To my dear readers,
You’re going to get some freebies out of my latest turn. In a sense, I’ve retired, to scribble away only at short stories. No more novels in the foreseeable future. Why? Because my dominant hand goes into spasms.
If/when my two unpublished novels and my new short stories are published, I’ll share that success with you.
In the meantime, I have decided to share pages of my published writings with you. You will decide whether or not to complete the reading.
I’m going to start with the short story “The Debt.”
It is only 16 pages in length. I’m sharing 12 pages here:
This short story is about a young Jewish man who wants/marries a Christian Woman. The Debt was a Finalist for Literary Fiction with the highly prestigious literary journal, GlimmerTrain.
AS A FURRIER, Aaron Markowitz cannot properly observe the Sabbath because on Saturdays his fur salon attracts its heaviest business. However, if he arises early enough, his wife serves him a small breakfast and he drives off in his Cadillac to temple for the early morning service—a minyan of ten men conduct a service. On this particular Saturday he sits yet at the breakfast table, rolling a breadcrumb back and forth on the thick white tablecloth laid out the previous evening.
“What I’m leading up to,” says his son, “is that there’s going to be a wedding.” The father suddenly flicks the crumb as if it were a marble. “I have asked Constance Markham to marry me.”
The door from the kitchen to the dining room flies open. Mrs. Markowitz rushes in and takes a position behind her husband’s chair. Instantly, they become a couple in a 1920’s photograph, one sitting, the other standing, serious, stoic, disclosing the impossibility of a smile for the camera’s slow eye which must absorb, invert, and then register the squeeze from the rubber bulb. The son, in front of his immigrant parents, does not show his full face; he looks at them from under the hood, through one eye, for two would be more than he can bear. His eyelid—the shutter—blinks.
“You can’t be surprised,” he says. “You have no right.” The vein on his neck bulges. “You should have prepared yourselves.” He is asking so much of them.
Aaron and Bella Markowitz came from the Old Country. They brought with them their religion, attitudes, foods—a different culture altogether. They opened their home to a stream of aunts and uncles and cousins who followed them from the Old Country and who reinforced that different culture. These relatives, one or two at a time, boarded with them until they, too, could establish themselves. During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, relatives, some already American relatives, lived with them when work was Evnearly impossible to find and rent so hard to pay. Family helped family.
Alan’s mother, as a matter of fact, as a young bride took in her own mother-in-law, a recent widow, who then lived with them all the years remaining to her long widowhood. Although Alan was an only son, a first generation American, born in this country, he grew up in a house full of European Jews slowly turning American. He had explained all of this to Constance; tenderly, he had explained it, the way his people were. Their oddness, their otherness to her world. Now he stands before his parents, his head lowered, blinking at them, sideways. His face is flush. His heart is beating rapidly.
Aaron Markowitz quietly says, “You are right. We should have prepared ourselves.”
“We did prepare ourselves.” His mother’s eyes are jumping. “Like for a death. But once it comes, the shock is still fresh.”
“This is not like a death.” Alan shrieks, engulfed in anguish, now fully facing them; he shoots straight up out of his chair. The father’s face also shoots straight up, following the son’s pain, suffering with him, his eyes darting all over the son’s face. The father catches hold of the son by saying again, “You are right. Of course this is not like a death. This is like a birth.” His mouth turns nervously, briefly, into a small smile. “You are bringing someone new into the family. We should rejoice. Do you hear that, Bella; we should rejoice. And we will. Constance is a nice girl, a lovely girl.” The father looks sternly at the mother.
The mother’s eyes become calm; she places her hand on her husband’s shoulder in readiness for another photograph. She looks at her son. “Yes she is a very nice girl, a lovely girl.”
Nevertheless, the son strokes his hair; he begins pacing the room. “It isn’t as though I purposely sought Constance out to defy you. There was no reason to. In high school, for three years, she and I sat one behind the other, our last names starting out the same—Markham and Markowitz—teachers were comfortable with alphabetical seating. The two of us were so often thrown together, like siblings, like twins. And one thing led to another. What was I supposed to do? Ask the teachers each time to change my seat?”
“She’s a nice girl,” his mother says again.
“You told me to look around for other girls, Jewish girls. I did. For you, Mom; for you, Pop. And for myself. It would have been so much easier. But I always returned to Constance. I liked her. She and I were both interested in journalism; we enrolled in the same city college and then in the same university, found ourselves so often in the same classes; naturally we gravitated toward each other. If I saw her in a classroom at the university, I couldn’t sit down in just any seat; she wouldn’t have understood. We were good friends, then best friends. She’s the finest girl I know. Oh, it would have been so much easier if—” He paces the floor. Paces it. Paces it.
“A lovely girl,” his mother cries out.
“The first time I asked you if I could bring Constance home to dinner, you agreed. You were nice to her; you made her feel welcome. Whenever she came here to dinner, you made her feel welcome. For Passover, for Hanukkah, for— Of course it would have been so much easier on everybody if she and I were of the same religion. Easier on her, too. You know, we’re not the only ones—” His eyes are jiggling. He sits down hard in his chair at the dining room table and begins to wring his hands together. The fingers go round and round. He looks up. His parents’ eyes are watering.
AARON MARKOWITZ does not attend temple that morning. The men would find someone else for the minyan. Instead, he sits with his son. Side by side in silence. Father and son. They listen to Mrs. Markowitz in the kitchen, washing dishes.
“It won’t be any easier for Constance, telling her parents, I mean,” says Alan.
“I imagine not,” says Mr. Markowitz.
“She has a strong sense of duty.”
“But she also has very definite ideas of her own. She knows what she wants.”
“And she wants you.”
Father and son laugh quietly.
“So, Alan, the lovely Constance Markham is willing to uproot from her family and come here to New York?”
“No different from you, Pop. Look how fast you re-established yourself here: with your business, with the temple.”
“Yes, but it’s different for a man than a woman. A woman requires special handling.”
“My best opportunity came from New York at the United Nations.”
“Your mother and I are very happy about your career. And you will be close to us now.”
Alan ponders, “Constance won’t know anyone, but she has her books.”
“Ah, yes; you told me she is a great reader.”
“She reads on all kinds of subjects: history, archeology, fiction. She told me her reading is so important to her that she must set aside time for it every day.”
“One of the traits I appreciate in Constance is that she is very straight forward about her likes and dislikes. About her needs.”
“Are you saying she is stubborn?”
“No, no; absolutely not. She is very reasonable, very giving. But there are things she must have in her life, like her reading time. To be by herself in a kind of solitude.”
“Is it a form of meditation?”
“I suppose so. She regains her equilibrium.”
They sit. Mr. Markowitz watches his son wring his hands. “You’re imagining what it’s like right now at the Markham house?”
“Constance, for goodness sake.” Her father drops his head—the mother stands silently behind him, like a shadow— and presses in on his temples. “Alan Markowitz?” He sighs. “Must you?”
“What kind of a question is that?”
Her father is so strong, but she has learned to stand up for herself. She has learned it from him.
“You understand what I’m talking about.”
“He’s the best person I know.”
“Perhaps. Or you don’t know enough people.”
“I’m marrying him.”
“Both of us are graduating and Alan has accepted a position in New York. I don’t want him going without me.”
“New York? The Midwest isn’t sufficiently good enough for the young man?”
“He’s ready to start his career. The best opportunity came from New York. It’s with the United Nations.”
Her father lifts his eyebrows.
“Alan is very idealistic. He wants to help bring together different cultures,” she says emphatically.
“And he’s starting with us.”
“That was not on his mind when he proposed marriage. But we qualify.”
“He’s not exactly bringing us together. Not when you’re both going off to New York.”
“Would you have him turn down an opportunity with the United Nations?”
“I suppose his decision was also swayed by the fact that his parents now live in New York where there is a large extended family. My God, you will all be as thick as thieves. That should be quite a change for you. Are you certain you’re ready for such a commotion?”
“Please pay attention this time, Dad. Mr. Markowitz’s brother owned a large fur salon in New York and when his brother died, leaving the business in bad financial straits, Alan’s father sold his own smaller salon here and took over the brother’s business to put the brother’s children through college and medical school. There’s no commotion there; only Alan’s parents are in New York now.”
But she knows her father is right to question her. Constance has an appetite for solitude. Not because she is an only child. She has always had friends; in fact, she takes good care of her friendships, has kept them through the years, conscientiously attending to them, even to keeping track of birthdays, as would a secretary. But her father knows a thing or two about his daughter. He knows how Constance enjoys her daily solitude. All through her early years, each time the family returned home from some social occasion, she went off into her room and closed the door.
Eventually her father would knock lightly, ‘Constance, are you all right?’
‘Is anything bothering you, honey?’
‘No. I just want to be quiet. I’m going to read for awhile.’
Her mother says, “Yes, I suppose you will be as thick as thieves,” now starting in, herself, but without carrying the argument. She reflected the father, like a shadow standing behind him.
Constance looks at her mother and is disappointed, as usual. Her mother, with one brother in a nearby town whom she telephones but once a year, on Christmas Day, is even more solitary than she herself—but differently.
Stanley Markham’s parents invite them for Sunday dinner every week. Irene never receives guests at home because Stanley says that restaurants are much less trouble and do nicely. She does not cook well enough, for another reason. For still another, she is not organized enough to do it. And certainly, she lacks the energy. Constance looks at her pretty mother’s cheery blue eyes, her graying little-girl curls and forlorn brows, her sweet smile and sloping shoulders, and deems her mother as soft as a marshmallow. At one o’clock on any Saturday afternoon her mother is still wearing her robe, and will remain so through another cup of coffee and another magazine. The lunch dishes in the sink will wait a little longer, and then sometime in the middle of the afternoon when other people are out about town she will raise the shades and let the hazy sun shine through the windows which catches the dust in the air. She will pick up a forgotten towel or yesterday’s coffee cup and carry it toward the kitchen but then set it down temporarily at the sight of a sweater left on a narrow table beneath a wall mirror. A glance into the mirror, a soft push upward of her curls, then she touches Stanley’s lovely bouquet of fresh flowers beneath, and reaches for one of those wrapped candies.
Constance, by contrast, is organized and efficient—a fine student and active in organizations. In her bedroom, clothes are hung up with all the hangers facing the same direction. Shoes are lined up ruler neat. Her alphabetically arranged book collection is pulled flush to the very edge of the bookshelves. Bric-a-brac sits dusted and placed with exactitude. Since she was a little girl, Constance has always disapproved of the way her mother kept house, cooked, managed. Her mother arrives late for every appointment, never finishes a project, embarrasses her with unkempt hair, stocking runs, and sweaters buttoned askew. The amazing part is that her father never seems to complain. What an angel. He understands the women in his house. He understands his wife’s path of least resistance, and perhaps blames himself for not having recognized during their courtship that she needed caring for. And he understands his daughter: her disappointment—, her need to create her own world.
“And how will the children be raised?” he asks.
“We’ll work that out the way the United Nations does.”
Her mother says, “You were always such an obedient child. I simply don’t understand.”
AFTER THE CEREMONY in which both a minister and a rabbi officiated, the eighty guests slowly move toward the church reception room and up to a handsomely dressed refreshment table. The noise level of the celebration takes hold. “The wedding couple is moving to New York.” “Is that so?” “The groom will be working for the United Nations.” Irene Markham smiles over the champagne and cookies, the fruit bowl, the smattering of crackers and nuts and mints—the mints carefully matching the flowers and pastel shade of the bridesmaids’ gowns. Stanley Markham guides the men toward the bar.
Suddenly Bella Markowitz whispers to her husband, “What did I tell you? No food.”
“They can afford food. We would have provided the food, but you told me not to open my mouth.”
“People bought new clothes, washed the car, spent time shopping for a gift, and gave up their entire afternoon. A wedding should include food, a beautiful meal. The guests earned it. This is goyisha.”
“Bella, stop it. I know for a fact that lots of Christian people serve food at weddings.”
“But not these Christian people.”
“Ssh. I’ll take you out afterward for a meal.”
“Reception. The invitation said, ‘reception’. To me that means—”
Bella Markowitz moves over to Irene Markham and hugs her. “Everything is so lovely, dear.”
An older man approaches them. “The bride looks beautiful. ”
Bella Markowitz puffs up, “Of course she looks beautiful. Why shouldn’t she look beautiful?”
Irene’s only brother says to Stanley Markham, “Why are all those envelopes being slipped to your new son-in-law, Stanley? Payoffs? Ha ha ha!”
“Beg your pardon, Albert.”
“Money,” laughs Mr. Markowitz advancing toward them with an empty champagne glass. He slaps his new in-law on the back. “C’mon, Stanley, let me buy you a drink.”
Stanley’s brother excuses himself and drifts through the crowd.
“We are giving each other good children, ” Aaron says.
“But they married out of their faith, Aaron.”
“They certainly did that. But if we don’t interfere, leave everything to those young people, they’ll work it out. I have great faith in the young. They’re eager and flexible; they’ll accommodate each other just as we old married folks did, and still do., eh, Stanley?” And he laughs heartily. Stanley joins in with a quieter laugh. “In fact, I bet Alan’s United Nations could learn a thing or two from us. What do you say to that?”
“I say, Amen.”
TWO MONTHS LATER, the bride and groom return from their honeymoon in Hawaii and the bride suspects she is pregnant. Her protective device failed. The groom is in shock.
“Don’t worry, Alan,” says his father holding the telephone so Bella can hear the news.
“Don’t worry, Alan,” repeats his mother, shouting into the receiver. She grabs the telephone from her husband’s hand and, looking heavenward, she sings out, “I’m so happy. Our first grandchild.” Breathlessly, she flaps her free hand, “Alan, Alan, listen to me. I’m going to be your babysitter, me, only me, your official babysitter; no one else, do you hear me? I’ll come running day or night.”
Mr. Markowitz takes the receiver. “Well, you can’t get a better offer than that. Everything will work out, Alan. You’ll see.”
When the baby is born, Bella Markowitz is as good as her word. She provides the time for Alan and Constance to enjoy baby-free weekends gallivanting around Manhattan, discovering it, playing in it, participating in its city life. With the money saved by not paying a babysitter, they dine in better restaurants and purchase better seats for stage productions. During the week while Alan is at work, Constance plays bridge and participates in a book club. The doting grandmother never taxis over to their apartment without gifts for the baby. “I am so happy here, even just watching the baby sleep, my very own grandchild.” Mr. Markowitz joins his wife every Saturday night and they babysit together.
“Hello, Pop; Constance is pregnant again.”
“So soon?” shouts out Mr. Markowitz. “Bella, Bella, Constance is pregnant again.”
Mrs. Markowitz grabs the telephone out of her husband’s hand. Again breathless, she flaps her free hand in the air, “Alan, Alan, you must thank God for such good fortune.” Her face turns red and she starts crying. “You will count on me, like always, Alan. You and Constance. I can handle two babies. Oh, such a blessing. God is too good. I can’t talk!” and she shoves the telephone into Mr. Markowitz’s chest and searches her pockets for tissues to wipe the tears.
“Your mother is overjoyed. We both are.”
BELLA MARKOWITZ is as good as her word, now babysitting with two grandchildren; and life hums along for everyone. Alan and Constance continue to indulge themselves in the city’s entertainments. Aaron Markowitz purchased a new Cadillac and drives Bella and himself happily to their Saturday nights of babysitting. Stanley and Irene Markham visit their grandchildren several times a year from the Midwest. When Friday night is included in their trip, they accept an invitation for the Sabbath dinner at their in-laws’ home, a dinner of such abundance, certainly for more than the six people present, that Stanley Markham, a long, slender man, now crosses his legs elegantly, and pats the hand of his thin, fragile wife with her sloping shoulders. Both look on in bewilderment.
“Stanley old man,” says Aaron, “to keep peace in the house I know better than to refuse my wife’s cooking. It’s those second helpings she insists on. Otherwise, I’d be as thin as you are, and as tall.”
“Anything to keep the peace, Aaron.”
“Aha! We think alike.”
“Are you two fathers-in-law also working at the United Nations?” teases Bella.
“The U.N. does not advocate appeasement,” Alan declares adamantly.
“In marriage, what else would you suggest?” asks Stanley Markham.
“That both parties present their needs to each other, and then offer up what each is willing to do to bring about mutual satisfaction for both. That’s the whole point of the U. N.,” says Alan with assurance.
Constance adds, “Each side proceeds rationally, toward a satisfactory outcome for both.”
“Well spoken,” says Aaron, pleased.
“Yes,” adds Stanley, “when possible.”
“Hello Alan, can you hear me? Your mother broke her collarbone. She’s in a cast from her waist to her chin. She can’t do a thing for herself. What? Yes, I wanted to hire a fulltime nurse. She won’t hear of it. You know how she was raised. Family helps family.”
“Give me the phone, Aaron.”
“Just a minute, Alan. I’ll put your mother on the phone.”
“Alan, I broke my collarbone. I’m all wrapped up and helpless. The doctor says that someone will have to do for me. Maybe two months. Maybe a little longer. Constance is at home.”
“Bella, you’re too fast. Hand me the phone. What’s that, Alan? Constance overheard on the extension? She says to come ahead?”
“Of course she did,” says Mrs. Markowitz. “Constance owes me.”
Aaron Markowitz quickly clamps his palm over the receiver. “She could have heard you. Now just step away from this phone.” Aaron Markowitz’s eyes push her back still farther! Then he removes his palm from the receiver. “Constance is a good girl. She really is family, not just in name only. Don’t worry, Alan; your mother is a jolly woman; she can be very pleasant and entertaining. You know that. The two women will chum together like girlfriends, and your mother will bring up stories about you as a child and even about her own childhood in Europe. The relationship can only strengthen. What’s that? Yes, yes, the two months will fly by.”