The discovery of a murdered man in a bathrobe by the side of a road, the destruction of a town's historic City Hall building, and the recollection of a cruel wartime decision are equally affecting in Orner's vivid and intimate gaze. The first half of the book concerns the lives of unrelated strangers across the American landscape, and the second introduces two very different Jewish families, one on the East Coast, the other in the Midwest. Yet Orner's real territory is memory, and this book of wide-ranging and innovative stories remains an important and unique contribution to the art of the American short story.
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Initials Etched on a Dining-Room Table, Lockeport, Nova Scotia
The girl was young when she did it, and she didn't live there. This was in 1962. She was eighteen. She'd been hired to tidy the place. It was three, maybe four years before anybody noticed. The letters were so small, and they always ate in the kitchen. And when they did discover them, she was already gone to Halifax. By that time the girl had a reputation to escape from. So when they put two and two together and figured out it was she that did it, they weren't surprised. Of course she'd be the one to do something like this, they said shameless girl, not shocking at all.
A cod fisherman, a captain, lived in the house with his wife, one of the original Locke mansions on Gurden Street overlooking the harbor. They never had children, but dust collects nonetheless in a house so huge. The girl had never been in a place that grand. At least that's what they told each other when they found her letters. RGL. That she'd wanted to leave her mark in the world, something that would last, something that would stay. The family still lived in town, her father and brothers sold hardware, so they could have held somebody accountable for the damage if they'd wanted to. But the captain and his wife talked it over and decided not to mention it to anyone. Not that they approved Lord no. It was defacement of property.
Vandalism. Of course it was an heirloom; it had belonged to her mother's mother, a burnished mahogany drop-leaf built in York in 1844. They could never approve. But they were quiet people; they kept to themselves in the hard times, and even in the good times they held their distance. Besides, what could anybody do about it now? What was done was done. Still, that didn't mean the captain's wife didn't watch more carefully over the other girls who came to clean, and it didn't mean the captain didn't sometimes think of her sugar breath, that morning, the one out of a thousand when he was home and slept late he'd startled her in the kitchen. Captain Adelbert! I didn't have any idea you were home, me banging the pots down here to wake the dead. His only intention was to touch her sweater (Lucy was out, still teaching school then), but he couldn't stop and kissed her, her hands at her sides. She didn't resist or desire, and that had made him a fool for years.
Yet over the longer years when the fish became scarcer, when they'd long since failed their vow to fill that house with children, when the silences between them sometimes lasted hours, when the captain's wife no longer paced the house, waiting for him, or word of him an odd thing. They still talked about the letters. RGL became a part of the table that had always been too good to eat on, as important as the deep swirls carved at the top of the legs. She. The simple fact of her once among them, among their things, dusting, opening closet doors, tracing her finger along the frames of the paintings in the front room. Taking a needle she must have used a needle and climbing up on the table, walking on her knees to a spot just off the center.
In the dark, now older, now retired, still in the house, they murmur: "She was a pretty girl, wasn't she?"
"Curls. Yes, yes. Got in trouble with the boys early on, didn't she?"
"What do you think the G stands for?"
"Never came back here ever."
"No, never heard of it. Family acts like she never existed."
"Well. She was a disgrace, I suppose."
They both think of her. Sleep comes slowly. Now the captain coughs and twists. Age and too much time on land have made him restless, a man who was never restless, a man who had always slept the unmovable sleep of beached whales, now tossing and muttering, waking with sweat- wet hands, afraid. Now he dreams of drowning. And the captain's wife stares at the ceiling in the dark and thinks of leading a child, Rachel Larsh's child, an angry boy in new leather shoes, through the house, pointing out the captain's trophies, the swordfish he caught during that trip to the Pacific (on the wall in the library), the hidden staircase behind the summer kitchen, and here, see, look, beneath the vase he brought back from St. John, your mother's initials. And the boy not curious, shaking free his hand.
Excerpted from Esther Stories by Peter Orner. Copyright © 2001 by Peter Orner. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Table of Contents
1. What Remains Initials Etched on a Dining-Room Table, Lockeport, Nova Scotia 3 Thumbs 6 In the Walls 14 Early November 17 Pile of Clothes 19 Papa Gino’s 26 On a Bridge over the Homochitto 30
2. The Famous Cousin Tuck’s 37 Two Poes 46 Shoe Story 56 Thursday Night at the Gopher Hole, April 1992 58 County Road G 66 At the Motel Rainbow 70 Sitting Theodore 81 3. fall river marriage At Horseneck Beach 93 Sarah 94 Walt Kaplan Reads Hiroshima, March 1947 97 Melba Kuperschmid Returns 104 Birth of a Son-in-Law 113 At the Conrad Hilton 118 Awnings, Bedspreads, Combed Yarns 124 High Priest at the Gates 131 In the Dark 133 Atlantic City 136 Providence 140
4. The Waters Michigan City, Indiana 153 The Raft 155 The House on Lunt Avenue 160 Daughters 170 My Father in an Elevator with Anita Fanska, August 1976 179 Seymour 182 The Moraine on the Lake 184 Esther Stories 186 The Waters 217
What People are Saying About This
These are stories of unusual delicacy and beauty, and this is a remarkable collection.
If the short story were in need of a future, it has been found in Peter Orner.
Some of Orner's very short stories are the best of that form that I have read since Isaac Babel's.