the trip. But the weather all week would be bright and warm—he had checked the forecast—and they would laugh and see deer. They would see deer every day, shyly poking their blank faces out of the orange groves, only to pause and dash back again, searching for those dim clearings between the trees that must have seemed, to their dull animal minds, to be the only refuge permitted to them on that thin, crowded island.

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In the Clinic for Telling Lies in Order to Survive Pending Death

By Venita Blackburn

Art by Wayde McIntosh

In the Clinic for Telling Lies in Order to Survive Pending Death, enemies are varied and numerous. Enemies can be children, your own children, children of your children, dentists, wives, employers, presidents, boyfriends, parents, and taxi drivers. Enemies can be friends, close friends, rich friends with an inflated sense of self-worth measured out in taxable luxury goods. Enemies work against you at all times and charge a fee for their services.

In the Clinic for Telling Lies in Order to Survive Pending Death, we study the things that survived the apocalypse (for inspiration): pretzels, infidelity, ingrown toenails, the need to climb things (trees, mountains, fences around abandoned buildings), Porsche 911s, tweed fabric, cavities, postpartum depression, vodka, clean-baby smell, accidentally cruel dog breeding for aesthetic purposes, nuclear energy/weapons, and Cheetos.

In the Clinic for Telling Lies to Avoid Pending Death, a small quiz is given on duties of a spinster aunt that involve periodic monetary affection and amusement-park attendance and meeting women in the local community for clandestine sexual encounters that morph into tumultuous long-term relationships.

In the Clinic for Telling Lies in Order to Survive Pending Death, we take classes on breathing techniques. The length of the breath is very important. One second too long can indicate sarcasm over thoughtfulness. One second too short, and you seem to panic. Enemies eat panic.

Those who pass the courses on Telling Lies in Order to Survive Pending Death graduate to The Physics of Political Warfare and Stepparenting.

In the Clinic for Telling Lies to Avoid Pending Death, there is a unit on living in good memories to dissociate from reality, like when we were 14 in the back seat of our father’s Cadillac DeVille on the way to the Hollywood racetrack, with our older brother in the front seat. Luther Vandross’s “So Amazing” plays through the speakers. The seats are as plush as a velvet sofa floating along the 105 freeway. Our father sings badly. Then our brother sings badly. There we are happy. There we are safe, and we are only ever there once.

In the Clinic for Telling Lies to Avoid Pending Death, we are often bad mothers. As bad mothers, we instruct our children on the value of the truth, how often to spend it and how often to save it. The truth is something for private moments behind one’s eyelids and not for authority figures who might call Child Protective Services. As bad mothers, we are periodically kind and funny; we tell jokes and make delicious junk food appear. Bath time is optional and cartoons are plentiful. When we are not kind or funny and are occasionally violent and steal from our children to support an assortment of vices, including muscle relaxers, Jack Daniel’s, low-quality boyfriends, and/or the casino, we are instructive. Our children store up the images of our many shapes and learn how to behave for self-preservation. They lie to teachers and police. When they speak to us and we cannot tell their lies from truth, we are proud and strike them hard for their skill. Our children are strong, our children are cunning, our children are dangerous, our children live a long time, if they survive us.

In the Clinic for Telling Lies to Avoid Pending Death, we go on dates with beautiful women of notable success. The women are photographers, doulas, voice actors, cartoonists, professors, poets, former college athletes, and pet-store managers. They are there to make us confess, to pull out our trauma and sully the promise of life, unbothered by loneliness, abandonment, gambling addiction, and an inability to self-reflect. Their voices wash over us like salt. We want to cough up the sound of them. Our tongues go dry and watery all at once. We want to throw up. We work to remember that we are not in danger. We are on a date. We are not at war or losing a child in a crowded store or being poisoned by a rival assassin or watching the sun go supernova. We are on a date. We remember that people give us life. We remember that people are hard. We remember that without people we are alone and there is nothing after that.

In the Clinic for Telling Lies to Avoid Pending Death, we are at a breakfast table and we are 9 years old. There are scrambled eggs hot on a plate, sausage about to touch a small tide of gravy ebbing from a single biscuit that comes miraculously out of a can. Is it good? We are asked. We inhale. Yes, we say. Yes, it’s good.

Currents

By Thomas Gebremedhin

Art by Susan Minot

Dawit was in a state that summer. On Saturdays, he taught English to immigrants at the library in Flatbush. The room boasted a large window with a view of a manicured lawn, a green that bordered on indecent. One afternoon, Dawit fainted during a lesson on similes and metaphors. He came to as his students crowded above him.

Amar wrapped his hand firmly around Dawit’s wrist.

“What do you remember?” Amar said. And then, slowly, “Mr. Tsehaye … your heart is beating like a drum.”

“Good, Amar,” Dawit said. “That’s good.”

Kolya, a pale, sinister-looking man, helped Dawit up and walked him over to the window for some air.

That night, like many other nights, Dawit stopped at a park along the East River on his way back to his apartment. He watched the sun dip, and the water went from green to black, the streetlights flashing on its surface like eyes. He listened to the wind in the leaves, soft and sweet, like breathing. He did his best thinking here. This is what he knew: He had come to a point in his life where the days bled together like colors mixing on a canvas. He felt, not quite sadness, but something more muted and uncertain than sadness, incessant, like a ringing in the ears.

Rastaman Vibration

By Rav Grewal-Kök

Art by Oliver Munday

The last time I saw my brother, he’d just completed a stint in a Hong Kong prison for selling club drugs to English bankers and corporate lawyers. He’d been banned from Chinese territory, but he wasn’t ready, he said on the phone, to come home to California.

Before his arrest, he’d stashed enough hard currency in a safety-deposit box at the Siam Commercial Bank in Bangkok to fund a new venture. He had a partner, a white Barbadian named Crooks, who’d secured a lease in the biggest town on a resort island off the southwest coast of Thailand. Now the two of them had opened the reggae bar that Crooks had always dreamed of opening.

“Pushpinder, who the hell is Crooks, and why do you care about his dreams?”

Popeye ignored my question. “The Andaman Sea is a color you can’t imagine,” he said. “Water the temperature of warm milk, white sand, a painted sky. Float around on your back and you’ll feel like you’ve returned to Mamaji’s womb.”

I promised to look into flights, if only to end the call.

This was five years ago. My wife was pregnant; I’d just turned 31. I was saving my vacation time for paternity leave but my wife said I should go, at least for a few days. The trip would help me take stock of my own life, she said. It was important to reconcile with someone who’d meant the world to me when I was a boy. She didn’t know what Popeye was like.

I flew 19 hours to Bangkok, waited in the airport for three more, then flew a final hour to Phuket. Popeye was living in an apartment above his reggae bar. He was waiting for me on the curb when my taxi pulled up.

“Welcome to Rastaman Vibration,” said Popeye. “What do you want first? A shower? Dinner? Blow job?”

At 40 he was still handsome, though he had a belly now and creases around his gray eyes. With his pale, nightcrawler’s skin, I wondered if anyone who didn’t know would realize we were brothers.

He led me up an outdoor staircase to his apartment. It had two small rooms with bare walls. A bed took up most of one room, a vinyl couch the other. Steel bars covered the lone window. A tiny kitchen and a bathroom stood across the entrance hall.

“I guess you really loved that prison life,” I said, but Popeye didn’t laugh.

“I don’t spend time here.” He wasn’t looking me in the eyes. “Clean up and I’ll show you my kingdom.”

He was gone when I came out of the shower. I sat naked for a few minutes on the vinyl couch. They’d started up the music in the bar below. Popeye’s pajama pants lay on the floor. I used them to wipe the dampness from my thighs and groin before I got dressed and went downstairs.

Popeye sat alone. The place had low lights, an empty stage, and a dozen tables. I counted two bartenders and four waitresses but no customers. One of the waitresses followed me across the room. A bottle of brown liquor and a bucket filled with sodas and ice stood on Popeye’s table. The waitress mixed me a drink while I made myself comfortable.

Popeye put his arm around her.

“May, fried noodles, okay?” he said. He pulled a banknote out of his breast pocket. “Chop-chop.”

May nodded gravely. Like the other waitresses, she wore a black tank top and neon-green miniskirt. She turned and ran with quick steps out the door.

“She’s my girl,” Popeye said. “It’s been a month. Thai women take care of you.”

“She’s half your age.”

“No, man, she’s 25. I can get you one just like her.”

I laughed but he was looking at me with an artless expression. Then he shrugged and told me to drink up. He wanted to get a few rounds in, he said, before the customers arrived. May returned five minutes later with two paper plates of noodles and pork. The food was delicious, but so spicy that I had to drink my cocktail quickly, and then three others, to relieve the burning on my tongue. Soon the Thai rum, or whiskey, or rice liquor—whatever it was in the bottle with the label I couldn’t read—began to work on my brain and heart. When I looked at my brother, the old feelings came back. I forgot about the lost years. Our father, if he were still alive, would’ve been happy to see us sitting in the darkness with our heads almost touching as we shouted affirmations of sincerity and love.

Later, I looked up from the table and saw that the bar had filled with women. By then we were into our second bottle of Thai liquor.

“Toolworkers,” said Popeye, waving his hand around. “Pros.” They came in to dance when the brothels closed, he said. But they sent their earnings to their families in distant villages and didn’t spend on booze.

“Who does spend in here?”

“Crooks spends.” Popeye waved in the direction of the bar, where the only white man I could see in the place drooped over the counter.

“Your partner? How does that help the bottom line?”

Popeye shrugged. “Ask him when he’s sober.”

Eventually, a band took the stage. They played a set of Bob Marley and UB40 covers, left for 15 minutes, then returned to play the set a second time. On the floor, the pros danced with abandon. Popeye said the band’s lead singer had learned the songs by ear because she didn’t speak English. Crooks was being patient with her. In a month, she might have another set ready.

We went upstairs at dawn, May, Popeye, and myself. I was so tired I no longer felt drunk, though I surely was. I slept through the day on the vinyl couch, waking up only when the bass line started up again in the bar. I showered and dressed to drink another night away with my brother. By the time I woke up for my final night, I knew I would never see the white sand Popeye had promised, or swim through the warm Andaman swell. I would have done anything to turn the clock forward to be at home again in Los Angeles, lying in bed with my wife while dawn light filtered through the curtains, or drinking coffee in the kitchen with jazz on the radio. But since that was impossible, I went downstairs a third time with Popeye. I ate fried noodles, listened to reggae, and drank Thai liquor with grim determination.

That night the band played a new song, a cover of “Who Let the Dogs Out,” by the Baha Men. I hadn’t heard it in years. When the singer shouted, “Who let the dogs out? Who? Who? Who? Who?” Popeye put down his glass, weaved through the crowd, and began to jump up and down in the corner. He kept jumping until the song was over. When he returned to our table, his chest was heaving. May followed him. Popeye waited until she’d poured our drinks. Then he lifted her arm to his mouth and bit it.

“Tastes like coconut,” he said.

May’s eyes brimmed.

“What’s wrong with you, Pushpinder?” I asked.

“I need seven grand.”

“In American dollars?” I laughed. “I can lend you maybe $200.”

“That’s not even a down payment on your bar tab.” He put his hand on the back of my head.

I looked into his bloodshot eyes, smelled his terrible breath.

“Partner up with me and Crooks,” he said. “Three wise men in Phuket Town. Rename the bar if you like, play different music, I don’t care.”

“Pushpinder, I’m starting a family.” I got up from the table.

“I need you. I’m sick, baby bro.”

“Sure you are.”

I went up to his apartment, got my bag, and came down to the street. Popeye and May were standing at the curb. At three in the morning, there were still people about, talking quietly in the heavy tropical night. My flight didn’t leave until seven, but I’d had enough. I asked May if she could find a taxi. As she walked down the block, Popeye grabbed my shirt.

“Just give me what you have,” he said.

I slapped his arm away.

I thought he’d attack me then, but instead he put his hands on his knees. He leaned forward, coughed, and began to throw up into the gutter. He was wiping the tears and bile from his face when the taxi arrived. I promised myself at that moment that if Popeye ever returned to California, I wouldn’t open my door for him. I’d keep him away from my wife and daughter until the end of time.

But I never had to test that promise. Popeye died of liver cancer in a Thai hospital before my daughter’s first birthday.

The Sound

By Lucy Ives

Art by Cassi Namoda

Once there was a little girl whose parents loved her so much that they didn’t know what to do. In their confusion, they cut the girl in half. They did this in order to ensure that there would be enough of the girl for each. They did not tell the little girl that they were cutting her in half. The reason they did not tell her was that although they were sure that cutting her in half would not harm her, they were afraid that such an action might cause her to invent stories about what had happened. Because they did not want their child to tell lies, they silently cut her in half, and each parent took one half of the girl. However, since they still spent so much time together, since they were a family, they ended up putting the little girl back together for a greater part of the time. It was simply more convenient this way. But, because children are resilient, the two halves of the little girl had healed independently and no longer quite fit. And the two halves of the little girl, when they brushed against each other, made a sound. The little girl could hear this sound. The little girl did not know what this sound was. She walked around in the world, and as she walked, she heard a strange sound—a sound that was not the sound of her footsteps. One day the little girl said to her mother, “Mother, when I walk there is a sound, and it is not the sound of my footsteps.” The mother looked at the little girl. The mother knew that the sound that the little girl heard was her two halves brushing against each other, as they were no longer connected, having healed independently. And the mother said, “If, when you walk, you hear a sound that is not the sound of your footsteps, then that sound is the sound of your life passing.” And the little girl said, “Are you saying that my life makes a sound?” “Yes,” the mother said to the little girl. “Your life makes that sound.” The little girl looked at her mother. She said, “Does your life make a sound?” And her mother told her, “Oh, yes.”

Daniel Smith is the author of Monkey Mind. Venita Blackburn is the author of How to Wrestle a Girl. Thomas Gebremedhin is vice president and executive editor at Doubleday. Rav Grewal-Kök’s debut novel will be published next year. Lucy Ives is the author of the novel Life Is Everywhere.