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Phone Calls from the Dead

Phone Calls from the Dead

by Wendy Brenner

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A bodybuilder is charged with superhuman energy and an ability to make lightbulbs explode. A grieving father tries to communicate with his dead son via a tape recorder. A high school girl claims to have her uncle's nipple in an envelope. A thirtysomething woman is fired from her dead-end job at Manpower and comes to understand her life through the experience of a


A bodybuilder is charged with superhuman energy and an ability to make lightbulbs explode. A grieving father tries to communicate with his dead son via a tape recorder. A high school girl claims to have her uncle's nipple in an envelope. A thirtysomething woman is fired from her dead-end job at Manpower and comes to understand her life through the experience of a German shepherd. Four ornery squirrels, tied together by their tails, struggle to maintain their sanity.

Ten stories in all, the highly original PHONE CALLS FROM THE DEAD pulses with meaning. Alive and odd and needy, the characters in Wendy Brenner's stories grapple with the extraordinary and the ordinary, searching for answers from unlikely sources, striving to connect with each other and with something greater than themselves. Amidst a world of technological, natural, and possibly supernatural phenomena, they struggle with the most human of losses and longings.

Named one of twenty-five fiction writers to watch by Writer's Digest (along with Allegra Goodman, Jhumpa Lahiri, and William Gay), Brenner has been paving a new path through American fiction ever since her first collection, Large Animals in Everyday Life. Publishers Weekly, in a starred review, described that collection as "chock-full of pitch-perfect dialogue and dead-on descriptions . . . intoxicatingly original." In PHONE CALLS FROM THE DEAD, the stories do just that, and then go a step farther. Whether it moves you to uncontrollable laughter or to tears, you won't soon forget Wendy Brenner's work.

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Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
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Barnes & Noble
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3 MB

Read an Excerpt

The Anomalist

His Mission

His mission was simple: to destabilize scienti?c paradigms by assembling a multivolume collection of every scienti?c anomaly ever recorded-an Encyclopedia of Anomalies, the most comprehensive, exhaustively researched reference text of its kind. Okay, so maybe it wasn't simple-but it could be accomplished. It was not an experiment, in which the outcome was uncertain, but a task.

He loved tasks. He loved the gut satisfaction of collecting, going from empty to full, knowing you hadn't missed anything. Unlike his colleagues at the corporate labs where he interned as a student, he never complained about working on the cash-cow research projects commissioned to prove what was already known, the endless recording of data in closed white rooms, no credit, no contact, no ground-breaking results. Teachers and girlfriends had always told him he was obsessive, "though not interestingly so," his college girlfriend, a poet, said. "Your imagination is so literal, it's not even an imagination," she told him. "It's like, a dresser or something."

"But you knew I was a marine biology major when we started going out," he said. "Scientists have to be logical."

"Scientists are supposed to love competition, discovery, not just data, data, data," she said, and then dumped him for his art-major roommate, a natural extrovert who had a high-paying museum curator job waiting for him upon graduation, because, he bragged, "I interview like a motherfucker."

She had gotten on the anomalist's nerves, anyway, always announcing everything that was happening as it was happening, the way old people did at the movies-so that he secretly began to think of her as PA Girl. Like when they were lying entwined, she would say, "We're so close right now." After they ate she exclaimed, "We're done!" "We are having so much fun," she'd say, and he'd think, Yeah, I was, until the pa came on . . . She wasn't so unusual, he knew; people seemed to love narrating their own lives, an urge he had never understood. So much in the universe still cried out for examination, explanation, or at least some mention, he didn't see why anyone would waste time pointing out the obvious.

He had begun, as a kind of hobby, clipping or copying items he found in the newspaper or in the old issues of Scienti?c American and Nature and Sky and Telescope he used for his term papers, accounts of anomalies that had been observed and recorded but never explained by science. Electric Trees in Chicago, 1897. Stone-Swallowing by Seals. Unusual Twilight Phenomena Over Ethiopia. MacFarlane's Bear: Hybrid or Freak? He used the clippings as bookmarks, stuffed them in envelopes, and ?nally began pasting them into spiral notebooks, organized by topic. Spontaneous Combustion in Non-Human Species. Does the Sun Have a Seldom-Seen Companion Star? Even the most unscienti?c, self-involved person would ?nd these stories fascinating, he thought. PA Girl could say whatever she liked, he knew he was not, at his core, boring.

After graduation he stayed on at the labs, occasionally moonlighting selling algae as a nutritional supplement door to door (ride the green wave to freedom!, an indestructible bumper sticker on his Toyota still read), but his anomaly collection had taken on a life of its own, growing even when he neglected it. Clippings came to him unsolicited from around the country and world, from the most distant of acquaintances-though he could not recall having mentioned his hobby to so many people. He supposed the urge to collect accounts of freak occurrences was primal and universal, but people seemed especially eager for him to do it, including little notes with their clippings like "This made me think of you!" and "Your kind of thing!"

Of course, much of what they sent him did not constitute legitimate anomalies. Most items had logical explanations, easily attributable to the laws of nature and physics. Mexican Wolf-Boy, for example, had curiosity value but was not an anomaly because genetic mutation was a known process. If a story was completely unsubstantiated he couldn't use it either-anyone could claim to see their dead grandmother ?oating at the foot of their bed. He wasn't interested in proving the existence of the paranormal, or disproving it. He just wanted to create a place, a safe shelter, like an orphanage, for all the data science couldn't, or wouldn't, explain, and thus labeled unusable, unimportant.

He self-published the ?rst volume using a press he found listed in the back of Popular Astronomy and ran a classi?ed to sell the book mail-order, though he sent complimentary copies to his friends and family. Finally, someone to follow in Donny's footsteps, ha ha, his mother wrote back to him, referring to her late great-uncle, who at seventy-?ve had gotten a watch tattooed on his wrist to symbolize the meaninglessness of time and then spent his retirement trying to invent a perpetual-motion machine. The anomalist remembered visiting Donny's house as a child and seeing one of the prototypes sitting dusty and motionless in a corner of the garage-a nondescript boxlike device resembling a stereo speaker.

But the Encyclopedia wasn't sitting in a garage, it was selling, enough to pay for groceries and let him cut back his lab assignments, and to attract the attention of a small publishing house who wanted to put out Volumes II and III. He could not have put his ?nger on the single moment, the turning point when the project morphed from hobby into full-time job, but he found himself strangely relieved that it had. Leaving the house was overrated anyway, he thought. Too much travel always made him feel he was missing or forgetting something.

PA Girl had been right in one prediction: He could never have committed himself to a single discipline long enough to make it as a marine biologist, a research pioneer, doing the kind of specialized, signi?cant work that changed lives and the environment and history. To look very closely at a certain object, he remembered from some art class he'd been required to take, means you are looking away from many other objects. He could never turn away from the messy multitude of everything-he was a collector.

Secretly, and then with increasing con?dence as he completed each new volume, he believed the Encyclopedia would one day come to be seen as seminal, signi?cant as any newly discovered species or element or cure. Hadn't mainstream science scoffed at continental drift, quantum physics, only to canonize them a few years later? In future times his collection would stand, testimony to all that couldn't be ?tted easily into somebody's theory of how the world worked. He would leave the discoveries to others, but some of these, he believed, would arise and take shape, like the ?rst stirrings of life itself, from the pages of data he was slowly amassing.

By the time he was thirty he had published the ?rst seven volumes, covering the disciplines of biology, geology, physics, astronomy, archeology, psychology, and mathematics; now he worked by subcategory and sub-subcategory for the auxiliary volumes: Anomalous Hydrological Phenomena. Auditory Hallucinations. Unexplained Detonations, Possibly Seismic. There was no end to the oddball, ragtag data cast off by science, calling out for his attention. And as long as he was breathing, no anomaly would spin off into oblivion, left to ?oat in obscurity like a dead star or an unseen meteor. He'd be there to catch them all, give them their proper due.

The Buffalo

When he was ?ve he got his head stuck in a fence at the Imagination Station, a scenic overlook on the edge of a Florida state preserve, where one could view alligators and sandhill cranes and bison, if you're in the right place at the right time, a carved plaque read. That phrase excited him-it sounded like a challenge or the rules to a mysterious game. He was on vacation from the snowy north with his family, his ?rst time in Florida, overstimulated by the blitz of color and light, the prehistoric trees and rotting-fruit smell everywhere. Instead of waiting his turn to be held up, he pushed his head between two aluminum fence poles, but all he saw was green, ?at as a game board. Oversized insects looped down in front of his face, but no buffalo appeared. And he was stuck.

A long time passed, but he didn't cry. His mother took his brothers away to get sandwiches and his father stayed with him, neither of them saying much. His mother returned and pushed wads of Arby's roast beef into his mouth. Other grown-ups came and went; different hands folded his neck and shoulders this way and that. He couldn't see their faces, but he answered their questions politely. His scalp grew hot and made him sleepy, but he stayed awake in case a buffalo appeared. This might not be the right place, he thought, but he was bound to get the right time, stuck here for so long. It made a lot more sense to wait in one place for a whole day or year or however long it took for that place's right time to come along, he thought, than to run randomly, frantically, from place to place, diminishing your chances at each of them. That would just be stupid.

Finally the man with the special saw arrived. The man lowered the long serrated blade before his eyes so he could see it-and then he began to cry. Don't worry, he's only going to saw near your head, his mother said. Close your eyes, it'll be over in a minute. But he kept them open. He wasn't really crying because of the saw, anyway, but because of the sudden, certain realization that if he shut his eyes, even for an instant, the buffalo would come out-he was sure of it. He understood everything: He could keep his eyes open and the buffalo wouldn't appear, or close them and it would. The buffalo knew exactly what it was doing, he thought, knew how to win every time. He kept his eyes open. No buffalo.

And, sure enough, after they ?nally got him free and checked him over, thanked and paid the man with the saw and loaded themselves back into the station wagon and pulled back onto the highway, he watched the prairie through the back window, and just before they rounded the ?rst curve he saw it: the black crescent edge of a huge blunt shape, nosing slowly out of the underbrush, victorious.

Meet the Author

Wendy Brenner's first collection of stories, Large Animals in Everyday Life, was the winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award. Her stories have appeared in the Oxford American, Mississippi Review, Five Points, and Story, among others. She is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and has won the Henfield Transatlantic Review Award. She is contributing writer for the Oxford American and is a professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

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