At the Fairmont
by Peter Orner, recommended by Ann Beattie
EDITOR’S NOTE by Ann Beattie
“Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all.”
Well, not everyone. Let’s say you’ve got a bit of spunk (old-fashioned word/concept that that is), and that you misbehaved, stepped out of character, in a hotel in San Francisco at the end of World War II. And let’s say you get to tell your story, about which you’re either hazardously or charmingly indiscreet and forthcoming, though your husband never knows this: only your reader gets to know. You’re there when the returned soldier wants comfort more than sex, though you’ve opted for sex over comfort — or at least decided to believe that sex is comfort. You’re inside the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, with its very particular rug, its big bathroom, its decorated ceiling. Nice, huh? The sort of place where any of us might happily cavort beneath the “naked cherubs” of the ceiling.
Peter Orner’s “At the Fairmont” is a story of regret tinged with exhilaration: an older woman remembers her five days of autonomy and freedom in a hotel room before her husband returns from Tokyo. In the story’s narrative present, the returned husband has been dead for years, the lover never seen again — though he sends the wife a surprising portrait in which she, herself, is architectural (the lover is a draftsman). The drawing is redolent with undertones of Raymond Carver’s great story “Cathedral,” in which a sighted man tries to explain to a blind man what a cathedral is, and in so doing explains to himself its significance, as well.
We all have our limitations, blind or sighted, married or unmarried, and except for cataclysmic world events, they’re most often played out (as Chekhov knew) against a backdrop of ordinary places: park benches, hotels. As we learn of the one-night-stand: “Buildings themselves meant nothing to him, only the renderings mattered.” So here’s the author giving us a hint about how to read: the facts don’t mean anything (oh, okay, perhaps to some of us), but the way the story is told is all-important. This story plays it fast and loose; it’s a kind of seduction in its own way. Just when we’re interested, we’re yanked back to the present, where the widow’s memories are certainly more interesting than the garden plants she’s been left to gaze at, the draftsman’s depiction of her hidden away to protect her grandchildren from discovering it.
No, we won’t last. But the stories we tell ourselves sustain us in ways we never would have suspected. Mere anecdote rarely achieves profundity, yet it does here: we’re implicated, because whether or not we want to know certain things, the revelation is indelible. It is for the character, and it is for the reader. Private moments have been exposed so that the story is no longer merely personal. When the light “leaked from beneath those heavy drapes,” the moment is almost Shakespearian, as in the moment when Polonius was discovered behind the curtains. In Orner’s story, the light — that almost deathly light — portends the illumination of the present. Once lit up, the present can only flicker and eventually fade, as life does. Whether we’re seated on an oversized green chair in a famous hotel (“terribly expensive leather, an absurd throne built for a giant”), or simply standing on the sidelines, watching two ordinary men separately occupy that position of power, which even they find absurd… either way, the prop becomes the focal point for our understanding that there is no power, no one possesses it, that hovering cherubs and pseudo-thrones aside, we are mortals with the most ordinary aspirations, and even those are compromised, more or less impossible to attain.
At the Fairmont
AFTER THE WAR THEY MET IN SAN FRANCISCO. She waited for him at a hotel on Nob Hill for five days before she got word that his ship had arrived. It is those five days she thinks of now, not the reunion itself. She thinks of the park across the street from a cathedral and the hours she spent sitting with her hands in her lap. It was April and cool and she sat there coatless, not waiting, her mind drained, enjoying it, the days away from the children who’d remained in Chicago with her mother. Men, older men, spoke to her and she didn’t discourage them. They talked about the weather. It was nice to talk about something and not care a lick about it. She can’t remember another time in her life, even during blizzards, when she ever had much to say about the weather, and yet there she was on a bench, in the chill wind, goosebumps on her bare arms, cheerfully saying things like, “Who would have imagined it would be so cold in California and here I am with no coat. My girlfriend Gloria warned me, but I didn’t believe her!” Words flung out her mouth like tiny birds in every direction, that’s how good it felt just to say whatever nonsense came into her head. Because the words themselves meant nothing. It was only the thrill of talking to strangers, men, old men in tweed and scarves, in an unfamiliar place.
“My husband’s in the Navy. He’s coming back from Tokyo, Tokyo, can you imagine? He wrote that if you took the street signs away it looks just like State Street. He says the department stores are even bigger than ours. We’re from Chicago! My husband sells insurance!”
And one or another of the tweedy men would nod respectfully, but even then they could sense, she knew, that she was only talking to fill the air, the space that separated her bench from theirs.
“Ah, yes. Your husband is a true hero.”
“And at home he’s just a scared old tubby!”
And then, unlike talking about him, unlike being genuinely proud of him and half-pretending not to be, suddenly there he was, Seymour, the flesh and the body of him, sharing her bed at the Fairmont. His chatter from the bathroom. “This head’s bigger than my entire quarters. Can you beat that?” His voice echoing, booming off all that shiny porcelain. “What a life, what a life.” And what surprised her most was how unvoracious he was. She’d prepared herself for him to be voracious, to leap on her with his usual frenzy, burrowing his head into her neck like an excited gopher, and jabbing, jabbing. She’d been ready to do her part for the war effort. Out of appreciation and gratitude and patriotism. All those hours on that terrible ship. Now what Seymour wanted was love, and she couldn’t possibly give that to him. After two years away he was lean, tan, and wanting to be held — held? — and that first morning after that first endless night of his tenderly cooing (My darling, my precious darling), she’d kept inching away from him across the sheets, his fingers gently kneading her upper arm, until, sometime after dawn, she dropped off the bed. Thunked right down to that thick white Fairmont carpet. It was embroidered with roses and she ran her palm over one of them as Seymour, confused, peered at her from up on the mattress.
“Man overboard?” he whispered playfully.
“Come here,” she said.
And he rolled off the bed right on top of her, and his weight, though there was less of him than in the past, had crushed her, and yet this was more like it — and there on the floor things got back to normal for a while and soon he was sleeping again, his snoring low, that familiar snuffling, and she lay there with him still half on top of her. Again, she ran her hand over the carpet rose. She looked up at the ceiling with the naked cherubs holding up the latticework at the corners and thought, home, soon enough home, the children, his work, his office, a blessed secretary.
All that came after. It was those days alone, the wind in the trees, the church rising, not an old church, a new church, not especially beautiful, but welcoming in its way though she never went inside, only watched the people come and go, in and out, through the big doors. The polite old men on the other benches, in their scarves, weren’t old. She knows this now, of course. They were at most in their early fifties. But then she was, what, twenty-eight? Something so peaceful in that waiting that wasn’t waiting, and what she finds herself doing today is mourning those five days as she mourns so many things, including Seymour, dead three years this June.
The day before she got word of Seymour’s ship, one of the men had asked her for a drink and she’d accepted with the blithe unhesitation of those days, of that city — a city she hadn’t seen much of aside from the hotel and the park, and yet all the lingering hours had at least earned her a temporary place inside its rhythms. What made things even more exciting was that it really could have been any of the men on the benches in the park. It just happened to be Anthony who came to her out of the joyous blur. You could love someone simply because he stepped forward and spoke.
And she’d said, “Why shouldn’t I have a drink?”
After a couple of glasses of wine and some dancing, he’d escorted her up to her room at the Fairmont.
“You dance so well,” he said.
“Well, I used to be a professional. A chorus girl, actually. Now I’m a frump. I teach ballet to snots.”
“Frump! I had you pegged as a dancer.”
“You didn’t have me pegged anything.”
His eyes roved her body and she’d pulled him inside the room.
And now, even now, a hotel room in San Francisco in the morning light. Those weightless days. A man, an insignificant man he would have seemed to more significant men who do nothing but judge their significance in relation to other men. He’d told her he worked in an architect’s office but that he wasn’t an architect, only a draftsman. It wasn’t lack of brains or talent, he just preferred to draw. Buildings themselves meant nothing to him, only the renderings mattered. He lived with his mother. Years later he sent her a drawing, a portrait of her, in the shape of a cathedral. Bernice’s face was at the top of the steeple. He was kind about her nose. The contours of her figure were sleek and aerodynamic. The twin columns out front were legs, her legs, the ways her legs used to look, and they wore golden ballet shoes. She hadn’t known what to make of it. She stuffed it in the bottom of a drawer. But these days, the drawing, too, has come bubbling back. She thinks about digging it out but fears finding other things she doesn’t want to be reminded of. If it even survived the last move, that drawing is in some box in the basement. Someone might find it one day, one of the grandkids maybe, and not know what to make of it either.
They were in still bed when the bellhop knocked on the door with the message. It was after three in the afternoon, the light leaked from beneath those heavy velvet drapes.
Two men, two days, one bed. I’m a walking scandal! A private joke she told herself for years. Bernice sits down by the window in this quiet house and looks out at Seymour’s tomatoes and cabbages. In spite of her lack of encouragement, they continue to grow like gangbusters. A man named Anthony, his bony shoulders, his nimble probing fingers. And before, each time, he’d asked permission, “May I?” How long dead himself?
And she thinks of the furniture in that room at the Fairmont, how ugly and solid and useful it was, the most prominent piece, by far, being a massive, green wingback chair. It was some kind of joke in terribly expensive leather, an absurd throne built for a giant. Anthony was appalled and fascinated by it. Seymour too had thought the chair hilarious. He posed on it wearing only skivvies and his peaked officer’s hat. But Seymour laughing about the chair was of course different and by then she was through with it, the chair, the room, San Francisco.
“The children,” she said to her husband, louder than she’d intended. As if the children were anywhere near. A grown man back from war, bouncing up and down on that colossal chair, his hands mincing like an excited puppy. “Seymour, the children!”
About the Author
Peter Orner is the author of two acclaimed novels, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo and Love and Shame and Love, and the collections Esther Stories and Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge. Stories from Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, which includes “At the Fairmont,” first appeared in The Paris Review, McSweeney’s, Granta, A Public Space, and other journals. Orner is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and two Pushcart Prizes. Born in Chicago, he now lives in San Francisco.
About the Guest Editor
Ann Beattie’s stories have been included in The Best American Short Stories of the Century as well as in several O. Henry Award collections. She has received the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, the Rea Award for the Short Story, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the award for Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She is the author of one novella, Walks With Men; seven novels, including Chilly Scenes of Winter and My Life, Starring Dara Falcon; and nine collections of short stories, the latest of which is The New Yorker Stories. Her most recent book is Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life. Beattie lives in Key West, Florida and Maine.