I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
“First Impressions” consists entirely of first sentences from 268 short stories published in The New Yorker over the past 20 years, from 1997 to 2017, all of which are cited below. After collecting every first sentence, I found they fell into a number of patterns, some surprising, others obvious: points of view, different tenses, genre fiction like western and military, stories set in smalltown America, stories set in Montana (oddly there were a lot), etc. I then arranged these patterns into a sequence of vignettes, a short story in its own right.
In writing this piece I wanted to examine the production of prestige fiction as well as the editorial character of The New Yorker fiction section, its idiosyncrasies, biases and imaginative limits. As with any fully sampled text, the source material directed the kind of stories I could tell. Some sections almost wrote themselves given the abundance of a particular pattern. Some sections blended two or more related patterns into one narrative. Some came together under the constraint of scarcity (e.g. a majority of these sentences were written from a male point of view; I could tell the story of a man’s life, but only a fragment of a woman’s). In these ways each vignette of “First Impressions” doubles as narrative and archive, microfiction and data analysis. —TC
The above is not my real name—the fellow it belongs to gave me his permission to sign it to this story. This is the truth, whichever way you look at it. I’m not a bad guy.
Approaching eighty, I sometimes see myself from a little distance, as a man I know but not intimately. My memory is proglottidean, like the tapeworm, but unlike the tapeworm it has no head, it wanders in a maze, and any point may be the beginning or the end of its journey.
My legal name is Alexander Perchov. Here’s the story of my life: whatever I did wasn’t good enough, anything I figured out I figured out too late, and whenever I tried to help I made things worse.
It’s hard to believe, but I was born in a neighborhood called Los Empalados: The Impaled. The nurse had wrapped my brother in a blue flannel blanket and was just about to hand him to his mother when she whispered, “Oh, God, there’s another one,” and out I slid, half dead. Mama said I was thenceforth to be her nephew, and to call her Aunt Dora.
When I was a child, I had a family of doll people. Musa was my older brother. My stepfather wasn’t a big man, not much taller than my mother. We didn’t like him. Mitchell had never so much as changed a baby’s diaper before. All he knew, really, was digging.
As a young boy, I learned many things from many wise people. Max knew that a bunk bed was the perfect structure to use when building an indoor fort. Cahal sprayed WD-40 on to the only bolt his spanner wouldn’t shift. When I was a hiccupping boy, my mother would fetch the back-door key, pull my collar away from my neck, and slip the cold metal down my back. The pancake suppers were my idea.
One morning, two hundred and twenty-five days after my father left home, specks appeared in the huge blue sky over our house. A year after my father departed, moved to St. Louis, and left my mother and me behind in New Orleans, to look after ourselves in whatever manner we could, he called on the telephone one afternoon and asked to speak to me. My father had decided to teach me how to grow old. It was a very cold day.
When Super Goat Man moved into the commune on our street, I was ten years old. They told him he had to wear a mask in public. Truth be told, I’ve always been afraid of it, since childhood. It filtered even into my childhood dreams, the fear.
The first summer I was old enough to work, Jacques Michaud opened the alpine slide. Nilda was my brother’s girlfriend. They wore each other like a pair of socks. Back in the time of which I am speaking, due to our Coördinators had mandated us, we had all seen that educational video of “It’s Yours to Do With What You Like!” in which teens like ourselfs speak on the healthy benefits of getting off by oneself and doing what one feels like in terms of self-touching, which what we learned from that video was, there is nothing wrong with self-touching, because love is a mystery but the mechanics of love need not be, so go off alone, see what is up, with you and your relation to your own gonads, and the main thing is, just have fun, feeling no shame.
To be sixteen on a July Saturday was heaven. We were under the trees, away from the town, away from Donelson, Karp, and the camera. We angled our heads back and opened our mouths like fledgling birds. We were sitting on the grass, Natalia, Masha, and I, beneath a cherry tree heavy with dark, sweet fruit, in a dense, sheltered orchard. Getting older wasn’t too bad.
When I was twenty, I fell in love with one of the lecturers at my college. When I was first out of the Conservatory, I did a two-month stint with a theatre group called Diciembre. On my twenty-fifth birthday I found a woman.
The exact status of my marriage to Sally Caldwell requires, I believe, some amplification. People will say that I left my wife and I suppose, as a factual matter, I did, but where was the intentionality?
In February of 1939, having failed to establish myself as a screenwriter in Hollywood, I decided to hitchhike back to New York, where my future wife waited. I met my twin soul at dawn on a narrow street by the cathedral. I had taken up with her, knowing she was this crazy lovesick girl. We were deliriously happy, delirious with the hope, infatuation, tenderness, and warmth that go with a honeymoon.
When my son was born with a bright-red lump the size of a second head attached to the back of his skull, I found myself unable to reveal the actual situation to either my wife or my mother and, having installed the baby in intensive care at N. University Hospital, I wandered despondently in circles. The weather had absolutely nothing to do with it—though the rain had been falling off and on throughout the day and the way the gutters were dripping made me feel as if despair were the mildest term in the dictionary—because I would have gone down to Daggett’s that afternoon even if the sun were shining and all the fronds of the palm trees were gilded with light. It’s never the changes we want that change everything.
When the cancer came back, I wasn’t surprised. I’d used up all my sick days and the two personal days they allowed us, but when the alarm went off and the baby started squalling and my wife threw back the covers to totter off to the bathroom in a hobbled two-legged trot, I knew I wasn’t going in to work.
Five straight days she spent in front of the television, staring at crumbled banks and hospitals, whole blocks of stores in flames, severed rail lines and expressways. Her sisters flinched because she was the youngest, but looked so old.
Things were not going as I had hoped. She was a difficult woman, had been a willful child, a moody, recalcitrant girl given to flashes of temper; severity and suspicion came later. Somewhere near the end, she decided that the drinking was the problem.
What we were arguing about that night—and it was late, very late, 3:10 a.m. by my watch—was something that had happened nearly twelve hours earlier. My wife wanted another baby. She’d been kept awake all night by the palm berries clattering on the roof, and when she woke to the sun blazing through the window she’d had enough.
For fifteen years, I saw her only in my dreams. In the dream, there is a kidney-shaped enamel spittoon, milk white, and a gleaming metal razor such as old fashioned barbers use. She is lying on a raft in water. She is on the phone. She’s carrying two skateboards, two backpacks, the banjo in its scratched-up case—a husk of molded leather that’s always looked to her like a giant kidney but now seems more like a coffin.
One evening just after my fiftieth birthday, I pushed against the door of a pub not far from my childhood home. A limbo bar festooned with streamers, by the bathhouse entrance. It was the anniversary of the disaster.
Angst, ennui, weltzshmerz, canard, tedium vitae, anomie… . Curious how oddly beguiling these words are. After exhausting a sleepless night in vain efforts to compose my mind and become reconciled to the fate that probably awaited me I arose in the morning really ill, nervous, and disheartened with a despondency. I bought a newspaper at the harbor and came across an article about an old woman who had been eaten by cats. It was a very cold day.
Although I had not heard from my friend in nine years, I wasn’t surprised, not really, to receive a short letter from him dashed off in pencil, announcing that he had “taken a wife,” and summoning me to visit him in some remote upstate town I had never heard of.
I am trying to “feel” November, yours and mine. You are lonely, but you don’t have to be. Our grandmothers, our great-grandfathers, and all our other antecedents: they lived ordinary lives, had pains, went to work, talked, kept busy, had sex—full days and nights as long as all that lasted.
I’ve been crisscrossing the country again, without much reason. Having just turned forty, have resolved to embark on grand project of writing every day in this new black book just got at OfficeMax. I’ve got two sports coats, about six ties, three pairs of dressy pants, Florsheims I polish a la madre, and three weeks ago I bought a suit, with silk lining, at Lemonade for Men.
I have to admit I’m not feeling my best. As one of the doubles of the son of the dictator, I am often to be found in the Palace of the End. I have thirteen wives. I celebrate the kid’s birthday the day after. My father has a gun and won’t come out of the house. The news of the decision to close the Preserves was undoubtedly the worst I had ever received.
I cannot tell a lie. My father is gone. He sits on the mattress, the fat spread of his ass popping my fitted sheets from their corners. “Look at him,” says Helen. You know my mother. The schoolmarm is playing poker in the town saloon.
In an ideal world, we would have been orphans. From the air, our road must look like a length of rope flung down haphazardly, a thing of inscrutable loops and half-finished question marks. A man finds happiness so fleetingly, like the petals melting off a prairie rose. Words spoil it.
P.S. I won’t feed the birds, but, if you must, then you should do so in Frederiksberg Gardens.
Our Town in the ‘70s
All this happened in the seventies, though in that town and other small towns like it the seventies were not as we picture them now, or as I had known them even in Vancouver.
In the old days when there was a movie theatre in every town there was one in this town, too, in Maverley, and it was called the Capital, as such theatres often were. In front of the church, which contained a carved altar brought from Germany during the Thirty Years’ War, there stood a row of six horse stalls. The drum major lived a short distance from my house and could sometimes be seen sitting pensively on his porch wearing his shako—a tall truncated cone of white simulated fur, with a strap that cut across his chin—while folding the Free Press for his paper route. When the old brothel—known as the Butt Hut—closed down, years ago, the house it had occupied was advertised in the paper: “Home on the river: eight bedrooms, eight baths, no kitchen. Changing times force sale.” This happened here in our town.
Drummond opened the shop every morning at seven so he and his boy could eat breakfast while the first drop-offs were coming in. Of course I’d seen them, his customers, walking past the diner and thrift shop and firehouse clutching their oil-stained kraft-paper sacks—dishevelled and outdoorsy, these people, healthy-looking in an unpremeditated way, their skin unblemished and tanned and their muscles toned.
In the morning, at his favorite restaurant, Erick got to order his favorite American food, sausage and eggs and hash-brown papitas fried crunchy on top. Arthurs ordered liver and peas and mashed potatoes in Strode Street. Ann Gallagher was listening to the wireless, cutting out a boxy short jacket with three-quarter-length sleeves, in a pale-lilac wool flecked with navy.
Shelley was helping out her friend Pam. It was a little after 7 a.m., and outside in the garden her nine-year-old son, Finn, was stringing a tennis net between two trees, stringing it not in the normal fashion, the way one might to play tennis, but horizontally, like a hammock. For the third time in three years, they talked about what would be a suitable birthday present for her deranged son. They sat informally around a stripped-pine kitchen table. They floated into the afternoon in their little stucco submarine, the blinds shut against the sunlight and the swamp cooler whistling on the roof.
The day that Daisy died was a lot like this one, early August, with the sun seemingly stuck right at the top of the sky, casting light and heat that made all the neighborhood kids vault over each other with glee and subdued everyone else, moms and dads and older folks and even the family pets. It was fucking hot.
I was at home, not making spaghetti. John Briggs sat on his porch, a glass of ice water sweating in his hand, listening to opera on the radio. Two chartered buses idled outside the church, surrounded by thirty or forty kids in shorts. The children wanted to play Buttony.
The Demings were home this afternoon, busy at various tasks in their split-level house, a long low two-tone colonial with a picture window, a breezeway, and bright siding. In the town, on the gray estate on the Dunmanway road, they lived in a corner house. By late afternoon, Owen’s parents were usually having their first cocktails.
Out of the open doorway and an open second-story window thin curls of smoke came without propulsion to fade in the air. Like in the old days, I came out of the dry creek behind the house and did my little tap on the kitchen window. The filigreed hands pointed to five minutes past four.
“Here’s another one, seduced and abandoned,” Nina’s husband often said, pulling a bunch of wilted, yellowed broccoli from the refrigerator shelf. In the fluorescent light of the refrigerator, the halved parsnips looked naked—pale and fleshy as limbs. “Lovely,” her husband said gently, which was his way.
Jim and Uncle Al did not set out on their journey until after supper, when the heat of the day had broken at last, when the evening air would make traveling seem more adventure than hardship. Jack, that Jack, the giant-killer of the bean tree, spent the better part of the evening squatting in the blackberry briars opposite the house of a farmer’s wife who would—for four dollars, but with no particular enthusiasm—lean over her husband’s plow and let a boy have a go. It had been an ordinary day to a point.
Three hours ago, while the sun was shining full tilt through the trees and across the back lawn, the local podiatrist, a man named Christopher Kitteridge, was married to a woman from out of town named Suzanne. He was twenty, she eighteen. He was raised by his mother alone, as she was by her father. They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.
Many thousands of hours later, it had come to pushing, the land of pushing was the promised land, the land not of hope but of the hope of hope, and they had finally made it, and she was pushing shouting louder than she had ever heard anyone shout, there was a buzzing in his ears, and the clock, forget about it, sometimes it even went backwards.
My Second Life
It was a wife’s worst nightmare. I married an ice man.
He was a man shaped by money. He dreamed his brother’s death at Frederiksburg. In his latter days—and even that is now more than thirty years ago—he was always referred to as “the old man.”
So Natalie put me straight. She was only twenty years old but had an old person’s name. She had big breasts, slim legs, and blue eyes. When I saw her standing outside the theater the evening after meeting her at a dinner party, her first sentence couldn’t have sounded more reckless. “Tsk-tsk.”
He was at work when it began.
She came back from the island on Friday, August 16th, on the two o’clock ferry. Two rafts were anchored offshore like twin islands. The sun was a wolf.
It began in the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel. She knew there was someone else in the room. She had never perfected the trick of moistening the envelope flap with the tip of her tongue so it would stick and lie perfectly flat. It’s not my fault.
At first, it was great. At first she did not think of stones. First we did molly, lay on the thick carpet touching it, ourselves, one another. We angled our heads back and opened our mouths like fledgling birds. We acted the cliché. We liked to do things casually.
From the beginning we were prepared, we knew just what to do, for hadn’t we seen it all a hundred times? It was a Motel 6 on I-80 just west of Lincoln, Nebraska. A hot day in May in Ravenna, the small Italian city where Dante is buried. “In order to be an artist one has to live like one.”
This was the time when all we could talk about was sentences, sentences—nothing else stirred us. We were deliriously happy, delirious with the hope, infatuation, tenderness, and warmth that go with a honeymoon.
In London, night came too soon. “What have you told them at work?” she asked. She didn’t know what had possessed her to participate in such a thing. She married Mickey Holler when she was fifteen. They fell in love when “A Whiter Shade of Pale” played all summer. Things were not going as I had hoped.
When he appeared at the door, it was not possible, a man come out of an ash storm, all blood and slag, reeking of burned matter, with pinpoint glints of slivered glass in his face. “Well, there’s that if you’d want it,” the crippled man said.
The Tale of Jim Trusdale
William Burns, from Ventura, California, told this story to my friend Pancho Monge, a policeman in Santa Teresa, Sonora, who passed it on to me.
Driving across the Utah desert on I-70, James hit a butterfly with his car. The evening sun was a giant peach in the rearview mirror, apocalyptic and gaseous as it burned toward the horizon. The country appeared as empty ground, big sagebrush, rabbitbrush, intricate sky, flocks of small birds like packs of cards thrown up in the air, and a faint track drifting toward the red-walled horizon.
The two people inside the convertible—the combination of the two of them together—had the appearance of an illusion. The girl, unlike most people photographed for fashion magazines, was not beautiful. He’d always loved the smell of gasoline. The entire ride would take eleven minutes.
Monday evening, 10:30. Carla heard the car coming before it topped the little rise in the road that around here they called a hill. A child woke up in the dark. “Mama?” she said.
The land looked flattened, as if by a rolling pin. In the gloom of nature, a man with a hunting rifle was walking through sparse forest. Wearily, moving his feet because he had nothing else to do, Christopher went on down the road, hating the trees that moved slowly against his progress, hating the dust beneath his feet, hating the sky, hating this road, all roads, everywhere. Earlier, on the trail, they’d seen it. The Trailhead Queen was dead.
Jim Trusdale had a shack on the west side of his father’s gone-to-seed ranch, and that was where he was when Sheriff Barclay and half a dozen deputized townsmen found him, sitting in the one chair by the cold stove, wearing a dirty barn coat and reading an old issue of the Black Hills Pioneer by lantern light.
“What you got there, then?”
He wasn’t talking.
Every whole person has ambitions, objectives, initiatives, goals. He had an appointment at a funeral home and was itching to leave.
It rained all that September, a grim, cold, bleached-out rain that found the holes in the roof and painted the corners with a black creeping mold that felt greasy to the touch. The leaves had begun to fall.
A philosopher had spent his lifetime pondering the nature of knowledge and was ready at last to write down his conclusions:
Here is an average restaurant.
In a square in Lisboa, there is a tree called a Lusitanian cypress.
East of the Tolly Club, after Deshapran Sashmal Road splits in two, there is a small mosque.
The Zurich Museum is square.
A Brief Affair
Who would expect the Embassy of Cambodia? Did it happen this way? Sometimes on horseback, sometimes by foot, in a car or astride motorbikes, occasionally in a tank—having strayed far from the main phalanx—and every now and then from above, in helicopters.
At nine o’clock one morning in June, Captain Popov rang the doorbell. Nikolay Viktorovich had taken off his gown and was about to set off for home when Anna Aristarkhovna, who was famous for growing the best strawberries in town, said to him, breathlessly, “Nikolay Viktorovich, a colonel’s just driven up outside.” She didn’t know what had possessed her to participate in such a thing.
The Minister of the Interior stood in the middle of the room, assessing three suits laid over a chair. He wasn’t talking. It had been a very long time since he’d been responsible for another human.
“It’s all a misunderstanding,” he said.
“You know,” she said almost shyly, “that I have the ability, if you wish, to look into your eyes and tell you when you will die?”
“What if I were to vanish?”
We’ll still be friends, she said.
“We’re going through!” The Commander’s voice was like thin ice breaking.
The door opened, and into the room came a fashionable, beardless young man wearing a stovepipe hat and a short jacket. “She has such lovely eyes.”
He’d recognized Keith Stolarsky, but not before thinking, How could they let that bum in here?
The story I am about to relate has been in my head a long time.
In the reign of Harad IV there lived at court a maker of miniatures, who was celebrated for the uncanny perfection of his work.
In the year 1195, the great philosopher Ibn Rushd, once the qadi, or judge, of Seville and most recently the personal physician to the Caliph Abu Yusuf Yaqub in his home town of Córdoba, was formally discredited and disgraced on account of his liberal ideas, which were unacceptable to the increasingly powerful Berber fanatics who were spreading like a pestilence across Arab Spain, and was sent to live in internal exile in the small village of Lucena, a village full of Jews who could no longer say they were Jews because they had been forced to convert to Islam.
Outside an isolated Ojibwe country trading post in the year 1839, Mink was making an incessant racket.
Jesse James, while hiding from the law in Nashville in 1875, lived for a time at the address where Mrs. Virgil Wilson’s house now stood.
The winter of 1886-87 was terrible.
Budgel Wolfscale, a telegraph clerk from Missouri on his way to Montana to search for the yellow metal, stopped at a Wyoming road ranch one day in 1898 for a supper of fried venison and coffee, heard there was good range.
In the late summer of 1922, my grandmother Dedemona Tatakis was in her silkworm cocoonery, high on the slopes of Mt. Olympus, when her heart, without warning, missed a beat: she felt it stop and squeeze into a ball.
On September 6, 1922, General Hajianestis, Commander-in-Chief of the Greek forces in Asia Minor, awoke with the conviction that his legs were made of glass.
Josef Kavalier’s determination to storm the exclusive Hofzinser Club of Prague took full form over breakfast one day in 1935, when he choked on a mouthful of omelette with apricot preserves.
On the sidewalk in front of St. Mary Star of the Sea, a Sunday morning in early June, 1937, when Marie was seventeen, Walter Hartnett said, “What’s wrong with your eye?”
Till the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, most American men wore hats to work.
In 1948, Mikhail Avgustovich Janson, a pharmacist of Swedish descent, built a dacha near Leningrad to rent out to city folk for the summers.
I was born in 1949.
In the early fifties, when San Juan first became a tourist town, an ex-jockey named Al Arbonito built a bar in the patio behind the house on Calle O’Leary. Robert Frost made his visit in November of 1960, just a week after the general election.
Henry Taylor had always known he would have money one day, and this confidence was vindicated when his mother won the lottery on a Thursday in August of 1961.
Billy McMann left the country on July 7, 1969, nineteen days after graduating from Darton Hall College in Minneapolis.
Nineteen-seventy-one was the Year of Spaghetti.
In the fall of 1972, my parents drove me to the University of North Dakota for my freshman year.
The series of events and coincidences that would change my entire life began on April 27, 1975, when Sibel happened to spot a purse designed by the famous Jenny Colon in a shop window as we were walking along Valikonagi Avenue, enjoying the cool spring evening.
In 1979, just a month before the one-child policy was introduced, the wife of the vice-chairman of the Municipal Treasury Board gave birth to a retarded daughter, Miaomiao.
In the summer of 1979, I walked into the kitchen of my friend Sunny’s house near Uxbridge, Ontario, and saw a man standing at the counter, making himself a ketchup sandwich.
In the damp late spring of 1985, Jelly picked up the handset of her pink plastic Trimline phone and the dial tone hummed into her ear.
In the 1989 “Anthology of Contemporary Bosnian Poetry,” Muhamed D. was represented with four poems.
On St. Valentine’s Day, 1989, the last day of her life, the legendary popular singer Vina Apsara woke sobbing from a dream of human sacrifice in which she had been the intended victim.
I first met Mr. Morton Feather in the spring of 1997, just after his discharge from a weeklong stay at Cedars-Sinai, where they were treating him for cancer of the bones.
In 1999, after returning from Venezuela, I dreamed that I was being taken to Enrique Lihn’s apartment, in a country that could well have been Chile, in a city that could well have been Santiago, bearing in mind that Chile and Santiago once resembled Hell, a resemblance that, in some subterranean layer of the real city and the imaginary city, will forever remain.
On September 11, 2001, he opened his eyes at 4. A.M., in Portland, Maine; and Muhammad Atta’s last day began.
A year ago, Ms. Duffy, the fifth-grade English and history teacher, had come very close to losing it, what with her homeroom being right next to the construction site for the new computer lab, and her attempts to excise the Aztecs from the curriculum being thwarted, and her ill-advised affair with Mr. Polidori coming to an end.
February 12, 2040. Travelling to the moon was way less complicated this year than it was back in 1969, as the four of us proved, not that anyone gives a whoop.
This is how it happens.
A husband and wife drive to Boston.
A cellular phone is ringing, somewhere in Milan.
In a hotel room in Vancouver, Meriel as a young woman is putting on her short white summer gloves.
I am in Madrid and waiting for my friend Juan, a sculptor, who will be late, I think.
The moon hangs low over Texas.
People can talk, they can gossip and cavil and run down this one or the other, and certainly we all have our faults, our black funks and suicides and wives running off with the first man who’ll have them and a winter’s night that stretches on through the days and weeks like a foretaste of the grave, but in the end the only real story here is the wind. It’s dark—pitch black—and everything’s shaking and bumping.
Source texts in order of appearance:
Tom Comitta is a writer based in Los Angeles. He is the author of 〇 (Ugly Duckling Presse), Airport Novella (Troll Thread), and First Thought Worst Thought: Collected Books 2011-2014 (Gauss PDF), an archive of 40 night novels, art books and poetry collections. His writing has appeared in The Believer, Fence, VOLT and New American Writing, with two poems in The New Concrete (Hayward, UK), an international anthology surveying “the rise of concrete poetry in the digital age.” Comitta’s most recent fiction supercut, Born to Run, was released in Heavy Breathing’s A/V series this past spring.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee