NEA Literature Fellowships

Norah Labiner

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(2002 - Prose)

from Miniatures (a novel)

(Coffee House Press, 2002)

I, Fern Alice Jacobi, being of sound mind and body, being neither a borrower nor lender, being of upright stature with opposable thumbs, born under the sign of the crab with an ascendant in fire, borne from the past into certain and unredeemable failure; shy, aloof, defensive, intolerant, bitter, once innocent, twice denied; being prone to excess but free from addiction; I, being all these things and less, swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God. Truth #1: I am sitting before a Smith-Corona typewriter and have allotted myself exactly three days to compile this memoir. At midnight on January third in the year of our Lord, 1999, I promise I will remove my fingers from the keys and commit this document to the ashes of apples and earth where it belongs. My typewriter will be transformed into a pumpkin, and I, glass slippers and party dress restored to rags, will suffer to fall off the page and disappear forever. My time choice is arbitrary. My mode is ink. My method is confession. These truths are situational. Others are relative, suspect, or ugly. Watch out for them; they may leave scars or stain the carpet. Truth #2: I am not a biographer. I admit this readily and offer it as both apology and explanation. I find myself in the awkward position of having to tell the story of a woman whom I never met and who died several years before I was born. Did she, does she need me to defend her? Of course not. But let's say history needs a slap in the face to wake it from its own nightmare. Let's say that she, Frances Warren Lieb, the first wife of Owen and predecessor to Brigid needs me far less than I need her. Things in life have roots in death. There's a rarified pearl of wisdom for you, a new catchphrase for the dress-in-black crowd, a painful anodyne for what ails us all. We can't escape ourselves so let's join the party! Don't you ever feel that the age-old homilies are all lies? That whatever does not kill you, does not, in fact, make you stronger? Stopped clocks may be right more than twice a day? All roads lead to roam? Don't you ever feel outraged by the grand conspiracy that is life in general and your own life in particular? Whatever you have thought or dreamed or run from, believe that. Believe this: they are out to get you. And if they could get to her, to Franny, the first Mrs. Lieb, they can get to anyone. So please, I implore you, read on with skepticism. I hope that you cannot find it in yourself to believe me. You like books that promise either facts or the revelation of mysteries. You don't like to sit on the fence. I know, I know, I feel the same way myself. It is only that in attempting to tell this story, to tell the truth, I find I don't even know what that word means and really, honestly, I cringe every time I strike those keys. I feel like a beleaguered cheerleader: T is for the time we spent together; R is for - ; well, you get the idea. Read the biographies. Run your own set of tests. Hire professionals. I wish none of my story were true and that ultimately your disbelief will offer me some respite, hope that perhaps I am merely delusional, wrong, untrustworthy, that not only did these events not transpire, but that these people, myself included, do not exist. Having undertaken the idea, having recalled and recollected and become perhaps vengeful, perhaps authoritative, but more than anything else, having become - I know too what I have so long denied and feared. I remember everything.

These are the facts as I recall them. During the months of September and October of 1990 I found myself employed by a married couple of modest fame, ill repute and certainly, more than anything else, beauty. And while I had heard of them, or more specifically of him, of Owen Lieb, I had never encountered or contacted them before that autumn. I was initially hired for a single project, perhaps two or three days, but we all seemed so happy together; we were strangers in a strange land. It was so naturally unnatural, that they asked me to stay on with them. Or rather, he asked me to live with them as a companion to his young wife who was fragile and lonely. He worried that she would not last through the oncoming winter in such a desolate location. I did not think about ghosts or history, about the ridiculousness of my own guilt and innocence, my susceptibility, no, no, my inability to understand the game being played around me. It begins now, my story, no more digressions, no further preambles. It begins and began in September on a day all of sun, but it will end on the night of Halloween with a rainstorm that turned first into hail and then unexpectedly into snow which fell and did not stop until 12 inches had accumulated and blanketed the tiny fishing villages and farms all along Galway Bay to our house near the western seacoast. The three of us were trapped, yes, I suppose that is the word for it, trapped, together and perhaps we thought it was the end of the world, because for some reason we were all impelled to tell the truth, to reveal our secrets and scars and tattoos. The whole truth and nothing but the. So help me.

Norah Labiner is the author of the novels, Our Sometime Sister (Coffee House Press, 1998) and Miniatures (Coffee House Press, 2002). Her work has appeared in Passages North, Columbia: a Journal of Literature and Art, The Gettysburg Review, and as part of the American Tableaux gallery installation at the Walker Art Center. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Author's Statement

I am grateful for receiving this Fellowship from the NEA. It will fund time for research, travel, and work on a new novel. It is a story of geographical dysphoria, historical responsibility, place and displacement, the alphabet, parrots and pawnshops, cats, dogs, coffee, candy, lemons and lye. A story of guilt and forgiveness. Of fidelity and lack thereof. Fickle mouse-chasing and reckless back alley peccadilloes. Civilization and its discontents.