There's Something I Want You to Do

Stories

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“There’s something I want you to do.”
 
This request—sometimes simple, sometimes not—forms the basis for the ten interrelated stories that comprise this latest penetrating and prophetic collection from an author who has been repeatedly praised as a master of the form. As we follow a diverse group of Minnesota citizens, each grappling with their own heightened fears, responsibilities, and obsessions, Baxter unveils the remarkable in what might otherwise be the seemingly inconsequential moments of everyday life.

“Charles Baxter’s stories proceed with steady grace, nimble humor, quiet authority, and thrilling ingeniousness. . . . He is a great writer.” —Lorrie Moore, author of Bark
 
“Winning and ingenious.”—The New York Times Book Review 
 
“Charles Baxter is nothing short of a national literary treasure. To read these stories—hilarious, tragic, surprising, and indelibly human—is to receive revelation at the hands of a master.” —Julie Orringer, author of The Invisible Bridge
 
“There’s Something I Want You to Do is in many ways Baxter’s Winesburg, Ohio,an intimate look at the emotional lives of everyday folks sharing the same geography.” —The Boston Globe 
 
“Subtle, humane and, in the best sense, clever.” —The Plain Dealer 
 
“Very entertaining. . . . As this compelling collection reminds us, it’s an awfully strange world out there.” —Chicago Tribune 

“Few writers, if any, are as capable of pursuing such an inevitable truth as this—and in so graceful, subdued, and artful a manner—as Charles Baxter.” —Philadelphia Inquirer 
 
“[There’s Something I Want You to Do’s] characters slip in and out of one another’s stories, and while some never meet, they eventually ­constitute … a shimmering web of interconnectedness.” —The New York Times Book Review 
 
“Nearly as organic as a novel, [There’s Something I Want You to Do] is more intriguing, more fun in disclosing its connective tissues through tales that stand well on their own.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
 
“Baxter creates empathetic and nuanced portraits of human nature. . . . Reminds us that happiness, like morality, is fluid and that we must guard it accordingly.”—The Miami Herald 
 
“A master of the form contemplates the abhorrent and admirable choices we make and what finally leads a person to choose the high road.” O, The Oprah Magazine 
 
“An explosive addition to [Baxter’s] already stellar resume.” —Den of Geek, “Must Read Fiction of the Year”
 
“Baxter’s writing is sharper than ever.” —The Cedar Rapids Gazette 
 
“Will make readers hungry for more.” —Library Journal (starred review)
 
“Baxter’s writing is characterized by . . . unselfconsciousness [and] artless clarity. His characters take on their own lives. They subsist so independently of their creator that we almost forget that there is a creator.” —The Rumpus 

“With his latest collection, Charles Baxter has given us something altogether new in contemporary fiction: a series of moral tales that contain zero moralizing. . . . Here is a cast of characters unparalleled since Sherwood Anderson’s Book of Grotesques, with a modern-day Minneapolis as tangible and strange as his Winesburg, Ohio.” —Jamie Quatro, author of I Want to Show You More 

“Five stories named for virtues and five for vices make up this collection from a master craftsman. . . . Baxter’s characters muddle through small but pivotal moments, not so much confrontations as crossroads between love and destruction, desire and death….The prose resonates with distinctive turns of phrase that capture human ambiguity and uncertainty: trouble waits patiently at home, irony is the new chastity, and a dying man lives in the house that pain designed for him.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Three weeks later, on his way out to his evening stroll, Benny passed two of his friends, the lesbians from down the hall, Donna and Ellie, just outside the building. They referred to themselves alphabetically as “the D and the E,” and tonight they were walking their keeshonds. Engaged in conversation, they waved to him as he crossed the block. He waved back, not wanting to interrupt them. When the two women were talking together, the bond between them—heads turned in a mutual gaze, slightly bowed, the conversation quiet and slow and half-smiling—seemed more intimate than sex. Their friendship, no, their love, resembled . . . what? Prayer, or some other category that Benny didn’t currently believe in.
 
By the time he reached the Washington Avenue Bridge across the Mississippi, he had worked up a light sweat. He planned to cross the river, turn around, and then head back. He would shower before bed and be asleep by midnight. Tonight the joggers and lovers were out in force, along with the shabby old men who held out their hands for money. A panhandle was like a scream: you never knew what was appropriate, how much help to offer, what to do.
 
Crossing the bridge on the pedestrian level, he counted the number of people on foot. He liked taking inventories; solid figures reassured him. About seven people were out tonight, including one guy with a backpack sprinting in Benny’s direction, two people strolling, and a young woman with a vaguely studenty appearance who stood motionless, leaning against the railing and staring down at the river. The sodium lights gave them all an orange-tan tint. The young woman tapped her fingers along the guardrail, took out a cell phone, and after taking a picture of herself, dropped the phone into the river below. She licked her lips and laughed softly as the phone disappeared into the dark.
 
Benny stopped. Something was about to happen. As he watched, she gathered herself up and with a quick athletic movement hoisted herself over so that she was standing on the railing’s other side with her arms braced on the metalwork behind her. If she released her arms and leaned forward, she would plunge down into the river. One jogger went past her without noticing what she was doing. What was she doing? Benny hurried toward her.
 
Seeing him out of the corner of her eye, she turned and smirked.
 
“Stop!” he commanded. “Wait. Don’t!” He wasn’t sure what to say. “What are you doing? Who are you?”
 
“I’m nobody. Who are you?”
 
“I’m just Benny,” he said. “That’s dangerous. Please. Why are you doing that?”
 
“No reason. For fun. A cheap thrill. I’m bungee jumping,” she said. “Only without the bungee. See the cord?” She pointed down to where no cord was visible. “Just kidding! It’s imaginary! Also, I’ve been feeling real cold behind my eyes,” she said, “so I thought I’d do something exciting to heat myself up.” Her speech style was oddly animated, and she seemed very pretty in a drab sort of way, like an honorable-mention beauty queen who hadn’t taken proper care of herself. Something was off in the grooming department. Her long brown hair fell over her shoulders, and her T-shirt had a corporate logo and the words JUST DO IT across the front. Her eyes, when she glanced at Benny, were deep and penetrating. Her feet in sandals displayed toenails polished a bright red, so that under the streetlights they had the appearance of war paint. She gave off a shadowy gleam. “I’ve been feeling kind of temporary lately,” she said. “How about you, Benny? You been feeling permanent?”
 
He reached out for her arm and clasped it. “Yes, I have. So. Please come back,” he said.
 
“Fuck you doin’?” she said, laughing. “Don’t harass me. Let go. Let go of me or maybe I’ll actually jump.” Irony was the new form of chastity and was everywhere these days. You never knew whether people meant what they said or whether it was all a goof.
 
“No,” Benny said. “I don’t think so. I won’t let go.” To his astonishment, a couple strolled past them without paying them any mind at all. He thought of crying out for help, but noise might panic this woman, startle her, inspiring her to make her move, unless she was playing a late-night prank. After all, she was grinning. Dear God, he thought, the perfect incongruity of that grin. He felt a sudden resolve to hold on to her forever if he had to.
 
“This isn’t a big plan I have,” she said cheerfully. “It’s just a personal happening.” She waited. “Don’t you ever want to get on the other side of the boundary? It’s so exciting over here, so lethal. It looks back at you.” She waited. “So much fun. And against boredom? Boredom,” she said urgently, “must be defeated.”
 
“You shouldn’t be standing there. It’s a terrible idea.”
 
“Don’t be like that,” she said, staring down at the river. “Okay, maybe it’s a terrible idea, but it’s my idea.” Now she appeared to be sneering. She had a blue barrette in her hair. “Do you think it would take a long time to fall? What would falling feel like?” She tipped her head back. “I think it would feel like being famous. I’d laugh all the way down. I’d sign autographs.”
 
“No. It would feel like nothing. Then like being ripped apart by water. It’d really hurt.” He waited with his hand around her arm. He was quite strong; like everyone else he knew, he went to the gym and kept fit, and just when he had begun to consider how much she weighed and how long he’d be able to hold on to her if she leaped off the ledge and dangled there, he remembered to ask, “What’s your name?”
 
“I won’t tell you,” she said. “Okay, yes, I will. It’s Desdemona.”
 
“Thanks.” He moved slightly so that he was behind her, and still holding her arm, he moved his other arm so that it encircled her waist. A car honked at them. “So-called Desdemona,” he said, “please come back to this side. Okay?”
 
“Um, no? Just leave me alone? Besides, don’t you even want to get on the other side of the railing with me? How about some solidarity? Don’t you ever want a thrill? Or a chill? Or a spill? Stop touching me!”
 
“No.”
 
She laughed. “Such a spoilsport. Such a square.” She twisted her head back. “You must be from around here. You smell of the Midwest.”
  • FINALIST | 2015
    The Story Prize
© Keri Pickett

CHARLES BAXTER is the author of the novels The Feast of Love (nominated for the National Book Award), First Light, Saul and Patsy, Shadow Play, The Soul Thief, and The Sun Collective, and the story collections Believers, Gryphon, Harmony of the World, A Relative Stranger, There’s Something I Want You to Do, and Through the Safety Net. His stories have appeared in several anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, and The O. Henry Prize Story Anthology. He has won the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story. Baxter lives in Minneapolis.

View titles by Charles Baxter

About

“There’s something I want you to do.”
 
This request—sometimes simple, sometimes not—forms the basis for the ten interrelated stories that comprise this latest penetrating and prophetic collection from an author who has been repeatedly praised as a master of the form. As we follow a diverse group of Minnesota citizens, each grappling with their own heightened fears, responsibilities, and obsessions, Baxter unveils the remarkable in what might otherwise be the seemingly inconsequential moments of everyday life.

“Charles Baxter’s stories proceed with steady grace, nimble humor, quiet authority, and thrilling ingeniousness. . . . He is a great writer.” —Lorrie Moore, author of Bark
 
“Winning and ingenious.”—The New York Times Book Review 
 
“Charles Baxter is nothing short of a national literary treasure. To read these stories—hilarious, tragic, surprising, and indelibly human—is to receive revelation at the hands of a master.” —Julie Orringer, author of The Invisible Bridge
 
“There’s Something I Want You to Do is in many ways Baxter’s Winesburg, Ohio,an intimate look at the emotional lives of everyday folks sharing the same geography.” —The Boston Globe 
 
“Subtle, humane and, in the best sense, clever.” —The Plain Dealer 
 
“Very entertaining. . . . As this compelling collection reminds us, it’s an awfully strange world out there.” —Chicago Tribune 

“Few writers, if any, are as capable of pursuing such an inevitable truth as this—and in so graceful, subdued, and artful a manner—as Charles Baxter.” —Philadelphia Inquirer 
 
“[There’s Something I Want You to Do’s] characters slip in and out of one another’s stories, and while some never meet, they eventually ­constitute … a shimmering web of interconnectedness.” —The New York Times Book Review 
 
“Nearly as organic as a novel, [There’s Something I Want You to Do] is more intriguing, more fun in disclosing its connective tissues through tales that stand well on their own.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
 
“Baxter creates empathetic and nuanced portraits of human nature. . . . Reminds us that happiness, like morality, is fluid and that we must guard it accordingly.”—The Miami Herald 
 
“A master of the form contemplates the abhorrent and admirable choices we make and what finally leads a person to choose the high road.” O, The Oprah Magazine 
 
“An explosive addition to [Baxter’s] already stellar resume.” —Den of Geek, “Must Read Fiction of the Year”
 
“Baxter’s writing is sharper than ever.” —The Cedar Rapids Gazette 
 
“Will make readers hungry for more.” —Library Journal (starred review)
 
“Baxter’s writing is characterized by . . . unselfconsciousness [and] artless clarity. His characters take on their own lives. They subsist so independently of their creator that we almost forget that there is a creator.” —The Rumpus 

“With his latest collection, Charles Baxter has given us something altogether new in contemporary fiction: a series of moral tales that contain zero moralizing. . . . Here is a cast of characters unparalleled since Sherwood Anderson’s Book of Grotesques, with a modern-day Minneapolis as tangible and strange as his Winesburg, Ohio.” —Jamie Quatro, author of I Want to Show You More 

“Five stories named for virtues and five for vices make up this collection from a master craftsman. . . . Baxter’s characters muddle through small but pivotal moments, not so much confrontations as crossroads between love and destruction, desire and death….The prose resonates with distinctive turns of phrase that capture human ambiguity and uncertainty: trouble waits patiently at home, irony is the new chastity, and a dying man lives in the house that pain designed for him.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Excerpt

Three weeks later, on his way out to his evening stroll, Benny passed two of his friends, the lesbians from down the hall, Donna and Ellie, just outside the building. They referred to themselves alphabetically as “the D and the E,” and tonight they were walking their keeshonds. Engaged in conversation, they waved to him as he crossed the block. He waved back, not wanting to interrupt them. When the two women were talking together, the bond between them—heads turned in a mutual gaze, slightly bowed, the conversation quiet and slow and half-smiling—seemed more intimate than sex. Their friendship, no, their love, resembled . . . what? Prayer, or some other category that Benny didn’t currently believe in.
 
By the time he reached the Washington Avenue Bridge across the Mississippi, he had worked up a light sweat. He planned to cross the river, turn around, and then head back. He would shower before bed and be asleep by midnight. Tonight the joggers and lovers were out in force, along with the shabby old men who held out their hands for money. A panhandle was like a scream: you never knew what was appropriate, how much help to offer, what to do.
 
Crossing the bridge on the pedestrian level, he counted the number of people on foot. He liked taking inventories; solid figures reassured him. About seven people were out tonight, including one guy with a backpack sprinting in Benny’s direction, two people strolling, and a young woman with a vaguely studenty appearance who stood motionless, leaning against the railing and staring down at the river. The sodium lights gave them all an orange-tan tint. The young woman tapped her fingers along the guardrail, took out a cell phone, and after taking a picture of herself, dropped the phone into the river below. She licked her lips and laughed softly as the phone disappeared into the dark.
 
Benny stopped. Something was about to happen. As he watched, she gathered herself up and with a quick athletic movement hoisted herself over so that she was standing on the railing’s other side with her arms braced on the metalwork behind her. If she released her arms and leaned forward, she would plunge down into the river. One jogger went past her without noticing what she was doing. What was she doing? Benny hurried toward her.
 
Seeing him out of the corner of her eye, she turned and smirked.
 
“Stop!” he commanded. “Wait. Don’t!” He wasn’t sure what to say. “What are you doing? Who are you?”
 
“I’m nobody. Who are you?”
 
“I’m just Benny,” he said. “That’s dangerous. Please. Why are you doing that?”
 
“No reason. For fun. A cheap thrill. I’m bungee jumping,” she said. “Only without the bungee. See the cord?” She pointed down to where no cord was visible. “Just kidding! It’s imaginary! Also, I’ve been feeling real cold behind my eyes,” she said, “so I thought I’d do something exciting to heat myself up.” Her speech style was oddly animated, and she seemed very pretty in a drab sort of way, like an honorable-mention beauty queen who hadn’t taken proper care of herself. Something was off in the grooming department. Her long brown hair fell over her shoulders, and her T-shirt had a corporate logo and the words JUST DO IT across the front. Her eyes, when she glanced at Benny, were deep and penetrating. Her feet in sandals displayed toenails polished a bright red, so that under the streetlights they had the appearance of war paint. She gave off a shadowy gleam. “I’ve been feeling kind of temporary lately,” she said. “How about you, Benny? You been feeling permanent?”
 
He reached out for her arm and clasped it. “Yes, I have. So. Please come back,” he said.
 
“Fuck you doin’?” she said, laughing. “Don’t harass me. Let go. Let go of me or maybe I’ll actually jump.” Irony was the new form of chastity and was everywhere these days. You never knew whether people meant what they said or whether it was all a goof.
 
“No,” Benny said. “I don’t think so. I won’t let go.” To his astonishment, a couple strolled past them without paying them any mind at all. He thought of crying out for help, but noise might panic this woman, startle her, inspiring her to make her move, unless she was playing a late-night prank. After all, she was grinning. Dear God, he thought, the perfect incongruity of that grin. He felt a sudden resolve to hold on to her forever if he had to.
 
“This isn’t a big plan I have,” she said cheerfully. “It’s just a personal happening.” She waited. “Don’t you ever want to get on the other side of the boundary? It’s so exciting over here, so lethal. It looks back at you.” She waited. “So much fun. And against boredom? Boredom,” she said urgently, “must be defeated.”
 
“You shouldn’t be standing there. It’s a terrible idea.”
 
“Don’t be like that,” she said, staring down at the river. “Okay, maybe it’s a terrible idea, but it’s my idea.” Now she appeared to be sneering. She had a blue barrette in her hair. “Do you think it would take a long time to fall? What would falling feel like?” She tipped her head back. “I think it would feel like being famous. I’d laugh all the way down. I’d sign autographs.”
 
“No. It would feel like nothing. Then like being ripped apart by water. It’d really hurt.” He waited with his hand around her arm. He was quite strong; like everyone else he knew, he went to the gym and kept fit, and just when he had begun to consider how much she weighed and how long he’d be able to hold on to her if she leaped off the ledge and dangled there, he remembered to ask, “What’s your name?”
 
“I won’t tell you,” she said. “Okay, yes, I will. It’s Desdemona.”
 
“Thanks.” He moved slightly so that he was behind her, and still holding her arm, he moved his other arm so that it encircled her waist. A car honked at them. “So-called Desdemona,” he said, “please come back to this side. Okay?”
 
“Um, no? Just leave me alone? Besides, don’t you even want to get on the other side of the railing with me? How about some solidarity? Don’t you ever want a thrill? Or a chill? Or a spill? Stop touching me!”
 
“No.”
 
She laughed. “Such a spoilsport. Such a square.” She twisted her head back. “You must be from around here. You smell of the Midwest.”

Awards

  • FINALIST | 2015
    The Story Prize

Author

© Keri Pickett

CHARLES BAXTER is the author of the novels The Feast of Love (nominated for the National Book Award), First Light, Saul and Patsy, Shadow Play, The Soul Thief, and The Sun Collective, and the story collections Believers, Gryphon, Harmony of the World, A Relative Stranger, There’s Something I Want You to Do, and Through the Safety Net. His stories have appeared in several anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, and The O. Henry Prize Story Anthology. He has won the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story. Baxter lives in Minneapolis.

View titles by Charles Baxter

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