Kathy Flann's characters endure pain in these short stories. One character has bad knees from "bouncing and jumping" during aerobics. Another risks shin splints from wearing "lifts in his loafers" for the extra 2 inches the inserts provide.

Mrs. Polasky's aching hand even has utilitarian value in "Neuropathy." Embarrassed by events in her life, she turns to helping others by organizing "a clothing drive for big & tall homeless men" and by distributing Reverse Racism dolls to inner-city schoolchildren. "The black Marilyn Monroe was especially pretty," and the white Dionne Warwick. When her plans fail or her son disappoints her, Mrs. Polasky seeks comfort in her disability, which she believes gives her a special connection to a suffering world.

In "Homecoming," a lovelorn teacher neglects an infection on his leg in order to see the school principal, his ex-wife, at the football game. In "Heaven's Door," a heart condition threatens a meteorite hunter trying to locate a regmaglypt before his rival in business and love finds it.

These ailments — the neuropathy, the infections, the possible hairline fractures — outwardly manifest for Flann's stunted, afflicted characters an inner fear that they will never again be loved. So much is at stake here.

In "Half a Brother," two Estonian athletes, one a 7-footer (height being its own curse), hope to win college basketball scholarships. When the envious Malev, the shorter one, realizes he may not be scholarship material, he sabotages his brother's chances for success, thus keeping the two of them together.

A hapless character in another story, the 40-year-old woman with bad knees, says about choosing someone to love, "To select a path would be to reject every other path." For her, if not for the deceitful Malev, the opportunity to experience life begins when she stops trying to win another's affection. As they struggle with their dilemmas, these despondent though often hilarious characters become more human for their flaws.

I have two reservations about Flann's engaging stories. "Show of Force" falls a bit short quality-wise, and her brief titles seem unimaginative. Probably readers will overlook these concerns given the author's talent. Consider the way she ends "Little Big Show" or "Heaven's Door," where the narrator describes the descent of a meteor, a potential regmaglypt of great value: "Probably if you'd been standing in this field, you would have heard the sonic boom, like a boulder pounding on the sky's door, and half a minute later you would have heard the rock's first experience of air, the sound of friction, that whooshing overhead above the fireflies." Lovely, like much of her writing.

Flann, whose father was born and raised in Minnesota and who has extended family here, teaches at Goucher College in Baltimore.

Anthony Bukoski, a short-story writer, lives in Superior, Wis.