We are excited to announce the winners of the 2019 Fiction Prize and the 2019 Poetry Prize, judged by R. O. Kwon and Nuar Alsadir respectively. Many thanks to everyone who submitted their work and made this year’s prizes possible!Read more…
Posts Categorized: Fiction
Going to the Frick was Mabel’s idea. The purpose was for her and I to get to know one another—me, the new wife, her, the old friend. Or not that old, really. She and Daniel had become close in the last year, which was unusual, given his moratorium on new friendships. Friends were demanding. Friends required time. Friends were a threat to the next drawer-bound novel.
On the Q train he stood above me, feet apart, my knees between his. Daniel never sat on trains unless they were empty. How he considered the needs of others before his own, before mine, it made me feel inferior but I also respected it.
“I used to have a company pass to the Frick,” Daniel said. That was back when he worked at the hedge fund, before he saved enough money to quit. “Maybe it still works.”
I held the back of his knee and grinned up at him. “Either way,” I said.
The three of us met on 70th street on a lukewarm spring day. I wore a short skirt with a crochet scarf—I didn’t like the outfit but suspected Mabel would, based on pictures of jewelry she’d made that I’d seen on her website, crafty stuff. If Daniel was anxious I couldn’t tell—anxiousness was not one of the qualities he displayed visibly. Those were limited to anger, satisfaction, and resolve. Most days, lust wasn’t even on the list. He made love almost entirely with a straight face, buried the lede on orgasms.
As we milled about the galleries it was difficult for all three of us to stay together, so I drifted apart to the far wall or the next room. Whenever I looked for Daniel he seemed always to be with Mabel, their tolerance for each painting exactly matched. I sulked by pretending to be more independent than I felt, charting my own course through the wooden and white rooms.
Truthfully, I wasn’t all that interested in paintings. I was practical—I appreciated culture but I didn’t confuse art as passion and I think Daniel liked that about me. I left room for him to be the creative one.
Eventually Mabel came and brought me to stand in front of Rembrandt’s “Self-Portrait” where Daniel was waiting. It was a brushy number with a lot of affectionate self-loathing in brown paint.
I thought I was standing next to Daniel but then somehow Mabel was between us. “Peter Schjeldhal says this is the best painting in all of New York,” she said.
I let her stay there. “And what does he say is the best pizza?”
Daniel intervened. “I think he posed it as a question—is Rembrandt’s ‘Self-Portrait’ the best painting in New York?”
“Well, I think it is,” Mabel said.
“Have you seen them all?” I couldn’t help it.
“At least the permanent collections.”
We sidestepped to the adjacent painting, which was also a Rembrandt, and I asked her to send me the article. At least I was trying. “The Polish Rider” had more hope to it, an out-of-sight sun that was either rising or setting and a white horse that caught the light.
“I will,” she said. “And I brought something to read about this one. But I’ll save it for dinner.”
“You’ve made quite a syllabus.” A comment that Daniel, poor guy, let me get away with.
When They Spoke
When cockroaches started speaking, most people thought that they were imagining things. Someone would encounter a quiet conversation between roaches in front of the refrigerator. Or would hear one talking to itself in the back of a drawer. Or would even happen upon a roach perched on a baby crib, squeaking out a lullaby. And that someone would shake their head, chuckle, and continue with their day.
Yet only a few days after this had begun, enough encounters had been documented to convince people that roaches could now speak. Children began chasing them and packing them into jars, while scientists ran them through a battery of tests. Talk shows sparked controversy on the phenomenon. “Isn’t it interesting that these insects—which are the most likely of all living creatures to survive a nuclear holocaust—have now developed the ability to speak?” mused one expert. Incredulity turned to curiosity—and suspicion. But the roaches never spoke under duress, whether at the hands of an interrogator, scientist, or little boy; in fact, they never conversed directly with people at all.
Until the fire. The fire started in a subway tunnel—some said that the cockroaches themselves started it, while others believed that failing electrical wires were at fault. No one could deny, however, that it was the cockroaches that saved hundreds of people from potential disaster. Even before the alarms could alert subway personnel, even before the thick black smoke began pouring into the tunnels, swarms of cockroaches had collected onto the two neighboring subway platforms and had begun warning the waiting passengers. Voices normally disappear quickly into a subway’s cavernous spaces, but when the cockroaches spoke, in unison, their voices simply became louder and clearer. All of the people under- ground escaped safely—although thirty-eight roaches died in the rescue.
After the fire, suspicion changed to approval and gratitude. But it was unclear where to direct these feelings, because the cockroaches had suddenly disappeared. People, ready with praise, searched the dark corners of their apartments. And when they found no cockroaches to coax out into their homes, they became unsettled and then increasingly disconsolate. Questions quietly plagued them. What had they in fact experienced? What had it all meant? What had they been given, and why had it been taken away?
And in a desperate attempt to regain it—whatever “it” was—people began treating with reverence any other insect they could find. Spiders, ants, centipedes. People took down sticky fly traps, swept away boric acid, left cobwebs where they were found. Crumbs were summarily left out on counter tops. Yet the attachment people formed with insects seemed lost on the insects themselves. Moreover, these insects, no matter how ardently venerated, no matter how dotingly cherished, never spoke a word, and never saved a life, so far as anyone could tell. They simply continued doing what they had been doing: searching for food, creating nests, and dying rather ignominiously on kitchen floors, in bathtub drains, and in the crevices of window sills.
Six weeks of every year, I take a trip to Beijing and invent a new “me.” I usually pick
international hotels because everyone there wears a costume too. Mine is “Esau Zhou”
and I sell vitamins to cows.
The hotel is in the Wudaokou area near one of the main universities, Tsing-Hua.
There’s lots of exchange students here, a thriving cultural mishmash in Beijing.
Partly drugged by jet lag and nocturnal remissions, I chat with Jean, a Korean art
student who paints noses over fingers as a motif on misguided sense. Abraham, a
disillusioned meteorologist, likes to ask, “If rain were as heavy as bullets, would people
have found a way to change weather, or would they have invented bullet-proof
umbrellas?” The German brunette across from me refuses to give her name, only dates
rich Chinese guys, and has a row with them every night before loud, raucous sex.
I talk about vitamins with the other guests. Cells normally subdivide until they die, I
explain, a vestige of reincarnation sucking away at the original. A healthy dose of
vitamin E can prolong age and life by increasing the durability of cell regeneration after
The first time I see Sarah Chao, she’s holding a violin with broken strings, sipping on a
cocktail in the lobby. She’s Chinese but has placid blue eyes that appear to drift.
Riveting is a word I shouldn’t use carelessly, as I’ve had bad experience with rivets. But
her eyes are riveting. Read more…
Anna Cabe (Fiction Editor): I was sucked into the essay as soon as I saw the form. A portrait of Daniel Nester’s father, Cousin Mike, and his fraught relationship with his family told through lists, text messages and emails, and a timeline of Cousin Mike’s get-rich-quick schemes, the narrative unfolds hilariously—and heartbreakingly. I’m awed by the richness of its detail, its smart structure, and its confidence. I’ve rarely seen an essay that takes such risks and succeeds so wildly.
These pieces appeared in Indiana Review 31.1, Summer 2009
Daniel Nester is the author of Shader: 99 Notes on Car Washes, Making Out in Church, Grief, and Other Unlearnable Subjects. His other books include How to Be Inappropriate, and God Save My Queen I and II, The Incredible Sestina Anthology, which he edited. His writing has appeared in American Poetry Review, Electric Literature, New York Times, Buzzfeed, The Atlantic online, and anthologized in The Best American Poetry, The Best Creative Nonfiction, Third Rail: The Poetry of Rock and Roll, and Now Write! Nonfiction. He teaches writing at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY.