Short Stories – The $30,000 Bequest and Other Stories

This post is part of a year-long series about short stories.  Read about my “Year of the Short Story” HERE.

The $30,000 Bequest and Other Stories by Mark Twain (1872) – A collection of 30 short stories from one of the greatest American authors.  Twain is in many ways the most American of our native born writers.  His subjects, point of view and sense of humor are rooted in the still young nation he observed.  In these stories he explores a wide range of topics.  His storytelling style remains crisp even 150 years later.  Following the Civil War the nation is beginning to feel its oats.  Industry and business are beginning to boom at the international level.  The American begins to travel more, and be seen.

Keep Calm and Focus on the Short Stories

And Twain has fun with one and all.

My favorites here are:

  • “The $30,000 Bequest” – A married couple that there is a possibility of a great deal of money coming to them.  Just the promise is enough to put them off the rails.
  • “Italian Without A Master” and “Italian With Grammar” – Twain exercises his well developed sense of whimsey.  This is the bold American taking on the language of Italy as only a bold American might.
  • “General Washington’s Negro Body Servant” – The death of an old black man, reputed to have worked for the first President, gives Twain the opportunity to wield some subtle jabs at the growing American mythology surround our nation’s founders.
  • “An Entertaining Article” –  Twain takes the opportunity to publicly examine a less than flattering review.  An English critic took great exception to the American author’s “An Innocent Abroad”.  Many authors wish they had the wit, the writing skill and the outright gumption to do what Twain does here.
  • “A Humane Word From Satan” – “The editors of Harper’s Weekly have reason to believe this letter is from Mark Twain”.  That introductory note that went with the original publication of the short story tell you everything you need to know about the story.  Twain is preparing to puncture a few more pompous balloons.

I enjoyed almost every story here.  The places my attention stumbled were stories that went after specific public figures.  Twain assumes a base level of familiarity in his readers that I don’t have a century and a half later.  I enjoyed the writing, even if the details of the story eluded me.

Twain is the first great American writer from an America that begins to resemble ours.  He wasn’t born on the East Coast and his writing takes us into the everyday life in the nation.   Here’s a great collection to add to your list.


Writing – The Gathering

Mary Alice Johnson stopped in mid-transit between the kitchen and the living room. Crouching at the end of the hallway was her five-year-old son, Stewie. He was sitting back on his heels, knees up under his chin with his arms wrapped around his legs. It was an unusual position to find the boy. What caught her attention was that he wasn’t looking down the hall. He sat just past the edge of the wall, his shoulder at the corner, but he was staring across the opening. A locked in stare at … nothing. The dining room straight ahead, the hall to his right, the door to the kitchen to his left. Both the hall and dining room were dark, the light of the kitchen just dim from this angle. She could see the nervous tension in the boy’s body. She stood there for a moment, but he took no apparent notice of her. That was odd as well. His constant greetings, a day filled with “Hi Mommy!” every time they crossed paths was background noise to her now. All the more obvious by its absence.

“Honey, are you okay?”

Stewie’s gaze never wandered. A quick nod of head and a grim set to his mouth was his only response. He remained unnaturally still. This was the boy who wore her out on a daily basis with a supply of energy that seemed endless. Now he just sat and stared. Mary Alice watched him for a moment more. He didn’t seem distressed, just…focused.

“Okay, then.”

Her tone showed her doubt on that point. Mary Alice continued into the living room but didn’t take her usual chair. Shifting to another (less comfortable) one put her son in her eye line. Sometimes it was best just to let a child alone to do their thing. All the experts seemed to agree. At least the ones she liked. She tried to read but the boy’s stillness nagged at her.
An hour later, Stewie had shifted twice, seeming to ease the pressure on his legs but remained in place. When Peter Johnson walked through the door, she waved him urgently over.

“Hey, beautiful. What’s…” She shushed him and motioned for him to come closer.

“Stewie has been sitting there”, she motioned to their son, “for an hour now. He hasn’t moved. I asked him if he was OK and he said he was, but he hasn’t moved. I’m starting to worry.”

As she spoke, Peter considered the boy. A normal day ended with Stewie rushing him as soon as he walked through the door, tales of the boy’s adventures pouring out. He noted the look of tension there as well. Almost as if the boy were waiting for something.

“Was he OK the rest of the day?”

His wife nodded.

“Just a regular day, till I found him there an hour ago.”

He walked over and knelt next to the boy.

“Hey, Stewie-Be-Doo. What’s up? You got Mom worried.”

The childhood nickname, now much despised, got him a sideways look of reproach. That’s good, Peter thought, he’s not off in never-never land.

“I’m watching. For Grampy.”

Grampy was Peter’s father Robert. A year ago his health had started to fail. After much negotiation with both his father and his wife, Peter had moved the old man into the spare bedroom. It made the house a little cramped, but Robert worked to be useful to the limits of his ability. Mary Alice came to appreciated having some help with her son in the following months. While the older man couldn’t run an play, he served as a perfect audience for the youngster. Always willing to “Watch this!”, and with the patience to endure endless stories, “Grampy” gave her free time in her schedule almost every day now. Grandfather and grandson had formed a bond that touched Peter. He and his father had spent years banging heads and the boy had strengthened their relationship, too. It had been a wonderful change for them all.

“You know Grampy is always glad to see you. You don’t have to wait here. Go check if he’s awake and go see him.”

Stewie shook his head emphatically.

“I’m not lookin’ to see Grampy. He don’t feel good. So he’s sleepin’. He told me to keep my eyes open. To watch.”

Peter Johnson frowned, looking towards the door at the end of the hall. The boy tired the old man most days. It wasn’t unusual for Peter to find him taking a nap just before dinner. This watching game was new, however. His father liked to tease the boy, but it was always in fun. This felt mean and that was worrisome in a completely different way. Peter kept an eye out for any further changes in his father’s health, especially mentally. Since the move, and the interaction with the boy, Robert had seemed to improve mentally. During a discussion with the older man’s doctor, Peter had been told that these changes can happen suddenly. He turned his attention to the boy again.

“Watching for what, big guy?”

The boy’s eyes flicked to the side to look at him for a second or two. Then back.


Peter was back to his own childhood in an instant. Gremlins. He was roughly Stewie’s age when the old man had told him that story. When Peter walked past the end of the hallway, or through any dimly lit place, he thought he saw things. Just in the corner of his eye were faces. They grinned and made faces at him from corners and doorways. If he looked toward them, they disappeared. Finally, he asked his father about the little faces he could see out of the corner of his eye. He expected to be told it was nothing, but to his surprise, his father took him seriously.

“You can only see them in the corner of your eye, right. If you turn to look they’re gone.”

He remembered, nodding solemnly. Exactly. Robert Johnson told his son they were gremlins, small spirits that lived where people did. They were mostly harmless, just playing tricks like moving things around so you couldn’t find them when you need them. A gremlin would try to distract you so you might stumble or forget what you were doing. It became a family joke when things went wrong. “Damn gremlins!” He still caught himself saying it sometimes. He nodded to his son.

“Little guys, in the corners of your eyes, right?”

Stewie’s eyes grew larger and he nodded vigorously. “Grampy told me about ‘em. He says I need to watch.”

Peter smiled. Thank God, nothing worse than that. “Yeah, he taught me about them, too. I was just about your age.” He ruffled his son’s hair. “But they’re just silly little troublemakers. You don’t need to stand guard.”

Stewie’s face grew determined. He shook his head firmly as he settled back into position. “Grampy says they’re starting to gather. I have to watch for that.”

When gremlins gather. He hadn’t thought about that part of the story in years. One day when Peter was a few years older, his father had sat him down. There was a serious look on his face.

There was something he hadn’t told Peter about gremlins. He was too little then, but it was time for him to know. How many gremlins had Peter ever seen at once? The boy thought for a moment. Three. The most he had ever seen was three. His father nodded. That was good. He needed to notice; if he ever saw them start to gather in larger numbers, Peter should tell his father. Peter nodded solemnly again. What did it mean when they gather? Robert crouched in front of the boy, putting a hand on each shoulder. That moment, which he hadn’t thought about in years, was suddenly vivid again. His father looked him straight in the eyes.

“When gremlins gather, someone is about to die.”

A chill ran down Peter’s spine. “Tell me what happened today, Stewie.” The boy turned and looked at him.

“I walked by and saw about six of them. So I ran down to tell Grampy.”

Peter could see his son was upset.

“That’s when Grampy told me to watch.”

Peter stood up, staring down the hall.

The dark and empty hall that led to his father’s room.

“Tell me what you see now, Stewie.”

Please say nothing, please say nothing, the thought repeated in his mind as he stepped into the hallway.

“There are lots of them, Daddy. Dozens and dozens…”

Peter Johnson took a step into the hallway.

“Not that way, Daddy.”

He looked down at Stewie who was looking back at him now, tears streaming down his face. The boy’s arm was pointing toward the kitchen. Peter was confused for a second, then turned toward the living room. Mary Alice was gone. She must have moved while he was talking to the boy.

There was a crash in the kitchen.

Peter Johnson turned and ran.

Short Stories – The Djinn Falls In Love and Other Stories

This post is part of a year-long series about short stories.  Read about my “Year of the Short Story” HERE.

The Djinn Falls In Love and Other Stories by Mahvesh Murad, K. J. Parker, Kuzhali Manickavel, Maria Dahvana Headley (2017) – A collection of stories from around the world focusing on the djinn, the magical spirits from Arabian and Muslim mythology.  From breakthrough writers to the world-renowned, like Neil Gaiman, this is a fascinating and sometimes challenging collection of stories.

  • Keep Calm and Focus on the Short Stories
    •  Amal El-Mohtar — A Tale of Ash in Seven Birds
    • Catherine King — Queen of Sheba
    • Claire North — Hurrem and the Djinn
    • E.J. Swift — The Jinn Hunter’s Apprentice
    • Helene Wecker — Majnun
    • Hermes (trans. Robin Moger) — The Djinn Falls in Love
    • Jamal Mahjoub — Duende 2077
    • James Smythe — The Sand in the Glass is Right
    • J.Y. Yang — Glass Lights
    • Kamila Shamsie — The Congregation
    • Kirsty Logan — The Spite House
    • K.J. Parker — Message in a Bottle
    • Kuzhali Manickavel — How We Remember You
    • Maria Dahvana Headley — Black Powder
    • Monica Byrne — Authenticity
    • Nada Adel Sobhi — Time is a Teacher
    • Neil Gaiman — Somewhere in America
    • Nnedi Okorafor — History
    • Saad Hossein — Bring Your Own Spoon
    • Sami Shah — REAP
    • Sophia Al-Maria — The Righteous Guide of Arabsat
    • Usman Malik — Emperors of Jinn

This is a highly recommended collection from just last year.  For most westerners, the “djinn”, are the “genies” of A Thousand and One Nights and the variations on the theme.  As with so many cultural items picked up along the way, our understanding of the character is largely reduced to a cartoon.  The Djinn can be found in cultures all around the world, and they are a multi-faceted concept.  This collection offers a wonderful insight into them.

Every offering is written with great skill, and I was challenged to expand my understanding along the way.  Which is what great storytelling always does.  Some of the stories touched me more deeply than others.

My favorites here are:

  • “Reap” – In some ways the least”challenging” of the stories.  Not because of the writing but because the story of U.S. military operators directing drones in Afghanistan is very familiar.  What they see through the eyes of their drone is something else entirely.
  • “Majnun” – One of the djinn has turned away from his kind and become a human who exorcises djinn from other humans.  His confrontation with his ancient beloved is beautiful and heartbreaking.
  • “A Tale of Ash in Seven Birds” – This is a stunning piece of writing that shows the djinn fleeing from one form in our world to another trying to survive.
  • “Message In a Bottle” – a scientist has the cure for a worldwide plague.  It is sealed inside a bottle.  The question is this, is it the cure for the disease inside, or the pestilence that will destroy the world entirely?

I could list almost every story here as a favorite.  There is just a handful that didn’t connect with me.  But none of them left me feeling that I had wasted my time reading them.

Looking for something new and different?  Here’s a great collection to add to your list.

Writing – A Walk Through Memory

(I attended a “Writers Salon” put on by the wonderful folks at James River Writers late last year.  An interesting evening.  JRW is a great local writer’s organization.  The exercise was to do some “free writing” in a short period of time.  Don’t worry about editing or spelling, just write.  The prompt is those first two words.)

I remember…

The simple joy of walking. Today it always seems like walking has to be for a reason, to a destination. But there was a time when walking was just for the joy of seeing what was on the next block, over the next hill or around the next corner. My head was up, my eyes and ears were open and I experienced the world in a way I don’t seem to have the time to do anymore. The air was filled with wonderful aromas and I filed my lungs with it. I remember the joy of seeing things I had looked at a hundred times before but actually seeing them for the very first time. I remember that the world seemed a startlingly wonderful place. Rainy days, sunny days or days when the wind blew hard, it was all thrilling and wonderful and new. I remember when a walk was an adventure. Today when I walk I think to look for those wonderful sights and intoxicating smells that I remember.

(I did this on my phone originally.  Went to a writing event with no writing materials! What was I thinking?  That was an interesting experience.  I’ve determined that I don’t like writing on my phone.  I have cleaned it up to post here.

Sound like fun?  Try it yourself.  Five minutes.  No editing in that time period.  Share in the comments if you’d like.  You can clean it up for posting!)

Short Stories – F. Scott Fitzgerald

This post is part of a year-long series about short stories.  Read about my “Year of the Short Story” HERE.

Flappers and Philosophers by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1920) – The first book of short stories from the great American author.  This collection has eight stories:

  • Keep Calm and Focus on the Short Stories“The Offshore Pirate”
  • “The Ice Palace”
  • “Head and Shoulders”
  • “The Cut-Glass Bowl”
  • “Bernice Bobs Her Hair”
  • “Benediction”
  • “Dalyrimple Goes Wrong”
  • “The Four Fists”

I can not explain how my exposure to Fitzgerald’s writing has been as minimal as it is.  To be perfectly transparent, until a year ago I don’t believe I’d ever read anything of his.  Not even “The Great Gatsby” (still haven’t read it).  About a year ago, I received a short story collection which included his “A Diamond As Big As The Ritz”.  While I love Jimmy Buffett’s song of that name, I hated this short story.  It felt like Fitzgerald was trying for some kind of “fantastic” literature and came up very short.  Just an utter flop from my point of view, even when I made adjustments for almost a century’s worth of social change.

So I entered into this collection with very low expectations.

I emerged at the other end of the book with a completely different attitude about the author.

The first thing that leapt out at me was the sheer beauty of his writing.  Let me put it to you this way: it’s the kind of writing that made me stop my family and say “Listen to this…”, and then read them a phrase, a sentence or paragraph.  This is the art of writing.  The ability to weave words no only to tell the story, but to create something beautiful in and of itself.  That’s rare in my experience and rare beyond measure to find a book that has example after example.

Fitzgerald explores several of the themes that would become his trademark in the years that followed.  The desire of the young to find their own identity, and to rebel against the norms of the day.  The interplay of social class is featured as well.

My favorites here are:

  • “The Cut Glass Bowl” – Fitzgerald plays along the edges of science fiction and horror here.  Terrible things happen to the Pipers and it all seems connected a wedding gift.
  • “The Four Fists” – the story of a man who learns four profound life lessons after being punched in the face.
  • “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” – In the 1920s “bobbing” a woman’s hair (i.e. cutting it short) was a radical thing to do.  Certainly not something a “lady” would consider.  Here, in an attempt for social acceptance, Bernice is conned into doing just that.  It remains an excellent object lesson on not giving into peer pressure.’

The rest of the stories each have their own strengths as well.

This is a great way to start this series!  An iconic American author, and some wonderful writing as well.

Writing – I Did It!

I have no idea how I forgot to post this one!  For the second time in five or six attempts, I completed the NaNoWriMo challenge!  NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month and takes place each November.  The goal is to write 50,000 words of a novel in 30 days.  That sounds like an enormous challenge and it is.  The reality is that you need write about 1,660 words a day.  That’s a goal that’s both easy and hard.  The most important thing you can gain from doing this is to simply keep writing.  NaNoWriMo is supposed to be a month of writing, not editing.  It creates a discipline and frees you from constant second-guessing.  I heartily endorse it!

This year’s project is being edited now.  The title is “Catching Fire and Flying Through the Air”.  It’s a story of a man who loses a job and needs to generate some income short-term.  So he becomes a substitute teacher!  The idea is inspired by Bel Kaufman’s 1964 New York Times bestseller “Up the Down Staircase”.  I was inspired by the concept, and also by the storytelling technique.  It is told entirely through overheard conversations, interdepartmental memos and notes between the main character and her friends and family.  Updating to the 21st century, this story is told with the addition of texts and e-mails.

I’m very excited by the concept, and the teachers I’ve shared the idea with have been very supportive.  I hope to have it ready to go by November of 2018.  Watch this space for details!

I did it, so can you!


Writing – The Intimacy of Driving

I’m all set. The car is clean, seat adjusted, my window sign carefully affixed.

The first call arrives just as I leave the highway and enter the city proper. A young woman on her way to the gym. She’s forgiving when I’m a couple minutes late. The app and I are still getting to know one another.

Young women are an interesting balancing act. They are climbing into the car of a middle-aged man they do not know. I want them to feel comfortable and safe. Should I talk? Should I remain silent? Is the guy who never speaks to them on the trip reassuring or creepy? I usually say a few things right at the beginning, then wait to see if they pick up the thread. If not, I will offer a companionable silence. Most of the trips are quick so it never grows uncomfortable. The younger riders tend to spend the time on their phone, a soundtrack of quiet beeps and sound effects.

Five rides in quick succession. To the gym, a coffeehouse, home from work or to the airport. The airport trip is a man a little younger than me. We compare notes on our airport experiences.

I pick up a young woman at a local college. We’re headed out of town. When we arrive I ask where she wants to be let out. She’s never been here before, so we search a little. It’s a woman’s health clinic. There’s a clinic at the college.  There are doctors closer than this office.

I wish her well and say a little prayer.

The very drunk young woman who asks my name three times in a row.  Each one is a new and novel experience for her.

The young couple.  She is trying to make her desire for him clear.  He’s had one drink too many to be clear on any subject.  Her language becomes more and more graphic, all in a muted whisper that she believes I can not hear.

It’s none of my business.

Then I turn the wheel for home.