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Curl Up with a Good Story: “The Old Economy Husband,” by Lesley Dormen


New York 2006

I first read “The Old Economy Husband” in the Atlantic Monthly, back when they published fiction every month and I subscribed. But I’d been thinking about canceling; I was an editorial assistant in Manhattan, and I was in no mood for what I called “stories about rich people.” It was two months after 9/11. I didn’t sit down on the subway because I felt safer near the door. This story about rich people–which wasn’t, it turned out, about rich people–made me miss my stop and renew my subscription. Here’s an excerpt:

It was that summer, the summer we were fifty and the little Cuban boy went home to no mother, not the first West Nile-virus summer but the second, the Hillary and Survivor summer, you know that summer, the summer the women were manhandled in Central Park and the kids lined up for Harry Potter, the summer we were fifty, all of us, fifty and holding, the ones a little older and the ones a little younger, fifty and holding, like thirty and holding only fifty, and it was summer and the ones who were rich were and the ones who weren’t weren’t, but we were all fifty, every one of us, and holding.

We were in the city that summer because we couldn’t afford a vacation and we couldn’t afford a beach house, because our oven died and it was vintage 1929 or something and connected to the dishwasher in some complicated way having to do with converted residential hotels—in other words irreplaceable—and one thing led to another and now we had $20,000 worth of European-made appliances on order. It was the summer we renovated the kitchen.

“Will you call the Miele place in the morning?” I asked Richard. “Will you remember to? Because I can’t face it. Will you?” Our contractor was useless. Also he was in Brazil.

“I’ll do it,” Richard said. “I said I would.”

“Because you have to sweetie, okay?” What was I, deaf? He said he would.

One minute I was disgusted with myself for owning a fancy dishwasher I couldn’t even pronounce—Meal? Mee-lay? May-lay?—and the next I was in a rage over the incompetence of the people responsible for getting it to me. Those were the two ways I was.

Everything that used to be in the kitchen was spread out all over the living room. One thing about a renovation was you saw all the stuff you never used with sickening clarity: the useless, stupid juice glasses and the dust-encrusted early-eighties cappuccino maker and the rusted flour sifter and the grimy oven mitts from the Caribbean vacations—cartons of junk you dragged guiltily down the hall to the recycling room for the building staff to pick over. The bathroom was now the acting kitchen, and a lot of stuff that used to be in the living room, specifically the dining room, was in my office.

We ate dinner there, in front of the TV. It was summer, so pickings were slim. We were watching a biography of the actress Jane Seymour—Dr. Quinn, with the hair. How her first husband left her and her life was terrible, then she had a baby, then her life was terrible again, then she had another baby. Like that. Terrible, baby, terrible, baby, commercial, baby, baby, with some husbands thrown in and a castle and the hair.

best-place-to-beYou can read the rest here, via the Atlantic. (Unfortunately, at least in my browser, the story is interrupted at every break by “From the archives” links and blurbs about other stories. Try to ignore these…) And if you’d like to read more by Lesley Dormen, consider her novel-in-stories, The Best Place to Be (Simon & Schuster, 2007), which counts this story among its chapters.


Join the Discussion

  • Anne, you’re right–this is an amazing story (and I am going to reread it in the collection, because you’re also right that the gremlins in the online version are too distracting!).

  • Marisol P.

    Got this collection on Kindle — online it is coming up as out of print. Wow! Thank God the modern female sensibility isn’t entirely left to the likes of Chelsea Handler and Tina Fey!

    Great writing, stunning insight.

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