weekend-readsEsther Donnaly

Ron Carlson

Esther Donnaly was not an actress, had never been in a play or auditioned for one, or been a fan of movies or a follower of actresses, like many American women her age, which was thirty-seven. So when she turned to her husband, Mitchell Donnaly, when he put his briefcase on the side counter in their Saint Cloud kitchen after a day in Saint Paul sorting probate all day, and she said, “Well, hello to you. How’d you get in here?” he knew not to say anything smart. She was not a woman who played games. She was, in fact, the manager of a medical complex and she was known as organized and smart.

“I came in through the garage.” He was exhausted, bloodless as always after the office. He put in long hours and made little progress. He was spending most of his time with two sisters who hated each other and who were contesting their father’s estate. There was never any progress. The floor of his large office was stacked with files; it was a glacier.

“Did you park Mitchell’s car in the garage? Did he tell you to do that?”

“Esther Donnaly, I am Mitchell, as you well know.”

She stopped still and turned from the lettuce she was spinning dry. “Please.” She opened her eyes to him, so he was made to hold the glance. “My husband isn’t here, but since he’s given you his car and the garage opener, I’m going to feed you this once. We’re having pork chops.”

“I love your pork chops.”

“My husband likes these pork chops, and he eats them like a sorry carnivore in a ditch. He wolfs his food. In the fourteen years I’ve known him, he’s lost his table manners. Do you have table manners, Mister . . . ?”

Mitchell folded his arms and looked at the floor. “My name is Mitchell Donnaly.”

“That’s a strange coincidence,” Esther Donnaly said. “But not as strange as some of the things I’ve seen. There are a dozen Esther Donnalys in this town. Sit down.”

Mitchell sat down. It was an utterly peculiar and welcome feeling that sat down with him. This could qualify as the first conversation he’d had in a week. A month? He didn’t like his wife playing games, but really, where was he? He was not young and he was not old. He knew suddenly, as Esther Donnaly moved about the kitchen, that he hadn’t consciously taken a breath for two days, and he took one now. When he did, the woman turned to him surprised, and he said, “Sorry, I forgot to breathe.” He knew, as he loosened his tie, that he had worn this yellow print tie twice this week.

He had been waiting for something for almost two years, and the feeling of waiting had centered primarily under his breastbone, and it was a real ache that he could summon with the thought of trouble. He’d had a brief affair, a three-week season of vertigo, and it had imbalanced him so badly at the time, his emotions like a fire one day and a flood the next, that he told Esther Donnaly of his activities, as if he were in the middle of them, as if she might be simply a friend curious about his state of mind. He’d been upset and he’d sat down at this very table in the middle of the day, home unexpectedly from work, and loosened his tie and unbuttoned his shirt while he told her that he’d been four times to the Sandpiper Motel at the shore with a schoolteacher named Martha, a woman he’d met on a wooden bench in the courtroom hallway. She was getting divorced. He had never ever done such a thing, had not gone off with a woman to a rented room even when he was in college or past it, never even in his courtship of Esther. He literally did not know what he was doing, and that was the way he stated his situation. “I can’t touch the bottom anymore,” he told her. “And the tide keeps changing direction.” He began to cry, something also he’d never done in their marriage.

Esther Donnaly had been generous instantly. “That’s why you’ve been losing weight,” she said. “That’s got to be hard on you.” She sat down and put her hands on each of his shoulders across the corner of the table. “Look, Mitchell.” He was crying deeply as he understood the words were now in the room, and he could feel two parts of himself come apart, and when they went back together a minute later, they were not in line. “We’ll get some lunch here and some coffee and we’ll call the clinic and find a counselor. There’s lots of them. We’ll go to work on this right now.” She squeezed the cords in his neck softly and patted his right shoulder. “We can do this. It happens. We’ll get through it.”

And that is what they did. The next afternoon Esther Donnaly and Mitchell sat in Doris Leverbury’s little office in the clinic annex, a generic room used by a rotating staff of clinical psychologists, and they started talking. They met for nine weeks with Doris Leverbury, their sessions mainly being Mitchell’s attempt to describe his confusion, and except for some brief detours into their courtship, it was Mitchell talking, and the two of them crying, about his mistake. Toward the end they were crying in hope for their future, and they left the care of Doris Leverbury with a kind of blessing that they would be all right.

From that day, driving from the clinic with Esther Donnaly to the General Store, a funky café where they ate lunch together, chatting, before going back to their own home where they made love all afternoon, Mitchell felt better, almost good, but something in him—sometimes very small—was always clenched and uneasy.

And now, he sat at his kitchen table and waited for Esther Donnaly to lift her fork. Finally he asked her, “Where is your husband?”

“He’s a very busy man,” she said. “I’m not surprised he’s away.” Esther Donnaly held a bottle of merlot and a corkscrew out to Mitchell. “Can I ask your help with this? Would you like a glass of wine?”

“Of course, thank you. What does he do, your husband?”

“He has an important job. He’s a wonderful provider. He’s always worked hard.”

Mitchell poured the wine.

Esther Donnaly lifted hers and said, “Bon appétit.”

He ate a bite of the tender pork chops, and said to her, “This is delicious.”

“I make my own sauces.”

“This is a kind of basil and what, red wine?”

Esther Donnaly appraised the man at her table. “That’s right. Very good. Do you cook?”

“Short orders only. If you want a short stack with a ham and cheese omelet, I’m your man.” Mitchell ate slowly.

“What do you do, Mister . . . ?”

“Donnaly. I’m an attorney, that is I’m a probate lawyer.”

“Which is?”

“Which is that I help families sort out issues of inheritance.”

“That’s good work. Do you enjoy it?”

No question could have been more strange. He’d never, even in law school, considered it. He saw it before him in block letters as a puzzle. “I have no idea.” He looked at her. “I’ve seen that I can be good at it, and I think overall that I actually do help people.”

“You must be a smart man to have such a position.”

“Thank you.” As they talked Mitchell felt something basic take hold in him, something solid and sad, the way it had been in Doris Leverbury’s office. “I’m smart enough, but what people pay me for is keeping a cool head in what can be an emotional period.”

“My husband is a calm man. Would you care for another pork chop, Mr. Donnaly?” Mitchell, who had never stopped at one pork chop in his life, said, “No, thank you. This is great.”

She stood to clear the plates and he stood with her. She looked at him as he put his silverware on the plate and lifted it. “I’ll get those,” she said, but he was already at the drainboard. “We’re not big dessert eaters, my husband and myself. But would you like a little ice cream?”

Mitchell was a little dizzy and he sat back at the kitchen table. “That would be real nice,” he said.

They ate the vanilla ice cream slowly, the only sound in the kitchen the chirping of the spoons against their dishes. He looked at all the stuff stuck on the front of the fridge, lists and receipts, and to one side an old picture of Esther Donnaly and him on the beach at Fort Myers. His arm is around her and she wears a blue one-piece bathing suit that he vaguely remembered. They’d camped at a beach club and a couple of midnights she sneaked him into the women’s bathhouse to shower together. In the picture his hair is longer and darker, and he is thinner and very tan.

“My husband liked the beach. He still does, but we don’t go every year now. That’s in Florida. We camped and the place had a little pub where we would eat cheeseburgers and drink beer and watch the college basketball tournament. What is it?”

“The Final Four.”

“Right. Who can eat Dinty Moore beef stew every night of the week? The pub was real small and by the time the games were on, we knew where everybody in the place had gone to college.”

“Where did you go to college?” Mitchell asked Esther Donnaly. He was feeling just strange enough now, full of ice cream and dislocated.

“It’s not very interesting. Although I did meet my husband. It was a long time ago. I majored in biology and look at me.”

“What do you do?”

“I manage a doctor’s office here in town, which means I know more about seven doctors than anyone should.”

“I can imagine.” Mitchell now stood and extended his hand for Esther Donnaly’s ice cream dish. It had been empty for some time, though both of them had continued to work their spoons. “May I?”

She handed hers to him. “Yes. Thank you.”

“That was good. I haven’t had ice cream in, I’d say, five years. Do you want me to do these dishes?” he said.

“No. I don’t. We’ve got to decide what to do with you. Where do you have to be?” They were back to back in the kitchen, and Mitchell stood still and considered it all.

“Frankly, I don’t have anywhere to go,” Mitchell told her.

“Mr. Donnaly, forgive me for asking, but are you married?”

“I am married.”

“Will your wife worry about where you might be?”

Mitchell was blank again and said so: “I guess I don’t know.”

“Where did you meet your wife?”

“Sorry?”

“Where did you meet? Do you want some tea?”

“I’m OK. We met at college. We were here at school, at State.”

Esther Donnaly turned and put the box of tea in the cupboard. “And she was in one of your law school classes?”

“No. I didn’t go to law school until after we were married.” He sat on one of the stools at the counter.

“We met in a political group, when we were juniors. A sort of political group.”

“There were causes,” she said.

“There were. We were called A.S.A., the Associated Student Alliance. The grape boycott. My wife was vice chair of the group.”

“A serious person.”

“Yes, I suppose so. Certainly more than I was. I was there because the only guys I knew, my friends went. We’d plan events. Speakers.”

Esther Donnaly rinsed the bowls and then left them in the sink. “And then you’d walk her home?”

“No. She lived in the dorms actually, and we started going to the meetings together, meeting after class at the statue of Ernest Qualls at the bottom of the quad. Do you know it?

“I do. His brass boots are gigantic—great good luck every day you touch them.”

“Better than studying,” he said. It was the old campus joke. “We met there once and it became a habit.”

“You two were a habit?”

“No, I didn’t mean that.” He stood up now, absolutely lost in this night. “It was terribly special. Young people on a campus.”

“I see.”

“And you? Your husband?”

“Also at school. It was a long time ago. He was a good listener when we met, and he was a friend to me.”

“Where is he now?” Mitchell said. “If I may ask?”

Esther Donnaly glanced at him and then away. “I don’t have any idea.” It was silent again for a moment and Esther Donnaly said, “Well.” She stood up. “We’re not going to put you out in the cold, even though the low tonight will probably be in the fifties, not really frigid.”

“No,” he said. “We’re having a pleasant fall.”

“I’ll be right back,” she said, and left him in the kitchen. He opened the cupboard above the sink and looked at the stack of dishes there, saucers and a goofy salt and pepper set of two ceramic penguins, three vitamin bottles and the aspirin, and three large coffee cups with bowling pin designs.

When Esther Donnaly returned, she was carrying a little pyramid of a towel, washcloth, and a set of blue-striped pajamas. There was a new toothbrush on top.

“You’re traveling light, I’ll say. But this should get you through the night. Come into the den.”

Mitchell followed her around the corner and down two steps into the book-lined television room. Esther Donnaly handed him the television remote. “My husband watches television in the evenings. Do you like television?”

“I don’t know,” Mitchell said. “I’ve never thought of it.”

He sat in his leather chair and watched Esther Donnaly make a bed on the couch. “Well, you can turn on the television. I don’t expect you to spend your whole night talking to an old married woman.”

“I’m OK without the television. Thanks.”

“You can look through the books if you’d like. Isn’t it funny how they pile up. We’ve had some of these since college, but there are some newer ones here by the chair. My husband enjoys history, as you can see. There.” She pulled the pillowcase onto the pillow and set it at the end of the couch. “My husband naps here sometimes. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable.”

“It’s perfect,” Mitchell said.

Esther Donnaly pointed out the hall bathroom and then excused herself and went back through the house to the bedroom. Mitchell sat still and scanned the bookcases, saying the titles aloud. He untied his shoes and set them under the cabinet coffee table. It was early but he was drained. He pulled his tie off and put his shirt on the back of the chair. It was odd. It was all odd. Sitting bare-chested in the pajama bottoms a minute later, he heard the bedroom door open.

Esther Donnaly knocked on the door jam, and said, “I’m sorry.” Mitchell sat like a schoolboy. He held the pajama tops, still folded in his lap. “But I was thinking they must expect you to show up in a clean shirt and such tomorrow. These are my husband’s. He’s a little bigger than you, but these should fit.”

He accepted the bundle of clothing. “Thank you.”

“You’re quite a thanker. Somebody trained you well.”

“I guess so,” Mitchell said. “But I mean it. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.” Esther Donnaly once again surveyed the scene. “Well, Mr. Donnaly, please sleep well. I’m glad you’re here.”

He didn’t want to thank her again, so he just sat still until the woman had left the room.

 

Mitchell opened his eyes just after five a.m. and sat up. It was a dark dawn, but he dressed without showering or shaving. He sat in the kitchen in his coat and tie as the light changed. At half past six he heard the pipes as water was turned on in the bedroom bath. He stood and put his hands in his pockets and dropped his chin to his chest. Then his briefcase was in his hand and he quietly left the house.

 

He’d been working on nine cases, the largest concerning the two sisters who hated each other fiercely. He’d been their father’s attorney, and he’d known the women since they were girls. The estate was sizable, almost all real property, including a house in Santa Barbara, California, and one in Aspen, Colorado. Despite his best efforts to avoid lawsuits, the case now involved four claims, and they were tangled in an impasse that was in its third year. In that time, he’d become a kind of property manager, fielding twenty small problems every week. At noon exactly, one of the sisters called, unhappy with one of the leases. While he listened, the other sister called. He was dislocated and felt a hot hand of vertigo cross his vision. He put them both on hold and walked to his window. His office was on the fourth floor with a pleasant view of the river, but his office itself had lost all charm for him. There were forty one-foot stacks of documents along the credenza and on the floor before it. He would never in all his days get through it all.

In a minute he made two decisions. The first was to call Esther Donnaly and see if he could stay there tonight. The second was to connect the sisters. He’d never done it, being so careful with his waiting room and conferences to keep them apart, like combustible chemicals. Why had he done that? He’d lost some common sense somewhere. “Beth,” he said into the phone. “Listen, here’s Karen. You guys need to talk. Call me back but not until Monday.”

Before he could dial his home number, his phone lit again. It was Esther Donnaly. “Mr. Donnaly?” she said.

“Yes.”

“Mr. Mitchell Donnaly?”

“Yes, this is Mitchell Donnaly.”

“Thank goodness. This is Esther Donnaly. You were over here last night.”

“I was. Thanks for everything.”

“You left early this morning.”

“Well, I didn’t want to disturb you.”

“I was going to feed you. I wouldn’t have sent you off to your day without a breakfast.”

“It’s all right, really.”

It was silent in Mitchell Donnaly’s terrible office. Forty stacks of terrible papers, all posturing and lies in the name of money. He rubbed his eyes.

“Did you hear from your wife?”

He considered and answered as truthfully as he could: “I’m not sure.”

She was quiet a moment, breathing, and then she said, “Did you sleep all right?”

The question was a real question and the solicitation drew his breath away, and though he started to say that yes, he had slept just fine and woke early, his chin buckled in a way that it had not for ten years, and he started to cry.

 

At four-thirty in the afternoon, Mitchell Donnaly was in the old Tabula Rasa, a student bar where he hadn’t been for almost eleven years. Across from the university quad and the beautiful green, centered by the gigantic bronze effigy of Ernest Qualls, adventurer and benefactor, the little pub had changed very little. You could still park in the alley and go in the back door, but the grimy wooden booths had been replaced by two pool tables and a low bench around the perimeter. Mitchell Donnaly sat at the bar and drew the top off a pint of the local lager. He rarely drank beer anymore, but this was where, the fall of his senior year, his honors history study group came after two hours in the library, and where he met Esther Kinkaid and her buddies from the dorms. Winter came and he and Esther Kinkaid met near the big bronze boots of Ernest Qualls in the blue dusk twice a week and would blunder into the warmth of the Tabula Rasa for cheeseburgers, which were always served on pita bread.

Two guys played pool behind him. Then he heard the back door and Esther came in wearing a black vest over a long-sleeved white shirt. “Hello,” she said. “Is this place still here?”

“You’ve been here before?”

“I’m not sure,” she said, joining him at the bar.

“Did you know the great Ernest Qualls, who mapped great portions of northern Canada, and gave his fortune to the university?”

The young woman tending bar stopped washing glasses and came over. “His statue is right across the street,” she told them.

“The man simply had huge feet,” Esther said. “I’ll have a pint of the lager.”

“It’s good,” Mitchell Donnaly said. “I think they make it here.”

“We do,” the bartender said, and she began to draw the beer.

“Listen, just start from the beginning,” Mitchell said to Esther. “Where’d you grow up?”

Back to top ↑

Sign up for Our Email Newsletter