I’ve known Ken Holland as a silver haired sophisticate, a friendly guy who finds his pleasures in sipping a fine scotch during a jazz set at the Village Vanguard or in listening to poetry at the Howland Cultural Center in Beacon, not far from his home in Fishkill. During the week he works in Manhattan as a senior sales executive for Macmillan books. He has a polish and warmth that must serve him well in his career. So imagine my surprise to discover through reading his short story, “Hubcaps,” that he has an Inner Grace Paley who comes out roaring in this heartfelt portrait of a Bronx grandmother unable to stop loving the cursed men in her life. Nor am I the only one to admire “Sarah” in this story. “Hubcaps” has won first prize the Hudson Valley Writers Guild 2010 Short Fiction Contest awarded on April 2nd. Congratulations, Ken. And bless you, Sarah.
What shiny hubcaps, Sarah thinks.
Her grandson, Richie, sits on the davenport, elbows like the gnarls in a tree limb, fingers like stripped twigs. Asking for money. Not the first time. Oh no, Sarah thinks, not the first time this one has come round. Nana, I need this. Nana, I need that. This one was trouble.
“Tell me, sweetheart, for what is it you need this money?” Sarah’s voice is soft like her oatmeal cookies, with just a hint of vinegar in her tone. And what difference what her grandson says? Who knew what was lies and what was truth. Truth was when the door would shut and he’d be gone.
“I told you, Nana. Bills. I’ve got bills to pay.”
“What bills, at your age? Tell me that. Who comes round to collect from a young man like you?”
Richie crosses his legs, thrums his fingers on his knee. Such impatience, Sarah thinks, such disrespect from someone who is asking of her a favor, for money no less.
“They’re not my bills; they’re Mom’s. Electric. Gas. Stuff.”
“Maybe I should call your mother. Ask her about this…stuff.”
“You can’t. They turned off the phone two days ago.”
Sarah thinks this entirely possible. Her daughter has lost all grasp on the world. Living in a trailer north of the city, no lock even. Sometimes the propane runs out and she walks to a pay phone, calls and cries about the empty tank, no heat, no burner, no oven. A ringing sound from the phone’s earpiece so that Sarah believes her daughter has dragged the empty tank with her, is knocking her knuckles against its paint-blistered hull so she can hear the clap of an empty bell. Do you hear me, Mom? I called collect so I know you’re there!
Sarah looks at her grandson. His eyes are skittish, like coins spinning on a warped tabletop, and scars from acne like the shadow of bad memories. Hair that probably laughs at the sight of a comb. And a chin that seems to cower back into itself, sparse unshaven whiskers that she wants to take a tweezer to and yank. Where, Sarah wonders, where is she in that face? Where is her dead husband?
They’d owned apartment buildings, when they were young. She, her husband, her two brothers. Five buildings in the Bronx. Nice neighborhoods, back then. She did the books, all the finances, money like a game of numbers, that easy for her. Ledgers and tax reports. Appreciation and write-offs. A game of hopscotch, skipping from one box of numbers to the next.
The younger brother, he did all the repairs. Roofs, ceilings, electric. Plaster, plumbing, masonry. Big he was. Not tall. Jewish men weren’t tall back then. But big, from his work. And the women! All the time a different one. Always buying himself Cadillacs, Sarah remembers. Pink no less. How the women loved it! Driving them over to Pelham Parkway where there were horses, so they could go riding. Showing them all a good time. Hot to trot, that’s what she always said to him. And for dinner, City Island. Mussels and crabcakes. Big spender, that one. But how he earned it, she thinks. The plaster on his work clothes at day’s end making him look like a mannequin. Add water to his hair and he’d set to concrete!
Sarah turns to the window again. She didn’t know they made bumpers so fancy.
“Tell me, Richie,” she says. “How long now are you here? Maybe now you’ll stay with your mother, no more of this meshuga travel back and forth. All this nonsense with Colorado.”
“Arizona. Arizona, Nana.”
“So, you’re staying maybe?”
“I’ve got a job back there. You know that.”
“Driving bread truck. That’s what you call a job?”
“Beer truck. And I’ve got my own route.” Richie lets his head drop back and uncrosses his legs. Sarah thinks it’s a play and he just got shot, that’s the pose he’s in.
“Your own route. Maybe they also let you keep the empties, trade them in for a thousand nickels. You’ll be rich in Colorado, like all those people I hear go to ski there.”
Richie brings his eyes level with Sarah’s. Sarah worries how still they are now, like when she thinks she hears things in the apartment, then listens closely but there’s only silence…how that silence is scarier than if she heard what she was listening for.
Her second brother, he used to carry a gun. Not when things were good, those early years. No, then he’d walk the buildings, knock on doors, last Friday of every month. Thank you, Mrs. Liebchik. Thank you, Mrs. Richman. No, not then, but later. One day he comes back, his cheek pulpy like bad fruit, mustache twisted down at one end, his whole face cock-eyed. What happened, Sarah wants to know. But not him, he won’t tell. A month later, Sarah watches him lay out the rents—a stack of checks, as much in cash—and when he’s made two neat piles of it, he lays a gun down on top. She laughed at first, made a joke about it being a paperweight, who sold such things? Her brother lifted it up, snapped open the chamber and let the bullets tumble away. Sarah remembers how her laugh hit a wall and knocked itself out.
Her dead husband, he hit a few walls too. Every month, when they divided the money and made the deposit, off he’d go to the racetrack. Took a cab up to Yonkers, hot to trot himself, watch the ponies being whipped by midget men in their little chariots. Once, he coaxed Sarah to come with him. Such chaos! Tiny ticket windows with sad-eyed men behind bars, Sarah recalls, taking money, dealing out stubs that tell you just how much you’re going to lose. Hundreds, maybe thousands of these torn stubs all over the floor, which no one but she looked at, because it’s hard to look at failure and keep walking. It was like she was stepping on dead money. And what had her husband done to deserve killing such money? He did nothing for the business. Stayed home with his coffee and paper and racing forms. Polished his shoes and chose which shirts he wanted laundered that week. Called Sarah a queen, his Bathsheba, kissed her hand and cheeks and even bowed from the waist. Told her no man deserved to be married to such a woman, a real beauty! A looker! And brains! What was God thinking the day He created her? Obviously, her husband said, He was thinking of nothing else. Her husband would pull on his vest, draw a coat from the hall closet, and then slide open a drawer in the desk, finger open the checkbook. “Just a tidy sum,” he’d say. “To get me through the week.”
And, she remembers, if the ponies he picked didn’t run as fast as he thought, or hated the muddy track at Belmont when he thought mud was to their liking, then he’d only have enough to take a bus back to the Bronx. And the walls he hit were the ones at home. Fist into plaster, the wallpaper like a bandage over a contusion.
But when all was calm again, what charm he held! What was she to do? Hat askew on his head like a movie star. Teeth so white the two of them could walk the streets at night without the lamps being lit. When he held his hand along the small of her back, her spine got goosebumps, and she felt heat in places no one talked about. If it wasn’t love, it was at least passion. And how many women did she know could boast of such a thing?
Sarah’s grandson absently slaps the palm of his hand against the armrest, over and over. Puffs of dust billow out. Smoke signals, Sarah thinks, carrying messages like old telegrams. Never good news. A knock at the door, someone in uniform, a little round cap, Are You Sarah Winner? A telegram for you. Just sign here. Sign here, so she can read about her dead husband, like giving permission for someone to tell you your life has changed. If only she hadn’t signed, then everything would be as before. But they give these skinny men these uniforms and she thinks: So official, it’s better that I sign.
It was her husband’s big trip, maybe he’d stashed more winnings aside than she’d known. A whole weekend up in Monticello, time to lose money upstate, share the family wealth with a different set of strangers. Only, as Sarah reads on, the problem wasn’t losing, it was winning. Something called a trifecta. Odds were never good, but in this trifecta the chance of winning was like the chance of meeting God on Dyre Avenue, shopping for pork on the Sabbath. And what does her husband do? He wins. Yes, the telegram says he won it all. And his joy! Too much of it, too much of this joy, his heart can’t bear it. He sweats, he faints, he stops breathing. Down there, slumped on the floor by the seats, a hundred losing stubs like kisses of farewell before being swept away at the end of the day. Some of this Sarah imagines for herself, some of it in the telegram written by a woman named Bernice. Just who, she thinks, is this Bernice?
Richie coughs to clear his throat, but more to bring Sarah’s eyes back into focus. She tries to think of things under the hood of a car, what their names are. Battery, that’s easy. Radiator, that’s another one. Other names too, but more complicated, and what they did to make a car go she could only guess.
“For years,” she says, “our family lived on the Lower Eastside. Then up we go, scrape here, build there, not wealth but money and hard work. Packed our things and moved to the Bronx, a paradise back then, trees and parks and men tipping their hats to you in the street. Children wearing three-piece suits to play on the sidewalk. You think the butcher has his thumb on the scale? Hah! You let him know what’s on your mind! And never have to worry about him pulling out a gun from underneath the roast beef.”
Her grandson fidgets, crosses his arms and pats his waist. Makes Sarah wonder if he’s got something hidden there, beneath his shirt. Something tucked against his skin. The way young people dress these days, she thinks, everything so big and loose, like everyone’s waiting to grow fat and waddle around.
“My father—your great grandfather—what a belly he had. He started it downtown, but gave the tailor in the Bronx much more business. Every month another inch to let out in his pants, a new shirt every full moon. A matter of pride for him. His way of telling people in the street: Look! In my family, we’ve got enough that I can grow fat and forget what my feet look like!”
Her grandson rolls his eyes to the top of his head, like people do when they have heart attacks, she thinks. This one, she groans to herself, this one has no use for family, for where he came from. And where he’s going, God only knows.
“We moved to Honeywell Avenue. A nice building, on the same block that ran into the stone wall of the Bronx Zoo. Your mother, a little doll she was, finally a room all for herself. That first summer, we opened the windows wide, let the night cool us down. And with the breeze came the trumpet of the elephants, and the lions yelling back because they’d been woken up. Your mother, she comes running into our bed, jumps between me and your grandfather, doesn’t stop kicking till she’s under the sheets head and all. ‘Come out,’ I say to her, while your grandfather tickles her tummy. ‘The animals love you. They’re all your friends.’”
Sarah catches herself, thinks of all the animals her daughter came to be friends with, later in her life. Maybe this is where it all began. Maybe it was she who first gave her encouragement.
Richie has said something, but Sarah only catches the last word or two. “What?” she says.
“Two fifty,” he repeats. “Mom says two fifty, or three hundred would be even better. They’re threatening to turn off her lights.” He looks at his watch. When he came knocking, Sarah had been asleep. It wasn’t late, just past sunset. But Sarah no longer knows which part of the day is meant for rest and which for work. She sleeps through supper time, dusts the curios on the shelf at midnight. Hours for dreaming are when her eyelids stay shut.
The streetlamp outside her window throws down light in the shape of a snowcone. She sees that the car seat has a headrest. Just looking at it makes her feel drowsy. Water fills the corners of her eyes from weariness. Maybe Richie thinks they’re real tears. Maybe he’s taking pity on an old woman who’s drifting off to sad thoughts. Why else, she thinks, would he begrudge her a few words of concern?
“Nana,” he says. “This neighborhood you live in is another zoo. Why don’t you get out of here.”
She nods her head a few times, brings a tissue up to dry the water from her eyes. Points to a doorway.
“That room,” she says. “In the bed in that room, that’s where your great grandmother died. And your great grandfather. Within a week of each other. One was healthy, the other sick. The sick one died, ninety-one years old. And on that day the healthy one gets sick, and dies five days later. Like catching the next train to the seashore, so they could still spend the rest of eternity together.”
“Which one died first?” Richie asks.
Sarah looks at him like he was a cobweb too high on the wall to reach with her rag. “What difference does it make,” she mutters harshly.
Her grandson is taken aback by her small display of arrogance. He turns his face aside and rubs his knuckles against his temples. When he’s composed himself, he leans forward in his chair as if he’s about to stand up, but just stares at the far wall, the display of Dresden china and Royal Doulton figurines. As if tallying the value of things he’d never before thought worth looking at. His fingers are quivering, and Sarah wonders if it’s from greed.
“Forget it,” he says.
Sarah feels guilt, as familiar as the arthritis that stings her bones countless times each day. She waggles her head as if to deny the pain both bring.
“How I took care of them,” she goes on. “Never a life, always running back and forth so my mother and father could get through the day without complaint. I loved them both, so I never minded. Even with the healthy one, when you get to that age there’s so little they can do for themselves. And me, I was happy to be with them. I knew it was what God wanted, because God didn’t want my brothers helping. No, His plan was made plain to me the first time I sat with my brothers and said, ‘Momma and Poppa are too old to be by themselves. They need our help.’ Both my brothers look away, each to his own corner of the room, like they’d each heard the whisper of a different spirit. And what are these spirits telling them? They tell them they’re the sons. And it’s the daughter who should be caring for the parents when they grow old and infirm.”
Sarah hears a clicking, like metal on metal, from outside. Glancing back at her grandson, she marvels at how easily things get torn apart.
She thinks Richie is losing interest, the shaking of his fingers now taken up by both hands. Like he wants to grip them around her throat. It’s strange that he’s still sitting. Sarah stands and shuffles to the kitchenette, puts a pot of water on to boil, enough for one cup. Useless to ask her grandson if he’d like tea. She thinks about all she’s said, and is herself wondering why she’s pulled these words from her memory.
“Nana,” Richie says, and in just that one word Sarah senses the shakiness. Like he’d just stepped into a vat of ice. “I don’t have much more time.” Now, finally, he stands, hides his hands inside his pockets.
“I thought maybe,” she says, “you wanted to hear about your mother.” Sarah lays a teabag along the inside of her cup, cuts a thin slice of lemon. The kettle begins the chore of whistling. Her grandson, he’s got his mouth open like he was ready to say a certain thing but now has doubts. Sarah has her own doubts. Over eighty years, and still she’s yet to bother anyone, not family, least of all God. And now she’s so close to letting a little bit leak out, just one bucketful from a lifetime of rainwater. And look who she’s moaning to! A child no less. A boy with bad skin and baggy pants. Maybe if God looked like her grandson, she’d care little enough to kvetch to Him as well.
“I thought when Momma and Poppa were gone, then I’d sit down to my own life. Look at all the years they’d lived. When they died, I was already calling myself an old woman. Still, what was wrong with that? Again, no complaints. Momma and Poppa were with each other, and I had my own daughter to take care of me. Your mother, she’d lived a long life by then too. Not so much in years, but in her eyes, dull like linoleum that’s been scrubbed again and again.”
Sarah flicks her hand at the wrist, brushing away the memory. But this memory, she knows, is like a fly, it comes circling back to crawl once more on her fingers.
“College, how she begged to go. I knew what this was, your mother wanted only to get away. For once, I was proud. The daughter should do better than the mother. But once there, she finds being Jewish not something she wants to tell people. Being from the Bronx something she wants to say even less. And that her mother still lives in one of those neighborhoods, that she finds the most shameful thing of all. And how do I know what she says and doesn’t say at this school? From her. She tells me these things herself, so much anger. Like being Jewish is a curse. And isn’t the mother to blame? Aren’t the children Jewish if the mother is the same?”
Sarah feels her eyes swell again, though how much from weariness she can’t tell. For a moment, she forgets her grandson is in the room, then hears the scrape of his feet on the wood floor. Like some tiny animal behind the wall. A familiar sound, one she’s often woken to.
“Children,” she says, “they have to find their own way. It’s just that your mother, she ran so far away from who she was that she ran headfirst into who she wasn’t. The men in her life taking what they could from her, leaving behind promises like IOU’s. Choosing a man to marry, to have a child with, like she was a shiksa; but by then I would have died from shock if she’d married in the faith. Someone buys spoiled milk long enough, you don’t know what to do if they brought home fresh.”
Sarah lifts her face to her grandson’s. “Do you know how many times over the years,” she says, “the phone would ring and I would know it was your mother. Already I’d be thinking, How much money can I spare? Do I have the strength to sit on the phone two hours to keep her from hurting herself? Do you know how God tempted me to not pick up? Why would God want my children to be a burden? In my ear I’d hear His voice: Go, there’s errands to run, old friends to meet, let the phone ring.”
The sound of a siren cuts across the room, and a moment later the reflection of flashing red lights. Sarah hesitates, wonders if they’ll stop in front of her building. Richie’s body stiffens, a rabbit sniffing the air, she thinks. His face so pale she can see the veins carrying blue blood behind his cheeks. He clenches his fist, and she recalls him as an infant, the way she’d lay a finger in his palm and he’d close his hand around it. The siren drifts away like the pulse of a dying man.
Her grandson has said nothing for a while now. Instead, it’s his body that’s talking. Sarah sees him shiver, like a thousand voices trying to break out from beneath his skin. This is not anger. No, this is not anger inside of him. And what Sarah would not admit before, she admits now. The money he’s come for, it’s for himself. It’s to make his body stop shaking.
She’s at a loss what to do. The only surprise is the phone not ringing. Any minute thinking her daughter will be calling from a pay phone, pleading for her to help her son, the clang of an empty propane tank in echo of her grief.
When he’s noticed the silence, her grandson opens his eyes. The pupils are wide, like a boulevard, and his chin is quivering. She can’t tell if he’s about to cry, or lash out like a madman. Just like she can’t tell if he’s stayed to listen, or just humor her to get her money.
“I need–” he begins, but Sarah speaks over his words.
“The buildings are gone,” she says. “My one brother dead. The other, dead too. Years now. And your mother, she might as well be with them, that’s how much life she brings me. But I tell you this. There’s nothing I can do to stop myself from loving her. I’ve tried. But there’s nothing I can do.”
Sarah doesn’t question the moisture in her eyes. Her grandson looks away, takes his hands from his pockets, lets them twirl in small circles along the sides of his hips. His whole body like a motor with nothing to attach itself to. Sarah thinks of his mother, how no child should be raised in such a home, but twenty-two years have come and gone and here he stands—just one more mask in which God has chosen to make Himself known.
Richie makes his way unsteadily toward the door. No more talk of money, and Sarah wonders if he’s ashamed now to ask. But there’s something in his bearing that reminds Sarah of her older brother, when he first began carrying a gun, all the old families beginning to move from the buildings, all their talk of Westchester, Long Island, the new paradises. There’s a look on her grandson’s face that is her brother’s when he still held hope in one hand, and bullets in the other.
Sarah doesn’t know if she’s spoken aloud, the voice inside her head seeming to make her tongue wag: “Your mother is Jewish, so you’re Jewish too. What are you going to do with that?”
Richie stops from turning the doorknob. Did he hear her, she wonders. Or is he asking himself different questions.
Her grandson turns back to her. Crosses his arms along his chest and wedges his hands into his armpits. “Nana,” he says, quietly now, head dipped down like he’d found humility. “Nana, I need that money. I can’t leave without the money.”
And what is she to do? The son of her daughter.
Sarah nods. No words, just gets up from her seat and pulls down her pocketbook from the hall closet. Sits back down and opens her purse, pulls out and holds forth two twenty-dollar bills. Her grandson moves in to take it from her, his eyes settling down long enough to count what he’s been given.
“Forty dollars,” he says, mild disbelief in his voice, like he’s waiting for the joke to be explained. “I need more than this.” Her grandson looks as baffled as she did the day she received the telegram about her dead husband.
Sarah stares out her window again. The car is stripped down naked. Like a long-dead alley cat—all bones, some tufts of skin and hair.
“The money,” she says, “is for carfare, back to your mother’s.” She turns once more to her grandson. “Don’t worry, sweetheart. I’ll phone you a taxi.”