Author Lorrie Moore once said, “A short story is a love affair, a novel is a marriage.” With Sunday Shorts, OprahDaily.com invites you to join our own love affair with short fiction by reading original stories from some of our favorite writers.
Here's how acclaimed author Paul Griner's "The Inquisitors Manual" begins: "Say we met when an orange dropped from a grocery bag crushed to her chest and rolled across the sidewalk to bump against my sneaker."
It's a beginning that certainly feels a lot like a rom-com meet-cute, yet as the story unfolds, so too do the possibilities—some of them cynical, some celebratory—of this new relationship. But which branch in this self-constructed tree is the true path?
In just over 1000 words, Griner perfectly captures the way our pasts, presents, and potential futures impact our everyday interactions—and the way our entire lives can be defined by those everyday interactions.
"The Inquisitor’s Manual"
Say we met when an orange dropped from a grocery bag crushed to her chest and rolled across the sidewalk to bump against my sneaker. Say I offered to return it in return for telling me her name and allowing me to carry home her groceries. And say we hit it off. She laughed at my jokes, rested her cool palm on my forearm when it turned out we loved the same three movies, squeezed my shoulder in thanks when I set her groceries on her cluttered kitchen table. Say the gardenia scent of her perfume and the light on her mocha skin made me dizzy, and that I almost fell down when she kissed my cheek just before I left. Say we were twenty-one. Say I asked her to marry me after two months and she smiled and said yes. No tears; she wasn’t the type.
Or say the first date didn’t go well. She had a dog and it barked at me in the car the entire way to the restaurant, and she didn’t tell it to shut up. She had a boyfriend, it turned out, and I had a girlfriend, and in the end I used the boyfriend as an excuse, though really it was the dog. I couldn’t get over how much it bugged me that she hadn’t told it to be quiet.
Say she pushed me to become the painter I always wanted to be, but was afraid to try. She didn’t care that for the first six years of our marriage, we would live in eight different apartments because we kept missing the rent, while she struggled to finish school and I painted and painted, or that my fingernails were constantly dirty and my hair smelled of fixative and turpentine. Say she believed in me, and I came to too. Say that I often fell asleep remembering that rolling orange.
Or say that I gave up wanting to be a painter pretty fast, partly because my girlfriend at the time—who ended up cheating on me with her boss at the copy shop—didn’t think I had much talent and couldn’t have cared less if I did. Picasso made her sick, she said, and as for a urinal as art, she had plenty of tampons around, if I wanted to display those. Say on our final date someone in a bar glanced at her legs and said he’d never seen a walking pier before, and her eyes teared up. Say I told the guy it was too bad his penis was a thumbtack, which made her laugh, and say he pulled out a knife. Say the confidant way he held it made me re-taste all five beers I’d just drunk, and that the smart thing to do was to walk away, which I did. But say her face said I was a coward.
Say I pushed her to finish school, and she did, and had a job at a newspaper she loved until we had kids, at which point she decided to give it up to be a full time mother. Say other women around her age who also had kids but didn’t stop working were a bit condescending about it, and at times she regretted it. Like the time she told me she hadn’t had an adult conversation in six months, or read a book in nine. But say she persevered.
Say I got married to the kind of girl my mother had wanted me to marry, whose parents were members of the same country club, and who began dying her hair blonde in high school, wore the right sweaters, and knew not to laugh too loudly. Say we had kids. Say I went to law school, and though I was interested in the courtroom, corporate law was more lucrative, and say that though we struggled to pay our mortgage at first, by the time of my second Christmas bonus, we knew we were going to be fine.
Say my work for years was an exploration of text and image, found texts and created images, created texts and found images, meant to startle and discomfit. Mao’s Redbook and Audubon’s bird plates, the Bible, Mein Kampf and my nearly photographic renderings of legumes. Say even the largest ones—as large as hotel lobbies—were called small and precious by most critics, though a few (and a few dedicated patrons) thought them brilliant.
Say my wife slept with her old boyfriend at a high school reunion I missed, a guy I could barely remember, and she told me about it in a drunken remorseful fit a month later. Say it didn’t really bother me, though I said it did, and began sleeping with other junior partners at the firm. Say that made me feel shitty, but I didn’t stop. Say that each time I came home after an assignation, I sprayed myself with Lilac Air Freshener as a way of declaring my guilt, but say she never picked up on it. Say after a year she took back her apology and said she realized I was just a starter husband. Say after a few seconds I understood that she was serious.
Or say I painted to some minor sales and a few respectful reviews for many years, until, in my fifties, I was discovered after executing a new series of small scale reinterpretations of Norse myths, which for some reason resonated with a crowd of people I’d never wanted to be part of, people with a lot of money who suddenly bid up the price of my art, even my earlier text-based work. Say that for the first time in our lives, my wife and children and I went on a vacation to the beach in the winter, to a Caribbean island where the water was a color I’d only seen on TV and in magazines and art stores. Say we ate bananas and fish we bought locally, and cooked them in our small bungalow, the heat of the grill concentrating the bananas’ natural sweetness, and say my wife and I after the kids fell asleep snorkled naked at night in the coves where the sand beneath the warm shallow water glowed white in the moonlight. Say we bought locally made coconut-scented body lotion, and she took great pleasure in having me massage it into her buttocks and shoulders and breasts.
Say that the second divorce was messier than the first.
Say that for years afterward, I would drift off to sleep remembering that Caribbean vacation, how we hung rocking in the clear warm water watching our black shadows ripple across that smooth white sand, holding hands.
Or say that I began sleeping with younger and younger lawyers at the firm, not because I liked younger women, but because the older ones, the ones my age, were less and less interested in sex, or in me, or were tired, or were married and found my advances offensive. That I’d been drinking and my heart was a mess. Say that my friend Bill, who’d long ago slept with my second wife when she was still married to someone else, warned me about my behavior, and say that he didn’t need to, because I already knew I was what I seemed. And say that the last woman I slept with, at that firm and on this earth, was a young junior associate, just out of law school, with a tendency to wear ridiculously short skirts and to make suggestively inappropriate comments. Say that her perfume had some silly name I couldn’t remember and found embarrassing to pronounce, but say that I found its citrusy bite endlessly provocative, especially on the back of her knees. Say that the music she listened to sounded like people having convulsions.
Say that I was satisfied. Or say that I died happy.
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