Esther Storiesby Peter Orner
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Peter Orner explores the impact of life's essential moments, those brief but far-reaching occasions that haunt his characters. The discovery of a crime, a theatrical performance in a small town, or the recollection of a cruel wartime decision are equally affecting in Orner's vivid scenarios. Esther Stories is divided into four distinct parts, each with its own momentum. The first half of the book concerns the lives of unrelated strangers, and the second introduces two Jewish families, one on the East Coast, the other in the Midwest.These stories cover considerable geographic ground from Nova Scotia to Mississippi, from Fall River, Massachusetts, to Chicago but the real territory is emotional. As the narrator of the title story tries to piece together his late aunt Esther's life from the fragments of stories told about her, he remembers what she told him in a dark kitchen when he was a child: "You pay for everything. When you think you're getting something for free remember this you'll pay later." All thirty-two wide-ranging pieces funny or sorrowful, urban or rural, simple or innovative are welcome additions to the art of the story.
Author Biography: Peter Orner was born in Chicago and spent time in Africa with a Harvard program as a student. He attended the University of Michigan and graduated from Northwestern in 1990. He holds both an MFA from the University of Iowa and a degree in law. He served as a public defender in Massachusetts and currently teaches law in Prague. He will return to the States in July of 2000 to teach in the creative writing program at Miami University of Ohio. Orner's stories have appeared in the AtlanticMonthly, North American Review, Epoch, Denver Quarterly, Michigan Quarterly Review, and other periodicals.
"There's startling intimacy in every story of Peter Orner's debut collection."
There's startling intimacy in every story of Peter Orner's debut collection."Judy Doenges, Washington Post"
I was stunned by a sentence or two in every one of the works in Esther Stories." Rick Moody, The Hartford Courant"
A luminous debut collection. . . .Like Amy Bloom and Charles Baxter, Orner has a gift for revealing how the tragic and the mundane occupy equal berths in our limited mental space."John Freeman, Chicago Tribune"
Some of Orner's very short stories are the best of that form that I have read since Isaac Babel's."Andre Dubus"
If the short story were in need of a future, it has been found in Peter Orner."Dennis Lehane"
These are stories of unusual delicacy and beauty, and this is a remarkable collection."Charles Baxter"
Orner doesn't simply bring his characters to life, he gives them souls."Margot Livesey, New York Times Book Review
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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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 saidshameless 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 approvedLord 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 latehe’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 yearswhen 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 himan 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 needleshe must have used a needleand 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?” “Georgette?” “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.
Copyright © 2001 by Peter Orner. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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Meet the Author
Peter Orner is the author of two other books, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, and Love and Shame and Love. Some of the stories in Esther Stories first appeared in Atlantic Monthly, Epoch, North American Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Southern Review, among other periodicals. One was reprinted in The Best American Short Stories 2001, and another in The Pushcart Prize XXVI. Orner was born in Chicago and now lives in San Francisco.
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