All year long, the literary magazines post their short story contests. To win a contest over thousands and thousands of entries being read by bleary-eyed reviewers who are looking for any short cut reason to eliminate an entry, is prodigious for the author. To win more than one contest or two or five contests is even more prodigious. The contest offers the names and bios of the judges and the previous winners. Their credentials reveal they are members of the same clubs, having won all the same honorable honors.
With that in mind, I just received an announcement about the upcoming Zoetrope short story contest. Included was the previous winner’s story. I began to read the winning story and realized it came from the point of view of a little gal, a dwarf. She herself used the word, “Freak”. The story was well written; that goes without saying. The plot reveals that the little gal discovered the photographer to be more freakish than she herself was, and our dwarf was in shock.
I thought, no one could win against such an entry. The more offbeat, the more freakish, the better the chance of winning. I captured this piece of in formation early in my career. Here is the vita: my novels class instructor announced a short story contest for the college Drury Award for a short story. I wrote “Through the Years”. After the instructor read my story, he said to me in earnest, “You must enter this in the college contest.” I did. Another member of the class, a self-pronounced pre-med student, also entered a short story. He wrote a vivid account of an autopsy. He won the contest. I don’t remember his story, but I remember the description of pulling the skin down from the face.
I don’t know if the author ever went on to medical school. I do know that he did not continue as a writer. He stopped too soon. The medical field is loaded. Why, every single one of us has a story inside us every bit as worthy of the grotesque. We can all be writers, at least once.
My story "Through the Years" was consequently published in a literary anthology and later became part of my novel "The Provider".
Here is the short story:
“Through the Years”
My mother is now one hundred years old. Each week I visit her at the retirement manor. And we talk of the past. My mother is proud that she can support herself here in a private room, and be surrounded by her own things, some of which once belonged to Dolly. We talk of Dolly.
When I was growing up, Dolly was my favorite of all my parents' friends. She was full of fun and said whatever came into her head. Now and then Dolly sang out, “Ooh, your mother likes money.”
And now and then my mother winked at me and said, “Dolly keeps the stores in business.”
My mother did like money. She liked to work for it, count it, save it, and get her dollar's worth when she spent it. She received pleasure in her good management of it and she respected its power, especially its power to transform a person's life. She was always interested in knowing who had achieved the American Dream.
My father was not a good provider. My parents came to America separately as young Russian immigrants in 1922, and fell in love. Yet my father remained no better than a struggling immigrant all the days of his life. So my mother worked at her sewing machine in the garment district, and she became the chief family provider.
My mother is the most un-frivolous person I know. Her life became so pragmatic that she lost, for the most part, her ability to play, to be childlike. Unless her fascination with thrift and money well spent were her game.
But Dolly never worked. She and her husband Lester were American born. Lester provided for the family—for Dolly and the two boys. Dolly went to luncheons and played cards in the afternoons somewhere out of the neighborhood, but most of the time she went shopping for herself. So in the beginning, Dolly and Lester Rooney appeared to be further along than our family toward achieving the American Dream.
The Rooneys moved upstairs from us during The Great Depression, and Dolly came down in the evenings into our kitchen which was the hub of our household, where the conversations took place, and visited while my mother labored over the ironing board, stirred a simmering soup, and packed lunches for the following day. Dolly was full of energy; she talked fast, and her eyes danced in her chubby face sprinkled with freckles and framed by whatever the beauty shop did that week to her red curls. She liked my mother's wry humor, and my mother liked Dolly’s pep. Dolly was good company for my mother after a grinding day in the garment district at the sewing machine. She brought all the gossip. Her favorite subject was Lester's rich sister. And my mother was always interested in hearing about the rich. “She's a mean woman,” Dolly started. “Would it make any difference to her in her three-story house riding up and down in her elevator if she sent us some money, say a small check at the first of each month?”
As prudent as my mother was about money, Dolly was in the same degree imprudent. Mother furnished our home with all the essentials. Once an item was set in place, it was bolted there forever. But for Dolly, permanency was ephemeral. Dolly grew tired of her possessions, offering up small objects from time to time as presents for my mother. And my mother found a place for everything, winking to me, “Dolly is redecorating again.” In our home, Dolly's candy dishes and small porcelain statues and vases and china teapots and wall platters took on an immortality denied them upstairs on that conveyer belt of moving merchandise.
After Dolly said goodnight and scurried upstairs, I sat down on a wooden kitchen chair and my mother braided my hair for the next day. “Mother, Dolly and Lester live in the same kind of apartment we do. They pay the same rent. How can Dolly afford to buy so much?”
“Lester earns a good living.” Her strong fingers work skillfully, pulling and twining the coils into a single thick chord. “Dolly buys on lay-away, and pays little by little. Sometimes when Dolly buys, she doesn't always pay. There, your braid is ready for school tomorrow.” For tomorrow, because my mother left for work every weekday morning before I awoke.
One evening Dolly entered our kitchen waving her stubby, painted fingernails. “The merchants say they'll sue. Who's worried? They won't sue. I don't have anything,” and she laughed and laughed. My mother's muscular arms guided the iron over my father's work paints; she stirred the soup and packed the lunches. Dolly plunked herself down in a chair, planted her high-heeled shoes with the cutout toes on our linoleum floor and spread her short legs to accommodate her puffy thighs. “We attended the big party at Lester's sister's house last night. I really outfitted myself.”
“The party was too beautiful? Rich?”
“Ooh, Rosie, let me tell you. We drove up to the house. All three stories were lighted. Valet parking. We walked inside; the chandeliers were shimmering everywhere. Butlers walked around with silver trays of champagne and hors d'oeuvres. I ate every chance I could. You never saw such food. My sister-in-law made her grand entrance from the elevator. She was wearing a purple and black sequined gown. My brother-in-law was wearing a tuxedo; most of the men were.”
“Rosie!” she laughed. “Lester has two suits. When one is in the cleaners, he wears the other. Why does Lester need a tuxedo? Women need clothes. Oh, and there was a small orchestra.”
“What were you wearing?”
“I bought a black lace gown and a sequined jacket. The saleslady told me, 'Sequins are the height of fashion right now.' Well, you know me, Rosie,” she laughed. Then her voice deepened into a serious tone. “We were standing near Lester's sister and brother-in-law who were with a group of their friends. We didn't know any of them and we weren't introduced to anyone. My brother-in-law was talking about a man in the company who was caught stealing. I piped up, 'Let him steal. You've got enough.' That's the only socializing we did. We ate and left. I never really have a good time when we attend their parties.” Her eyebrows furrowed. “On the drive home, I talked to Lester about his sister. 'She doesn't introduce us to her friends,’ I said. ‘Why not?' Lester didn't answer me. 'Lester, do you hear me?' Not a word. 'Lester, you need a hearing aid.' He just kept driving. I've told him a million times he needs an aid. I talk and talk. It's like he's not even there. I told him, 'Go to your rich sister. She'll buy one for you.'”
I always liked Lester. He was a quiet, sweet man. I could see how Dolly's appetite for life had attracted him when he first met her. As I say, she was fun. But, then one day my mother told me more. After the first seven years of marriage, Dolly's appetite became a concern to Lester. When he married her, he was in business with a partner. He bought a house and gave Dolly access to the bank account so she could furnish the house as she desired. The baby grand piano looked glamorous and romantic and rich even though neither of them played. And when their two sons arrived early in the marriage, she bought everything under the sun for them. But one day in the seventh year of marriage, the partner came to Lester. He liked Lester and had hesitated telling him—Lester was such a nice person, he was so happy in his marriage, and now he was the father of two fine boys. The partner could put it off no longer. The business, he said, had gone into a reversal. They needed capital. Still he hesitated. But then, “Dolly has been spending a great deal of money, withdrawing consistently from the business. I tried to juggle the books as long as possible—”
The business went. The house was sold, and the baby grand piano. They moved into the apartment building, above our unit. By the time my mother finished telling me all this, I was disgusted with Dolly. The woman was no longer fun. How could my mother respect her and remain friends with her all these years? Undoubtedly Dolly was merely a curiosity for her, an entertainment.
But my mother wasn’t finished with the story. Lester, she said, went to his sister in the three-story house for help. He heard the elevator whirring. His sister came down; the wrought iron door folded into the wall; and she stepped out.
He told his sister what had happened.
“You certainly made a marriage. To give you money is to drop it down her toilet. That woman is going to eat you up alive. Get away from her.”
“She's my wife, the mother of my sons. I love my sons.”
“She'll be the death of you.”
And since that visit, my mother went on, Lester has been behind a desk somewhere in his brother-in-law's company. Dolly doesn’t know what he does there all day. She shrugs her shoulders and says, “He sits.”
In 1949, our family moved away, and one by one all the neighbors followed. Except for Dolly and Lester. They remained in their apartment as the neighborhood deteriorated. On Sundays, they drove away from the city and often found their way in their old Ford to suburbia and to our little tract house with the garden. They sat in our driveway on yellow canvas chairs and ate grapes from a large bowl. Dolly orchestrated the conversation with her robust humor and in her booming voice, watching my father puttering in the garage a few feet away, and my mother coming out of the house, hanging laundry and returning indoors for another batch. “Sam,” she didn’t go in for calling my father by his Russian name Sanya, “doesn't Rosie ever sit down?” she sang out as if it were a good joke.
“Rosa works all week at the sewing machine. She leaves other things for the weekend.”
Dolly could switch subjects on a dime to keep herself happy. “Remember, Sam, when Rosie was going to deliver the baby and the doctor told you she had to have a Caesarean operation? You said to me, 'Dollytchka, the doctor wants to cut open Rosa's belly. He wants me to sign a paper. What should I do?’”
“I remember,” he smiled.
“I said, 'Sanya, you've got to do it.'” And she laughed with her bountiful American assurance.
My mother walked outdoors just then and grinned, “You gave Sanya good advice.”
“Rosie, remember during the Great Depression when the landlord tried to evict you to give the apartment to his relatives?”
“You fought for us, Dollytchka. You were a friend.”
“We have good memories, Rosie.”
Lester sat, eating grapes from the bowl.
As the seasons passed, my father, still young in 1951, but no longer young looking, slipped into the final winter of his disappointed life and died. And in the seasons following, my mother tried to be brave. She planned our first vacation, a trip to Las Vegas. I drove Lester’s old Ford. Lester sat next to me while Mother and Dolly sat in the back seat.
“Dolly, are you going to gamble a lot of money?” my mother asked.
“As much as I can, Rosie,” she sang out with gusto.
“Are you going to feel bad spending so much on yourself?”
I wanted to hear the answer to that.
“I spend money to pleasure myself. Hitler spent it to kill.”
A moment halted in silence. Then my mother held up two ten-dollar bills and said, “These, I won't gamble away.” She placed them in her purse. “You see. I've just made twenty dollars.” Dolly roared with laughter.
My mother liked Las Vegas. Money was moving all the time, in and out of the machines and back and forth across the tables. She was dazzled by people's looseness with it. She felt an accelerating excitement as she pulled the slot machine handles, and then a growing impatience because the coins were losing their value. With a slight giddiness, she heightened her stakes by moving over to the Twenty-One table. She sat down and suddenly realized what was happening: the entire casino was filled with people testing their self-control. She calmly withdrew a twenty-dollar bill from her purse and set it in front of her as the limit to her gambling money. I stood behind her and watched as she played like a cat with a mouse. Every so often I heard Dolly laughing in the distance and looked out to see her waving her arms and bouncing from machine to machine. Lester followed her around with his hands clasped behind his back. Mother leaned back to me and murmured, “Lester's holding on to the rent money in his pocket.”
Soon after that trip, I learned that Dolly was borrowing money from my mother. Small amounts: five dollars, ten dollars, twenty dollars— “the twenty dollars I brought back from Las Vegas,” my mother winked at me. Dolly was prompt to repay. But then a measured time would pass, not much, and she borrowed again. Why did my mother continue to indulge this silly, selfish woman?
Lester began to visit a psychiatrist. Mother told me he was receiving electrical shock treatments to block out parts of his memory. Paid for by his rich sister.
When Lester died, no one was able to articulate the reason. The funeral was large. Lester's sister refused to speak with Dolly. Mother leaned over and whispered, “Dollytchka, don't prepare your pocketbook.”
Dolly’s income was suddenly and drastically reduced. What there was of it, her grown sons now provided. In the beginning of her widowhood, she continued to treat herself to lace slips in assorted shades, and replenish her perfume collection. She continued to borrow money from my mother. Since Dolly never learned to drive, the Sunday visits to our house stopped. So the two women continued to talk in the evenings by telephone. As the years passed and my mother worked during the day, Dolly began calling me. Full of her usual zest, she asked me anything, what I knew of the old neighbors. She simply wanted to talk. But I was going to college.
“Hello, Rosie. Lester's sister died.”
“Did she leave you anything, Dollytchka?”
Mother turned to me, covered the receiver with her hand, and said, “One dollar.”
My mother and I visited Dolly some time later. I had acquired a second-hand Chevrolet. The apartment was bare, as if she were moving out. Had she sold all of her possessions?
“I’m poor, Rosie,” she sang out as if it were a joke. “I eat peanut butter. It’s cheap. It works like meat.” I hadn't seen Dolly in years. Her hair was white by then; she no longer visited the beauty shop. She wore a nondescript housedress; but she talked happily enough, full of her old pep. That is, until she saw me gazing at her wedding photograph on the wall. She and Lester looked so happy, their life full of promise. She came over and stood beside me. She studied the photograph for a while and then said, “The first seven years of my marriage were good.” I looked sideways at her and saw tears fill up in her eyes. “But I married the wrong man. He didn't leave me anything.”
I stared at her. Changed the subject. “Do you see your sons often?”
“But you talk on the telephone?”
“They are busy in their own marriages.”
But my mother was still there at night on the telephone, full of attentiveness. The two talked as if still in our apartment kitchen.
Less than a year after our visit, one of the sons telephoned. “Mother died. The doctor said she choked on a spoonful of peanut butter. The spoon was still in her hand.”
We attended the funeral. A small gathering. The two sons and their wives—grandchildren were permitted to stay home. Also attending were two women from the old neighborhood from the high days when Dolly was on top: two spinster sisters, wiry and tight-lipped. “After we moved away, Dolly kept in touch by telephone. She called all the time in the beginning.” Had Dolly tapped them as well as my mother for small loans? And anyone else? The entire neighborhood? The two sisters had not kept up the friendship. They learned of Dolly's death because one of them was a daily reader of the obituary columns. “Never miss them. You never know.”
My mother regarded them sideways and said, “Good for you.”
Those in attendance at the graveside numbered eight people. They surrounded the plain casket decorated with a spray of white flowers. Some of the people sat, and some stood during the ceremony. Afterward, the people drifted away toward their cars. My mother had not moved; I waited at her side. A moment passed and my mother stood up and walked up to the casket. When she was close enough, she bent over and thrust her face into the flowers. She planted a kiss.
The other day at the retirement manor, my mother and I were speaking of the past. And we spoke of Dolly. My mother surfaced from her old age, and winked, “You know, Dollytchka still owes me ten dollars.