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New Stories from the Midwest: 2012

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New Stories from the Midwest presents a collection of stories that celebrate an American region too often ignored in discussions about distinctive regional literature. The editors solicited nominations from more than 300 magazines, literary journals, and small presses and narrowed the selection to 19 authors. The stories, written by Midwestern writers or focusing on the Midwest, demonstrate that the quality of fiction from and about the heart of the country rivals that of any other region. Guest editor John McNally introduces the anthology, which features short fiction by Charles Baxter, Dan Chaon, Christopher Mohar, Rebecca Makkai, Lee Martin, and others.

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21 Chapters

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1 Mr. Scary


Charles Baxter

for Richard Bausch

THERE WAS SOME SORT OF commotion at the end of the check-out line. Words had been exchanged, and now two men, one tall and wide-shouldered, the other squat and beefy, were squaring off against each other and raising their voices. Their shoes squeaked on the linoleum. The short one, who had hair from his back sprouting up underneath his shirt collar, was saying a four-letter word. The other man, the tall one, shook his head angrily and raised his fist. An elderly security guard was rushing toward them. He didn’t seem up to the task, Estelle thought. He was just a minimum-wage retiree they had hired for show.

“Good God,” Estelle said to her grandson. “There’s going to be a fistfight.”

The boy didn’t glance up from his phone gadget. He held it in his palm and was rapidly clicking the letters. “They’re just zombies,” the boy said quietly and dismissively after a glance.

“Well, how do you know that?” the grandmother asked, trying for conversation. “I’ve never met a zombie.” The men seemed to have calmed down a bit. They were just rumbling at each other now.


2 To Psychic Underworld:


Dan Chaon

CRITTER WAS STANDING OUTSIDE the public library with his one-year-old daughter in his arms when he saw a dollar bill on the sidewalk.

It came fluttering by, right next to his tennis shoe, carried by the wind along with a leaf.

He hesitated for a moment. Should he pick it up? He adjusted Hazel’s weight. She was straddled against his hip and watched with silent interest as he bent down and snagged it.

He’d had the feeling that it wouldn’t be just a normal dollar and he was right. There was writing on it. Someone had written along the margins of the bill in black ink, in a clear deliberate handwriting that he guessed might be a young woman’s. “I love you I miss you I love you I send this out to you I love you please come back to me I will wait for you always I—”

This written all around the edges of the bill, and he was standing there studying it when his sister, Joni, came down the steps of the library toward them. He had come to pick her up. That was one of the conditions of his current circumstance. He used Joni’s car during the day so long as he was there at the library to pick her up from work.


3 Townie


Roderic Crooks

AT THE DEADWOOD INN, THE WOMAN on the bar stool to my right whistles when I tell her I’m from New York City, then starts in on a long, rambling spiel about the five seasons of Iowa that leaves me unclear as to what constitutes the extra season. A football game is playing on a set above rows of multi-colored bottles lit from underneath, but this woman cannot keep her eyes off of me. She says, “So you visiting then?” She points her drunk, glassy eyes at me while the guy at the seat on my left mumbles about the ineptitude of whatever franchise is on the television. I can’t tell which side is ours or if they are winning.

I tell her that I live here now, that I’ve taken a job in town and wait for her to turn her attention back to the game, or to the man on my left, or anywhere but at me. She keeps her chin turned up and her gaze locked, so I add, “At the university museum.” I hope this helpful detail will satisfy her curiosity and send her back to whatever she was doing before she told me I didn’t look local.


4 The Amnesiac in the Maze


Michael Czyzniejewski

HE DOESNT KNOW HOW LONG he’s been in the corn, but that’s not because of the amnesia: he’s just lost. His disorder affects the longer-term things like not knowing his name, where he was born, what his mother looks like, if he ever knew her in the first place. Now, without a watch, calendar, or phone to tell him of the world, he’s wandering along. He remembers visiting this farm, drinking a cup of warm cider, buying a bag of decorative gourds, chatting with the farmer’s wife. He petted their dog, a black lab that was part Pekingese. He was about to leave, just drive off with his gourds and return to his nameless existence. But the maze was free, looked fun, something to do instead of watching TV, instead of hoping to remember. He entered the maze twenty minutes before closing and hasn’t emerged since. It’s been weeks, maybe two, maybe four: He’s lost track to that degree. But since he doesn’t know who he is, doesn’t have any particular place to go, why not stay? And maybe that’s how the amnesia comes into play: no motivation to emerge.


5 The Deep


Anthony Doerr

TOM IS BORN IN 1914 IN DETROIT, a quarter mile from International Salt. His father is offstage, unaccounted for. His mother operates a six-room, underinsulated boarding house populated with locked doors, behind which drowse the grim possessions of itinerant salt workers: coats the colors of mice, tattered mucking boots, aquatints of undressed women, their breasts faded orange. Every six months a miner is laid off, gets drafted, or dies, and is replaced by another, so that very early in his life Tom comes to see how the world continually drains itself of young men, leaving behind only objects—empty tobacco pouches, bladeless jackknives, salt-caked trousers—mute, incapable of memory.

Tom is four when he starts fainting. He’ll be rounding a corner, breathing hard, and the lights will go out. Mother will carry him indoors, set him on the armchair, and send someone for the doctor.

Atrial septal defect. Hole in the heart. The doctor says blood sloshes from the left side to the right side. His heart will have to do three times the work. Lifespan of sixteen. Eighteen if he’s lucky. Best if he doesn’t get excited.


6 Circling in the Air


David Driscoll

TODAY I WATCH WHITEY-TIGHTEY LINE. Whitey-Tightey Line is not real name, just name we use at factory. Real name is White Cotton Briefs. I am Inspector Number Seven. I work here long time. Too long, maybe, but this job is not so bad. I sit on stool over conveyor and watch for anomaly. I use Special Technique. Special Technique is pick spot on floor or paint chip on side of conveyor and spread out vision so it is big, big—like looking down from mountain top. In this way I see underwear three at a time, like looking at photo. Special Technique is very good for concentration, and sometimes I go very deep. Sometimes it looks like underwear is glowing, and sometimes I think threads are made of light. Sometimes vision drop away completely so there is no seeing and no hearing. This is very mystical state. I can always spot anomaly, though. Like now.

I press red button and conveyor stops, use Trigger Fingers to pick up whitey tightey from conveyor and transfer to Anomaly Bin. Trigger Fingers is metal pole with pinchers on end. Very handy for moving anomaly. Very easy on back. This anomaly is label sewed to front panel. This is functional anomaly. Functional anomaly means underwear still work fine but still is anomaly. If someone opens three pack of White Cotton Briefs in Boca Raton or Minneapolis and sees label sewed to front panel they will not like this. They will go back to store and ask for refund. They will see sticker says Inspected by Number Seven and shake their heads. I do not think they will call factory to complain but this is not the point.


7 Down to Bone


Roxane Gay

WHEN I AM FIFTEEN, MY FATHER rapes my best friend Shelby while she is sleeping over. She tells me the next morning when I find her in my bathtub. I find him downstairs, sitting in a chair, leaning back on two legs while he drinks his morning coffee. He looks up, raises his mug, and says, “Be glad it wasn’t you this time.”

Every morning, I write a list of everything I know to be true. Some days this list is short. Other days it is longer. Jesus turned water into wine and for that he was a hell of a guy. My father loves to sing this fact loudly while cradling a paper-wrapped bottle of wine, dancing like a fool on the living room couch. Bruce Springsteen and Johnny Cash are the only men who make any music worth a damn. There is no such place as Iowa. My father told me the name was made up for the aptitude test they give to kids in grade school—to weed out the dummies and send them where they belong, he said. When we drove across the country to see the Grand Canyon, he gave me sleeping pills at the Illinois border and told me they were vitamins. I didn’t wake up until we had nearly crossed into Wyoming. When I asked if we had found Iowa, he got angry. “How many times do I have to fucking tell you?” he said. He pulled onto the shoulder and slammed on the brakes, his tires leaving a long snake of rubber on the pavement. It was dark save for the occasional beam of light speeding toward us. He turned on the dome light, and spread open his wrinkled, stained atlas across the steering wheel. He grabbed my hand and used my fingers to point to a black smudge in the middle of the country and then he hit me with the atlas until it got damp and started to tear apart. There is no such place as Iowa. I know that now.


8 Starry Night


Lania Knight

JAMES IS WAITING ON THE GRAVEL BAR throwing stones, and I’m face down, floating on the top of the water looking for crawdads. I can feel every rock slap the surface. I’m watching them fall to the creek bottom. But I pull my face out when I see James’ two white feet beneath me. He manages to shove me under anyway. He’s the only cousin I ever get to spend time with. And he sucks.

I’m sorry, he says. Okay?

No! I scream it at him. Asshole! Ein Sheisskopf!

Where’d you learn that word, he wants to know.

As if I’d be stupid enough to admit that I know some German. That I’ve been studying online while he’s been busy living in Göettingen on his dad’s chemistry fellowship.

Everyone knows that, I say.

He squints at me. Can I borrow those?

I tell him no but then I hand him the goggles anyway. He puts them on and goes underwater but doesn’t stay long. After accusing me of having a watermelon head, he has the nerve to ask if I’ll adjust them. I take them and pull the stretchy rubber strap, trying to think of some way to extract payment from him.


9 Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart


Rebecca Makkai

WHEN CARLOS ASKED WHY I WOULD risk my whole career for Peter Torrelli, I told him he had to understand that in those last three years of high school, Peter and I were the only two gay boys in Chicago. Because I really believed it, back then, and twenty-five years of experience proving otherwise was nothing in the face of that original muscle memory: me and Peter side by side on the hard pew during chapel, not listening, washed blind by the sun from the high windows, breathing in sync. It didn’t matter that we weren’t close anymore, I told Carlos. The point was, he’d been my first love. I’d never actually loved him, but still, listen, believe me, there’s another kind of first love.

It was during one of those long lectures or concerts or assemblies that Peter and I had discovered our common neurosis: the fear of magically switching bodies with the speaker or singer or priest, and then having to improvise an exit. I would slide toward Peter on the pew, open a hymnal, and above “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” scribble in pencil: “Tuba player?” Peter would look up to the stage to watch the fat Winnetka sophomore puff his cheeks like a blowfish and write back: “Stop playing—no one misses a tuba.” “1st Violin?” I wrote. “Feign a swoon,” he’d write back. And then he’d mouth it to me, relishing the “oooo” of “swoon.” We joked about this fear, but really I think it bothered us both—this idea that we might suddenly be thrust in front of our peers and examined. It doesn’t take a psychotherapist to figure out why. Peter later claimed the whole reason he became an actor was that the only way he could enjoy a play was from the inside.


10 In Which a Coffin Is a Bed But an Ox Is Not a Coffin


Brenda K. Marshall

THE WINTER OF 1881 FOUND Frances Bingham reluctantly arranging for her move from the spacious comfort of her father-in-law’s bonanza farm on the Dakota prairie to her almost-completed new home six miles away in Fargo. The arrangement that had suited both Percy and Frances since she had joined him in Dakota three years earlier—in which Percy insisted that he would soon leave his job as a newspaperman for the Fargo Argus to make a new start back east, and Frances, in turn, reasoned that it made no sense for her and their son, Houghton, to move to Percy’s two rooms above the Argus in the meantime—had come to an end with Percy’s newfound respectability as Fargo’s delegate to the upcoming Fifteenth General Assembly of Dakota Territory. A man with a promising political career, Percy now insisted, must have his own home in Fargo, and his wife must live in that home with him, and not with his sister and father-in-law nearby.


11 Drunk Girl in Stilettos


Lee Martin

WE CAME UP ON HER SOUTH OF TOWN on the blacktop, Wink and me, this girl looking all whoop-de-doo in high heels, her hip jutted out, her thumb stuck in the air, begging a ride.

“Pull over,” I said. We were running eighty in his Mustang GT, and it was going to take a while to shut it down. “Damn it, Wink. Now.”

“Jesus, Benny.” He pressed his lips together and squinted at me with his right eye. His left one—or the empty socket, I should say—had a black, satin patch over it. He owned an artificial eye made from acrylic, but he wasn’t wearing it that day. The patch gave him a tough look that I suspected he secretly liked. The thin strap slanted down across his forehead. “All of a sudden you’re a Boy Scout?” He was busting my balls, but he’d already put his foot to the brake. “Thought you were in a hurry to get home.”

“Just do it,” I said, and he did.

He was in one of his pissy moods and more of a mind to keep heading up the blacktop, but I saw a girl who needed a ride, and I knew what that was like. Let me say it plain: I’ve not always been an upright man, and, as a result, I’ve had to rely on the kindness of folks; some, like my mama, loved me, and some were strangers who didn’t owe me the time of day.


12 The State Bird of Minnesota


Charles McLeod

LUDD LIVED WAY OUT ON THE NORTH SIDE of the lake. No one really ever went over there. His cabin was built up right to his dock, and in the summer Ludd would often go swimming. He was bearded and awkward, an oaf of a man, but in the water he was something to look at. Ludd could hold his breath longer than anyone I’ve known. You could watch him dive in, go take your meds, and when you came back Ludd would still be down there.

His dock’s pilings were dressed with what he’d found while submerged: fishing lures, the handlebars from a children’s bicycle. There too was a raft Ludd had fashioned from logs and the tanned hides of animals—badger and deer and foxes. Late afternoons, as the light bowed and stretched, Ludd would untie and drift until sunset. He lay perfectly still, his arms at his sides, legs brought tightly together, and when the light hit the lake at just the right angle, and turned the water golden and orange, Ludd and his vessel looked set ablaze, his raft transformed to a pyre.


13 The Five Points of Performance


Christopher Mohar

Hempel and I leave the funeral home in his new Trans Am. This is his dream car, a ’74 Super Duty with a 455 HO V-8, Olympic white with the powder blue phoenix decal on the hood. Sitting in the parking lot, he asks if I want to drive. I do, just not right now, so I ride shotgun. The upholstery is black, but not dark enough to keep me from seeing a brackish stain across the seatbelt.

We take Pierce Street to Shady Lane and get on County PD. Hempel has it up to 105 when we hit the railroad crossing by the Sawyer Feed Mill. This is a new type of airborne, but the feeling is similar—like I’ve swallowed a live snake, tongue flicking my tonsils, tail rattling my guts. When Willy was alive he told me it hit him like a premonition the instant before his boots left the steel. For me, it’s not real until I hear the sound of wind snapping into rip-stop nylon, thuk, thuk, thuk, thuk. In the car, the feeling doesn’t last. Just enough hang-time to freeze the world for a second, for one glance up to the billboard on the feed mill’s steeple: a collage of advertisements papered over and peeled off again a thousand times—tatters of Goodyear Tires, a shred of a McCormick-Deering.


14 The Baby Glows


David James Poissant

THERE IS NOTHING ELSE about the baby that one might call unusual, nothing uncharacteristic of other babies. The baby does not skip rope. The baby does not levitate. The baby cannot line up dominos across the kitchen counter with his mind. The baby just glows.

The baby is not bright like a fire or a star. His light is soft as a glow stick’s, the kind you buy at a carnival and snap to make shine.


The baby’s body temperature is 98.6°.

It startles the mother to open the nursery door to a radiant cloud over the crib. Then, she remembers, takes him in her arms, and holds him the way any mother would hold any baby.

The baby does not glow sometimes. The baby is always glowing.

It’s only unusual because it hasn’t happened before. Stranger things have happened. Babies born with tails. Babies with extra arms or eyes. Pairs of babies born sharing a stomach. This baby has no extra parts.


15 Splendid, Silent Sun


Yelizaveta P. Renfro



You’ll never believe where I am—or rather, you’ve already surmised from the picture on the reverse of this postcard. Yes, Nebraska. You know, that state in the middle somewhere, just another corn-filled patch in the quilt of indistinguishable states that make up the interior. You see that farmhouse and the gently rolling fields of corn in the picture? That’s why I’m here. To find that. Not that particular house, per se, but what it stands for: that open and uncomplicated life that’s vanished in L.A. Nebraska. Just the sound of the word conjures up images of corn and wholesome tow-headed children and the Fourth of July. It’s more American than apple pie, right? Of course you’ve never thought about it. You’ve never been here. It’s the coasts for you. Fine. But for me, this bland Midwestern Americana is the exotic. I’m here to see it all.




I went on a little stroll today around Dudley’s neighborhood and had the scare of my life. I was maybe three blocks from Dudley’s house, just walking along, looking up at all these grand old houses with big porches and porch swings, as Midwestern as you please. And then, out of nowhere, came this awful buzz like an air-raid siren—or at least what I imagine an air-raid siren to sound like. The noise was all around me, coming from every direction, and for a minute I thought: Holy Jesus, the Soviets have launched their nuclear weapons at last, and here I am stuck in Nebraska! Nonsense, of course—how long has the Cold War been over now? When did the Soviet Union fall? I guess it was some vestigial fear from childhood, when the commies were the bad guys. Who are the bad guys now? I couldn’t remember, as I stood there paralyzed, listening to that awful wail, waiting for the big old planes swollen up with bombs in their bellies to come roaring overhead. Would they be painted with swastikas, Muslim moons?


16 Miscarriages


Shannon Robinson

You look familiar.

That is what the anesthesiologist says to me. She’s petite, much younger than I expected, and has pale, smooth skin. I’m here to have a D&C. I had an abortion three years ago, but that was in another city. In a few minutes, this woman will take the clear plastic cup that she’s now holding and place it over my nose and mouth; she will put me to sleep. I will have no memory of her doing so.

D&C is short for Dilation and Curettage. The initials are for delicacy as much as for convenience. It is the operation performed after a miscarriage, wherein the fetus (or dead baby, however you wish to think of it) is sucked out of your womb. A bit of vacuuming in preparation for the next tenant. If there will be one.

I don’t have a reply for the anesthesiologist’s remark, although I feel that I should. She sounds so casually certain. Oh, I say.

Maybe I just have one of those faces. I’m lying down on a padded table, dressed in a large, two-ply green paper gown. A hose attached to a circular notch on the gown blows in warm air, inflating me like a pool toy, making me feel both comforted and a little silly. I’m wearing purple socks, with teddy bears on them in a raised, rubberized pattern. The hospital provided them. These I will keep. I will wear them around the apartment for the next few days until the soles get dirty and I begin to worry about the state of the unswept floors.


17 American Bulldog


Chad Simpson

THE NIGHT BEFORE, HER SOCKS LEACHED rainwater from the carpet in the basement. The dehumidifier was running. The sump pump still churned. Everything important—her sewing machine table, the desk with her art supplies—was up on blocks from the previous fall, and Anna figured it might as well all stay that way, at least for now: It had rained for four straight days, and who knew how much water was going to seep through the foundation walls before it stopped.

In bed, after she changed her socks and was snuggled and warm under the covers, Anna hoped she would dream of floods—the biblical kind, of arks and utter devastation. But she woke up a little before five to the sound of rain against her bedroom window and with no memory of the previous night’s dreams at all. Leslie the dog was at attention outside her bedroom door when she opened it.

“Come on, then,” Anna said, and Leslie followed her to the three-season room, where Anna let him out into the dark, wet backyard.


18 Twelve + Twelve


Christine Sneed

SOMEONE IN THE ALLEY THREE STORIES below my window was calling out to someone else and what he was saying was not very nice. Maybe he did because we were all stuck in an ugly, listless March, ice visible everywhere and clinging to our lawns like a dense gray scum. We were exhausted and cynical under cloudy skies, our pants cuffs perpetually caked in grit and mud, our car tires spinning and spinning on snow-choked streets. No one I knew was outside digging up the flower beds, and certainly no one was in the mood to offer spare coins to strangers distractedly ransacking their pockets for change to feed the meters. Instead, people were talking heatedly into mobile phones or looking down at their feet as they trudged, these unloved husbands and crashdieters and stubborn musicians and disbarred lawyers who all huddled in on themselves because among their other hardships, winter hadn’t yet ended and at this near-unendurable point, they just couldn’t look each other in the face.


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