The Best First Line of a Short Story… Ever?

Responding to my post about how much I love first lines, Adam told me that his high school English teacher used to say that the best opening line for a short story, ever, was this:

“None of them knew the color of the sky.” —from “Open Boat” by Stephen Crane

Now, no matter what I think of the story itself, I’ll admit it’s a great opening line. I kept reading (though—confession—I got distracted and didn’t finish). But the best opening line to a short story ever written? For me, that’s personal.

You know I love short stories. In fact, I collect them, like someone would seashells or stamps. I keep the ones I especially like so I can read them back later—at the moment I have about eight binders full of photocopies. Some are stories I read in college; a few are stories from my peers in workshops that really impressed me; most are stories from anthologies and literary journals and short-story collections that I’ve read over the years and that I didn’t want to forget. Thinking about Adam’s question, I pulled out a few of the binders last night to see if I could find my own favorite opening.

Alas, I couldn’t pick just one.

Here are some first sentences that I just love:

“On the nicer side of a not nice street, between God Bless the Cheerful Giver and his dog, and There But for the Grace of God Go I and his dog, a wino engaged me in the following Q and A:” —from “Litany” by Amy Hempel

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“It is surprisingly easy to run out of love.” —from “Can You Wave Bye Bye, Baby?” Elyse Gasco

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“One day you have a home and the next you don’t, but I’m not going to tell you my particular reasons for being homeless, because it’s my secret story, and Indians have to work hard to keep secrets from hungry white folks.” —“What You Pawn I Will Redeem” by Sherman Alexie

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“Had I been dreaming, I would have dreamt of being someone else, with a little creature burrowed in my body, clawing at the walls inside my chest—a recurring nightmare.” —from “Passover” by Aleksandar Hemon

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“You wouldn’t have known me a year ago.” —from “The Story” by Amy Bloom

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“These are the first words I’ve written since J. fell down the stairs, unless you count lists.” —from “Plane Crash Theory” by Dani Shapiro

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“When this story goes out into the world, I may become the most famous hermaphrodite in history.” —from “The Obscure Object” by Jeffrey Eugenides (which, of course, later became a novel)

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“It was in the fifth month of her sobriety.” —from “Tall Tales from the Mekong Delta” by Kate Braverman

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“I’m spending the afternoon auditioning men.” —from “Call My Name” by Aimee Bender

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“The first great act of love I ever witnessed was Split Lip bathing his handicapped daughter.” —from “Isabelle” by George Saunders

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“My first and only visit to a therapist cost me my red coral bracelet and my lover.” —from “The Red Coral Bracelet” by Judith Hermann

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“One time, she had left him.” —from “Floating Bridge” by Alice Munro

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“We are going to invent a death for Aida South Wiley, and let’s make it magnificent, because I knew the real Aida South Wiley and she deserves a better death than the one she had.” —”Aida South, Flower” by Martha Otis

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“One beautiful April morning, on a narrow side street in Tokyo’s fashionable Harujuku neighborhood, I walked past the 100% perfect girl.” —from “100% Perfect Girl” by Haruki Murakami

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“To be sixteen on a July Saturday was heaven.” —from “The Saturday Morning Car Wash Club” by James Ellis Thomas

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“I once knew a girl who sat apart at the party, down on the floor.” —from “Planetesimal” by Keri Hulme

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[Edit, for E, which could be translated a number of ways, and here’s just one:]

“No one saw him slip from the boat in the unanimous night, no one saw the bamboo canoe as it sank into the sacred mud, and yet within days there was no one who did not know that the taciturn man had come there from the South, and that his homeland was one of those infinite villages that lie upriver, on the violent flank of the mountain, where the language of the Zend is uncontaminated by Greek and where leprosy is uncommon.” —from “The Circular Ruins” by Jorge Luis Borges

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And then, who could forget:

“I liked to sit up front and ride the fast ones all day long, I liked it when they brushed right up against the buildings north of the Loop and I especially liked it when the buildings dropped away into that bombed-out squalor a little farther north in which people (through windows you’d see a person in his dirty naked kitchen spooning soup toward his face, or twelve children on their bellies on the floor, watching television, but instantly they were gone, wiped away by a movie billboard of a woman winking and touching her upper lip deftly with her tongue, and she in turn erased by a—wham, the noise and dark dropped down around your head—tunnel) actually lived.” —from “Dirty Wedding” by Denis Johnson

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I know there are many I didn’t mention… I couldn’t find all my binders last night. Like, wasn’t there one by Zora Neale Hurston? Jean Rhys? Mona Simpson? Lan Samantha Chang? Rick Moody? Mary Gaitskill? I want to go home and dig through my shelves again.

But now that I’ve confided a few of my favorite first lines from short stories—like confiding a list of secrets—tell me, what are some of yours?

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