The Best American Short Stories 2003

The Best American Short Stories 2003

by Walter Mosley

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Since its inception in 1915, the Best American series has become the premier annual showcase for the country's finest short fiction and nonfiction. For each volume, a series editor reads pieces from hundreds of periodicals, then selects between fifty and a hundred outstanding works. That selection is pared down to twenty or so very best pieces by a guest editor who

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Since its inception in 1915, the Best American series has become the premier annual showcase for the country's finest short fiction and nonfiction. For each volume, a series editor reads pieces from hundreds of periodicals, then selects between fifty and a hundred outstanding works. That selection is pared down to twenty or so very best pieces by a guest editor who is widely recognized as a leading writer in his or her field. This unique system has helped make the Best American series the most respected—and most popular—of its kind.
Lending a fresh perspective to a perennial favorite, Walter Mosley has chosen unforgettable short stories by both renowned writers and exciting newcomers. The Best American Short Stories 2003 features poignant tales that explore the nuances of family life and love, birth and death. Here are stories that will, as Mosley writes in his introduction, "live with the reader long after the words have been translated into ideas and dreams. That's because a good short story crosses the borders of our nations and our prejudices and our beliefs."

Dorothy Allison Edwidge Danticat E. L. Doctorow Louise Erdrich Adam Haslett ZZ Packer Mona Simpson Mary Yukari Waters

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Editorial Reviews

Charles Taylor
Killing Johnny Fry is a frankly pornographic novel, and I mean that as a compliment. It would be unfair to what Mosley is attempting here - to put sex at the center of Cordell’s existence and to turn the reader on in the process - to describe the sex scenes with that wan word “erotica,” a word almost always used to demonstrate that the user is above those coarse enough to be aroused by mere pornography. And judged solely by its intentions to appeal to what prosecutors in obscenity cases used to call the prurient interest, the novel is a success. Good porn is tough to write and when talented writers decide it shouldn’t be left to the hacks, the result can be something as joyous as Nicholson Baker’s Vox and The Fermata. Or even something as voluptuously smutty as the porn-for-cash Alexander Trocchi turned out for Maurice Girodias’s Olympia Press.
— The New York Times
Tracy Quan
When a national treasure like Mosley decides to publish a dirty novel, snippy reactions are inevitable. Does a journey of sexual discovery have to be quite this filthy? But if Cordell's misadventures were too palatable, if this were a novel one could read over lunch, it wouldn't be authentic porn. Fans of his Easy Rawlins series might be put off by the surreal absurdity, but perhaps Mosley is reaching out to new readers. Or, like Bill Clinton, a fan of Mosley's early work, perhaps he's doing something audacious because he can.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Mosley returns from the vastly underrated Fortunate Son and from Fear of the Dark with a piece of what one might call "deep erotica": there's plenty of sex, and also plenty of motivation for it within protagonist Cordel Carmel's travails and ruminations, as far-fetched as they can get. After a charged-but-chaste lunch with young Lucy Carmichael (a blonde in her early 20s looking to be introduced to Cordel's art agent friend), Cordel, 45, walks in on Joelle (his longtime, non-live-in girlfriend): Joelle's being very consensually sodomized by a white man wearing a red condom, their (very well-endowed) mutual acquaintance, Johnny Fry. Cordel walks out quietly, without being seen. In short order, Cordel buys a porno video and gets enraptured with its sadist star, Sisypha; quits his freelance-translation gig; has conflicted, amazing sex with Joelle (who continues to lie to him); has unconflicted, amazing sex with Lucy (who seems very nice) and with voluptuous neighbor Sasha Bennett (who seems way crazy); meets Sisypha for an Eyes Wide Shut-like experience; seduces the young, ghetto Monica Wells; and finally, within the week, has his confrontation with Johnny Fry. Though it all, Cordel's thoughts on humiliation, submission, pain, family, aging and abuse manage to sustain the wisp-thin plot of this total male fantasy. (Jan.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Like his last two adult novels (The Wave and Fortunate Son), Mosley's latest is a departure from his best-selling Easy Rawlins mysteries. His protagonist, 45-year-old translator Cordell Carmel, considers himself lucky that girlfriend Joelle is so undemanding that they spend only one night a week together. Stopping by Joelle's apartment unannounced one day, he discovers her with another man, aspiring musician Johnny Fry. That night, Cordell buys his first X-rated DVD and begins a journey of sexual self-discovery. Watching The Myth of Sisypha, the vividly described adult film he has purchased, opens Cordell's eyes to a world of sex and power, pleasure and pain. He explores his renewed sexual energy with a young photographer he's helping, an attractive neighbor, a French student he meets on the subway, and Sisypha herself. Mosley's decision to subtitle the book "a sexistenial novel" implies a more philosophical approach to sexuality than the gratuitous sexual episodes described here. Recommended only for libraries with strong demand for all of Mosley's work.-Karen Kleckner, Deerfield P.L., IL Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
And now for something completely different from Easy Rawlins' prolific creator (Cinnamon Kiss, 2005, etc.), who's branching out into still another genre. Cordell Carmel, a middle-aged New York translator everybody calls "L," decides one afternoon on his way to a conference to wait a few hours for a first-class train to Philadelphia. Heading over to girlfriend Joelle Petty's apartment, he finds her sharing a frantic embrace with Johnny Fry, a white man who'd like to switch from being a personal trainer to playing classical guitar. Instead of calling attention to himself, L leaves quietly (though he does turn back briefly when he thinks Jo is crying out in pain) and proceeds to pull down the edifice of his carefully constructed life. He smashes his hand against a brick wall, orders a high-fat meal, buys an expensive bottle of cognac and takes home a porn video, The Myth of Sisypha, that puts him in touch with his appetite for passion and pain. The next day, after missing the conference and infuriating his agent, L begins to grab every chance at a new life. He reinvents himself as an agent for photographer Lucy Carmichael, flirts with female acquaintances and takes three of them to bed, then returns to Jo bent on getting some of the kind of wild, crazy sex she's been enjoying with Johnny. But it's The Myth of Sisypha that has the most profound impact on L, and when he has a chance to meet the video's star and embark on a series of scenarios that cross the line from NC-17 to XXX, his obsessions with getting off and killing Johnny are joined by another kind of desire as tender as it is unlikely. An interesting look at a male in midlife crisis. As L says, "I had come alive. And lifehurt."Agent: Gloria Loomis/Watkins Loomis Agency Inc.

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Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Best American Short Stories Series
Edition description:
Older Edition
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.86(d)

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Copyright © 2007 Walter Mosley
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59691-226-7

Chapter One

I decided to kill Johnny Fry on a Wednesday, but it was a week before that I was given the reason. I'm almost embarrassed about my decision to take a life. It was so pedestrian really.

It all started on the day I had lunch with Lucy Carmichael at the Petit Pain Café on Amsterdam near 80th Street. Lucy wanted to show me her portfolio because she hoped that I could get her connected with Brad Mettleman, an art gallery agent who loved to take advantage of straw-haired, blue-eyed young women.

I had met Lucy at a conference of commercial French translators. She was there with her mother. Mrs. Helen Carmichael was a textile importer who needed someone to help her read correspondence from Francophone African nations. She couldn't pay even my low rates, but her daughter was beautiful, so I talked to her about university alternatives, taking sidelong glances at the lovely young woman.

After a while it came out that Lucy, the daughter, was just back from Darfur, where she had taken photographs of starving children. I let it drop that I had done work for Brad Mettleman.

"The photographers' agent?" Lucy said. "I met him one time. He visited my Art-as-a-Business class at NYU. I'd love to get in touch with him. You know it's important for an American audience to see what's happening to these people."

"I'd be happy to introduce you," I said.

I didn't mean it, but Lucy took my number and invited me to come with her and her parents to a gallery opening that night.

When we parted, Lucy kissed me on the cheek, right at the border of the corner of my mouth.

I knew that Brad would love her. She was slight but well formed, with blond hair that reminded you of a sunny day. Her blue eyes were severe and her face was stern, which, on a beautiful girl like her, gave the impression of passionate intensity.

I say that Brad took advantage of young women, but the women I'm thinking of never complained. Certainly I was having lunch with Lucy because she was fair-haired and quite lovely. She had a habit of putting her hand on your forearm and looking you in the eye whenever she talked to you.

While I was going through the photographs of young children of the Sudan, I was thinking about the kiss she'd leave me with as I put her in a cab to take her back home to the East Village or Dumbo or whatever artists' community she was living in.

"Politics and art are inseparable," the young woman was saying as I thumbed my way through the stiff sheets of suffering and death.

The large-eyed children looked to be at the end of their recuperative powers. I wondered how many of the Sudanese orphans were still alive. I wondered also why I didn't seem to care about their fates. It was, of course, awful what was happening in Darfur. Children were dying from being deprived of the most basic necessities. They were being displaced, slaughtered, enslaved, raped. But what got my heart going was the expectation of Lucy Carmichael's moist peck on the corner of my mouth.

"It's powerful work," I remember saying. "I'm sure Brad would be very excited about it."

I was also sure that he'd want more than a provocative kiss for representing her to one of the dozen galleries he worked with around Midtown.

"Do you think so?" Lucy asked, putting a hand on my bare wrist.

I looked down at the almost porcelain-white fingertips pressing against my dark brown skin.

When I think back on it, it was that touch, as much as anything else, that brought on Johnny Fry's death sentence. My tongue went completely dry, and no matter how much bottled mineral water I drank, I was still thirsty. That thirst and what I did to slake it were the first two nails in Mr. Fry's coffin.

My breathing became shallow but my heart was thumping hard. I leaned forward three inches. Lucy did not retreat. I had the definite feeling that she wouldn't have turned away from a kiss right then.

I was twice her age, minus a year, but she didn't move her hand or her face. She kept smiling and staring.

I exhaled through my nostrils, quite loudly it seemed to my ears, and all sorts of serious thoughts entered my mind. I had met Lucy's father at that gallery opening in NoLita. The short, balding, white man was a year younger than I. His daughter was coming to me for help and she had a young boyfriend named Billy who was living in Boston, working for a theater company there.

And then there was Joelle, my girlfriend-hell, we might as well have been married. I stayed at her place every weekened and we'd been together eight years-longer by far than both my marriages put together.

There was an understanding between Joelle and I that we'd be monogamous. We didn't have to get married or make some kind of material commitment. She made a good living as a freelance marketing expert for fashion and design companies, while I did all right translating from French and Spanish to English for small businesses, technical companies, and private parties.

"We have separate lives that are lived together," Joelle told her younger sister, August, when the latter complained about my intentions.

"He's a man and is therefore a dog," August told her older sister.

"I know him better than you," Joelle told me she'd said. "He's a good man and would never hurt me."

Lucy's hand remained on my wrist through that long train of thought. Her smile had not dimmed. I wanted to lean over that extra six inches and brush those young lips with my hungry mouth. I wanted to but I didn't.

I had already strained my agreement with Jo by telling her I was going to Philadelphia that noon when really my train didn't leave until five. Actually, my train reservation had been for noon, but I'd asked my travel agent to get me a first-class ticket, and she couldn't get first-class before the five o'clock train. By the time I realized I was leaving on the later train, I'd already told Joelle that I was slated to leave at midday. It was after that that Lucy called, following up on my promise to connect her with Brad. I had only made the offer so she'd stay near me. But I felt an obligation-and there was the possibility of that good-bye kiss.

I pulled my hand back and poured another glass full of sparkling water. I drank it down in one thirsty swig.

The blue eyes across from me sparkled, and Lucy's shoulder came forward an inch or so. Too bad, the gesture said. Maybe next time.

I walked her out to the curb and put her in a taxi. Just before she got in, I promised to call Brad. She kissed me on the lips quickly and then gave me a brilliant smile.

I stood there on the corner of 80th and Amsterdam watching the taxi wend its way westward through heavy traffic. I remember thinking that I could keep up with the cab on foot. I had to stop myself from following and waving at her.

When she was finally gone, I realized that I had to go to the bathroom-all that mineral water I downed while watching the curve of Lucy's violet blouse with the lime buttons.

I had the key to Joelle's apartment. The doormen knew me by sight. She was across the river, meeting with a boutique jeans distributor from Newark. I'd go upstairs, do my business, and then call her cell phone and ask her to guess where I was. That would assuage my guilt by letting her know I was still in town.

Robert, the day man, wasn't at his post at her building on 91st and Central Park West. I loped down the hallway toward the third bank of elevators and took car number sixteen to the twenty-third floor.

Joelle had inherited this apartment from her grandmother, who'd died twelve years before, when Jo was just twenty. It was a big place. The entrance area led to a hall that came upon a sunken living room, which had large windows that looked out over the park. I loved staying at Joelle's place.

I was happy that I hadn't made a move on Lucy.

They were so silent that I almost walked in on them. Jo was sitting on the top part of the back of the couch. Her black blouse was pulled up to her armpits, above her breasts, and her black pants were almost off-except for the bottom leg, which somehow clung to her left ankle. John Fry wore only a gray silk T-shirt. He was standing there between her legs teasing her sex with his erection.

She was staring into his eyes, her copper-brown hands gripping his pale white chest and left shoulder. He looked as if he were concentrating on something inside him. Maybe he was holding back. Maybe he was playing with her.

They kept at that game for some time.

I noticed that he was wearing a condom-a red one. For some reason the color made me angry. At times he'd enter her deeply. These were the only moments that she made any sound. A kind of moan that came out as "oh" and, now and then, a "please don't."

I wondered, almost idly, if she would tell me later that she tried to stop him; that she'd told him no.

After a while I turned away because I couldn't seem to think while watching them.

Looking down the hall toward the door, I knew that I should go. There was no benefit in confronting them. John Fry was bigger than I was (in every way) and I had no weapon with which to hurt him. And, after all, Joelle was not my wife. We stayed together often, but it was her apartment.

I decided to leave.

I walked down the hallway toward the door.

I had made it through the front door and took the first three steps down the hall when Jo emitted a loud, pain-filled scream. I hurried back down the hall and into the apartment without thinking. It was almost as if I had forgotten what I'd seen before. All I could think was that my girlfriend, my lover, was in pain.

When I got back to the vantage point onto the living room, I realized my error. Jo was on her stomach on the floor and John Fry hovered over her, pressing down slowly with his hips. I could see the red shaft pressing deep and deeper into her rectum. He was whispering into her ear words that I heard only as a rumble. She was nodding vigorously, saying, "Yes, yes. Oh yes, Daddy."


I made it to the hall again. Again there was a shout of ecstasy. But this time I pushed the elevator button and took car number eighteen down to the first floor.

"Hello, Mr. Carmel," Robert, the doorman, said as I approached his desk.

There was a wary look in his eye. I could tell that he knew about Johnny Fry and Jo. He was her doorman. Every Christmas she gave him a $200 tip. He wasn't going to burn that bridge. No, sir.

I took my wallet out of my pocket and said, "Funniest thing. I came by because I thought I left my wallet here, but halfway up in the elevator I looked in my briefcase and there it was. I never put it here, but I guess I did this time. Sorry I didn't check in, but you weren't here."

I didn't know how long the doorman had been away from his post, but it didn't matter. He wasn't going to tell Joelle about me if he didn't have to.

Our business was finished, but I loitered a moment more. Robert (I never knew his last name) had lighter skin than mine, and there was some crimson in the pigment. His eyes might have had a mild Asian cast and his accent was definitely not of the United States.

"You follow boxing?" I asked him, thinking that Jo was probably shouting upstairs and realizing with a mild shock that I had not closed the door to her apartment.

Would she and Johnny Fry laugh at the open door? Would they imagine her neighbors stopping to listen to her screams of ecstasy?

"No," Robert said. "I like football. You know, soccer."

"See you later," I said.

I walked out of the building, the Eliot, and headed south on Central Park West.

To my right were the monolithic residential apartment buildings and to the left was Central Park. I followed that path down to the Museum of Natural History. I went in there hoping to use the men's room. I bought a ticket, located the toilet, and then wandered around the exhibit of North American mammals.

The wolves running in the night were magnificent. At one time those taxidermied mannequins were powerful, bloodthirsty, and pure, living on the outskirts of mankind and his petty concerns. Gazing at those creatures, I felt a hollowness in my chest, a feeling akin to infatuation. Their freedom exhilarated me.

I spent some time wandering around the exhibits, jealous of the animals and their instinctual lives. Now and then a cluster of children would roll past laughing, gazing in awe, playing. I heard them, but my eyes witnessed their movements as if there was total silence in the room. It was the same silence I came upon when Jo stared Johnny Fry in the eyes as he entered her, moved away, and entered her again.

Two teenage girls were giving me furtive glances and giggling. One of them was heavyset, wearing a sea-green sweater. She had red-brown skin like Robert's, but her hair was blond. Her friend wore a pink tube top with no bra and little need of one. She was white but not Caucasian. She was whispering, giggling, staring at my crotch.

That's when I noticed that I'd gotten an erection thinking about Jo and Johnny.

I turned away, walked down a long corridor into the Hall of Fishes, and with an inelegant move, shifted myself around so that the hard-on wasn't so terribly obvious.

After that I left the museum and walked down past Columbus Circle, down Seventh Avenue with its delis, electronics shops, hotels, and tourist stores.

Somewhere between 50th Street and 42nd, I passed an adult video store. I walked past the door and then turned back. I went in and strolled up and down the aisles of DVD pornography. The films were arranged into various subjects. There were black, interracial, amateur, Asian, BDSM, anal, come shots, bi, animal, chicks with dicks, gay, lesbian, and then there was a broad area where it was straight, nonviolent, generally white sex. Just beyond the vanilla I found a DVD in the small Features section. This was a story starring a woman named Sisypha Seaman. It was a tale about a woman who was having an affair with some young stud and what happened when her husband found out.

I'd never bought a film like that before. It's not that I didn't want to, but I was always too ashamed to bring something like that up to the cashier. I was afraid that the clerk would be a woman and she'd sneer at me needing to see sex instead of finding my own girlfriend and having real love in my life. I had a girlfriend, but she wouldn't know that, and how could I tell her without sounding like a pathetic liar?

But I wasn't afraid that day, not at all. I carried the DVD case, titled The Myth of Sisypha, to the front of the store, where an East Indian man sat on high so that he could see what was going on down the aisles.

"Yes, sir," he said with a slight sing to his voice. "Is that all, sir?"

"Yes. That'll be all. How much?" I was beginning to get nervous. I worried someone would come in and see me, recognize me.

Instead of answering, the clerk picked up a microphone and shouted something, in Hindi I suppose. He read a number from the back of the DVD jacket and stared down the center aisle expectantly.

The glass case in front of the cash register was filled with pornographic eye candy. Banana-colored plastic dildos, canisters filled with condoms, a box of tubes containing anal sex lubricants. I wondered if Johnny bought his red condoms and lubricants in a store like this one.

While I was thinking, a young man, also East Indian, came running out of the back somewhere, in his hand a disc that had nothing printed or painted on it.

The young man was quite short and thin. He wore black cotton pants, black tennis shoes, and a white dress shirt buttoned all the way to his throat. He handed up the DVD to the man behind the elevated glass counter.

"R-321-66a," the young man said.

The elevated clerk entered numbers into the cash register and said, "Thirty-eight dollars and fifty-one cents, sir."

I paid in cash, with exact change.


Excerpted from KILLING JOHNNY FRY by WALTER MOSLEY Copyright © 2007 by Walter Mosley. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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