Joseph and his friend Kevin were driving to New Paltz for a hike. Kevin was driving with one hand, elbow out; Joseph had his whole arm out, hand on roof. They had finished their MFAs in creative writing weeks earlier and they felt great. Kevin had just published an essay in a big-deal magazine that paid. Joseph’s mother had been really sick, but now she was getting well. It was a bright spring day; the car windows were down and the breeze smelled good. They were drinking sodas from cans and arguing about literary junk.

“It’s like what John Ruskin wrote about architecture,” Kevin was saying, “a style that allows for flaws may not be the most beautiful, but it’s the most engaging because it reveals a human handprint.”

“I hate that,” said Joseph, “the whole ‘human’ thing. It’s a euphemism for mediocre, and anyway, it’s meaningless. Only humans build buildings; only humans write books. Those things are human by definition.”

“You’re mimicking Braver,” said Kevin; he meant Professor Janice Braver.

“How? Janice never said that; I said it,” said Joseph.

“She said it. Maybe in private conversation with me, but she said it.”

“Since when were you having private conversations with her? You didn’t like her. Anyway, horrible things are human – rape and murder are human.”

“Don’t change the subject,” said Kevin. He took a sharp, slow curve that made the car feel unwieldy and boatlike. “To say art is human doesn’t mean it’s morally good; it means it engages you. It’s not static, with everything in place; it’s everything, including flaws and clumsiness.”

“ ‘It’s everything,’ ” mimicked Joseph. “That’s vague and grandiose.”

“Bellow and Roth write about everything.”

“That’s not why they’re great. They’re great because—”

Kevin swerved into the park so sharply that the soda popped out of Joseph’s can and splashed his face. Joseph yelped “Shit!” then wiped his chin with his shirt and said, “I said they’re great because—”

But Kevin was already out of the car and rummaging in the back for water and lotion. Joseph got out, saying, “Bellow and Roth are great because—” Two girls in shorts and hiking boots came walking down the trail, cool and laughing, as if they’d just come out of a movie theater. “They’re great because they’re deep,” said Joseph, looking at the smaller of the girls.

Kevin straightened and the girls both turned to look at him; even at a distance, Joseph could see them spark up. Kevin was tall and athletic; he had broad shoulders and a wide mouth. Aware of them but not looking at them, he flexed his chest as he shouldered a light pack. “They write about particular things deeply,” said Joseph, and threw soda in Kevin’s face. Kevin shook the bright drops off him and swiped at Joseph; Joseph swiped back. The taller girl looked back and smiled. Smiling, Kevin lunged forward, throwing air punches; Joseph danced back, feinting. The girls got in their car, talking to each other.

The boys quit playing. They rinsed away the sticky soda with bottled water and rubbed on bug lotion; Kevin put his foot up on the hood of the car to better rub his long half-naked leg. The girls pulled out of the lot, one of them smiling from the window as they went. Kevin put his leg down and gazed after them. Now he looks, thought Joseph. A family pulled up in an SUV, radio blaring, two little boys in the back, one of them twirling something bright and multicolored.

They started up the trail.


Kevin and Joseph had grown up in Westchester. They became friends in junior high because both were bookish boys obsessed by horror comics in which bad things happen to girls until the hero comes. Then Kevin grew nearly two feet and began to play basketball; in high school, he made the team. Smiling girls crowded around the new hero, while Joseph looked on with dangling hands.

Then Kevin’s family moved to Manhattan. The boys drifted apart, but not right away; the move happened just weeks after Joseph’s parents divorced, and it was somehow because of this that Joseph doggedly visited Kevin in Manhattan whenever he could. He liked being in a home with two parents. Kevin’s mom, Sheila, was not pretty, but her eyes were warm, and her soft, pouchy cheeks were somehow warm, too. Sometimes they wrestled in front of her, and once they pretended to have a real fight: Joseph put pieces of white candy in his mouth, and when Kevin socked him, he roared and spat the candy out like teeth. Sheila pretended to be horrified, then burst out laughing. Afterward, they took the subway to Chinatown, where they went to a cheap place and ate an enormous meal, trying everything on the menu, until they couldn’t eat any more. A waiter with tattooed hands sold them illegal beers and then they walked all the way back to the West Side.

Old carriage road, Mohonk Preserve near New Paltz, New York. Jarek Tuszyński/Wikimedia Commons

On the mountain, Joseph still remembered walking in Chinatown, the neon signs speaking bright-colored Chinese on each side of them, the dead fish and vegetables heaped in alleys and spilling out onto the pavement. As high school went on, they saw each other less often. After graduating, they so lost touch that neither realized they’d gotten into the same writing program until they both showed up in Janice’s class. Even in the same program, until today, they had not spent much time together, at least not alone. Still, Joseph looked at Kevin’s back and remembered the wrestling, the laughter, the tattooed hands, the beers—

“So who do you think will be the next to publish something big?” asked Kevin, he having been the first.

“Adam,” said Joseph. “His thesis was so strong, and he’s a hard charger.”

“Nah,” said Kevin. “I mean he’s good, but he has a long way to go. I think it’ll be Tom.” He paused, lunging slightly as the path steepened. “Or Marisa. I think it could easily be Marisa, with those last stories of hers.”

Marisa: the name was still a small, smartly struck bell. Joseph had been with her for three weeks and then she’d dumped him. He didn’t think her recent work was that good, but he was afraid of what it would sound like if he said so. Instead, he said, “What about Andy? He’s gotten good.”

“Are you kidding?” said Kevin. “He’s weak. And he got weaker listening to Braver.”

Joseph sighed. “I don’t think you understood what she was saying some of the time.”

I didn’t understand what she was saying? About how important it is to describe how characters look?”

He wondered what kind of girl would preen at sexual praise from a homeless guy – but it was true: Marisa was supple and functional as a glove. There was no waste, nothing excessive in her words or movements.”

How to tell Kevin that sometimes he was so busy being smart, he couldn’t understand anything? Once in class, Janice said to him, “If you closed your mouth and opened your mind, you might actually learn something.” Kevin replied, “Maybe I would, if there was anything to learn here.” The room was quiet. Janice’s face stiffened, then relaxed. “Wow,” she said. “You’re a real pisser, aren’t you?” People laughed. Kevin flushed. Joseph suppressed a smile.

“Why do you even care?” he said. “The semester’s over.”

“I care about writing whether the semester’s over or not.” Kevin’s voice was mild, but feeling came off his slightly hunched back. “And what’s important in writing is what’s happening between the characters, what they are doing, not what they look like or what things look like.”

How Marisa looked: narrow-framed and supple, giving the appearance of coiled quickness, like a pretty weasel; small lips, short unpolished nails, blue eyes, poised, expectant posture. On the street one night, a homeless guy sitting on the sidewalk had yelled as they passed. “Hey chickie! Little chicklet! Come sit on me; you’d fit me like a glove!” She’d said, “He sounds so wistful,” her voice hitting wistful as if it were two words, one pitched high, the other low.

He wondered what kind of girl would preen at sexual praise from a homeless guy – but it was true: Marisa was supple and functional as a glove. There was no waste, nothing excessive in her words or movements, not even during sex. When she broke up with him and he tried to make her change her mind, she said, “Don’t make me feel sorry for you.” And that was that.

Then he had to sit through a three-hour class with her every week. It was Janice’s class. Two days after the breakup, they read a story by Chekhov in which a cruel woman scalds a girl’s baby to death. Janice read aloud the part where the girl is returning home from the hospital on foot, at night, in the woods. She wanted them to notice the “soft and open quality” of the description, of the darkness and its sounds – animals, insects, the voices of men. Joseph sat across from Marisa, immersed in darkness. He was astonished that such pain could have been roused by this small alert girl who would not meet his eyes. He told himself it would pass, that he only had to ride it out. “Yours is not the worst of sorrows.” An old man in the story said that to the young girl who had lost her child; he said it to comfort her.

Janice asked them whether they could imagine such a scene written now. The suffering girl walking in the live darkness, the vast world of creatures all around. The girl and her suffering a small thing in this mysterious, still-soft, and beautiful world. Through this description of physical life, said Janice, mystery was bigger than human feeling, and yet physical life bore up human feeling as with a compassionate hand.

Joseph slowed his pace and looked at physical life: bushes, mountains, stones. The warm sun dappling the path, a tiny red rag someone had tied to the branch of a small tree. Grasses. Bugs. He could not connect any of it with Janice’s talk about mystery or compassion. But at the time, her words had moved him. He had looked at Marisa and had known with certainty that his was not the worst of sorrows.

Two weeks later, his mother had called and said she had cancer.


“Am I walking too fast for you?” Kevin was turned around, walking backward.

“I’m just not in a hurry,” said Joseph, picking up his pace.

Kevin slowed to wait for him; the path was now wide enough for them to walk abreast.

“I’m thinking about what I’m going to do,” said Joseph, “like for a job.”

“Yeah,” said Kevin, “I know. I am, too. People think it’s going to be easy for me because of the essay. But I doubt it.”

Easier for you than for some, thought Joseph. He looked up at the tree line on a ridge above them, at the branches moving gently against the sky.

“What is it?” asked Kevin.

“When my mom was sick, I would sometimes come out of the apartment at night and watch the trees move against the sky. It made me feel better. I don’t know why.”

“I understand that,” said Kevin. And his back gave off a different kind of feeling.


Joseph’s mother and father had been divorced for eight years. His younger brother, Caleb, was in Ohio studying theater. His mother lived alone in Westchester, where she ran an upscale women’s clothing store that made money. She did not have a lover, but she had a lot of friends. She told her friends about the tumor in her breast before she told anyone in her family. When she told him, she’d known for nearly a week.

“Why?” he asked, astonished. “Why did you wait?”

“I was afraid you might cry,” she said. “I didn’t want to make my sons cry.”

God, how ridiculous was that? Ridiculous and theatrical. He hadn’t cried since he was about ten. He felt guilt for being annoyed with her, then sick-making pity.

She said that the prognosis was good, that they were doing the mastectomy just to be sure. She was going to have a reconstruction done at the same time; they would use tissue from her stomach. “I hope you don’t think that’s grotesque,” she said. “But fifty is the new forty, and forty-three is too young to be disfigured like that.” She laughed. He said he would come to be with her. She said he didn’t have to do that, that she didn’t want him to miss school.

“Don’t be ridiculous!” he snapped. “I’m going to come.”


“I think of Max when I hear certain songs on the radio,” said Kevin. “Songs I know he really likes.”

Kevin’s brother, Max, was a marine; he’d been in Iraq almost a year. “How’s he doing?” asked Joseph.

“Okay, I guess.” Kevin paused. “I’m not sure. He calls. But I’m not sure he tells us what’s really going on.”

Joseph rolled his eyes, but it was true: His mother was vain. She had reason to be. Just five years ago, his friends had said, ‘Dude, your mom is hot,’ and they were only half-joking.”

When Joseph called his brother to talk about their mom, Caleb said, “This could not have come at a worse time. I guess stuff like this always does.”

“Are you coming to New York?” asked Joseph.

“No,” said Caleb. “She said she didn’t want me to.”

“She says that, but she doesn’t mean it; it’s obvious.”

“Joseph, I can’t. I’m playing Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross. I’m rehearsing nonstop. She’s going to be all right; she said the doctor said that. It’s awful, but breast cancer is so common now, it’s practically normal for a woman her age.”

He had to call his father several times before he got him on his cell. He was driving in his car, going somewhere with his wife, who was almost twenty years younger than Joseph’s mother. When Joseph told him, he was quiet for a long moment. Then he said, “Well, I never would’ve wished that on her. She was so vain about her body, its going to be bad for her.” Joseph rolled his eyes, but it was true: His mother was vain. She had reason to be. Just five years ago, his friends had said, “Dude, your mom is hot,” and they were only half-joking.

“Call me anytime,” said his father. “I don’t want you to be alone through it.”

“Can you call Caleb?” asked Joseph. “Can you tell him to come? Mom told him it was okay if he didn’t, but I know she wants him to. And if something happens to her, he’s going to feel horrible.”

His father sighed. “I know how you feel, Joe. But I don’t think you can tell someone to do something like that.”

“You ought to be able to,” said Joseph. “If you’re his father.” And he hung up.


The path narrowed, but they continued to walk abreast, so close that their shoulders rubbed together. “Ruskin’s ideas are pretty ironic,” said Joseph, “considering the way he treated his wife.”

“What do you mean?”

“He refused to have sex with his wife. After courting her for years, starting when she was something like twelve. He’d written these passionate love letters to her when she was a child. Then she got old enough to marry and – forget it. Wouldn’t touch her. It went on for years. Finally, when she was nearly thirty, she said, Enough. It was the most notorious divorce trial of the time.”


He went to see his mother a day before the operation. She met him at the train station, smiling and waving. She was wearing tight pants and a down jacket, like a woman in her twenties might wear. They went to the store to shop for “nice ham and tomatoes”; she wanted to make sandwiches the way she’d made them on some occasion that he could not remember. She loaded the cart with ice cream, imported cookies, sardines, artichoke hearts, paper towels, and cleansers. She got upset because the fancy-ham counter was closed, then angry because there weren’t any good tomatoes. Angrily, she chose processed slices of ham and hard, pale tomatoes. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I should’ve come earlier, and now it’s too late. Our night is ruined.”

“Really, it’s not.”

On the way home, they rented a comedy about a dysfunctional family and watched it while eating the sandwiches from plates on their laps. Then he put things in the dishwasher while she talked to Caleb on the upstairs phone. When he turned off the water, he could still hear her voice through the ceiling. He went into the living room and finished up the rest of the artichoke hearts.


The path opened onto a small meadow of pale grasses with a single tree standing in its middle. It was a large tree, with branches stretched in all directions; roughly half the branches were alive, with flourishing leaves and rich-colored bark, but the other half looked dead – blackened, dry, naked of bark or leaves.

“Want to hear how he explained himself?” asked Joseph. “Ruskin, that is.”


“He said, ‘It was not made to excite desire.’ Meaning his wife’s pussy. Or maybe her breasts. Or maybe just her body, period.”


She was in surgery for fourteen hours. She came home with plastic tubing attached to the wounds in her stomach and chest, tubes that functioned as drains, collecting the pus in detachable plastic bulbs. He could see the tubes under her clothes; he was aware that she took the bulbs off, emptied them of pus, put them back on. While he was with her, he was not squeamish about the tubes and bulbs – if she’d asked, he would have detached, emptied, and replaced the bulbs himself. He didn’t mind the new breast made out of stomach, either. He scarcely thought of it, and when he did, he was glad it was there, if it made his mom feel better. He couldn’t help feeling superior to Caleb, who obviously squirmed even to hear about it on the phone.


“‘It was not made to excite desire,’” repeated Kevin.

“I guess it was a little too human,” said Joseph.

“A little too old, it sounds like.”

“It amounts to the same thing,” said Joseph. “Anyway, public opinion was overwhelmingly on her side. She won the case and married Ruskin’s protégé, Millais. They had eight kids.”

“Something poignant about the whole situation,” said Kevin. “For both of them.”


In Westchester, it was okay. But the first night he got back to Albany, he had a nightmare in which his mother’s breast was a piece of gnawed cake. He woke from the dream feeling depressed. He didn’t think his mother was going to die. But it was weird to think that men in surgical scrubs had labored to take some of her stomach off and put it where her breast had been, to think of her sleeping with plastic drains sewn into her soft, gowned body, of the bulbs pressing against her when she turned. In the past, they would’ve just cut the breast off and left it that way. Deeper in the past, she just would’ve died.


He ran his hand across the rough foliage growing beside them; it stirred in his wake.

“How would you describe this?” he asked.

“Why would you describe it?” replied Kevin.

“Feelings,” said Joseph. A dragonfly lighted on a wildflower and made it bob. “It would bring feelings into the story.” The dragon rose off the bobbing flower and lilted in the air.

“Feelings come from people,” said Kevin. “Not bushes. Bushes don’t have feelings.”

“I know bushes don’t have feelings.” He wasn’t actually sure that they didn’t, but he wasn’t going to say that to Kevin. “It’s the character who sees the bushes and has feelings about them.”

“Sure, that’s fine,” said Kevin. “But think of Don Watson. His stories are filled with emotion, but it comes from what the people in the story are doing, an engagement with the human world. They come from the work he does with Israeli and Palestinian writers who deal with the psychotic shit that’s going on there. Not from bushes.”

Emotion was coming off Kevin again; Joseph wondered why. Probably there was no why. It was just Kevin’s nature to always be stirred and needing something to butt up against. It was obnoxious, but even so, he respected the feeling coming off his friend, wanted to stand with it. That was his nature.

Abruptly, the path steepened. They both fell silent and began to hike in earnest.


When he returned to the university, he decided to write a story about a young man whose mother had cancer. The young man would be some kind of business executive, maybe in advertising, or an architect just starting out. He would not have time to go home and care for his mother, and his do-gooder brother would be giving him grief about it. Over the course of the story, his deeper feelings would be uncovered.

‘Don’t do that, Joseph,’ she said. ‘It’s such a vulnerable time. More than you know. I’m sure no one would be deliberately cruel about your story. But it’s too raw now for public discussion.’”

He went to Janice’s office to discuss his story idea. He told her that his mother had cancer; he told her about his father and his brother and the way his mother had been about the ham. She listened and her face grew soft, much softer than it was in class.

Her receptive silence felt to him like touch.

But when he told her that he wanted to write about his experience for his next workshop story, she spoke adamantly. “Don’t do that, Joseph,” she said. “It’s such a vulnerable time. More than you know. I’m sure no one would be deliberately cruel about your story. But it’s too raw now for public discussion.” Again, he felt touched by her eyes, even the signs of age around them, the soft sagging of the lids.

“I don’t think I can write about anything else,” he said.

“It’s fine to write it,” she said. “But don’t turn it in to the workshop. Please. Turn it in to me and we can discuss it privately. Workshop something old, just to keep up appearances.”

And so he workshopped something he didn’t care about and took the real story to Janice in various pieces and drafts.


They had been hiking for nearly an hour when the path forked; they argued about which way to take. Finally, they decided that both ways would come to the same end and they split up. Joseph intuitively chose the smaller trail, which quickly proved steep and jumbled with loose rock.


In the story, it was revealed that the architect who was just starting out was not merely indifferent to his mother. He was angry at her. He did not even fully believe that she had cancer. She had a history of acting out and hypochondria and had ruined his tenth birthday party by saying she couldn’t breathe, insisting that their father break up the party so that he could take her to the hospital. He was also angry at his brother, who was still living at home and didn’t have to make any sacrifices to look after her, angry at the way this brother had bought into her self-mythologizing – the myth of the beautiful woman who could’ve been an actress if she hadn’t been stunted by early marriage and children.


Trapps cliff, Shawangunk Ridge, Mohonk Preserve. Jarek Tuszyński/Wikimedia Commons

The trail became increasingly chaotic. There were flat sunbaked outcrops with cool, wet fissures full of mashed pine needles. Bushes, mosses, and little trees grew out of the fissures, pushing their way out of huge rocks. Smaller, broken chunks of rock wobbled under his feet, forcing him to slow his pace; some were dry, some slippery with mud.


In real life, there were two positive lymph nodes in his mother’s body, and she needed chemo. In the story, she needed chemo, too. In real life, she lost her hair; in the story, she lost her hair, too. In the story, she screamed and cried about losing her hair. In real life, she made jokes and shopped for wigs with her friends. In the story, the architect finally came home, and was forced to confront his angry brother. In real life, Caleb came home and delighted their mother by acting out scenes from Glengarry Glen Ross. In the story, the dutiful son was the favorite. In real life, it was Caleb.


He came suddenly close to a coiled snake and, stepping away from it too fast, stumbled and fell, banging his knees and hands. Too quickly, he clawed for purchase and cut his palm on a rock. The snake slithered away. He cursed as he stood.


In the story, the brothers got drunk and had a fistfight on the lawn. In real life, they did the dishes together. In the story, the architect makes the do-good brother realize he’s giving himself away to win his mother’s love. The do-gooder makes the architect realize he’s riding free while his brother does the work of keeping the family together. In real life, no one realized anything.

“It’s very good,” said Janice. “Though I’m not sure the mother’s feelings would be so clear-cut.”


Sweating and irritated, he emerged from the path. Here was a clearing, an overlook. There was no way to go farther up, though there was another way down. He sat on a rock and breathed deeply. Either he had reached the top ahead of Kevin or he was lost. Either way was okay. From somewhere came rustling, the sound of rubbing cloth and parting limbs; Kevin had come. “You beat me,” he said.

“For once,” replied Joseph.

Kevin smiled and sat beside the rock, dropping his pack beside him. Joseph passed the water; Kevin drank. They sat a long time silently, looking at the grass, the trees, the sky. A bird, black in the distance, flew gracefully from one point to the next, dipping almost out of sight before rising again. Kevin leaned back on his elbows, legs stretched out before him. Joseph felt warmth for his friend; he felt good that they had finally reconnected.

“So, do you think you’ll stay in touch with Janice?” Kevin tilted his head slightly up and back, glimpsing at Joseph with a sliver of eye.

“I don’t know, maybe a little. It wasn’t a social relationship; she was my professor.”

“Students keep in touch with teachers.”

“Are you going to keep in touch with anyone?”

“Yeah, Don and I will definitely be in touch. I want to follow his work in the Middle East, maybe go over there with them.”

“Wow,” said Joseph, “that would be incredible.” He thought of Kevin’s mother, one son already in Iraq. The Odyssey rushed to the front of his thoughts; he remembered how, when a soldier had been killed, the narrative had stopped to say who his mother was and what kind of blanket she had wrapped him in when he was a baby.

“I have to tell you something,” said Kevin. “I feel like I have to tell you.”


“I slept with Janice.”


“I fucked Braver.”

“You’re lying.”

“Why would I lie?”

“But you didn’t like her. She didn’t like you.”

“She liked me.”

“When did this supposedly happen?”

“The weekend before the graduation ceremony.”

Kevin turned away abruptly. He walked to the edge of the overlook and bent to pick up a rock. Joseph wanted to kick him. Kevin threw the rock over the edge, hard, like a little boy with something to prove.”

That weekend: Joseph had been at that party, too. Everyone was at that party, all the grad students and most of the faculty. Everyone was drunk. Late at night, he had been surprised to see Janice and Kevin talking in a corner: Kevin was leaning close to Janice and she was looking up at him with a strange naked expression on her face. He had not paid further attention because he was trying to get a girl to give him her number.

“But you said you didn’t like her.” Joseph stood up. “You made a whole huge point of not liking her.”

Kevin stayed sitting on the ground. “I didn’t like her as a teacher. I liked her as a woman.”

“She’s married. She’s old enough to be your mom.”

“No she’s not. She’s forty-eight.”

Kevin stood up. “Why should I care about that? It was good, for one night. We both understood it was for one night.”

“I don’t want to hear details.”

“Who said anything about details?”

Kevin turned away abruptly. He walked to the edge of the overlook and bent to pick up a rock. Joseph wanted to kick him. Kevin threw the rock over the edge, hard, like a little boy with something to prove. Joseph wanted to kick him in the ass. Kevin turned around; his face was startled and soft. The kicking urge went away. Kevin spoke mildly. “Do you want to go back down your way?” he asked.

“No,” said Joseph. “It’s all slippery rock.”

But Kevin’s way was slippery, too; almost immediately, Joseph stumbled and fell against him. Kevin staggered and nearly went down; anger flashed in his eyes.

Joseph said, “Why didn’t you tell about Janice until now?”

“She made me promise not to.”

“But you’re telling it now.”

“The semester’s over. You just said you’re not really going to stay in touch with her. It doesn’t seem like it matters now.”

Joseph tried to concentrate on his footsteps. Instead, he thought of Janice naked, in sexual positions. He had never thought of her that way before.

“So, how was it?” he asked.

Kevin didn’t answer. His broad back expressed an upright reticence that was somehow dirtier than dirtiness.

“Did she like it?”

“It seemed like she did.” He paused and then added, as if he couldn’t help it, “Even though she cried.”

Semicrouched, Joseph stopped. “Why? Why did she cry?”

Kevin turned and slipped a little. “I thought you didn’t want to hear details.”

“I don’t.”

“What’s wrong?” asked Kevin. “Did you like her or something?”

“Not like that,” said Joseph.

“Then what…”

“It isn’t anything, I just…” He thought of Janice with her legs spread. He did not see her face or her upper body, only her spread lower half. “I just want you to go on down,” he said quietly. “I’ll come in a bit.”



The sky had changed. The clearing was now covered with soft shadows broken by slow-moving light. Joseph sat on the stone and put his head in his hands. His thoughts of Janice faded. He thought of Marisa, how she had asked not to feel sorry for him, when it was clear she didn’t. He thought of holding her from behind, her breasts in his hands. He dropped his hands and leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. In truth, no one knew if his mother was well, or if she still had cancer. They could not find cancer now, but one day she might go to the doctor to check and cancer would be there again. She would have to check and check for years, five years at least.

He stood up, looking into the valley. Giant broken rocks fell motionless down the incline, harsh gray stippled with black moss, shadow deeply pitting the spaces between the raw chunks. Broken trees stumbled down the slope, half-living, half-dead. At the bottom, only the living parts were visible, converged in the crease of the valley like virile hair at the fork of the body.

He pictured Caleb acting for his mother in the living room, making her laugh. It wasn’t what Caleb said that made her laugh; it was something in his voice that, without his trying, touched her somewhere that Joseph couldn’t reach.

He looked up at a flat field of clouds hanging low in the sky, rippled with soft gray; above them, bright light massed together as if trying to give itself a shape, like a sound trying to form a word. Above this light rose pale sky that deepened and turned blue as it rose higher into cloudlessness. He thought, Kevin would always win. That’s just how it was. Colorless radiance shone, receded, and shone again.

From the collection Don’t Cry


Mary_Gaitskill_290Mary Gaitskill is the author of the story collections Bad Behaviour and Because They Wanted To (nominated for a PEN/Faulkner Award), and the novels Veronica (nominated for a National Book Award), Two Girls, Fat and Thin and The Mare (longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction). She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, and her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Esquire, The Best American Short Stories, and the O. Henry Prize Stories. Don’t Cry, her first story collection in over ten years, is out now in paperback from Serpent’s Tail, priced £8.99.
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Author portrait © Joe Gaffney