The first thing I saw was the stove. She was a broad-beamed beauty of indeterminate age, dominating a kitchen of ample proportions. Set before an old fireplace, she stood anchored to the wall by a large aluminum pipe resembling a makeshift periscope. She had four black burners arranged two by two on each side of an island of sparkling white enamel, perfect for receiving ladles and hot casseroles. She had a spotless oven and broiler and a small heater which would warm me through the coming winter.
It was the perfect apartment. She was the perfect stove. And as my future landlady escorted me back downstairs, I longed for the morning when I could wander sleepily out to that peaceful kitchen and put a kettle on to heat. Of more complicated delights I scarcely dared dream.
Having a lifelong compulsion to name - or misname - favored objects, I christened the stove after the pint-size heroine of J. D. Salinger's ''To Esme - With Love and Squalor.'' In this touching short story, it is young Esme's unflagging support that helps the weary protagonist regain his grip. After four nomadic years of living with housemates, I saw my own Esme as another beacon of sanity.
I was tired of coping with unfamiliar kitchens and household rules that chafed at my spirits, tired of cigarette smoke in my Brussels sprouts. Although I'd miss the occasional camaraderie, I was long past due for my own space, my own stove. I'd just about given up hope, when along came Esme.
You'd probably expect a stove with a name like that to have a few idiosyncrasies - and you'd be right. A good for instance is the first time I turned on Esme's automatic oven. Nothing happened. I lowered the radio, listening for the quiet hiss of gas. Silence. Since her burners always caught immediately and burned with a steady blue halo, it never occurred to me that Esme might have a problem. After 10 or 15 seconds I switched her off and gave myself to the problem at hand. (Have you ever cooked a frozen dinner on top of the stove? It's almost as difficult as admitting you bought one.)
The next day I called my landlady, who said she was certain the oven worked and came right upstairs to prove it. Esme, it turned out, just likes to take her time. Give her a few extra seconds and eventually she'll reward you - not with a jangling poof! like her more vociferous peers, but with a gentle sigh. The house has to be totally silent, though, or you'll miss it. Once she does warm up, she'll produce a pan of hot crusty corn bread in exactly 20 minutes.
Speaking of which, I happen to hold the opinion that corn bread is corn bread - even if the batter lists to one side of the pan. I mention this because, in the beginning, Esme's corn bread usually resembled a loaf baked amidships during a squall.
No matter. This was hardly worthy of notice when you consider the bigger picture. After all, Esme and I reside in one of New England's oldest coastal settlements, the kind of town where a building that stands plumb and upright is considered more or less an eyesore. In our neighborhood a house is expected to slope this way and that. So naturally does its stove and quite possibly its occupants.
I never truly realized the extent of Esme's condition, however, until the first time my parents drove up for a visit and I attempted one of those miraculous concoctions known as an Impossible Pie (so called because it forms its own crust). No sooner did I set the pan on the rack when half the thick yellow custard cascaded over the rim and bubbled furiously on the oven floor. Later we managed to eat what remained (mostly crust), and my father, ever the comedian, asked for a board to put under one side of his chair so he could slant in the same direction as his dessert.
Well, Esme is finally on the level and we're planning some additional adventures.
Her first popovers - baked in white ceramic ramekins from a going-out-of-business sale - were an epicure's delight.
I use the word ''epicure'' with some reservation, because I do not wish to mislead anyone into believing I am a gourmet cook. Never mind the Bombay curry or other sporadic attempts to upgrade my repertoire. I am at heart a steadfast proponent of simple home cooking, the kind that says ''Welcome.'' And never have I felt more welcomed, more at home, since the day I first teamed up with a stove named Esme.