Aimee Bender’s Willful Creatures conjures a fantastical world in which authentic love blooms. This is a place where a boy with keys for fingers is a hero, a woman’s children are potatoes, and a little boy with an iron for a head is born to a family of pumpkin heads. With her singular mix of surrealism, musical prose, and keenly felt emotion, Bender once again proves herself to be a masterful chronicler of the human condition.
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Aimee Bender is the author of the short story collection The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and the novel An Invisible Sign of My Own. Her stories have appeared in Granta, GQ, Harper’s, the Paris Review, and other magazines, and have been heard on PRI’s This American Life. She lives in Los Angeles.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Ten men go to ten doctors. All the doctors tell all the men that they only have two weeks left to live. Five men cry. Three men rage. One man smiles. The last man is silent, meditative. Okay, he says. He has no reaction. The raging men, upon meeting in the lobby, don't know what to do with the man of no reaction. They fall upon him and kill him with their bare hands. The doctor comes out of his office and apologizes, to the dead man.
Dang it, he says sheepishly, to his colleagues. Looks like I got the date wrong again.
One can't account for murder or accidents, says another doctor in his bright white coat.
The raging, sad men and the smiling man all leave the office. The smiling man does not know why he is smiling. He just feels relieved. He was suicidal anyway. Now it's out of his hands. The others growl at him, their bare hands blood specked, but the smiler is eerie in his relief, and so they let him be, thinking he might somehow speed up their precious two weeks. The raging men tear out the door first; the crying men follow.
On their way they meet up with a field of cows. The cows are chewing quietly and calmly. The sight of the cows fills the crying men with sadness as they only have two weeks left to look at cows. But the sight of the cows fills the raging men with more rage. After all, why are the cows so calm? Why is it that cows get to remain ignorant of their own death? Why is the sky so blue and peaceful? The raging men run to the cows but the cows don't notice; the cows want, more than anything, just to continue chewing. One raging man collapses in the field and drums it with his fists. The others run and run. The five crying men stand at the fence, crying. Look at the sad and large rage of the doomed men, they think. Who knew a cow was so beautiful? Why was I not a farmer? Why not a field hand? Why an office building?
Back at the office building, the doctors check their notebooks and discover an error. Oops. Only two of the five crying men need to be crying. The other three are in perfect health. The doctors, embarrassed, call up their patients who are by then crying into the arms of their crying wives or lovers or pets.
We have some good news! they say. We made a goof. You seem to be in perfect health. Very sorry about that.
One crying man, new lease on life, moves his family to the countryside where they raise goats.
The other two go back to their regular routines. A close call.
The last raging man still is drumming his fists on the field. His lover calls out into the darkness of the night. The lover understands that his angry man is out there raging against the world again, this is to be expected, but he does not understand why the doctor keeps calling.
The suicidal one is another error, but he is impossible to contact. He has flown by now to Greece and is trying finally to have a relationship. With only a couple of weeks left, he thinks that for once he has a good chance of having someone by his bedside when he dies.
The two remaining crying men die. One with tubes, the other in his own bed. One of the raging men dies, roaring in his bathtub. Another, though not a mistake, still drums that field with his fists. The very energy it takes should drain him dry, but no. He is happily drumming. He drums for weeks and sits up and isn't yet dead. It takes him six months, which he uses to make some angry paintings that are beloved by people in galleries who are unaware that they themselves are angry at all.
The Greek woman sobs when she hears that her wonderful melancholy lover will be dying soon. They do ritual after ritual. Their sex is like castles; it has moats and turrets. If only, thinks the suicidal man, if only I had known for longer how short it all would be.
Everybody says this. They say it for us, the nondying, to remember our daily lives. But we can't fully get it until we're right up in the face of it. Can we get it? It is hard to get. I do not get it. Only the suicidal man gets it here, and his Greek lover with her aquiline nose.
On the morning of the third week, the Greek woman returns to her bedroom with a bouquet of mourning flowers. She has prepared herself on the walk over for the cold body. She can still feel him inside her. In the bedroom, her lover says hello. He feels curiously fine. The Greek woman falls to her knees and calls him a miracle. They have miracle sex, in honor of miracles. But the next day happens the same and both are giddy with joy tinged by the slightest bit of disappointment which they hide behind their love and delight. And then the next day, and soon the sex is not the same as before. No longer a castle, now just a hut. The Greek woman's husband is due back soon anyway, from his voyage to get silk from China. The suicidal man goes to the sea to bathe. Some cows walk by, chewing. He can feel his heart, like the strongest machine, and his deathbedside fading.
He takes the plane back home and gets off at the layover city, a city he does not know. He'd bought himself a return ticket even though he'd assumed, even hoped, he would die in Greece, among clean-washed buildings and simple color contrast that is enough to satisfy everything: White on blue. Yellow on blue. Red on white. He had planned on giving his return ticket to his Greek lover in case she needed to escape her husband and set up a new life in America. She was not thrilled, though, by his generous offer. Thank you, she'd said, but I do not like this television all the time.
The stopover from Athens is in Denver. Not what he pictured. A place he has never been. He grew up elsewhere, not in or by mountains. So, so, so. Let's walk over the streets, he says to himself, and the first for rent sign he sees, he takes. He does everything the minute he thinks it--that is, all except suicide. He does not want to be cheated of his terminal illness.
His illness is not terminal; instead it is temporary. He never speaks to the doctors who try to leave a message but discover that the mechanical lady is now answering his phone. But he figures it out on his own. He thinks possibly he's one of those people who will live forever but when he cuts himself shaving he bleeds so profusely he spells out MORTAL in the sink's basin with his blood. He joins a gym. The world of Denver fills him up with coffee in the morning and walks in the afternoon. He is spending all his money.
Eventually he calls his doctor, because he's too curious. He explains to the secretary how he was told he had two weeks to live and now it's three years later. The doctor, he hears, has died. From guilt perhaps? No. The doctor was in a skiing accident.
You can't account for events like that, he says to himself, going outside to appreciate the simple color contrast of Colorado: Brown on blue. Green on brown.
It feels like a trade-off, even though it wasn't. He returns to his hometown the next day. There he finds the doctor's wife and life and he seduces her with his depressive charm. He is a good new stepparent. One afternoon the Greek woman shows up on his doorstep. I have left my husband, she says. I miss you my darling and your delicate fingertips.
He is brimming with abundance but it's too late for all of them. When the bomb hits, the doctors shake their heads at each other as their bodies disintegrate.
You can never account, they say, for murder, or for accidents.
They are all, at once, at each others' deathbeds.
End of the Line
The man went to the pet store to buy himself a little man to keep him company. The pet store was full of dogs with splotches and shy cats coy and the friendly people got dogs and the independent people got cats and this man looked around until in the back he found a cage inside of which was a miniature sofa and tiny TV and one small attractive brown-haired man, wearing a tweed suit. He looked at the price tag. The little man was expensive but the big man had a reliable job and thought this a worthy purchase.
He brought the cage up to the front, paid with his credit card, and got some free airline points.
In the car, the little man's cage bounced lightly on the passenger seat, held by the seat belt.
The big man set up the little man in his bedroom, on the nightstand, and lifted the latch of the cage open. That's the first time the little man looked away from the small TV. He blinked, which was hard to see, and then asked for some dinner in a high shrill voice. The big man brought the little man a drop of whiskey inside the indented crosshatch of a screw, and a thread of chicken with the skin still on. He had no utensils, so he told the little man to feel free to eat with his hands, which made the little man irritable. The little man explained that before he'd been caught he'd been a very successful and refined technology consultant who'd been to Paris and Milan multiple times, and that he liked to eat with utensils thank you very much. The big man laughed and laughed, he thought this little man he'd bought was so funny. The little man told him in a clear crisp voice that dollhouse stores were open on weekends and he needed a bed, please, with an actual pillow, please, and a lamp and some books with actual pages if at all possible. Please. The big man chuckled some more and nodded.
The little man sat on his sofa. He stayed up late that first night, laughing his high shrill laugh at the late-night shows, which annoyed the big man to no end. He tried to sleep and could not, a wink. At four a.m., exhausted, the big man put some antihistamine in the little man's water-drip tube, so the little man finally got drowsy. The big man accidentally put too much in, because getting the right proportions was no easy feat of mathematical skill, which was not the big man's strong suit anyway, and the little man stayed groggy for three days, slugging around his cage, leaving tiny drool marks on the couch. The big man went to work and thought of the little man with longing all day, and at five o'clock he dashed home, so excited h...
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