A Short Story
"The Naked Woman"
I an very happy that Thomas Hubschman has given me the honor of publishing this short story from his great collection The Jew's Wife and Other Stories.
Hubschman is a great short story writer, a master at the craft. I recommend his work to any and all. He writes, to my mind in the tradition of Ivan Turgenev and Anton Chekhov.
Official Author Biography
Thomas J. Hubschman is the author of Look at Me Now, Billy Boy, My
Bess and The Jew's Wife & Other Stories and three science fiction
novels. His work has appeared in New York Press, The Antigonish
Review, Eclectica, The Blue Moon Review and many other publications.
Two of his short stories were broadcast on the BBC World Service. He
has also edited two
anthologies of new writing from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.
"THE NAKED WOMAN"
By Thomas J. Hubschman
That night when he got off the elevator there was a naked woman leaning against the door of 5D. When she saw him she seemed startled, as if she had been expecting someone else, and began to retreat back into her apartment. But when he just stood there, his hat on the back of his head, his mouth agape, she became amused and decided to linger, half in and half out of the doorway.
He hadn’t seen a young naked woman in thirty years—not outside a movie theater or the glossy magazines he hid under the mattress where he thought his wife wouldn’t find them. He hadn’t been smiled at the way she was smiling at him now by a woman of any age, ever.
He stepped forward tentatively. The woman did not vanish and he did not wake up. He took another step, but this time she waved a fiery fingernail at him and closed her door.
“What are you doing out there?” his wife called from down the hall. She glanced at the empty doorway he was still leering at. “Are you drunk or what?” she demanded, a fist planted on her thick hip. He ambled toward her. “Did you get what I sent you for?” She snatched the bag of groceries which seemed to materialize in his arms and took a quick inventory, calling off each item. He sat down at the kitchen table and pushed his hat further back on his head. “Where’s the spinach?”
“No spinach,” he replied irritably, the only way he ever addressed his wife anymore.
“You couldn’t stop at Tony’s?”
“You said A&P. A&P don’t got.”
“You can’t think that much on your own? What, are you some kind of moron?”
He aped a sigh.
“You got your head screwed on backwards,” she said, slamming the refrigerator door. “I break my ass in a hot office all day while you lay around the house or hang out with those other bums at the horse parlor. You can’t wash a dish or make a bed. I send you to the store, and you can’t even do that.” She banged a pan onto the stove to start some hamburgers. “A dog couldn’t do less than you, and it would be better company.”
He turned toward the wall. Ever since Esther found a job, he didn’t have it in him to wage the battle royals they used to treat the neighbors to. At least when they were both unemployed he could still hold up his head, if not hold his own, when she lit into him. But with nothing more to look forward to than the weekly ritual of signing for an unemployment check, he no longer had the nerve to shout back at her. He didn’t even bother to look for work anymore. Who wanted a fifty-five-year old man who’d been selling candy at a theater concession for the past twenty years? Esther at least had experience in her youth as a bookkeeper. But he had never got beyond the eighth grade and, apart from selling candy, only did manual labor.
“Put the garbage out. You can do that much, I hope.” He sighed and pushed himself up from the kitchen table. He grabbed the bag from the plastic container between the stove and sink, and dropped it.
“You’d drop your head if it wasn’t attached.”
While he was trying to get the bag to stand up in the hall for the super to collect later, he looked toward 5D, half-expecting to see the naked woman again. Outside her door was a small brown bag of garbage, neatly folded over. He couldn’t recall its being there earlier. He wondered if the woman put it out after he had seen her. And if so, did she come out in the hall naked or just slip her arm out and prop it against the wall? There was no sign of her now, in any case. As he turned to go back inside 5B, his own bag toppled over, spilling eggshells across the tile floor.
Despite Esther’s complaints about his wasting time, there really was nothing for him to do from one end of the day to the other. After she left in the morning he fixed himself a second cup of coffee, then went out for a copy of the News. Sometimes he ran into a fellow horse player, but usually he came straight back to the apartment, looked to see what were the best prospects, and wrote down his picks. He could only afford to place a bet twice a week, but he culled the lists of horses every day as if he had a bankroll to devote to them.
Then he took a nap. Sometimes his wife called to ask if he had straightened up the house yet. If she heard sleepiness in his voice (he wasn’t one of those people who could just snap themselves awake) she thought up new chores for him. After lunch he took a walk. He could generally find one of his cronies in the park. If not, he settled for a chat with the super, who hung out on the sidewalk in nice weather. Then he came back upstairs to wait for Esther.
It wasn’t an exciting life, but he was getting used to it. In fact, if it weren’t for his wife’s nagging, he wouldn’t mind being out of work at all, not as long as the rent got paid and there was food on the table. Esther, of course, felt differently. She missed the little trips they used to take before they lost their concession—a day’s excursion to the Catskills, an overnight to her mother’s in
But even more, she missed working in the theater. They had only sold candy and
checked hats and coats, but she liked to think of herself as “theater people.”
Sometimes, on the less and less frequent occasions they got asked out socially
and she took a couple drinks, she talked about her job, or even her career, in
the theater. It annoyed him to hear her go on like that. New Jersey
The morning after he had seen the naked woman in the hall he went about his usual routine. He drank a second cup of coffee, went out for the newspaper and came back to study the racing page. He hadn’t given the woman much thought. After all, seeing her was just a fluke, a longshot, like looking out his bedroom window and spotting a life class in progress in the art school across the street. Even that only happened once, and somebody quickly drew the curtains, as if they knew that Howard Plotkin, Dirty Old Man, was peeking.
After he finished going through the News, he stretched out on the sofa. If he were to lie down in the bedroom he might not hear the phone when Esther called, or it might take him so long to get to it that she would know he was napping. He was just dozing off, already dreaming about a boyhood friend who had been killed at
, when the doorbell
rang. At first the sound seemed to be part of his dream— his friend Herbie
ringing his bicycle bell to call him out to play. But when the doorbell rang a
second time he sat up and called, “Yeah, just a minute,” fumbling to button his
pants, which had gotten tight recently. The only person who ever rang his
doorbell was the mailman when he had a package for a neighbor. Anzio
“I’m coming,” he mumbled as the bell rang a third time, the same way Esther continued to nag even after he had agreed to do as she said. He was in a foul mood by the time he released the chain.
Standing in the hall was the naked woman. Only, she wasn’t naked. She was wearing a raspberry-colored bathrobe, holding it closed with her hand, although there was a tie hanging from loops at the waist. Her large breasts sat tidily on a freckled forearm which secured the robe to her body.
“Hi, I’m Natalie. I live in 5D, and I was wondering if you would do me a favor.”
No indication of their meeting in the hall the previous evening. No sign of embarrassment on her face, which looked older—thirty, thirty-five—than it did yesterday.
“Sure,” he said. “Come on in.”
“Actually, I was wondering if you would come over to my place.” She bared two rows of perfect teeth. “I have a leaky faucet that’s driving me crazy, and I can never seem to get hold of the super. Every time I stop by his place, he’s out. Would you mind taking a look at it? If you’re not busy, I mean,” she added with a glance into the rooms behind him.
“Busy?” He nervously patted first one pocket, then the other to locate his housekeys, making a gruff sound of amusement in his throat. “Me, I’m not busy. I don’t do nothing but lay around all day anyhow.”
As she swung her own door open for him she said, “I hate to impose on you.”
He was already familiar with the layout of the “D” apartments—Esther had a friend in 6D—but he wasn’t ready for the decor inside this one: red furniture, red rug, and black curtains to hide the view of the airshaft. It was mid-morning, but the apartment would have been like a cave if it weren’t for two spotlights mounted on the ceiling. A white
Angora jumped down
from the sofa and rubbed against his leg.
“Oh, Gawd”—he could tell she wasn’t from
don’t look. It hasn’t been cleaned in weeks. My woman’s been sick, and I’m
simply up to my ears in work.” New York
They had reached the bathroom. The faucet leaked a steady plop-plop into the metal drain.
“You can hear what a nuisance it is. It actually keeps me awake at night. I can’t close the door because Leroy has to get to his box. Do you think you can do anything with it?”
He frowned gravely as he opened and closed the faucet. She watched as carefully as if they were deciding the prognosis of a sick relative. Her robe had slipped open a couple inches, exposing her neck and the tops of the soft mounds below. “I’ll have to get my tools.”
As she followed him back toward the hallway, he asked—casually, he hoped—“What kind of work do you do?” She rested her hip against the door jamb, the same pose she was striking when he saw her naked the previous night. She smiled elaborately.
“I’m in the theater.”
He was trembling so much that he had trouble fitting the key into his lock. Once inside, he dropped a wrench on his foot and spilled a box of washers on the kitchen floor. As he was locking the door again, the phone began to ring. That would be Esther. He could answer it, or he could let her think he was out. He hesitated, clutching the heavy wrench to his chest. He decided to let it ring.
“Sorry I took so long,” he said, putting his hardware down on the woman’s toilet seat.
“You don’t mind if I get dressed?” she called from the bedroom. “I have an audition at one.”
The idea of her dressing in the next room started his heart pumping again. He began work on the faucet, but a moment later realized he had forgotten to bring a screwdriver. This time he let himself out. Incredibly, the phone was still ringing in his apartment.
“Where were you? Sleeping, I suppose. Aren’t you good for anything but sleeping and eating? Did you bring the clothes to the laundry?”
“Have you done the dishes?”
“Well, what have you done? What do you think I am, your free-meal ticket? The least you can do is clean up and take wash to the laundry. That shouldn’t be too much of a strain on you.”
“And put some iced tea in the refrigerator. This place I work in is a hotbox.”
“All right, already.”
His anger took him as much by surprise as it did his wife. “What have you got a bug up your ass about? I’m the one out breaking my butt while you lay around and get your beauty sleep.”
He didn’t argue. He promised to do as she said.
“And don’t forget to get my good dress out of the cleaners. And try not to look like a complete slob tonight.”
“At Mildred’s. I suppose you forgot we’re going to Mildred and Arthur’s for dinner? You’d forget your head if it wasn’t attached.”
He promised to get her dress and to wear something presentable.
“You seem to be in a big hurry to get rid of me.”
“I’m in the middle of something.”
“Useful, I hope.”
“I’m...fixing a washer.”
“While you’re at it, see if you can do something with the bedroom door. It hasn’t closed right for months.”
He hurried back to 5D. Natalie was still in the bedroom. It only took a few minutes to change the washer. He screwed the metal housing back and tested it. To his surprise, it worked fine.
The bedroom door opened. Natalie emerged in a braless halter top and shorts. She looked even sexier than she did when he saw her naked.
“What do you think?”
The question, the idea that his opinion should matter, left him speechless.
“Fine,” he finally stammered. “You look...great.”
“You fixed it!” She turned the faucet on and off several times. Each time it worked perfectly. “You can’t imagine what this means to me. You’re a sweetheart!” She threw her arms around him just long enough for him to feel the push of her breasts.
Then suddenly they were out in the hall. “I have to run. Wish me luck.”
“Break a leg.”
She gave him a big smile. When the elevator arrived she winked, did a bump and, after stepping inside, blew a kiss at him through the window.
He wore his good suit to Mildred and Arthur’s—not because Esther insisted but because, for the first time in months, he felt like dressing up. His hosts noticed the change right away.
“What are you feeding him, Esther?”
“I think he’s got a girlfriend on the side,” Arthur teased.
Esther had two cocktails before dinner and drank half a bottle of wine with the meal. By the time dessert arrived she was reminiscing about her career in the theater. Mildred and Arthur, childhood friends who had done well for themselves in their own real estate business, humored her. But Howard, who usually suffered her fantasy in silence, this time objected.
“Why don’t you stop this nonsense? Arthur and Mildred know you were only a hatcheck girl. Why are you putting on airs?”
She swallowed hard and he figured he was in for it. Instead, she began to cry. Mildred sat down beside her and took her hand. He himself was too surprised by the effect of his words to do or say anything else.
“I don’t know what went wrong,” she sobbed, ignoring the tissue her friend was offering. “I just don’t know.” Mildred patted her arm and encouraged her to blow her nose.
During the ride home on the subway, Esther kept silent. Howard figured she was waiting for later to lower the boom. When they got off the elevator he saw there was another tidy parcel of garbage outside 5D. He wondered how Natalie’s audition had gone. He remembered the smile she had given him and the kiss she had blown through the elevator window.
Esther went straight to bed, leaving her clothes on the back of a chair. When Howard slipped under the sheet beside her, she turned her back to him. He still expected her to explode any moment, but after several minutes passed she still had said nothing.
He touched her arm.
She sighed. Encouraged, he laid a hand on her shoulder. Then he pulled gently, and she allowed herself to be turned onto her back. There were tears on her face, the wet mascara tracing a graph of misery down her cheeks. Earlier, he had thought her grief staged: she really did aspire once to be an actress. But she had no reason to put on an act just for him.
For a moment she seemed to have trouble placing the impassioned face above her. She smiled hesitantly, the way she used to when they first started keeping company. That was forty years ago. But behind the sagging flesh and thinning gray hair the essential woman, neither young nor old, lived on. And no mere sex queen could call up the complex passion she aroused in him.
“Essie,” he whispered hoarsely.
She smiled again, this time without reservation, and drew her arms tight around him.