(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Beth Lordan’s first collection of short stories focuses on a small number of people who live in the midwestern town of Clayborne. Often in her stories, Lordan’s characters get a rare opportunity to see, behind the routines and everyday demands of life, a glimpse of the special and the beautiful. In “Running Out,” a carpenter who is out of work and down on his luck experiences a single day in which everything goes right. In “The Snake,” a woman strikes back symbolically at her husband’s betrayal by heroically attacking a snake that has invaded her house. In “The Cow Story,” two lonely people almost, but not quite, break out of their loneliness and make a gesture toward each other. In “The Widow,” an elderly woman discovers magic in the midst of the ordinary.

Lordan makes use of a familiar short-story tradition pioneered by Ivan Turgenev, Anton Chekhov, James Joyce, and Sherwood Anderson—the exploration of the complex secret lives of small-town people—creating a world that, even though it seems ordinary and real, becomes extraordinary and magical. Like all great writers, Lordan creates a world that, even though it seems common and familiar, is at the same time strange and wonderful.

“The Widow”

“The Widow” is a hauntingly magical story about the ultimate mystery of the other. The story begins cryptically with the sentence “The morning Warren Boyd dropped dead in his kitchen, he was the only living person on the farm.” The sentence echoes poignantly in readers’ minds when they discover that the other person in the house at the time is the spirit of Boyd’s wife Ann, who has been hovering about him since her death three years earlier.

In addition to the supernatural suggestion of the wife, who, after having devoted her attentions to her husband for forty-two years, now devotes herself to studying him as a spirit, there is also the matter of Warren’s periodic transformations. The first time this occurred was after they had been married about a year and she saw him out of the upstairs window, walking as if under water, slowly and gracefully. In the folds of his clothes and on the hair of his head and the stubble on his cheeks she saw “tiny air bubbles, gleaming like glass pearls.” When Ann witnesses the mystery again, Warren, glowing in the darkness, does a series of somersaults across the lawn. The third event takes place after the death of their daughter, when Ann sees a soft brilliance rising from him, like mist off a barn roof; as he turns around and around in a circle, a bright color trails about him like veils in the rain.

Ann watches her husband for the rest of their lives together, and although he transforms again and again, it is never enough to completely offset the ordinary routine of their everyday experience. When she knows she is dying, she makes three wishes, the first of which is to remain with him until his death, hoping to see by then the meaning of his splendor. When Warren dies, the story ends with her making her second wish—for tears. It is understood that the third wish is that she will join him. No matter how long one may have known someone, Lordan’s story suggests, at the very core of that person is an elusive magical mystery that too often one is unable to see.

“The Cow Story”

The cow in this whimsical story chooses the afternoon of the only tornado in the history of the small village of Clayborne to escape her pasture and wander through the town. Lordan uses the cow running through the mysterious silence just before the tornado to introduce a magical setting for a restrained romantic encounter between Byron...

(The entire section is 1504 words.)