Walt Kaplan is working in his “unquiet shoebox study.” He is remembering, “which is hard work,” he tells his eight-year-old daughter through the study door. “You think remembering things is a peanut, Peanut?” The daughter asks which story and he tells her, “The hurricane of ’38.” She’s heard this one before. “You think a story dies?” Walt asks his daughter. “(Her little mouth breathing through the keyhole.) Five hundred times [she’s] heard [the] same story.” But she listens through the keyhole because stories aren’t static, Peter Orner seems to be saying. “Every time you tell anything, you have to add something new,” the girl tells her father. Orner shows us over and over in this collection that even though stories could be like marks along the kitchen doorframe, documenting height over time, they aren’t. Peter Orner’s latest collection of stories, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, is a testament to the way people change stories and stories change people — that when you tell a story, it isn’t always a measure of who you were then, as much as it speaks to who you are now.
George Orwell said of Henry Miller, “You feel the peculiar relief that comes not so much from understanding as from being understood. It is as though you could hear a voice speaking to you, a friendly American voice, with no humbug in it, no moral purpose, merely an implicit assumption that we are all alike.” That’s what we get here with Orner, honesty and empathy, he understands. In this second collection of stories, the first being Esther Stories, which was reissued in April 2013, Orner again renders the disappointed, the lonely, the blue collar. And as before, he captures his characters’ voices without exploiting them, using plain language to surprisingly poetic ends.
In the first story, “Foley’s Pond,” the speaker recalls the time his friend’s two-year-old sister drowned. “Remembering this all now,” Orner writes, “what comes to me most vividly is my own private anger towards Nate, anger I can still summon.” A girl died, but the narrator is upset that he and his friends lost their swimming spot. And he can still summon the anger years later. Orner doesn’t mention shame about said anger, but it’s felt. While police divers from Chicago search for the girl’s body, the narrator watches “just outside the ring of lights.” In a way the image of the boy outside the ring of lights is how the stories in Last Car work. The boy is watching the girl’s mother watch the divers. Everyone is looking at something different and also the same; it’s all a matter of vantage point.
“The Vac-Haul” opens with, “For hours we listened to it on the radio, and not once did Larry Phoebus say a word.” The narrator and Larry Phoebus are sitting in the Vac-Haul truck, a $2 million machine that sucks up sewage but doesn’t see much action anymore. On the radio a woman has shot some school kids. So we have the narrator, a college kid home for the summer, and Larry Phoebus, who never speaks and “pull[s] out a sandwich from his jacket pocket,” and eats his lunch in the truck with the windows up. Then of course, there is the story of the woman who has killed an eight-year-old and planted bombs at some of the nearby schools. What we get in this small space, with so many stories stacked up this way, is meaning and experience multiplied. The speaker’s experience — both past and present, as the story is being told some years later — and that of Larry and the woman come together and intensify, and perhaps most interestingly, kaleidoscope. With “The Vac-Haul,” as with many others in this collection, Orner’s power is in the in-between, more in the telling of the story than the story itself. Orner writes, “When I think of that time, I think of the tenacity of the man’s breathing. I think of her also.” Ultimately, it’s what is remembered rather than what actually happened that is most important.
What follows are love affairs in hotel rooms, quiet suicides in basements, and monologues about being known for wearing goofy hats. What follows are stories that don’t begin and end in the same place, at least not emotionally. There are whole stories in what isn’t said. In “Railroad Men’s Home,” Orner writes, “He never once mentioned trains. He’d been a conductor on the Chicago/Kenosha line for fifty-odd years.” The old man and narrator have been talking twice a week for months and the man never once mentioned 50 years worth of experiences. Why do we do that? Why at the end of life is this old man “looking for virgin ghosts to violate?” And then there’s the question of why the narrator is there at all. As in other stories, the narrator is looking back in time and tracking what’s changed. The railroad home is gone. “People seemed to notice it only after they started to tear it down.” But it’s not just that. How has he, the speaker, changed? How has he changed in relationship to the trauma he told the old railroad man about, to the fact that he wasn’t sad when his dog ran away or that his parents were basically strangers?
Just as it would be hard to imagine a version of The White Album that doesn’t have “Martha My Dear” follow “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” the sequencing in Last Car is critical. It more than matters as it creates an experience such that the act of reading is so far in the background that it doesn’t feel like it’s happening. “Horace and Josephine,” a story about a married couple once rich but now too poor to die in the same hospital, is followed by a story about a babysitter who wraps a baby in a towel and puts him in the oven because the heat is out. It doesn’t sound funny, but it is. All I managed to write in the margin of “Horace and Josephine” was fuck, the saddest one yet. So it was good to laugh at the bit about the baby in the oven.
The stories are short, but aren’t merely episodes as you might expect from some of the one-page pieces. Orner accomplishes this by not bogging us down with details that don’t serve the story. What he does give us is insight into his characters like “the woman [who] could spend five minutes on the same page,” or another character whose face “was red with sadness and January,” or finally, Seitz who “always looked closely at each bite of food before he put it in his mouth.” It’s similar to using every part of the whale. There are no throwaways in Orner’s work. And he doesn’t feel obliged to outline the passing of time or shifts in perspective. In one story it’s not until the end that we learn the story is being told by a dead man from his grave. Throughout, Orner makes quick and quiet moves, voltas, if you will, and doesn’t ask for permission or feel the need to ramp up to things. He seems to trust himself, and we should too.