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I started writing very short stories because (1) I was stalled on the novel I’d been working on, (2) I had a stretch of life with only short bursts of time to write, and (3) I love how a good poem or song takes you down to the bottom of the well really fast and wanted to try to emulate that in a narrative.
Dorothy had been fired from her job because she was coming in late, taking long lunches, and selling fewer homes than any of the other agents. And that morning her seven-year- old son had called her stupid, mean, and worthless. A year ago her husband had been drunk and got into his car and drove it at full speed into another car, killing himself and the driver of the other car and that driver’s wife and two children. At least Dorothy was not still receiving phone calls from the parents of the man and woman her husband had killed, four people in their seventies saying horrible things into her phone, or sometimes just crying. Dorothy didn’t drink at all, she took her lumps sober. She picked up Bruce Junior from school, where his second grade teacher told Dorothy that her son was the most aggressive boy in class and regularly insulted and punched other children. The teacher didn’t know what to do with him. All of this within earshot of the boy. Dorothy and Bruce Junior walked home in stony silence. The moment the door shut behind them, Bruce started crying, and he couldn’t stop. Dorothy, only five feet tall, picked up her big, heavy son and carried him to his bed. The two of them lay there next to each other catatonic. After a while she said, “I’ll be right back.” She went into the kitchen and returned with the red velvet cake that a messenger had delivered that day, sent by the old woman whose son and grandchildren Dorothy’s husband had killed. The woman had attached a note saying “I’m so sorry.” Dorothy lay down beside Bruce Junior on his bed and began breaking off pieces of the soft, moist, heart-colored cake with her fingers and feeding them to Bruce Junior and herself. “Mm,” Bruce Junior said, “mmm.” The crumbs went everywhere. She hoped the cake wasn’t poisoned. She hoped it was baked with the concentrated kind of love that is a core component of grief, and that she and her son were taking the love inside themselves, they really needed it.
When Kevin went into the public library after he took the drugs there was a dog standing on one of the reading tables. It was a golden retriever, clean with a shiny coat. He petted it and asked if it was hungry. In a friendly TV dad voice it said, “No, I’m not hungry, you idiot, but what is that noise?” Kevin looked out the window and saw an ambulance race by. “Oh, that’s the siren of an ambulance,” he said. “Do you know what an ambulance is?” “Of course I know what an ambulance is.” The only time Kevin had a dog was fourteen years ago, when he was ten. He failed to care for it properly and six months later his parents gave it away. Kevin really wanted this dog, and for due diligence he said, “What’s your owner’s name?” “I don’t know.” “When’s the last time you saw your owner?” “I don’t know.” “What town do you live in?” “I don’t know.” “What’s your name?” “Candace.” “Are you a boy or a girl?” “Girl.” “Okay, let’s go, Candace.” Kevin walked out of the library and Candace followed. The house he lived in with a bunch of college kids was only a block away. The day was sunny, warm, and beautiful. Candace trotted beside him down the sidewalk, laughing, saying, now more like a TV sports announcer, “This is going to be a great match-up!” The ambulance was parked in front of Kevin’s house, and as he and Candace arrived at the front door, two paramedics were carrying someone out on a stretcher. The person they were carrying was Kevin. “Am I dying?” he asked Candace. “Nope. But let this be a lesson to you.” “What’s the lesson, not to do drugs anymore?” “Well I have no idea about that, but you can have a dog if you want to.” “Really?” “Really.” “But not you?” “Right, not me.”
Patty should have known better than to ride on the back of her mother’s motorcycle. Her right arm was broken in three places, her homework arm. Her mom, Terry, had contusions, and moaned at night in the bed next to Patty’s in their semi-private hospital room. Two years ago, at age ten, Patty had decided to be her own mother, and had also decided to stop trying to be Terry’s, because trying to be Terry’s led to trying to fix everything that was wrong with Terry, which in turn led to frustration and rage, and Patty’s life goal, also starting at age ten, was to be love. Being love was hard. It was hard if your body was broken and you couldn’t do your homework. But when it was hard to be love was when being love mattered most. Like right now, at 5 a.m., when Patty was awakened by more moaning from Mom, and her arm felt like someone had run it over with a pickup truck, which someone had—a man named Marty, who had a concussion, and was moving up and down on top of Terry in her hospital bed. Patty detached the IV drip from her unbroken arm and walked slowly to the bathroom. She filled a plastic hospital pitcher with cold water. She walked to Terry’s bed and dumped half the pitcher on the back of Marty’s neck. He stopped what he was doing and left the room. Terry stared at Patty and Patty stared at Terry. She dumped the other half of the cold water on her mother’s face. When her mother started screaming curses at her, Patty decided to take an early morning stroll down the hallway to the big picture window overlooking the harbor. There she saw a fishing trawler heading out to sea, captained by a man who’d probably already been awake for an hour and a half. When her arm was healed she would walk down to the docks and apply for a job on this man’s boat. She appreciated his industriousness.
Matthew Sharpe is the author of the novels You Were Wrong, Jamestown, The Sleeping Father, and Nothing Is Terrible. He teaches in the MFA program at Columbia University. He’s also posting one short-short a week at Very short stories r us.