The Coffins of Little Hope

By Timothy Schaffert

Unbridled Books
April 2011
272 pages




I still use a manual typewriter (a 1953 Underwood portable, in a robin’s-egg blue) because the soft pip-pip-pip of the typing of keys on a computer keyboard doesn’t quite fit with my sense of what writing sounds like. I need the hard metal clack, and I need those keys to sometimes catch, so I can reach in and untangle them, turning my fingertips inky. Without slapping the return, or turning the cylinder to release the paper with a sharp whip, without all that minor havoc, I feel I’ve paid no respect to the dead. What good is an obituary if it can be written so peaceably, so undisturbingly, in the dark of night?

Though my name does not begin with an S, my byline has always been S Myles, because I’m Esther, but more often Essie, or Ess, and thus S (just S, no period) on the page.


Our town, statistically, was the oldest it had ever been, population-wise. At eighty-three, I was years and years past a reasonable retirement age, but I’d never been so busy. We were all of us quite old, we death merchants--the town’s undertaker (seventy-eight), his organist (sixty-seven), the desairologist (desairology: dressing and ironing the hair of the deceased, manicuring their nails, rouging their cheeks with a simulated blush of heat; seventy-three), the florist (her freezer overgrown with lilies, eighty-one). The cemetery’s caretaker, who procured for the goth high-schoolers who partied among the tombstones, was the enfant terrible among us, at an immature fifty-six.

I’d chronicled the town’s dead since dropping out of the eighth grade to go work for my father, the publisher of the County Paragraph, a newspaper eventually run by my grandson, Doc (called Doc for his professorial carriage, in three-piece suits and neckties, and for his use of overly brainy words in his editorials, words lifted from a brittle-edged, outdated Thesaurus in his top desk drawer). My first obit had not been meant as an obit, but rather an essay about my mother who’d died giving birth to me. Throughout my childhood I’d studied the sewing room my father had left untouched, and I’d stitched together a portrait of her, based on notes she’d scribbled in the margins of recipe cards (“orange peel works too”), and on the particular velvet dress--with a patchwork of mismatched buttons--that had been left unfinished on the dressmaker’s dummy, and the postcards she’d had the bad habit of starting but not finishing (Dear Millie [her sister], Just a fast, quick, short, unimportant note so I can get this into the mail before the carrier comes--then nothing else).

You would think a woman in her eighties wouldn’t cry for her mommy, and I don’t really, it’s really for the little girl that I was that I cry after I’ve had three or four whiskeys of an evening. But the weeping is pleasure. When I cry like a baby, my aches go, and I feel skinned, refreshed after. At that moment I’m happy to be sad and wish I could be so melancholy for hours. But it’s fleeting. Sobriety is quick, and the night too long, and as I lie awake with sleeplessness, nervous from drink, I wish I hadn’t drunk a drop. 


And this very book began not as a book, but as an obit of a kind, for a little girl who up and went missing one simple summer day. On this girl we pinned all hopes of our dying town’s salvation. The longer we went without ever seeing her even once, the more and more dependent upon her we grew. She became our leading industry, her sudden nothingness a valuable export, and we considered changing the name of our town to hers; we would live in the town of Lenore. Is it any wonder that we refused to give up hope--despite all the signs that she never existed, that she never was anybody, never, not even before she supposedly vanished?

By the time Daisy, the mother of that vaporous Lenore, finally called me to her farmhouse, after all the weeks of bicker and debate that enlivened our town yet ruined its soul, after most of the events of this book had passed, no one anywhere was any longer waiting for word of Lenore’s death. It was the last Thursday of January, and the week had moved from an unseasonable thaw into a bitter chill that pained your teeth as you leaned into the wind. I went, alone as requested, intending to help Daisy, as if plotting to steal her away from her own delusions. For some of us, Lenore was nothing but a captivating hoax, while for others, she was a grim tragedy, a mystery cynically left unsolved.

You were either one of the ones who truly believed in Lenore, or you were one of the ones who believed in the same way you believe in the trickling stigmata of a plastic Virgin, with a trust in magic and miracle mostly for the thrill of it. Or you were one of the ones with no faith at all. Those were the ones, the ones with disbelief, who benefited the most, who made the most money on the sad pilgrims who skulked in and out of our town.

Some of you may say I’m just as bad as the worst of the people who’ve exploited the summer, fall, and winter of Lenore, that I’ve played this story like an accordion, for the purposes of melodrama, squeezing and stretching, inflating and deflating scenes and events at will. You’ll say I wasn’t everywhere; you’ll say there’s no way I can know all that I’ve depicted. But I stand behind all the truths in this story of deception. Maybe because I’ve so long looked so old, even when I was relatively young, that people feel they can be revealing around me, that they can unbutton their lips and let slip intimate facts, and they trust that I have the maturity to keep my mouth shut.