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Authors: Peter Orner

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Esther Stories

BOOK: Esther Stories
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To my brother, Eric,


In memory of Andre Dubus

I have spoken of the origin, progress, and present condition of this new and thriving place. But notwithstanding these ever falling waters, and these granite buildings, and all this iron machinery, and everything that looks so strong and permanent around us, the time may come when this village shall be raised from its deepest foundations. Where are the people of former ages?

—Reverend Orin Fowler,
History of Fall River,


These engrossing stories are too pure and subtle to be called a proof and demonstration of the power of literary realism. Such a statement would have to be translated into suppler language in order to sound as true as it is in fact—into words that could respect how naturally the stories are told, how quiet they are, how innocent of pretense and full of implication.

Realism has been so predominant a style among American writers for so many generations that it is easy to forget it is a style, and a sharp departure from the courtliness and conventionalism that had prevailed in earlier centuries. Its lineage is clearly traceable to the Enlightenment and Romanticism, when writers awakened to the poetry of common speech and the revelations of ordinary daylight. Over the years it has sometimes taken on a moralizing tone, often in association with sensationalism, that famous elixir of flagging invention. But in itself it is both impetus and method for exploration of the astounding world of human experience, the impetus being that the subject is inexhaustible, and the method being the resource of insight and intuition any writer can bring to it. Nothing prevents realism from being called a metaphysics of consciousness except an honorable realist dread of entrapment in categories and abstractions on one hand, and, on the other, a superficial familiarity that masks its most interesting effects.

Time is a subject in
Esther Stories.
This most universal and commonplace experience is also a great mystery, to science, to philosophy, to any reflecting mind. These fictions stir a kind of recognition that is as intimate as awakened memory, acquiescence in a knowledge so habitual we are startled to be reminded of it.

A boy and girl spend a furtive night together at an abandoned motel. Virgins before that night, they imagine themselves transformed by this shared initiation. They are eager to try the effects of the change on their school friends. But the boy wakes in the morning to find that the girl has left him there, driven off in his car. He is stung by this act of abandonment, his rage and bewilderment seemingly out of all proportion to the act itself. She has left as a kind of vengeance in anticipation of abandonment she knows she will suffer—“her father had gotten away with it.” And he knows the grief he feels will matter, that “this right now will always be worse than any funeral.” Their step into adulthood awakens the demons waiting there, memories that bring with them inevitable iterations of grief and dread and self-defeat. The past spreads into the future like the waters of a flood, its flows and currents dominating the landscape.

An old navy veteran has only one memory, a story he tells compulsively, not remembering that he has told it before. It is the memory of one atrocious act for which no confession or contrition is adequate, and it, with its rituals of attempted release, is more present to him than present time.

A woman whose presence has power that might be attributed to beauty or charm, but which is not to be accounted for in such conventional terms, is the pride and grief and fascination of her family and is isolated from them by this very fascination. And after her early death she lives on in their stories, mysterious as she ever was in life, immortal in her isolation.

Often the settings of these stories are those American places that are both provincial and universal, unheard-of towns with familiar customs and landmarks, like almost anywhere on the Fourth of July. The hauntingly recent past is abandoned along the highway, falling into unconsecrated ruin, speaking from the peripheries of awareness, having no appeal to make for itself except to the intimacy of colloquial memory. In this light, or twilight, the appeal is not to be resisted.

Esther Stories
events send their repercussions across time so that they become event again and again, like sound or shock. Their magnitude cannot be measured apart from their effects. These stories are tentative measures of impact as it moves through families or generations, or is felt by a stranger in the outskirts of a town where a murder happened, or in a house where a tenant has died. Unquantifiable in themselves since by implication their consequences have no certain limit, they come near erasing our hierarchies of relative significance. We know now what a telling spark can be struck from a pervading and invisible medium of reality. These stories make the same discovery.

Marilynne Robinson

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.
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.
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?”

“Gina? Gertrude?”


“Never came back here ever.”

“No, never heard of it. Family acts like she never existed.”

“Well. She was a disgrace, I suppose.”

“Yes, well.”

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.

the same afternoon they found her (two days after her husband discovered her car in the parking lot of a supermarket in Galesburg). He was leaning against the ruins of an old corncrib, still weeping, his head between his knees. He’d broken both his thumbs in a rusty hinge. When they bandaged them up at the jail in Aledo, his thumbs were black.

Out near New Boston, Illinois, floods are so common that the land is soggy no matter what the season. Even so, people say the Mississippi moves slower in their part of the western edge of the state. To honor their dead towns, they say. Industry, except of course John Deere (you can’t kill John Deere, people say), has long since moved south, and even north, anywhere but here. In 1958, the National Park Service described New Boston as “a charming old town originally laid out by Abraham Lincoln when he was junior surveyor at New Salem.” Now a single store remains open on Center Street, a Casey’s Minimart, and if you want a tour of the museum (on the first floor of what used to be the Lincoln House Hotel) you can call one of two numbers written on a cardboard sign tacked to the front door and ask for either Debbie Shambrock or Eleanor Lloyd. On the river, at the end of the town pier, there’s a floating gas station for fishermen where you can buy Pepsi, ice, and lures. In the other direction, along route A-27 where it intersects the Great River Road, are the remains of an old Greek-revival mansion, grass growing up between the steps, the pillars gnawed like tossed-away corncobs.

Lock Dam Road is a gravel road that looks like many others northwest of town. It is not marked and the name appears only on the most detailed regional map, a map the sheriff had to consult before he informed the press where the body was found. He couldn’t have just said they found her in a hollowed-out tree in a field on the land Steve Matovic used to rent before he split up with his wife and stopped farming altogether. That wouldn’t have meant much to the out-of-town press. Unlike the other roads, which all fork, Lock Dam Road holds and eventually hits the river. At the end of it is Lock Dam #3, which the state stopped operating in 1975. The tree, which is about a mile from the river, stands alone and must for years have been a favorite target of the lightning that did finally get it. One jagged portion remains, blackened, a charred finger pointing up. People say it looked like a grave even before it happened. High school kids for years used it as a dump for empties.


Mostly it was the old naggy curiosity that made her drive out there. When she was a kid she would leap on her bike at the sound of a siren anywhere near her house and investigate until she found the fire trucks or ambulance or cops. And then sometimes she’d wait an hour or so for something to happen, even though usually it didn’t amount to much more excitement than the paramedics wheeling out an already stiff old cooter or, at other, rarer times, someone younger. The only noise the rattle of the gurney’s crazy wheels across the asphalt and the jounce of the fluid bottles above the head of the silent main event. She drove south to New Boston from a suburb of Davenport, Iowa. She crossed the river at Muscatine. Her name was Janet, and she was a senior in high school, already accepted into college at Ames. She had her own car, so she didn’t have to tell anybody where she was going. And if anybody asked, she would have lied, because what would people have thought if she told them she wanted to see the tree where they found the teacher that got hacked, the mother with the three kids. Her friends would call her completely morbid; her mother would call her lazy. She’d read about it in the Quad Cities paper.
Travis Oarly. No criminal record. Eight years ago he’d been a student in her class. He was known as being maybe a little slow, but never violent. The paper quoted a neighbor, who said he’d never so much as spat on a plant all the eighteen years she’d known him. “Travis was always gentle. He never said much after his mother died, but even so he smiled at you. I’m floored by this. A thing like this you can’t get yourself to believe.” The corncrib where they found him was three hundred yards away from the tree. They found his truck in a creek a mile southwest. And then there was that stuff about the thumbs, which the paper said the police were still investigating. The article quoted the county public defender, who hinted, though he insisted it was far too early to speculate, that the condition of his client’s thumbs “indicates the strong possibility of third-party involvement.”

It was after 8:30 on a Wednesday night when she stopped at the Casey’s for directions. The woman behind the counter had a kind, supple face and wiggly arms. When Janet pushed the door open, the chimes thwacked the glass and the woman appeared to wake from a nap she was taking while standing. Janet could tell from the way her jaw drooped a bit and then tightened that she was curious why a girl not from around here would want to go poking around Lock Dam Road at night, especially after what had happened out there not even ten days ago. But she kept it to herself, only gave directions as best she could. Janet nodded vigorously and pretended to understand. Then she bought a Coke and a chocolate doughnut and thanked her a lot. It was still light, the second week of May, but as she walked back to the car Janet could feel the heat of the day leaving quickly, as though draining into the river she could feel lurking down there at the end of the street.

She kept getting lost, driving to the last houses of dead ends. Kept backing up into long gravel driveways and turning around and trying other roads. It took another half hour before she found it, and even then she wasn’t sure the road kept going—twisting, then sharp-angling—four miles or so. The tree was easy to spot, all alone out there. By this time it was less dark than simply ash-colored, with streaks of white-gray light low in the trees that hid the river. She parked on the edge of the road and walked across the boggy ground. There was a strand of yellow
tape bunched up on the ground. It looked like a leftover streamer. Other than that, no sign of what had happened there, only bootprints turned puddles in the mud. Standing before the tree, she thought about how perfectly innocent places take on meanings they don’t deserve: the empty lot where her grandfather’s store burned down (the rumors that he set the fire himself made the black cement remains of the basement even worse to look at); the spot near the Dumpster behind the granary where her sister did a bump of crystal meth and then almost got raped by Derrick Fanton’s brother Ty; the intersection of Gurlick and Seventh, where Maury Ravel got squashed. She figured the tree used to be an elm, but she really didn’t know. Maybe it was a sycamore. She’d always meant to get a tree book, but whenever she went to the library for things like that, she always ended up getting distracted by the towers of newspapers in the periodical room. She knocked on the bark and it felt wet against her knuckles. Inside, there was soil mixed with clean white gravel. With the bark pointing to the sky like that, the tree looked like a huge high-back dining-room chair. The opening wasn’t facing the road, so whoever found the teacher’s body must have walked around from the back and looked in. She laughed at herself for being Nancy Drew and for not being afraid even though it was getting darker now. God knows, everybody would think she was nuts, but all this is is a tree. And this is only darkness. Her father, who had been afraid of everything, once told her there was so much more to be scared of than darkness, namely people. People at night, people in the early afternoon, people who laugh too much. People who don’t tuck in their shirts. Her father terrified of everybody else, but when it came down to it, what had killed him started with him, spreading up from his pancreas.

They ran a picture of Travis Oarly in the paper. It was from the year he’d been a student in the teacher’s class. One of those school photographers must have had a hell of a time coaxing him to smile. Him sitting before one of those godawful cloud-blue backgrounds. His cropped hair looking like somebody had cut it with a thresher. They must have made a compromise: if Travis smiled, he got to close his eyes. His smile was more a twitch. His eyes pencil points staring out between nearly closed lids. So much retreat in those eyes it was impossible not to cry out for him in spite of the article that went with the picture. Well, maybe it was impossible for her not to. If her mother could hear what she was thinking, she’d say, Janet’s heart bleeds for every stranger, but her hands are allergic to work. Feeling sorry for a killer, what about those motherless children? Huh, Janet? A murder in some town in Illinois, people you don’t even know. Now let’s talk about how many jobs you’ve quit in the past year and how many cards you never sent to Grandma Danner. You think she grows Nordstroms in the yard?

Janet sat down and leaned against the tree, felt the wet seep through her jeans. She knows he did it, that the speculation about other people being involved was shit, a desperate attempt by a lawyer with zero to divert attention from the obvious. The newspaper passed it on to sell more papers. Fool cops and lawyers, reporters—any answer you want’s right there in the school picture. Anybody with half an ounce of humanity would have been kind to a boy who couldn’t force himself to look out his own eyes, and maybe he wanted that kindness back. Or maybe he hated her for it. Janet gazed out at what she could still see of the flattened boggy fields and the cluster of abandoned farm buildings. Somewhere over there stood the corncrib where they found him. The rusting equipment, blacker shadows against the darkening gray. To the east, behind her, the rectangled light of a single inhabited trailer in the distance across the fields. Soon the sky and the ground will turn the same dull black, the color of the tree itself. I won’t go back to the car, she whispered. Not yet. She took off her shoes and rubbed them in the soft slick of mud.

She thought of his seeing her, after so many years, seeing her.


Everything’s lonely today. Even his hands on the wheel are lonely today.


(And her mother asking quietly, but really shouting from the trees and darkness, What in God’s name does any of this have to do with you?)


Her white tennis shoes in the parking lot. And his jarring the door open and her leaning in to say hi, to shake his hand and say, It’s good to see you, Travis—and his taking that hand and yanking, the groceries falling, crushing bananas, a box of Cream of Wheat.


Please. A voice that used to say, Try it again, Travis. Take your time, Travis. Try it again, Travis. Now the voice says, I don’t know what you want. Him not knowing either. On the highway now.


And her mother watches her mourn in the dark of a town in Illinois nobody’s ever heard of—for a murderer, a cold-blooded heinous raper killer, and Janet whispers, but really shouts, Mom, the coroner found no evidence of rape. It was in the paper. Something else he wanted. She looks out into the pale nothing, the dark flat churned ground. She thinks about living here, about knowing this place well enough to see one mile different from another. She thinks of how her eyes often miss things, even in her own neighborhood. A yellow fire hydrant, paint-chipped, its foundry date 1971. A light-blue house around the corner. It took fourteen years for her to notice an old man pressing his nose to a window on the second floor. Travis knew every inch of this place. She sees him wandering here, his hands in his pockets, eyes to the ground, finding things. Steel-belted radials. Dead baby mongooses. A flooded field that looks like a swimming pool made of river. What if he only wanted to show her a pool made of river? She’s lying now, but what’s it matter? It’s all maybe now. She thinks of what he did after to his thumbs. How the peanut-headed prosecutors—dumber even than the defense—won’t see it as anything other than the incriminating (and lucky for them) remorse of an idiot. Wanted to kill your own paws for what you did? Didn’t you feel so bad? Isn’t that the way it went with your hands, Travis? No, something else. Out here where he stood and cried and looked at her and left her, no wind on his face, as there’s none now on Janet’s. Only this awful peace. Maybe he needed to feel the loss of something in his own hands. His mother died and maybe he didn’t feel anything. The rusty hinge squeals and he forces it harder. He has to use his face to crush the second thumb because his other hand hurts too much. And maybe as he is doing it, maybe he also knows it won’t do any good, that pain’s fragile, that it vanishes fast as kindness. Maybe he knows even the hell of what he’s just done to her will disappear, that he won’t be able to hold it, that even his hands will heal.

BOOK: Esther Stories
7.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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