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Five Shards

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July 15, 2013

A couple years before I was born my mother took my four-year-old brother and ran away, home to Massachusetts and her parents, where they holed up like fugitives.

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Image from Flickr via Flam

At the End of Our Street Was a Commune

At the end of our street was a commune in a log mansion—Jed Holson’s house—and girls in frayed orange cable knit sweaters and no pants would chase each other across its huge furnitureless rooms. It was the suburbs, it was the seventies, life was bizarre and glorious, and we didn’t even know it. Jed’s father, Elijah Holson, had been a founding director of the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad. In 1918, he built himself an eighteen-room house of locally hand-hewn oaks on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. He dug a moat around the house and put down a drawbridge. A grand house, a famous house, a house for the ages. The son was even more eccentric. In the spirit of his own time, past seventy himself, Jed Holson went hippie. His wife fled to California, and Jed opened his father’s mythical log palace to all female comers. Longhaired men were welcome, too. The lawn was crowded with VW buses and tents. People did their laundry in the moat. Jed’s doctor lawyer banker neighbors didn’t know what to make of all the parties. It didn’t matter. They weren’t invited. By the time I was old enough to enjoy the show, Jed—his crazy beard, his experiment in alternative living, his passel of nymphs—was forgotten. The log house went dark. Free love, old hat. And as a kid, I used to climb up and pace the front porch, ghosting back and forth in front of the big windows, waiting for flesh and laughter. Jed must have been asleep somewhere in the gloom, his chin a tangle of yellow beard.

Highland Park, Illinois, 1981





They trusted me, E.J. said. They had nothing left to lose. This was when he could talk because in the weeks and days before he died he stopped talking altogether and only screamed if you went near him.

My Old Boss E.J.

My old boss E.J. once told me he was famous for goofy hats. This was when he worked the lock-in ward at Hennepin County. The hats, E.J. said, came to represent his solidarity with the ones called patients. One day he’d wear a sombrero, the next a feathered Tyrolean, the day after that a plastic hard hat with placeholders for two beers they gave away free at a Twins game. He said they began to trust him and treat him like he was one of them, which meant they toned down the loony and just talked to him the way they talked among themselves, which was how everybody else in the world talks to everybody else in the world—normal with a touch of nuts. E.J. told me this as he lay in a bed at Nicollett-Methodist. How that job on the psych ward was less about the daily incidents of mayhem—which he could recall vividly—than it was a sense of camaraderie he’d never felt before or since. Looking back he wondered whether he hadn’t been most alive, most in tune with his fellow men, those years he worked the lock-in. They trusted me, E.J. said. They had nothing left to lose. This was when he could talk because in the weeks and days before he died he stopped talking altogether and only screamed if you went near him. The nurses needed two orderlies to hold him down to give him his shots. Last I spoke to him was on the phone. I put the receiver down on the table and just listened to him scream.

Minneapolis, 1997




A Couple of Years Before I was Born

A couple years before I was born my mother took my four year-old brother and ran away, home to Massachusetts and her parents, where they holed up like fugitives. My brother had a field day with Grandpa Walt, staying up all night eating doughnuts and talking about whether Johnson would dump Humphrey from the ticket. A week later, my father flew east. He knelt on the sidewalk with white roses and sang her name. Neighbors watched the drama from behind their curtains. Phones rang up and down Robeson Street. Mavis, can you get more romantic with a capital R? But those days before he showed up, I think about them, the stillness of my mother’s mornings. Something peaceful about the possibility of my own non-existence. My mother didn’t go to see any of her friends. The furthest she ventured from her old bedroom was the backyard where she sat on the huge boulder she used to sit on as a kid, her chin in her hand, and her father would call out the window of his study, Hey, would you look at the thinker perched on her rock? Except that now he didn’t say anything, only watched her, she being twenty-six and married now.

Fall River, Massachusetts, 1967




The time I said it was only an emotional affair and you took your clothes off in front of a train.

The Time I said It Was Only an Emotional Affair

The time I said it was only an emotional affair and you took your clothes off in front of a train. Not in front of the train as in in front of the engine, in front of the side of the train. It was after eight in midsummer. The shadow of the water tower hovered over the town like an enormous bulbous spider. OTTUMWA. Amtrak was three hours late from Chicago. Frieght causing delays. You waited until the train began to arrive to let me now what you thought of idiot phrases like emotional affair. You want some fucking emotion? Always you see a train before you hear it. At first it is only that burning headlight charging forward out of the wet haze. You didn’t say anything. No unbuttoning or unzipping. Only that sudden pulling apart of your shirt and wiggling your jeans shorts off easy. Those tired passangers got a show. One woman, I remember, nodded again and again. The body I knew so well and loved but had never seen before in public or in this vinegar light.

Ottumwa, Iowa, 2001




My Mother Stands By The Window

My mother stands by the window, holding a duster, listening to Frank Zappa. Like a lot of people, she pretended to like the music more than she actually did, which is what Zappa himself counted on. He figured if people pretended long enough they might actually start to listen. No one’s here but me, and I am three and a half and asleep. She dusts a little, but there’s something about the song, the stopping and the starting, the half talking, half singing—“Movin’ to Montana soon, Going to be a dental floss tycoon”—that makes her want to refuse in principal to do anything productive. Zappa’s pretty out there, her friend Judy had said when she gave her the record. It isn’t a place my mother is at all against going—out there. Now I am awake and shrieking. To buy a minute or two she turns up the volume. My mother examines the duster. It is made of some sort of feathers and she wonders what dead bird was worth this clean apartment, or anybody’s.

Chicago, 1974

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Author Image

Peter Orner’s new collection of stories, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, will be published in August of 2013 by Little, Brown. Orner is also the author of Esther Stories, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, and Love and Shame and Love. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, Granta, McSweeney’s, and other periodicals, as well as in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Non-Required Reading. Orner has received the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Goldberg Prize for Jewish Fiction, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and two Pushcart Prizes. He is a professor at San Francisco State University and lives in Bolinas, California.

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