The Washington Post
The Coffins of Little Hopeby Timothy Schaffert
An 83-year-old obituary writer for a struggling, small-town newspaper finds herself embroiled in intrigue, stumbling onto the story of her career: a country girl has gone missing, perhaps whisked away by an itinerant aerial photographer. Or so it seems. It all could be simply a hoax, or a delusion, the child and child-thief invented from the desperate… See more details below
An 83-year-old obituary writer for a struggling, small-town newspaper finds herself embroiled in intrigue, stumbling onto the story of her career: a country girl has gone missing, perhaps whisked away by an itinerant aerial photographer. Or so it seems. It all could be simply a hoax, or a delusion, the child and child-thief invented from the desperate imagination of a lonely, lovelorn farm woman. The fragility of childhood, the strength of family, and the powerful rumor mills of small, rural townsThe Coffins of Little Hope tells the story of characters caught in the intricately woven webs of myth, legend and deception.
Esther Myles, an obituary writer in her eighties working for a struggling small-town newspaper, finds herself embroiled in intrigue, stumbling upon the story of her career as the story of the girl reaches far and wide, igniting controversy, attracting curiosity-seekers from all over the country to this dying rural town. And what do the gothic tales of Miranda and Desiree, the storybook sisters of Muscatine’s series of novels, play in this town’s survival and in the enduring mystery of Lenore?
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THE Coffins of Little Hopea novel
By Timothy Schaffert
UNBRIDLED BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Timothy Schaffert
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI still use a manual typewriter (a 1953 Underwood portable, in a robin's-egg blue) because the soft pip-pip-pip of the typing of keys on a computer keyboard doesn't quite fit with my sense of what writing sounds like. I need the hard metal clack, and I need those keys to sometimes catch so I can reach in and untangle them, turning my fingertips inky. Without slapping the return or turning the cylinder to release the paper with a sharp whip, without all that minor havoc, I feel I've paid no respect to the dead. What good is an obituary if it can be written so peaceably, so undisturbingly, in the dark of night?
Though my name does not begin with an S, my byline has always been S Myles because I'm Esther, but more often Essie, or Ess, and thus S (just S, no period) on the page.
Chapter TwoOur town, statistically, was the oldest it had ever been, population-wise. At eighty-three, I was years and years past a reasonable retirement age, but I'd never been so busy. We were all of us quite old, we death merchants—the town's undertaker (seventy-eight), his organist (sixty-seven), the desairologist (desairology: dressing and ironing the hair of the deceased, manicuring their nails, rouging their cheeks with a simulated blush of heat; seventy-three), the florist (her freezer overgrown with lilies; eighty-one). The cemetery's caretaker, who procured for the goth high schoolers who partied among the tombstones, was the enfant terrible among us (at an immature fifty-six).
I'd chronicled the town's dead since dropping out of the eighth grade to work for my father, the publisher of the County Paragraph, a newspaper eventually to be run by my grandson, Doc (called Doc for his professorial carriage, in three-piece suits and neckties, and for his use of overly brainy words in his editorials, words lifted from a brittle-edged, outdated thesaurus in his top desk drawer). My first obit had not been meant as an obit but rather as an essay about my mother, who'd died giving birth to me. Throughout my childhood, I'd studied the sewing room my father had left untouched, and I'd stitched together a portrait of her based on notes she'd scribbled in the margins of recipe cards ("orange peel works too"), and on the particular velvet dress—with a patchwork of mismatched buttons—that had been left unfinished on the dressmaker's dummy, and on the postcards she'd had the bad habit of starting but not finishing (Dear Millie [her sister], Just a fast, quick, short, unimportant note so I can get this into the mail before the carrier comes— then nothing else).
You would think a woman in her eighties wouldn't cry for her mommy, and I don't really, it's really for the little girl that I was that I cry after I've had three or four whiskeys of an evening. But the weeping is pleasure. When I cry like a baby, my aches go, and I feel skinned, refreshed afterward. At that moment I'm happy to be sad and wish I could be so melancholy for hours. But it's fleeting. Sobriety is quick, and the night too long, and as I lie awake with sleeplessness, nervous from drink, I wish I hadn't drunk a drop.
Chapter ThreeAnd this very book began not as a book but as an obit of a kind for a little girl who up and went missing one simple summer day. On this girl we pinned all hopes of our dying town's salvation. The longer we went without seeing her even once, the more and more dependent upon her we grew. She became our leading industry, her sudden nothingness a valuable export, and we considered changing the name of our town to hers; we would live in the town of Lenore. Is it any wonder that we refused to give up hope despite all the signs that she'd never existed, that she'd never been anybody—never, not even before she supposedly vanished?
By the time Daisy, the mother of that vaporous Lenore, finally called me to her farmhouse, after all the weeks of bickering and debate that enlivened our town yet ruined its soul, after most of the events of this book had passed, no one anywhere was any longer waiting for word of Lenore's death. It was the last Thursday of January, and the week had moved from an unseasonable thaw into a bitter chill that pained your teeth as you leaned into the wind. I went, alone, as requested, intending to help Daisy, as if plotting to steal her away from her own delusions. For some of us, Lenore was nothing but a captivating hoax, while for others, she was a grim tragedy, a mystery cynically left unsolved.
You were either one of the ones who truly believed in Lenore or you were one of the ones who believed in the same way you believe in the trickling stigmata of a plastic Virgin, with a trust in magic and miracle mostly for the thrill of it. Or you were one of the ones with no faith at all. Those were the ones, the ones with disbelief, who benefited the most, who made the most money on the sad pilgrims who skulked in and out of our town.
Some of you may say I'm just as bad as the worst of the people who've exploited the summer, flail, and winter of Lenore, that I've played this story like an accordion for the purposes of melodrama, squeezing and stretching, inflating and deflating scenes and events at will. You'll say I wasn't everywhere; you'll say there's no way I can know all that I've depicted. But I stand behind all the truths in this story of deception. Maybe because I've so long looked so old, even when I was relatively young, that people feel they can be revealing around me, that they can unbutton their lips and let slip intimate facts and trust that I have the maturity to keep my mouth shut.
Chapter FourWhat will you most remember? It's a question I've asked of the grieving hundreds and hundreds of times. The people I ask almost always take a deep breath and exhale. "What will I most remember?" they most always say, looking up and off as they're thinking back. Their first responses, which come too quickly, simply to fill the silence in the room, are unexceptional: her infectious smile, his playful wink, her bubbly laugh, his gruff demeanor, which disguised his sweet, soft heart. But here's what I do: I write nothing down. I give them absolutely nothing, as if they've not yet said a word. I sit, my skinny legs crossed beneath my long skirt, my steno pad atop my knee, the point of my pen pressed on the paper but not moving, not even to doodle. They know that I know they can do better than that. To please me, then, they see past their grief and breathe vivid life back into their beloveds, in idiosyncratic detail.
What will they most remember about me? Will it be the cherry cough drops I constantly popped and the tart, antiseptic scent they gave my breath and the noise they made knocking against my teeth (my death rattle, my great-granddaughter lovingly calls it)? Because, you see, I've always been nervous among all the despair. And the older I've grown, the more nervous I've become.
Once upon a time, I could ease into a house of mourning as inconspicuously as a neighbor dropping off a coffee cake. An obit writer should not, by nature, be a memorable visitor. But when my crooked shadow falls across the doorstep, people likely think I've come grim-reaping. My hair is snow-white, and I'm quite tall, my head only just clearing some of the shorter of the doorjambs, even with an old-lady slouch I've had since girlhood. As a gangly teen, I thought it made me lady-like to curl in on myself. I thought it demure to lean forward into invisibility. All the admonishment I took from my concerned aunties for letting my hair fall in my face (flirty-like, one aunt said with disdain) failed to get me to straighten up, but I did take to wrenching it all back into a tight ponytail with silk ribbons, and I do still twist my knotted braids atop my head and riddle them with combs and clips and, my favorite, an ostentatious dragonfly hairpin bejeweled with colored glass. It's how people know me, for better or worse.
Chapter FiveThe January afternoon I was summoned to Daisy's farm, on the pretense of writing Lenore's obit, Daisy welcomed me in and brushed the snow off my disgraceful fur coat, a mink that had long been on its last legs. She helped me to unravel the wool scarf I'd wrapped around my head, fussing with it when it caught on the wings of my dragonfly hairpin. She stuffed the scarf into a sleeve of my coat and hung the coat on the corner of the open closet door.
We sat at the kitchen table with cups of coffee, and after she told me stories of Lenore's childhood, all stories I'd heard before, she poured more coffee into my cup, though I'd yet to drink a sip. The coffee smelt burnt somehow, and it spilled over the brim. I held my hand above the rising steam in hopes of nursing my stiff joints.
Daisy pulled a thin cardigan tight over her shoulders. She wore a wispy blue dress meant for summer. She had a craggy, haggard beauty, all her troubles having taken their toll. Even sitting still and shivering, she had a bitter edge, a low-level fierceness. Middle age had rendered Daisy wasted and lovely both.
Daisy bit at the dry skin of her lip.
"Your lip's bleeding, sweetie," I said.
Daisy took the tissue tucked into the cuff of her sweater and dabbed at her lip. She pulled the tissue away to check the spot of blood, then dabbed again, then checked again. She kept dabbing and checking until the spots of blood shrank away.
"I know you're not going to print what I've told you," Daisy said, gesturing toward my notes in my steno pad, making a little scribbling motion in the air.
I removed my reading spectacles, partly for effect—like a doctor pained by the diagnosis he's delivering—and partly because of the glasses' weight on the bridge of my nose. I set them atop my notebook. "No," I said, "we won't print it." I took off my watch, heavy on my wrist. How many more winters until my bones simply shattered beneath the weight of my skin? I lifted the dragonfly hairpin from the knotted braid atop my head. The insect's hooked legs had felt snagged in my hair, yanking at my scalp with my every nod. "I won't be writing an obituary for Lenore."
"Then what'd you come here for?" Daisy said, looking up at me with genuine interest.
"I thought it might help you," I said. "I want to help you." Help her, I thought, sneering to myself, even then. We were the ones who'd done all the damage, every last one of us. How could any of us help? I unclasped the cluster of rhinestones clipped to my left earlobe, a cumbersome piece of costume jewelry, and placed it among my other things. I hear best with that ear. "Daisy, I think you're hurt, is what I think. I think your heart is broken. Do you think my heart's never been broken? I know what such a thing does. If there's anything I know from this life, I know what heartbreak does."
Daisy said nothing, only stared at my undrunk cup of coffee. I then felt compelled to drink it. I leaned over to sip off the excess before lifting the cup. The coffee tasted humid, like the smell of a dishcloth left in the sink.
"Okay, I'll tell you the truth, Mrs. Myles," Daisy said.
"Please," I said, putting my chin in my hand and leaning forward, my good ear out.
"I lied," she said. "I don't really think Lenore is dead. I wanted you to write her obituary, and to print it, to wake everybody up. People would be disgusted by it, an obit for Lenore; I know they would. And they'd care about her again. Because, Mrs. Myles, I know he didn't kill her. He loved her. That's why he took her. She's somewhere alive, and afraid."
Finally a tear rolled down her cheek and over the pout of her lower lip. I was unmoved. Maybe I didn't want to help her at all. Maybe I just wanted to hear a confession, and I wanted to be the one to tell the truth to others. If I live to be a hundred, I'll still have this infantile need to know everything before everyone else.
None of this was an effort toward closure. It seemed just another beginning in a story that was all beginnings. And that was probably why my little town couldn't get enough of it. We were so tired of endings.
Chapter SixBut if we were to begin at the beginning, we would need to begin, strangely enough, with a book, the eleventh book in an eleven-book series. Many of you have read it at least once by now, whether aloud to a child at bedtime or simply to yourself. The eleven-book saga took years to unfold, invoking nightmares among generations of children. Many otherwise stable men and women well into their forties still feel struck with the heebie-jeebies when they recall the gothic predicaments of the two sisters, Miranda and Desiree, the innocent wards of Rothgutt's Asylum for Misguided Girls.
The eleventh book was long anticipated. We were finally to learn the fate of Miranda and Desiree, who'd spent the first ten books longing for their mother to come and collect them from the dank, infested halls of Rothgutt's. Even if you had never read a word of the Miranda-and-Desirees, it was impossible not to be versed in the language of the books, and their characters and places, and to be curious about how it all might end.
The first Miranda-and-Desiree books were morbid curiosities with small print runs, but eventually mad housewives in Middle America challenged the books at their local libraries. The books worked their way up the national banned books lists; they went up in smoke in bonfires fueled by zealots. When one First Lady took as her cause a campaign against violence in children's entertainment and censured the Miranda-and-Desirees for their inappropriate carnival of calamities, it was as if the publisher had rigged the lottery.
And that was how my family's newspaper, the County Paragraph, came to use its press to print a portion of the Miranda-and-Desiree novels. The series' publisher was a company in New York called Henceforth Books, and it was seeking presses in obscure parts of the country where it could covertly print the novels, avoiding the security breaches that had led to thieved copies, details leaked, plots spoiled. Executives of Henceforth consulted a Washington Post article called "The Last Gasps of the Small-Town Chronicle," in which the Paragraph was profiled among several little-town Tribunes, Republics, Heralds, Independents, Sentinels, and Optimists.
Doc, my grandson, was unhappy with the article—he'd been painted with a broad brush as a tad hapless, having built, in the country, a massive new state-of-the-art press, anticipating contracts with other area publications—a miscalculation, as newspapers decades old, some of them more than a century old, toppled all around us with minimal fanfare.
Though Doc foolishly underbid in his determination to become one of the several small-town publishers printing the books, and foolishly expanded the press's equipment to allow for the particulars of book publishing—the binding and the sewing and the finishing of the spine—the deal did manage to keep the press from getting mauled by its own gears. And had not the books become central to our conversations about Lenore, we would likely still be keeping mum about our involvement, just as we had since we'd first contracted with Henceforth Books, our confidentiality clauses quite rigid. When the books were being printed, the factory lights were dimmed to prevent workers from seeing so much as a single word; employees were subjected to pat-downs and searches of their lunch boxes by private security firms sent in by Henceforth. Midnight trains chugged up along rarely used tracks at the back of the factory, our forklifts cradling the boxes of books into the cars, to be delivered to the world. Ali that activity, and all that employment, and none of us breathed a word of it to anyone.
CH7[ Before Lenore vanished, Daisy worked at our printing factory, though none of us really knew her. She biked to the press in the early mornings and biked away in the early afternoons. She ate her lunch on a bench in the yard in the summer, and in the winter she ate on the floor in the hallway. She wasn't beloved for her eccentricity, but she wasn't hated for it either.
A man who Daisy called Elvis, because of his Vegas-style pompadour and sexy drawl, came to the door of her farmhouse the summer that the pages of the final Miranda-and-Desiree roiled secretly through the tumblers and cylinders of our press.
He stood at her door on a night in June with his denim shirt all unsnapped down the front, offering to help her clear the farm of the branches that a tornado had ripped from the trees and tossed asunder. He stayed in Daisy's house, and he was so good with Lenore, she claimed, so good that it broke her heart to think how long Lenore had been without a father figure. He waited for Daisy every evening in the parking lot of the printing press, and they would ride back to her farm, the two of them on her bike, wobbling along. He would ask her to describe the work she did, and she'd tell him how important it was, with this particular book, to manage the flow of the ink to the inking rollers. "It's a special ink, I guess," she said; "not a drop should be wasted"—an ink concocted of blueberries and carrots and kelp.
Excerpted from THE Coffins of Little Hope by Timothy Schaffert Copyright © 2011 by Timothy Schaffert. Excerpted by permission of UNBRIDLED BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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