As additional recognition for 2014 winners of the Council for Wisconsin Writers contests their winning work is being posted on this blog. Today, you can read below Margaret Benbow’s story “Joe Szabo and the Gypsy Bride,” which was published in The Antioch Review, for which she won the Zona Gale Short Fiction Award. Margaret Benbow reading her winning story at the CWW Awards Banquet on May 16 at the Wisconsin Club in Milwaukee.
JOE SZABO AND THE GYPSY BRIDE
“Gypsies, Abel,” the father said, not bothering to keep his voice down. He glared at them and his fingers worked a Bemberg lining into a coat at the same time.
“How do you know?”
“I know. Look at their hair. Look at their skirts.”
Abel looked. He thought their hair and skirts were wonderful. “They sound Irish,” he said in a low voice. “And these days you’re supposed to call them Travellers.”
“I’ll call them whatever the hell I want in my own shop. Get them out of here.”
The woman and the young girl seemed not to hear him. They quietly talked to each other as they looked about the shop with their long eyes.
Joe Szabo and his son Abel made suits, and had an entirely male clientele. The shelves were filled with bolts of somber tweeds. Joe liked to work with black, navy, banker’s grey, and shades of brown. That was it. Once a rich and famous alderman came in cuddling a Pekinese to his cheek. As the alderman gently massaged the tiny dog all over with his forefinger, making it wriggle and sigh, he told Joe that he wanted him to make a tuxedo jacket out of hunting pink, with a matching jacket and bow tie for the little dog.
Joe threw them out of the shop. “Gaybird,” he said, under his breath. Like me, Pop, Abel thought. You can’t even imagine. Then Joe stood in the doorway and shouted after them, “You two ought to rent a room!”
Like Aaron and I used to do, Abel thought. Because if I went to his apartment his other boyfriend might guess about us. And his girlfriend too. Aloud he said, “I hope you enjoyed that, because it’s going to cost us.”
“I know,” Joe said. “But it was worth it.”
Abel said, “I can’t believe I dropped out of college to help you.” And I lost Aaron. “When you put Grandpa in the nursing home I thought things would go better in the shop. There would no longer be this insane old naked guy wandering into the front room in his truss, terrifying the customers. But I forgot how sometimes you just have to insult people, how you talk to them like a goddamn ape. I forgot how you are, Pop.,”
“Your mistake,” Joe said. “Oh, and I just got another call from the nursing home. Grandpa’s in trouble, he tried to jump that nurse again. I told them to get him an uglier nurse.” Joe laughed.
“That’s not funny. If they kick him out, we’re totally screwed.”
The older Traveller woman stood arrogantly tall with her hand on her hip, the sides of her fur coat thrown back. Abel could see that her dress of burnt paprika silk was fashioned with tempestuous gores and godets. The young girl wore cerulean blue. The women were a bolt of color against a wall crammed with briary wool in tones of stony fields and winter woods. They both carried rolled-up parcels.
“Talk to them,” Joe said. “But don’t give them a damned thing.”
“They look all right,” Abel said. “Do me a favor and don’t do your apeshit routine.”
“What are you, four years old? They’ll rob you if you give them an inch. They’ll rob you twice. Get rid of them.” Joe turned back to the Bemberg lining, sighing heavily because he’d raised such a fool.
It was the older woman who talked to Abel. She was Irish all right, although her brogue had fine malt whiskey in it rather than the green lilt. She said that her niece Mareid, the girl, was going to get married. They wanted the Szabos to make her wedding dress. They had the yard goods, beautiful fabric, all they needed was the tailors’ skill.
Joe shouted rudely from the back of the shop, “We only make men’s suits.”
The aunt ignored him. She said to Abel, “We will pay you with this.” She waited a beat, then smoothly flipped the bundle off her shoulder and unfurled it. Abel saw roses and Arabian ponies and tiny robed people suddenly run over the floor. They were passionately riding, embracing, praying and fighting. It was all rolled out before him.
“Pop,” Abel said.
Joe must have heard something in his voice, because he came right away. The rug was gorgeous, extraordinary. He studied it morosely, and finally found a flaw.
“It’s damaged,” he said, pointing in triumph to a tiny knick in the border fringe.
Her fine lip curled. “It’s a hundred years old,” she said. “It’s wonderful. Wonderful is better than perfect. Any slave at a machine can give you perfect.”
“You think a slave didn’t make this rug?” Joe said.
When he said that, she averted her gaze from him as though from a defecating dog. He, however, never took his eyes off her.
As they argued about the rug, Abel looked at the girl. Her hair grew in long, sumptuous black spirals. Aaron’s hair grew like that, although his was red. A sunny green fragrance came off her. Abel could understand, sort of, why his Czech grandfather, when he became too senile to care what people thought, used to bite hard on the side of his fist when he saw a beautiful woman.
Finally Joe said, “The rug is not so bad.” He sighed morbidly and added, “Maybe you could even mend those mothholes.” He pointed to a few specks of dust on one of the ponies’ gold manes.
The aunt nodded to the girl. Now it was Mareid’s turn to take the bundle off her shoulder and spread it out on the table. The silk was soft, heavy and white, with a drape fluid as water, and yet strong, as though it could withstand being wrenched by fists. It had threads of both gold and silver woven into it, a subdued shining. White embroidered garlands swept over the whole piece. Joe couldn’t stop himself from touching it.
“Foreign cloth,” he said. “Probably some Chinese child went blind doing the embroidery. Where’s the pattern?”
The aunt rummaged in her bag and brought out a scrap of newspaper, much folded and frayed. It was a publicity photo of Princess Caroline of Monaco at her first wedding. Joe was silent, as though beyond words. Finally he said, “So you’re telling me there is no pattern?”
The aunt gave him her contemptuous, damn-your-eyes blue stare. “I thought you were a tailor,” she said. “I thought you had skills.”
“Pop,” Abel said, warning him.
But instead, after a silence, Joe said, “Right.” Abel thought, How did she know she could beat him with a dare?
“When is the wedding?” Joe said. “I’d like at least two weeks.”
“The wedding is tonight,” the aunt said indifferently.
“Oh,” Joe said, “of course. Naturally.” His fist tightened on the fabric. “I need to measure her. Abel, get the tape.”
“You can’t touch her,” the aunt said, staring at his hand as though at a filthy and infected gorilla’s paw. “It’s not proper. You can measure her by holding the tape a couple inches from her body.”
“I would prefer not to make such a fool of myself,” Joe said, coldly and evenly. “I can figure out her measurements by looking at her. However, she will have to take off that fur coat.”
The aunt looked disgusted, as though he’d made some fantastically gross, inappropriate demand. Abel took over, ushering them with bows and soft words to the fitting room.
When eventually Mareid had taken off her fur coat and even her blue dress, she was still covered both up and down. She wore a long, loose, sturdy white cotton slip, of the type Abel had always associated with nuns’ underwear. She looked like a proud young angel who’d come to light softly for only a minute on those little feet, and would fly off in a heartbeat. Only her bracken-thick mane of black hair looked of the earth.
She was wearing the most beautiful shoes that Abel had ever seen. They were lilac kidskin wedgies with pink silk ribbons that crossed softly over her ankles and up her calves. Abel remembered that Aaron used to laugh at him for liking pink so much. “Such a stereotype. Pink-pank-punk.” He was staring at the shoes when he felt his father’s eyes on him. Abel raised his gaze and tried to leer at her breasts.
Joe walked around Mareid for no more than fifteen seconds, then without comment wrote down a dozen measurements. “That’s it,” he said. He nodded curtly to the aunt and left the room. Abel followed him.
When the aunt and girl emerged a few minutes later, the aunt was still frowning. When she spoke, her brogue was more throaty and aggressive than before. “The dress material is as valuable as the rug. I want every scrap back that ye don’t use.”
“I know you do,” Joe said.
“The wedding is at eight,” she said. “We will pick the dress up at seven.”
Joe walked them to the door. He was already rolling his sleeves up. The aunt said, stating a fact, “It’s the big arms like Popeye ye have.”
Joe scowled. She put her hand on his bare forearm and looked up at him calmly with her long blue eyes. There was a beauty mole on her neck, swept by black curls. She said, “Sure, there’s not a thing the matter with strong Popeye arms.”
Then she and Mareid were gone. Like thoroughbreds they walked down the street on their long legs, climbed into a magnificent white Cadillac, and drove away.
Abel said, “That aunt is not a bad-looking woman.”
“Wash her, and send her to my tent,” Joe mocked. But he still looked shaken.
Abel said, “If you think about it, she’s paying us a big compliment by trusting us with this job.”
Joe said, “I have thought about it, and she’s whipping us like fucking racehorses.”
Joe hung up the CLOSED sign. He got on the phone and brusquely cancelled several suit fittings. He was especially rude with the mayor.
“Oh yeah,” Abel said, “let’s definitely alienate and insult the mayor. What a good idea. Who needs him? Money isn’t everything.”
Joe said, “The mayor is going to keep coming back because I sew him suits that make his fat ass look like Brad Pitt’s.”
He looked for a long minute at the photo of Princess Caroline in her dress. He looked at the list of Mareid’s measurements, set them aside and spread out the dress material. He eyed it like a burly conquistador gloating over Incan concubines whom he was about to ravish.
“Of course you’re going to make a pattern,” Abel said.
Joe smoothed the fabric until it was perfectly flat. He grabbed his favorite cutting shears, snapped his neck from side to side as an athlete does to pop the kinks out, and shrugged his big shoulders to loosen them.
“I don’t know who you’re showing off for,” Abel said, “there’s only me here. Now make a goddamn pattern for Christ’s sake.”
“You’ve seen me cut free-hand before,” Joe said. “I see the coat or whatever and I know without thinking what all the pieces should be. I only heard of two others in the world who could do it. Balenciaga, and that English freak who just killed himself, Alexander McQueen. It was just them and me. Pretty rare. Pretty special.”
“It’s more like being an idiot savant,” Abel said. “I wouldn’t brag if I were you.”
Joe snorted, tightened his grip on the shears and slashed into the cloth fearlessly. He cut smoothly and rapidly without stopping for five minutes.
Abel said, “I hate when you do that. It’s so weird that you can. And you’re cutting the pieces too close.”
“I’m keeping about a third of the material. For me.”
Abel was silent with surprise. His father had always been honest to the point of obsession. He said, “The aunt will know.”
“Let her. She thinks I took some? Good luck proving it. What is she going to do, curse me, give me the Evil Eye?” Joe laughed softly.
“Pop, that’s a beautiful rug they’re giving us.”
“We’ll never see that rug again. They’ll shove some rolled-up crap into our arms and take off. Those gypsies couldn’t stick to a deal if they tried, which they don’t. It’s not in their blood. Grandpa told me all about them. Lie till you die, that’s their custom. But I don’t give a shit because I have this,” he lifted a broad sheaf of the gleaming cloth, “and so no matter what they do, I’ve got mine.”
Abel said, “Why does Grandpa hate gypsies so much?”
“In the old country before the war he was a peaceful farmer, just trying to get along, and had to battle the gypsies constantly. They were wild as hell. They’d rob the farmers, steal their horses. The young men would seduce peasant women. Grandpa said it was terrible the way they’d be up all night dancing and whooping and catting around. He said he was disgusted to watch their goings-on.”
“Probably he was jealous,” Abel said. To himself he thought, Right. One of those peaceful farmers who was all smiley and happy as the Nazis were loading the gypsies into the box cars.
Joe and Abel worked the rest of the morning. As he sewed, Abel’s mind returned over and over—“Like a dog to its vomit,” he thought—to bitter fights he and Aaron had had. They were sometimes about Aaron’s other boyfriend, but more often the girlfriend.
“You and your goddamn Bi-curious ads. You ought to call yourself Bi-spurious. You’re gayer than I am. You just don’t want to admit it because it would make your mom mad.”
“Your girlfriend? Have you taken a good look at Juliet? She’s like a boy with a vagina.”
Abel realized that his life was much more peaceful without Aaron. But he didn’t want peace.
At 1 p.m. he said, “I’m starving. Let me run over and get some subs
from Coyle’s.” Coyle’s was the deli across the street, and Abel made his suggestion as a grim joke. Joe and Coyle had been feuding for twenty years. It was something about a cat, nobody could remember what. When business was booming at Coyle’s, Joe watched from his doorway and suffered, his blood turning black with hate. At such moments Abel thought of his father as the Lightning King of the Doorway, because he radiated such electric power of outrage. Joe would point to Coyle’s deli window, stuffed with richness, and say, “Look at that disgusting display. It’s as though Coyle doesn’t know that people are starving.” When Abel was a very little boy, he’d believed that world hunger was Coyle’s fault.
Now Abel sometimes sneaked over and had one of the great po’boys, stuffed with shrimp and ham. Coyle would chat with him and then say, “Is your dad ready to give it up yet?”
“Not yet. Pop believes in keeping his wounds green.”
The father and son worked all afternoon without stopping. As they worked they talked..
“When is that friend of yours, that Aaron, visiting again? Good kid. Kind of an interesting talker. Bet he has the girls after him.”
You got that right, Abel thought. The boys too. If you want to know trouble, just fall in love with a curly-haired charmer who drinks too much. Then if you need even more trouble than that, make him think he’s bisexual.
The dress glided forward on the shell-like scallops of its hem. Abel sewed sections of the skirt on the machine. Joe pieced the bodice by hand. At one point he stopped, found the tattered picture of the gown and read the designer’s name. “Christian Dior. Paris motherfucker knew what he was doing.”
By mid-afternoon, Abel was already tired. Every morning Joe got him up at 6 a.m., quoting the Szabo family motto which he said went back to medieval times: Rise early, and sharpen your knife. Abel would ask if, in the absence of ancient enemies he needed to stab at dawn, he could sleep in. Joe always said no.
Now Joe said, “We have to go faster.”
“I can’t go faster.”
The phone rang. Cursing, Joe answered it. He listened for about ten seconds, with a black scowl, then shouted, “Get out of my freaking face about the damn suit. If you call again I’ll cut it up for ass-wipe.” He hung up, muttering. “Goddamn Morelli.”
“You mean Dom Morelli? Of the New Jersey Morellis? Pop. Maybe you should have been more…more… “
“You’re afraid he’s going to send his goons to cut my thumbs off ?” Joe smirked. “Oh, Dom’s not such a bad guy when you get to know him. Besides, he’s grateful to me. He’s the ugliest little psycho you ever saw. But when I got my Prince of Wales glen plaid three-piece on him, he looked so cute I almost wanted to date him myself.” Joe laughed his harsh honk. After a minute, Abel joined in.
Twilight came down in the late fall afternoon. At five o’ clock Joe turned the lamps on. He went into the little kitchen in back and made tea. Abel could tell by this that his father thought the dress was going well. Joe had just walked back into the front room, teapot in hand, when the shop door opened and a man walked in.
“We’re closed,” Joe snapped. Then slowly his face turned so purple Abel was afraid his father was having a stroke. The man’s parka hood concealed most of his face, so you could see only the flat, expressionless eyes. Abel was trying to make sense of this, and of the man’s smell where before there had been only the clean odor of fine cloth, when somehow from one second to the next there was a long-barreled gun in that dirty hand.
“Get your money.” He spoke in a low flat voice. “Get all of it and get it now, or you’re dead.” He lifted the gun. Joe, paralyzed, saw the barrel boring into his son’s forehead.
I’m going to die, Abel thought, and I never told Aaron I love him.
“Did you hear me? Don’t fool with me!” Suddenly the thief lifted his filthy boot and kicked over the table on which the dress lay.
“What—the—FUCK!” Joe screamed. He flung the teapot straight into the thief’s face. He snatched up his shears, charged forward showing his teeth like a barrel-bellied gorilla, head-butted the man, rammed him flat against a display case with his big paunch, and slashed his parka from shoulder to shoulder. Screams came from the parka hood stained with blood and boiling tea.
“Now get the hell out of here,” Joe shouted, “or I’ll tell your mom. And leave the goddamn gun here. What were you thinking? I don’t have time for your bull.”
Abel expected to see a baseball-sized hole bubble up red in his father’s chest, but instead the man dropped his gun and staggered out, weeping and babbling to himself like a griefstricken child. Abel stared after him, then opened his stiff lips and said to Joe, “What were you thinking? He was all set to blow my head off—“
“Oh, that was just Mort Peevey’s son Davy, the one who was always strange. He did this a few times before. Once I had to stop Grandpa from cutting his liver out. The old guy hauled out a machete I didn’t even know he had.” Joe looked regretfully at the shattered teapot. “Remember Davy? I’m sorry I broke his nose and ruined his jacket, but somebody has to wake that kid up.” He lifted the dress sections and carefully checked them. “I was worried he got his dirt on the dress—“
“Are you crazy? He had a gun to my head!”
“Big deal. Thirty years ago, when Grandpa and I had that shop on the south side, I had a gun to my head about every other day. One time Grandpa took a bad hit from a baseball bat, and he still managed to strangle the robber to death with his bare hands.”
“That old monster should have been locked up years ago!”.
“No, he did right. Some people just belong dead.”
“I’m calling 911!”
“We ain’t doing that. Davy is Mort and Betty’s only kid. It would break their hearts. He’s harmless. And besides we’ve got to finish the dress.”
They argued about it, but in the end Abel sat down at the sewing machine. It was several minutes before he could still the trembling in his hands enough to sew.
“And I don’t like you disrespecting your grandpa like that, calling him a monster,” Joe said. He was hand-sewing a complicated buttonhole without looking at it. “He’s got reasons. He went through stuff in the Second World War he’s never talked about, it was so bad. I know he got blown up, barely got out with his life. Not everybody has had everything so soft and easy like you’ve had.”
Abel thought, I lost Aaron because of this crazy obsessed old fucker. Bitterly he reflected that his father, his grandfather, and every single one of the Szabo forebears he’d ever heard about were the same: swarthy barrel-chested raving men charging their demented projects with their tusks, focusing on the desire like blind wild pigs. He thought with painful longing of Aaron’s parents. Aaron’s father was a Wall Street broker. The worst impropriety he ever committed was to have a third Bloody Mary.
Finally Abel thought he could trust his voice to stay steady. He said, “When you talked me into coming back here, you said the neighborhood was gentrified.”
“It’s getting there,” Joe said.
* * * * *
“I don’t know why we’re working so hard,” Joe said an hour later. “She’ll just tear the dress when she and the groom jump over the incinerator, or run down the chicken for the shaman, or whatever the hell it is they do.”
“Irish travellers are Catholics,” Abel said. “She’ll be married by a priest.”
Joe kept looking at the dress, studying it. He said, “I just don’t get it about those women. They could marry anybody. But Grandpa said gypsies marry their cousins, or powerful old men from their tribe. And he said some of these guys would kill you as soon as look at you. Now does it make a bit of frigging sense to you that a woman would marry somebody like that? Because it doesn’t to me.”
The dress was finished at 6:30. Joe said, “That’s it.” He hung it up. He arranged the skirt so that it flowed smoothly from the slim calyx of the bodice. He said, “I wonder if she’ll like it?”
Abel said, “You mean the aunt?” Joe ignored him, got his camera and took some pictures of the dress.
“You like her,” Abel said. “Why don’t you go for it, try your moves?”
“So I could be the gypsy king?” Joe said. “Tell it to another fool.” He checked the pictures on his camera. He said, “Dating her would be like trying to saddle a wildcat. Marrying her would be like running uphill ten miles with a rabid fox clamped to my arm. A foreign rabid fox.”
Good point, Jozsef, Abel thought. You’re going to end up like Grandpa, an old weird Czech guy dying of loneliness, with fur growing on his back. And I’m even dumber than you, because I left the one I love the best. Aloud he said, “You ought to get out more. You’re getting odd.”
Joe walked over to the cupboard to put the camera away. “There is nobody for me,” he said. But he said it in his harsh, everyday voice.
He put on a tweed sports jacket, his best. Whoop-de-do, Abel thought. Joe unlocked the front door. He stood at its window, his arms folded. Half an hour passed. At seven-thirty he said, “They’re probably late because somebody stole a turkey and got shot in the pants.”
Abel said nothing, but there flashed through his mind an image of a car wreck, and the women with their fine faces and bright skirts charred in flame.
At that moment the Cadillac, like a huge elongated traveling pearl, drew up fast under the street light.
Joe said, “Their lives may be dark, but their Cadillac is as white as snow.”
The car door flew open and skirt ruffles flared as the aunt jumped out. She rushed toward the shop. She wore a superb cashmere shawl and amethyst silk suit, but it was all in crazy disarray, uneven and half-buttoned, as though she’d dressed while running for her life from an invading army. She had a bundle on her shoulder.
“My, my, here she comes in a terrible hurry,” Joe said softly. “What a surprise. Hold on to your back fillings, Abel.”
But they stopped smiling when they saw the woman’s face. She was dead white, her mouth trembling. She ran into the shop, not acknowledging them, staring past them. She threw her bundle on the counter and said, “It’s the same rug.” She seized the wedding dress on its hanger and turned to run out.
Joe grabbed her arm and said, “Just a minute,” and then slowly raised his hand to stare at it. It was covered with red. The silk of her sleeve was stained red. “Tell me,” he said. She put her mouth to his ear and whispered fiercely.
“I don’t understand you,” Joe said. His voice sounded funny. “You’ll have to show me.” The two of them started out the door. Abel was on their heels, and Joe turned around and gripped his son’s shoulder hard. “Stay in the shop,” he said in a low voice. “I don’t know what this is about. I think they’ve staged something to get us away from the cash register.”
But Abel did leave the shop and follow them. He saw Joe wrench open the car door, and as light flooded the dark interior Abel saw two young heads close together, their black hair commingled. Mareid was holding in her arms a young man who was as beautiful a boy as she was a girl, but his formal black suit jacket was wet with red.
Wounded to the death, Abel thought, and then wondered why he’d assumed that. The aunt and Mareid began a fierce argument, Abel did not understand about what. His father bent half inside the car, angry and amused, telling the boy to stop being such a fake. He slapped him lightly, and then threw open the reddened jacket triumphantly, as though to expose a fraud. But anybody could see the deep gash in the kid’s side, and that it was seeping blood. After a minute Joe reached in and touched the cut. Abel was reminded of a picture he’d seen in church of the disciple they called Doubting Thomas, who placed his hands in Christ’s wounds before he could believe in them. His father stayed still, hunched over, then straightened up.
“Abel, get some cloth,” he said.
“Anything, anything,” Joe said. Abel ran into the shop and snatched a bundle of material, then rushed back toward the car. The cloth fell open and when the car lights hit it filaments of gold and silver and white flowers flared up on the ghostly white background. Joe grabbed the wedding fabric without comment, formed it into a thick pad, bent again inside the car and pushed the cloth against the boy’s side. “Hold that tight,” he said to Mareid. “Don’t let it slip.” Then he said to the aunt, “I’ll drive,” and they were gone. Abel looked wonderingly down the dark empty street.
Abel waited all night for his father to come back. Around 2 a.m. the phone rang. He answered it. He could hear Aaron mumbling the way he did when he was drunk. “Oh shit. Shit. Shit. I love you. God damn you to hell for all eternity for leaving me. Oh shit, shit. I’m sorry. God I’m so sorry. Please come back. We can all work it out. Matthew and Juliet– ”
The wall mirror before Abel glazed crimson when he heard the names spoken. In a frenzy he shouted into the phone that Aaron was throwing fucking Matthew and Juliet into the street that night, that very minute, and cleansing the apartment of their stupid crap and bongs and ugly weasel asses, that Abel was going to stand there and listen to him do it, and that Abel had better not see them, hear them or smell them when he came back the next day, and that if Aaron didn’t get it done he, Abel, would deal with it himself and would make sure that Aaron regretted it the longest day he ever lived.
Abel was dimly amazed to hear his father’s and grandfather’s steely voice of rage coming out of him, but mostly he was just furious. He stood there with the receiver to his ear and heard Aaron kick Matthew and Juliet out of bed with surprising sobriety, and order them to pack their possessions into trash bags and clear out. They staggered around the apartment screaming. Aaron calmly withstood their wails, curses, desperately offered allurements and threats, and within five minutes had slammed the door after them. There was the sound of steps approaching the phone.
“Now are you happy, Mister Butch Maniac?” Aaron said into his ear.
Abel looked up and saw himself in the wall mirror, a big barrel-chested man sweating and panting, his white teeth snarling in his dark face.
* * * * *
Joe came back at dawn. Abel saw him climb slowly out of a taxi. Joe entered the shop. Abel started to ask questions, but when he saw his father’s face, he stopped. Joe walked past him into the little kitchen in back.
“There’s blood all over your jacket,” Abel said.
Joe put a kettle on the stove, and brought out the coffee tin. After a minute he began to talk.
“What happened is that the kid and his friends just thought they’d stop for a quick drink before the wedding. His name is Damon, by the way. They went to the wrong bar. There was a fight, and he was stabbed. His friends got him out of there, bleeding like a pig. They don’t believe much in calling the police, they say the police don’t help them. But they were going to take him to the emergency room. Damon wouldn’t let them, said he had to get married first. They tried to force him and he fought them. They called Dolores, that’s the aunt, and she and Mareid rushed over and picked him up. He made them come over here to get the dress, said that was how he’d always pictured his bride and that was how it was going to be. The fight Mareid and Dolores had, that was about taking him to the emergency room. Mareid wanted to do it right away, but Dolores said they should get married first and then go.”
“But why?” Abel said. “Why wait to take him?”
“Because that little girl needed to get married,” Joe said, “and that boy needed to marry her, dead or alive.” He poured coffee into two mugs. He said, “I knew it when she was standing in the fitting room.”
Abel said, “So you’re saying the groom was willing to bleed to death rather than risk that the bride should be an unwed mother.”
Joe said, “They protect their girls.”
“Well, did they get married? Were you there?”
“They got married all right. Done and done. I held him up.” Joe blew on his coffee, then slowly drank it. He said, “Nice-looking kid, even stabbed in the spleen. And a gutsy kid. Made them take wedding pictures afterward—just head shots, of course. For her to have, he said. Then we went to the emergency room.”
“What happened there? How is he?”
“So-so. They did an operation. He’s alive. The damned priest was there on death watch, hoping for the worst. He’s mad now because he wanted to give Damon the Last Rites, and Damon wouldn’t let him. Tried to hit the priest. Said he was staying. Hell of a tough kid. Then when the priest insisted, Mareid went after him with an IV stand. I actually felt sorry for the man. Here he thought he had Damon all squared away, and the kid just refused to stay planted. The priest is not used to people like that.”
Abel studied the coffee mug in his hands. He said, “I checked the rug. It’s the right one.” Joe said nothing. “How did the dress look?”
Joe was silent, the better to savor his memory of Mareid rearing up in the white dress, both dress and girl blazing with beauty, as she brandished the IV stand. Then he said, “It looked good.” He finished his coffee, and put the cup down.
He was turning to go when Abel said, “Pop.” Joe stopped. “Pop, I’m gay.”
Joe said, “I know.”
“I’m going back to Aaron tomorrow.”
Joe sighed heavily and looked down, so Abel wouldn’t see in his eyes what he saw: his grandchildren running out of the shop. He remembered with shame that he’d planned to talk Abel into naming his first son Dano, after Grandpa. The delusions of a fool.
He said, “I had the most beautiful piece of wool you ever saw put aside for your wedding suit.” He continued to look down, stubbornly seeing his son in the suit.
“I’ll still need it. Marriage between guys is legal in Massachusetts.”
“So I got that to look forward to,” Joe said.
“Aaron and I–”
“You’re the last of the Szabos.”
“Why is it all on me? You could get married again. Hell, Grandpa could marry his nurse and breed like a rabbit.” Joe swore, but Abel thought he could see a smile there. He could also see Joe wasn’t done.
“There—there are…I mean, they got—ah—like, different roles—like, there’s you, and there’s Aaron–“
It took Abel a minute, but he finally had it. The old freak thought that in gay couples there was always a husband and a wife. And he’d feel a little bit better if his son was the husband.
“It’s none of your frigging business,” Abel said.
In the front room, Joe stood at the window and looked out, his arms folded. The neighborhood was already drenched in pink. He remembered the thing that had happened at the hospital that he had not told Abel about. He thought he would probably never tell him.
The doctors had been operating on Damon. Dolores and Mareid insisted on standing in the hall outside the operating room, so he stood with them. After an hour Mareid fainted. He caught her, and he and Dolores carried her to the waiting room. He got juice and sandwiches for her from the cafeteria as Dolores fanned her. He held the orange juice to Mareid’s lips and concentrated on feeding it to her drop by drop, like a baby.
Dolores watched Joe. After a few minutes she said, “We’d heard you were a fine tailor. But we chose you because you’re Dano Szabo’s son. We have Czech friends who told us about him. About how bad he was when he was young, stabbed his brother in the back, ran off with his wife. Lived like a beast, all the other gypsies despised him. Then during the war this criminal, this disgrace—I’m sorry,” she said to Joe, but he shook his head, “—he got brave. Blew up train tracks and rescued our people out of the box cars. Kept them alive in the mountains. Dano Szabo! I thought his son would have good energy for us. I was not wrong.”
Joe knew he was gaping like a dumb brute. He couldn’t think of a word to say. But after a minute he began to plan a conversation he would have with Grandpa Szabo, as soon as possible, in the nursing home.
Now, across the street, lights went on in Coyle’s deli. In its window hung a big mortadella and smoked turkey. There was a carved ham, and Joe could see how pink the slices were under the browned crust of fat, spilling over a blue platter. There were pineapples, and piles of round seeded buns, cheeses, and baskets of grapes, peaches and apples. There were white chrysanthemums in a yellow bowl. Coyle could make a nice window, he had to admit it.
Little Coyle was sweeping the sidewalk in front of his store. Joe opened his own door, stepped outside and began walking across the street. Coyle stared at him, took in the bloody jacket and hastily went inside. Joe smiled to himself.
He stood in front of the deli window and considered it, his hands on his hips. Inside, he could see Coyle watching him nervously, big-eyed like a bunny in headlights. Joe nodded to him coolly. Then he turned back to the sliced ham and big brown rolls. He began to plan the food he would take to the hospital. The family shouldn’t have to eat that cafeteria crap.
(Copyright (c) 2014 by the Antioch Review, Inc. First appeared in the Antioch Review, Vol. 72, No. 1, Winter 2014, Reprinted by permission of the Editors.)
Cathryn Cofell’s five poems for which she won the Lorine Niedecker Poetry Award was posted on May 25. https://cwwnews.wordpress.com/2015/05/25/lorine-niedecker-winning-poems/
See all of the 2014 CWW contest winners at http://www.wiswriters.org/2014%20winners.htm.