Peter Orner zeroes in on the strange ways our memories define us: A woman's husband dies before their divorce is finalized; a man runs for governor of Illinois and loses much more than an election; two brothers play beneath the infamous bridge at Chappaquiddick. Employing the masterful compression for which he has been widely praised, Orner presents a kaleidoscope of individual lives viewed in startling, intimate close-up.
Whether writing of Geraldo Rivera's attempt to reveal the contents of Al Capone's vault or of a father and daughter trying to outrun a hurricane, Orner illuminates universal themes. In stories that span considerable geographic ground--from Chicago to Wyoming, from Massachusetts to the Czech Republic--he writes of the past we can't seem to shake, the losses we can't make up for, and the power of our stories to help us reclaim what we thought was gone forever.
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Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge
By Peter Orner
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2013 Peter Orner
All rights reserved.
Nate Zamost took that week off school. We wondered what he did those long days other than the funeral, which couldn't have taken more than a few hours. The Zamosts lived in one of those houses just across the fence from Foley's Pond. Nate's sister, Barbara—the family called her Babs—slid under the chain link and waddled down to the water. This was 1979. She was two and a half.
The day Nate Zamost came back to school, we refrained from playing Kill the Guy with the Ball. At recess, we stood around in a ragged circle on the edge of the basketball court and spoke to one another in polite murmurs. We were a group of guys in junior high who hung out together. It's not like we weren't capable of understanding. Some of us even had sisters. Instinctively, we seemed to get it that our role was not to understand, or even console, but, in the spirit of funerals, to act. That being authentically sorry, whatever this might have looked like, would have been out of place, even unwelcome. So we stood there and looked at our shoes and kicked at loose asphalt. Nate went along with it. He played chief mourner by nodding his head slowly. I remember Stu Barkus finally trying to say something.
"Look, it's not like it's your fault," Stu said. "I mean, how could you have known she knew how to slide under the fence?"
Nate looked up from his shoes.
"I taught her."
What could anybody say to that? Barkus took a stab. He'd always been decent like that.
"Well, it's not like you told her to do it when you weren't looking."
Barkus had nothing to say after that. Nobody else did, either. We let the question hang there. Like Stu Barkus, Nate Zamost was a gentle guy. He was also the biggest of us and had a very hard head, but during Kill the Guy with the Ball, Nate would always go for your ankles and take you down easy. The rest of us were more interested in the raw clawing, the scrum and the mayhem, than in the ball itself. It was the killing-the-guy part. Yet who's to say what goes on behind closed doors between siblings? Nate, like all of us, was thirteen that year. His parents went out for a couple of hours and left him in charge.
Remembering all this now, what comes to me most vividly is my own private anger toward Nate, anger I can still summon. Foley's Pond had always been our secret place and now everybody in town knew all about it. It was wedged inside a small patch of woods, between where Kimball Avenue ended in a stand of bush and trees and the Edens Expressway fence. To the east was the public golf course. Some said the pond wasn't natural at all, that it had been created by runoff from the golf course, that it was nothing but a cesspool of chemicals. Proof of this theory was embodied by the large corrugated drainpipe that hung out over the edge of the pond. Whatever flowed from that pipe wasn't water. Once, Ross Berger dove into Foley's and rose up with green hair and leeches on his thighs. Someone shouted, "It supports life!"
We all stripped to our underwear and jumped in. It was like swimming in crude oil. A fantastic place, Foley's—scragged, infested, overgrown, and gloomed long before Nate Zamost's sister wrecked it. How many mob hits, feet tied to bricks, bobbed and swayed at the bottom of that fetid swamp? All the missing kids in Chicago, all were dumped in Foley's
After school we'd retreat to the pond and talk down the waterlogged afternoons. There was nothing beautiful about the place, even in April, except that it was ours. There is something overripe about spring in the Midwest, the wet and green world, the ground itself putrid, rotten, oozing. Foley's was protected by a canopy of trees. The sun crept through only in speckles. Foley's in the rain, the rain smacking the leaves, how hidden we were, talking and talking and talking about God only knows what. Had we been a few years older, we might have drunk beers or smoked joints or brought girls, so they could scream about not wanting to go anywhere near that nasty sludge. It was 1979 and we were thirteen and conspiratorial, and what was said is now out of reach, as it should be.
It took them eleven hours. Foley's was a lot deeper than anybody had thought. The fire department's charts turned out to be inaccurate. Police divers had to come up from Chicago. I think of their rubber outfits, their masks, their flippers, how they waddled along the edge of the pond like big penguins before descending, slowly, into the water. And something else that by now most people may have forgotten and newcomers would have no way of knowing. When they finally did recover her all those hours later, deep in the night, and laid Babs on the grass, Nate's mother refused to acknowledge that the mottle of bloated flesh lit up by high-powered flashlights was her daughter or anybody's. Mrs. Zamost didn't know Foley's. Ross Berger was down there twelve seconds and came up looking like an alien. Mrs. Zamost didn't scream. She wouldn't even touch it. I was there, just outside the ring of lights. She wouldn't even kneel down and touch it, just shook her head and stepped backward into the dark.
Foley's is a real park now. The Park District manicured it. The trees have been trimmed. There's a wide wood-chip path leading off Kimball Avenue. And they've installed bird feeders, long poles topped with small yellow houses.
He met her at the Occidental in Buffalo, Wyoming. She was a maid at the hotel. She'd come west from Missouri not intending to do much more than stop and work for a few weeks before heading to California. But there was money to be made at the Occidental, especially during conventions. This was February 1912. He'd come for a convention. The state Republican Party was meeting to decide on a successor for McClintock. It was after nine in the morning. She'd knocked on the door twice and waited. Silence. She took the key out of her apron and unlocked the door. A man was sitting on the bed, pulling on a boot. His face was so still it could have been made of wax. His eyes. Even from the door, in the dim light, she could see them, huge and glassy and full of motion. Like small heads bobbing in water.
This one must have checked in late. She held the door.
"No, come in, come in. I was just, well ... Yes. Just. I was just. All right, then."
He pulled on his other boot and, edging his way past without touching her, left the room.
The Occidental wasn't elegant. It was sturdy. The winds of the high plains pounded it, and the hotel stood its ground. On rainy or snowy days, the cherrywood of the walls and all the furniture gave off a sweet, malty smell. She liked the hotel best in the early mornings when the smells—in the thick silence—were more pronounced than the noise. Noise could overpower so many other things.
Two nights later he said he'd leave his wife for her. They were in her small room across the street and down the block from the hotel. He said she'd ransacked his heart the moment she unlocked the door to his room. "You're not a housekeeper," he said. "You're a vandal."
"You looked like you were about to weep," she said.
He laughed. "Politics. I was thinking how we were going to have to settle for Gilhooley if Collins refused to stand. Gilhooley. As if that matters now. Let Gilhooley be King of Prussia!"
Toward dawn he fell asleep. She watched the sun gray, then pink, the frost- crusted window. She saw how dingy and small the room was going to look to him when he awoke. A man with a house and daughters. This wasn't something she ever thought about. Men didn't look at her room. They looked at her. Her with her stockings on and her with her stockings off. One of his hands lay across her stomach like a plump fish. Moist. The fish rode the rise and fall of her stomach. She wanted it off. She wanted it gone. She had once loved a man in Cape Girardeau, but not enough had come of it. And yet it isn't this man or that man or any man at all. Isn't it the sun leaking through the window again? Isn't it the sun trying to melt this frost? Isn't it this narrow bed and breath dissolving into memory?
If I tell you something will you listen? Will you not leave and will you listen?
I've listened before.
But will you listen now?
I said yes.
It's another story, Barry.
Another story story.
I said fine.
It was when I was living in Spokane. I hadn't been there long. Two weeks maybe. I met this guy in a coffee shop.
Right. Same as always. I liked the book he was reading. We talked about who knows what, and I liked him. I let him take me home and I fucked him. It was gentle, slow. I was new to the city and it was dreary, but I liked the hills and the way the trees grew up out of the sidewalks sideways. Another week with him and I broke my lease and moved into his apartment on the first floor of a little frame house in what people called the even shittier part of Rupert Heights. Because I liked him and it meant saving on rent. My job was decent. I taught art to the second grade at a Montessori school. Liberal, but they only went so far. The pay sucked. His name was Edward. He worked in a B. Dalton in a mall and lived off money his grandfather left him. Maybe he was twenty-four. He said he wanted to go back to school and finish at some point. He had a clarinet in his closet he never played. We lived on a little hump in the street and there was good light in the morning and I set up a darkroom in the bathroom. He didn't mind that I blacked out the little window. For five, six months, I was happy. He was quiet. He could just sit, you know? What I've never been able to train myself to do. Just sit for hours, not bored, not anything. Thinking, I guess. And I thought, I'm smart. I finally made a decent decision in my life and my work is coming along and this Edward with his calmness. Don't laugh at me. He listened to me. I'd tell him everything. About my mother driving all over the lawn and then into the front door, the whole time screaming that we were all foreigners to her, that she didn't know a single soul in our house, that it wasn't even her house. All the shit you've had to hear. And he'd endure it. He never asked questions. His upper lip sometimes quivered, that's all. And you can't know how after talking to myself for so long what it was like to just have this person watch me and listen. I shot him. The pictures are probably still in a box somewhere. And I listened to his stories about his grandfather who worked in a mill, who moved out there from St. Louis to help build the Coulee Dam. He didn't have many friends except for a couple of guys he sometimes played chess with at the coffee shop up the block. Another two or three from the bookstore. He said when he was through reading all the books he wanted to finish, he'd drive to Seattle and make more friends. At night we rented old Bruce Dern movies. I remember one where someone was trying to blow up the Super Bowl. Edward had very timid eyes. He looked away from you when you looked directly at him; he looked away when you kissed him. Fucking him was good and gentle, and when we were through he'd stand by the window wrapped in the top sheet and tell me about his grandfather's prize tomatoes. How his grandpa once took his fattest, spoogiest tomato to the same guy who bronzed baby shoes and said, Immortalize this, why don't you? He never mentioned his parents except once to say they lived in Houston. Another time, though, he told me about a mother who left her kid in the bookstore. The kid was three or four and she wasn't abandoning him or anything—she must have just forgotten she was with him and wandered out of the store without him. The kind of thing every mother probably does once in her life and then has nightmares about for years, but Edward said that what made him remember was that the kid didn't seem to notice. He looked around. Seeing his mother wasn't there anymore, he went on flapping through a picture book until the mother came back ten minutes later, hysterically shrieking apologies to the kid, to Edward, to everyone standing around. The kid hardly looked up. That night I gripped Edward hard. I tried to love him. From the gut, I tried, and it didn't matter, none of it mattered.
Because one day your Edward, your beautiful Edward of the silence, was gone. And all your dreams were shattered.
I asked if you were going to listen.
It's just that we've been here before. Different guy, different city—What about that guy from Wisconsin? The circus clown?
Trapeze artist. From Baraboo. Right, so Edward left. You're right on top of this, Barry. I wasn't there a year. It was December. But because it was his place and he had to come back eventually, I stayed. I promised myself that when he comes back, I'll move out. That I would tell him, Look, we had something for a while, and hey it didn't work out. No hard feelings. You move on. Here's your key and the past-due rent. So long, I told myself I'd tell him. So long. It's amazing how quickly you get used to being left. It's like meeting yourself again. It's not all that lonely. One week went by. No cryptic letter saying it was a great ride but I'm confused. I'm gay. I'm Buddhist and I need to go on a pilgrimage like Siddhartha. I'm scared of love because this one time I got hurt so bad ... Nothing. Zero. I went over to the bookstore and the manager said Edward hadn't shown up and hadn't called in. And he was sorry, because he liked him and the customers liked him. Edward was the anchor of the sales team, the guy said. A real future in book selling. I asked at the coffee shop and the people said they hadn't seen him around. Edward's friend with the scarf, the chess mullah, he called himself, said maybe I needed some patience, that maybe I just needed to wait Edward out for a while. When I said I was thinking of going to the police and filing a report or something, this asshole just looks at me and says who am I to say who's missing and who's not. Missing from where? Another week went by. I went to the police and they opened a file and said they'd call me if anything turned up. I checked the hospitals—nothing. Meanwhile, I started going out more. To clubs with some other teachers from work. I even dated a social studies teacher a few times, nice guy with a mile-long forehead. The first of the month came around and I didn't pay any rent because I didn't know who to pay it to. I'd given my checks to Edward for my half. I figured I'd wait until someone called or came around asking. Of course I went through his stuff. Nothing in his papers but some receipts and Visa bills. No family pictures except a bunch of his grandfather leaning against a Buick. So he had no cards from his mother and nobody ever called him? I thought maybe he threw the cards out or his parents didn't know where he was living. Unlike me, he didn't feel the need to blab his history to people who wouldn't want to listen anyway.
What'd this guy look like?
He was bulky, not fat exactly. And he wore it kind of happy, you know? And tall. I think he had more trouble with being tall. He was one of those tall guys who doesn't know what to do with his height. The kind of guy that lanks around and apologizes for having to stoop through doorways, except that Edward never apologized, he only sort of waved.
And thus: Shy and gentle! Big and tall! Edward roams. Gone what? Two, three weeks? Rent need not be paid. Sounds like a good deal.
There was a blind guy who lived upstairs.
Now you're just making shit up.
Not totally, mostly blind. His name was Mr. Ludner. He was easy to forget about. He was so quiet, but some nights Edward would go up there when I was working in the darkroom and sit with him. Mr. Ludner sold televisions at Sears for something like fifty years, and he'd lost his sight gradually, until one morning—this is what he told Edward—he woke up and he couldn't shake out of the blur of his dream. Then he understood he wasn't sleeping. Sometimes—this was the only time you ever heard a peep out of him—he played Mozart arias and tried to sing along in what he thought must have sounded like Italian. Mr. Ludner lived on a small pension and disability. Sears gave him a washer-drier when he retired, which he said was funny since he'd worked in home electronics. And those arias coming from upstairs. Mostly you just forgot about it and then there it was. The music, and him up there alone, singing alone.
You know how I am.
The guy's missing. You're talking about pensions.
Right, because for you this would be easy, because for you saying anything is easy.
Excerpted from Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge by Peter Orner. Copyright © 2013 Peter Orner. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
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