At one time, Zeigler’s Department Store had a grocery department and a hardware department, but no longer.

1990; Penguin, 1991

1990; Penguin, 1991

The store assortment has changed. The role of the department store has changed. Downtown Walley has changed. And, perhaps most significantly, Murray has changed.

When the story opens, Murray’s father is telling him that he has hired a “looker”, and young Murray takes a swing past the men’s wear department to catch a glimpse of Barbara Delaney.

Barbara isn’t from ‘town’; she is from Shawtown, a half-rural settlement on the edge of Walley.

She is not only a “looker”, but her family connections add a layer of complication for her as well.

(The theme of ‘town’ and ‘country’ and ‘in-between’ echoes in several of Munro’s stories, including “Voices”,  “Walker Brothers Cowboy”, “Moon in the Orange Street Skating Rink”, “Winter Wind”, and “Half a Grapefruit”.)

Barbara, however, is straight-forward about her family’s reputation. She speaks out about them, even warning others’ of their flaws (for instance, her brother’s sticky fingers).

“Hearing about this, Murray was impressed by her lack of family feeling.”

More than being impressed, Murray fell in love with Barbara. He saw a kind of nobility in her statement, in her willingness to overlook the restriction that Murray felt were binding him.

But although Barbara’s willingness to set aside obligation, decency and love is what makes Murray fall in love with her, it’s also what brings about a fundamental change in their marriage.

(The story’s title refers to a game that Barbara invents after she and Murray have married, in which people have to choose between pairs of things — say, whether one prefers oranges or apples — with the choices initially fairly simple but growing more difficult as the game progresses. There is, as you might intuit, no way to win this game; the game is over when someone gives up and admits defeat. Once readers realize this, it seems unlikely that there will be a sense of having won something at the end of the story.)

Within a paragraph, the assortment of Zeigler’s store brings readers across the years and, almost as succinctly, the relationship between Murray and Barbara begins and formalizes and develops.

On the third page of the story, Zeigler’s Department Store no longer exists.

“Murray says that his is a common story. Does it deserve to be called a classic? ‘My great-grandfather got the business going. My grandfather established it in all its glory. My father preserved it. And I lost it.'”

Just as there is no winning in a game of “Oranges and Apples”, Murray’s story revolves around the idea of loss. But it’s a loss also identified by an air of cheerful commitment.

“He doesn’t mind telling people. Not that he waylays them and unburdens himself immediately. Guests are used to seeing him always at work. Repairing the dock, painting the rowboat, hauling in groceries, digging up drains, he looks so competent and unfrazzled, so cheerfully committed to whatever job he’s doing, that they take him for a farmer turned to resort-keeping.”

Zeigler’s Resort is north-west of Walley which means, that if readers are looking for the class commentary that characterizes so many of Munro’s stories, that Murray now inhabits the in-between too; he is not a farmer, but although he does operate a business, he no longer lives in town either.

But this loss actually comes later. The bulk of this story is rooted in a remembrance, in events which date back to Murray’s years running the store, to his town years.

This remembrance revolves around matters of the heart, but just as the early days of Murray and Barbara’s relationship receive cursory treatment, the sensory elements of the remembrance are sketched with broad, barely-recognizable strokes.

(As with so many of Alice Munro’s stories, “Oranges and Apples” is the sort of work that makes more sense on re-reading.)

Despite this, the sensory details of other elements of the story are striking. This night scene, for instance, set in town, is vivid and evocative.

“They could hear sprinklers, and sometimes distant shrieks, police sirens, laughter. That was the sound of television programs, coming through the open windows and screen doors along the street. Sometimes there was the slap of screen doors closing as people left those programs behind for a moment, and boisterous but uncertain voices calling into the other back yards where people sat drinking, as they did, or watching the sky.”

And, just when readers have brushed off their own memories of summer nights, have begun to feel a sense of connection with the characters in this story, a sense of dislocation nudges its way in:

“There was a sense of people’s lives audible but solitary, floating free of each other under the roof of beech and maple branches in front of the houses and in the cleared spaces behind, just as people in the same room, talking, float free on the edge of sleep.”

Murray’s loss is not a sudden event; just as the organization and stocking of the department store changed gradually over the years (regardless of how quickly that is summed up in the story), a cascade of changes slowly transforms Murray’s life.

“Murray had to face up to being out of step, to having valued, as if they were final, things that were only accidental and temporary.”

And, yet, with that loss comes a fresh sensation of freedom. “Sometimes he felt in all his trouble a terrible elation. He was being robbed. He was being freed of his life.”

A choice between ‘loss’ and ‘gain’ might have seemed unworthy of Barbara’s game. Surely that is too easy a selection for a player, one might think.

But how one phrases the choice can make all the difference.

Have you been reading Alice Munro lately? Or, enjoying another collection of short stories?

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories, as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and I plan to read the stories in Friend of My Youth throughout this month; this is the fifth story in the collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company.