Also by Peter Orner:

The Raft (April 2000)
"'It had zero to do with war,' my grandfather said, 'and everything to do with the uniform I was wearing. Because my job was to make decisions. Besides, what the hell would I have done with a boatload of naked Japanese?'"


Previously in Unbound Fiction:

The Result (October 17, 2001)
"He looked down at his hands. They were so red, it was as if all the blood from his pale face had drained downward." A short story by Matthew Clark Davison.

Initiation (August 15, 2001)
"Fraternity initiation, he said desperately—he had to bring a pair of panties, pretty ones, to the ceremony on Friday." A short story by Ann M. Bauer.

Learning Japanese (July 11, 2001)
"At recess, Min Hee and her friends go down and smoke cigarettes on the street. Don't tell Mom, she says, inhaling. I'll get you if you do." By Janice Lee.

The New Job (June 21, 2001)
"Each disciple—and Christ—had a pad, a pen, and a glass of water in front of him. At a small table off to the side, Mary Magdalene took notes on a stenography machine." By Sara Gran.

A Place of Safety (May 18, 2001)
"She recognizes a charred remnant of material, the thick corner of a book still smoldering, the twisted metal buckle of a baby's shoe." By Penny Feeny.

A Sign of the Times (April 25, 2001)
"If I wait long enough he's going to have to ask. He doesn't want to. Asking is like inviting cancer to eat out his insides." By Joan Wilking.

More Unbound Fiction

More fiction from The Atlantic Monthly

Atlantic Unbound | November 13, 2001
 
Unbound Fiction
 
The House on Lunt Avenue
.....

it is early Monday morning on Lunt Avenue, Roger's Park, Chicago. November, 1954. Seymour Burman shouts at his son, Philip, the boy who will become my father. It is ten before seven and Seymour's anger smells of Scotch. Philip is eighteen and has just flunked out of the University of Illinois. He lies on his old bed with a pillow over his face. The stink of filthy socks. Seymour paces the sliver of room not taken up by the bed. The floor creaks beneath the frayed carpet which was once green, but is now the stagnant brown of the puddles that lie near the sewers along Lunt Avenue waiting to be frozen by December. Philip lifts the pillow from his face and yawns.

"And tomorrow?" Seymour lifts a big cordovan leather shoe and stamps it for emphasis. It doesn't resound. This house. In a part of his brain not currently outraged by his slothful son, he decides, once and for all, the time has come to buy a place in the suburbs.

"Don't you have to go to work?" Philip says.

"You're a miserable lazy."

Philip props himself against the headboard. "Tomorrow. For Christ's sake, I said tomorrow."

"You think it's all free? Is that what?"

"What?"

Seymour flaps his arms. "This! This!"

Philip rolls his eyes and looks out the window. Even on this rare, bright November morning, the sunlight hardly creeps into the room because the house next door is so close, a proximity that used to be this room's single consolation. Millie Finckle's bedroom window is no more than ten feet away. Millie was in the class ahead of him at Sullivan and mostly ignored him. There were nights, though, when he caught her figure against the light, behind the pulled shade. But Millie is gone now, an Alpha Something Phi at Wisconsin, and already engaged to a darling handsome boy studying law at Northwestern. This information courtesy of Mrs. Finckle whispering in her mother's ear at the market. So now the possibility across the way is back to being a window and Philip is home again, a disgrace to the family.

"This is unacceptable!" Seymour booms.

"Give it a rest."

"You think I joke. I'll call a locksmith." He bolts from the room, pounds down the stairs—for a big man, he moves fast—and grabs his fur hat off the front-hall table. The house shakes after the slam of the front door, then is calm. Philip shuts his eyes and in a moment is nearly asleep, thinking not of Millie but of where she lives now. Soft bodies in an enormous foggy bathroom. White cream on faces, scurrying legs.

In pajama bottoms and no shirt, Philip wanders the house. His little sister, Esther, must be at school. His mother is probably dancing. The house stands, empty and silent, except for his grandmother who never leaves the guest room anyway. He stops by the door and listens to her cranky breathing. She's awake. Grandma Rachel breathes like that, as if she's asleep, even when she's not, even while she sits and stares at nothing. She'll never die. He doesn't knock.

There's a note from his mother on the kitchen table. (Four dollars is enclosed.) "Two roast beef sandwiches in the fridge. In wax paper, behind the tomato juice. Have a wonderful day! Ignore the Admiral. He's just letting out hot air. If he doesn't exhale, he'll explode all over. He does love you. By the way, they're hiring at Goldy's so you might be able to get your old job back. Hint. Hint. Kisses."

Bernice stands before the mirror in the ballet studio above Al Fonroy's Shirts and Slacks on Touy Avenue. Sweat pours down her neck and chest, soaking the front of her leotard. Her mind is on nothing but her flexibility and the power of her own legs. She stretches in the mirrors which double her image to infinity. There's nothing else in the world but this movement. Even at this small-time level. Yes, yes there was a time when bigger was possible. Before Seymour, the children, and the war. This Seymour can't take away. The great Kirstein himself watched her dance in a Ruth Page production of Frankie and Johnny. And after the show—she remembers this often—while the Russian girls were tittering a mile a minute, he approached her without introduction (his huge forehead gleaming) and said, simply, "Why not come to New York? I've started a school." And she almost went. Even now visions of dancing Morning, Noon, and Night at the Capitol Theatre invade her dreams. She extends her arms, slides, runs a step, a grand fouetté right, and half turns. Pauses. Then she muffs a tour jeté. Lands, turns, slides, slides, shuffles left, and is about to leap again --

"Bernice?"

"Yes."

"Your son's here."

She grips the bar and lifts her leg. In the mirror she examines the thin wrinkles that are now etched below her eyes like tiny veins in a marble pillar.

Philip will learn. She knows this. He'll catch on. He'll go to work. They always do. And thank God. They couldn't possibly not work. What would we do with them? But this doesn't mean the need won't go on. Her men. Esther has never had this. Always an independent young thing. Esther, who used to love getting lost in the shoe section of Marshall Fields, who used to try on big men's shoes and waddle around and quack at anyone who'd listen to her. Her daughter still thinks this life's not a compromise. But the men have always been different. Even Seymour, for all his bluster, couldn't find the feet to put in his shoes without her. And no matter how far they stray, they always return, guilty smiles spread across their mouths, begging for forgiveness, eyes to the floor. Seymour came back from the war a hero with his tail between his legs. And Philip's the same. He'll pull himself together. But like his father, there's something missing in him, not an essential thing, at least not to Seymour. Warmth, some courage, even love surface in both of them from time to time. Still, something's not there. She slides again, crosses a leg, leaps, and tries another tour jeté, this one a little better. The missing thing, she knows the moment she lands, so easy. You don't need talent, nothing. Only grace. The room begins to fill with other dancers. Bernice mops her neck with a towel.

"Tell him I'm teaching a class. Tell him my purse is on the bench in the back room."

Tuesday morning and the tweed coat doesn't fit and smells of Pall Malls. Philip Burman looks like a kid playing dress-up. The coat is leftover from his high school days, and it didn't fit well even then. A hand-me-down from his Uncle Wallace. Wallace was ten years younger than Seymour, closer in age to his nephew than his brother. The story goes that he laughed a lot—out loud—deep belly laughs that made the rest of the family nervous. The other legend is that it wasn't just a heart attack that dropped Wallace dead at thirty-eight, but also the stormy vigor of my grandfather to excel, to expand, to go public. Wallace was famous for failing. He didn't pay attention to unpaid balances. He neglected details, forgot appointments, always ran late. He sired only daughters.

On the El, Philip tugs his sleeves in an attempt to stretch the coat's arms. The knot under his chin is also excruciatingly tight, but he knows if he loosens his tie his father will notice right away. Today he will suffer it. The other people on the subway stare straight ahead or out the window at the tar-paper roofs of stores and the back porches of rambling tenements. Their bundled shoulders jolt with every lurch of the train.

At the office, Philip examines claims. He makes check marks. His job is to search for inconsistencies. In the numbers, in the descriptions of the accidents, in the words of his father, which liar did what to the other liar? He shuffles his feet under his desk. The office is cold and he bounces his legs to keep his feet warm. The place so silent, the flap of the turning of papers gets on his nerves. Cleaning out the fat drawer at Goldy's beat this. Fred and Myron yabbering about the price of hog whatevers and beans. The one bright spot is his father's secretary. Her name is Shirl. Not Shirley. She's already corrected him twice. "Only my mother calls me Shirley and she lives in Ohio." She's got on a thin print dress that is too short and summery for the weather. She's got plump cheeks and sighs a lot.

Behind Shirl, beyond the closed office door, Seymour sits at his desk, a paperweight gripped in his hand. Just before lunch he often daydreams about the war. Today in a starchy uniform and creased leather brimmed hat, he struts the bridge. The captain. Of all the guys on the ship, there's only one guy who's captain. He thinks about shaking Jackie Cooper's hand at Noumea, New Caledonia. Who can say they held Jackie Cooper's sweaty palm in theirs? Seymour's lackey, a very tall, timid, small eyed-man named Roger Craigson, has the office next door to the right. Craigson's door is open. It's Craigson who gives Philip work. He approaches the little table, blinking profusely, forcing a smile.

"Howz it?"

"I guess all right. I found some inconsistent things."

"Excellent. Let's have a look at your effort." Much is not said. Craigson's wary of the boss's kid. Craigson had a wife once but she ran, and now he wears this humiliation in the smile that juts out both edges of his mouth like twin scars. He's prepared for any kind of insult—he's endured them all—and he stares at Philip and waits for him to say something snide. But Philip says nothing, just points to what he's found and waits for Craigson to leave so he can stare more at Shirl's breasts which project angrily from her chest like the prows of attacking ships. She types like a banshee. The letters whack the paper like she's punching a bag. Seymour's door thrusts open. "I'll be at the Berghoff," he says. Shirl nods and looks curiously to Philip who—she'd noticed—looked down immediately when the door first cracked.

'i  just wanted to talk to you," Philip says. "Outside the office." The bartender clinks glasses, hums a silent song to himself. He's shrivel-faced and small, so tiny only his head bobs above the bar like a begging child. He looks at my father and sucks his cheeks. The place is called the Charlie Boo's: nothing more than a cramped narrow room, hardly more than a bar itself, some stools, and green and brown bottles in front of a mirror. A jukebox is jammed against the far wall. There's one guy at the end who looks like he's counting his fingers, over and over.

It is Thursday evening, four blocks from the office. Philip has followed Shirl. "Look. I don't want to be harsh, but you're a kid. Not only are you a kid, but you're the honcho's kid."

"I just wanted to talk to you. Without Craigson's eyes."

Shirl sighs and glances at herself in the mirror, nudges her hair. "Don't think about that dopey. Worry about the honcho." She looks at the door. "Look, anyway, I'm waiting for somebody."

Philip, his hands in his lap, rubs his thumbs together. "I'll wait with you until your friend comes," he says.

"Uy yuy yuy," she says, warming to him. She orders two beers from the little bartender.

The bartender looks doubtfully at Philip and winks at Shirl.

"The kid trailed me."

"You want me to take him by the ear?"

"I'm twenty-five," Philip says and puts a ten-dollar bill on the table.

"I'm Adlai Stevenson," The bartender says and places two glasses before them.

"Thank you, Boo Bear," Shirl says. She has a slight double chin, a second layer of skin softly rounds and dips below her jaw. She turns to Philip. "So you flunked out of school and now you're working for Daddy."

"Not for long."

"What are you going to do?"

"I don't know. Something else."

"Does the big guy know?"

"Screw him," Philip says. "It doesn't matter. I'm getting my own place. And a different job. So—" Shirl laughs and leans into the bar, tips over a glass with her elbow. A foamy stream nearly flows over the bar, but Philip blocks it with his sleeve before it has a chance to drop and spill all over her dress. Shirl rattles the bar. Says, "What about a little whisky for the babe in the woods?"

She lives on the third floor of a walk-up on North Pratt. They get off the El and walk along streets lined with dirty plowed snow that looks like piled ash. Now bundled in Wallace's beer-stained coat, Shirl marches ahead. Philip follows in shirtsleeves, quietly shivering, fearful of saying the wrong thing and being sent home. It is after midnight and they've been drinking for hours. Across the street from Shirl's building is a construction site, a large pit ringed by earth-moving machines that look to Philip like giant sleeping dinosaurs. Shirl flings open the lobby door. He watches her bare red ankles as she tromps up the stairs.

Shirl unlocks her door and leads him into a black hall. She turns on the light. "This is where I live," she says. He blinks and through the purple light in his eyes he sees a green couch and a metal card table. She flicks the light off. "You saw it. There it was." She leads him, clackety-clacking, through a dark room to a bed twice the size of the one in his own room. She pushes him onto it, kisses him, then rolls over and pulls her dress over her head. He places his hands on Shirl's coarse bra and shuts his eyes. The bed twirls. Shirl unbuttons his shirt, kisses him again, and bites his lip with a pointy incisor. He grabs her shoulders and squeezes. His feet begin to thaw.

"I have a cat," she says.

Philip murmurs he hates cats.

"You won't hate Theresa. Nobody hates Theresa." Her movements are quicker now, more abrupt, as though she wants to settle whatever this night's going to turn into before she is too tired and drunk to move anymore. She yanks his shoes off and throws them across the room. She unzips his pants, pulls the cuffs and slides them off. Scrunches next to him.

"Okay," she says and licks his ear. "Let's get this circus act underway."

"You smell like peaches," he whispers.

"Nice. That's nice," Shirl says and pulls him toward her. Then she scuttles atop him and jams her breasts into his chest. He squirms. There's some wet back and forthing, but other than that he feels nothing but the somersault of the room. Shirl's legs wiggle. She laughs and flounces.

In the morning it takes him a few panicked moments to figure out where he is. That cat glares at him from the floor. She's made a nest out of Wallace's coat. The room has no pictures. There is only this cat. Shirl's knee digs into his thigh. Her mouth is open and her breath is loud and windy. When he gets out of bed, Shirl rolls over but doesn't wake up. Philip parts the curtains and looks out the window as he buttons his shirt. It's begun to flurry. Tiny flecks of snow pelt the window and turn to water, ride down the pane in streaks.

He watches Shirl and is shocked at the blurry memory that he'd reached for her in the night, in his stupor, and found her drawn away, huddled, wedged to the wall. He'd reached for her. He'd clawed across the sheets for her. It makes him think of Esther who used to sneak into his room in the middle of the night and sleep under his bed. In the morning, he'd wake up to a little hand reaching up, as if from the dead, and twisting the skin of his arm. How he used to scream for his mother and she'd stand in his room and say, "Your sister only just adores you." He looks at Shirl's muddle of hair across the pillow. I clawed across the sheets for you. He leaves the coat to the cat.

In half an hour, Shirl will wake up alone and dress and return to work where she will type and file and endure Seymour's gruff another day. Over lunch she will tell her girlfriend Irene from the accountant's office down the hall about the honcho's kid. Young, sort of fumbly, shadowed me down to Charlie Boo's.

But Philip won't show up for work today. He won't go home to Lunt Avenue or to his mother, either. Instead today he will roam. Probably not beyond Peterson to the south, or Howard to the north, but for a while at least my father, in shirtsleeves, will roam the slush brown sidewalks of this city he will never leave.


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Peter Orner is the author of
Esther Stories (Houghton Mifflin, 2001). His stories have appeared in The Best American Stories, 2001 and the Pushcart Prize Anthology. He lives in San Francisco.

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.