Today I am very happy to be able to share with my readers a very powerful short story by David Appleby
"Give and Take"
a short story by
Author Bio:David Appleby is the author of "Moon Alley," a novel written in the form of connected stories and cited byamazon.com's 'top 10 reviewer, Grady Harp,' (Los Angeles) as "a solidly unique voice...and a highly recommended first novel," and was praised by 'Book View Ireland' for its "pleasing symmetry of structure and convincingly drawn picture of a once-thriving area."
His new book is titled, "Love Sketches," a collection of short stories which explores the "sensuality of romance and the varieties and vagaries of love." One of the stories in this collection has been anthologized in "Short Breaks: The Very Best of Shortbread Short Stories," published by Discovery Press, Scotland. It has also been recorded as an audio narrated by the distinguished British actor, Paul Jerricho.
The author, a recipient of a PEW Fellowship, is a graduate of Temple University
When Channel 6 interrupted her soap opera to forecast a flood warning for parts of the Philadelphia viewing
area, she didn’t do what she always did whenever such bulletins were issued. She didn’t pick up her baby and the baby bag containing bottles, formula, diapers, and numerous jars of Gerber’s baby food, and hurry over to her mother-in-law’s house around the corner, at the top of the avenue. This time the Channel 6 weather girl’s tone and gloomy maps had frightened her. This time she ran down into the basement and began stuffing rags and old bath towels on the window sills and open spaces where the outer wall met the floor.
It was mid-afternoon when the rain finally arrived, a heavy, pounding rain that quickly flooded the debris-clogged sewers and storm drains. The water rose above the gutters, and up onto the sidewalks in no time at all, and proceeded to inch its way to the cracked, red-brick walls of the small row houses just off the avenue. By the time he had gotten home from work his wife had already worried for hours that water might be rising in the basement. She worried about how they would now have to pay a plumber to pump the rainwater from the basement of their tiny row home.
But the first thing she said to him as he walked in the front door was: “Did you cash your paycheck?” And before he could answer, she followed with another question: “Did you buy money-orders for the overdue bills?”
“Sure I did,” he says. “I took care of it. I did it just like you said. I mailed the bills right then and there from the post office. I did it just like you told me.”
“I hope you didn’t forget to put the money-orders in the envelopes?” she asks.
“No, I put the right money-order in the right envelope along with the right bill,” he tells her. And to ease her worry, he explains how he did it.
“Give me the money-order receipts,” she says. And then, matter-of-factly, she mentions that she hadn’t gone over his mother’s house. She doesn’t tell
him why. Instead, she tells him not to go upstairs and disturb the baby who has finally fallen asleep.
He can see that she is having a case of the nerves. It’s the way she moves around the kitchen. From the sink to the cabinets to the refrigerator to the gas range, everything she touches she touches with jittery hands. She grabs for a pan, fumbles with it until it drops to the floor.
“I’m really agitated today,” she tells him.
He moves quickly, gets to the pan before she does, and says that she should slow down. “It’s a Friday,” he reminds her, “the end of the week.”
“One day is no different for me than the next,” she says. Her voice begins to crack.
“Why don’t we go over to McFadden’s Saloon tonight? he asks. He waits for her response, but when none is offered he calmly adds that the guys from work are taking their wives to McFadden’s tonight.
“They say that there is a nice little band that plays Irish music the whole night long. We could have a couple of beers and a pizza, or cheese-steak sandwich. Whatever you like,” he adds. He remembers to tell her that they could get in a little dancing. He tells her this exactly the way he had practiced it. Word for word, the way he had said it in his head on the way home from work.
She stares at him as though he has gone crazy on her. “What’s wrong with you?” She makes it sound like a question, but he knows she doesn’t mean it as a question. This is what she always says when she is about to start in on him. “Like, what I am supposed to do with the meat I’m defrosting?” she tells him. He knows this too is not a question.
But he answers her last remark as though it is. “We can eat our dinner here as usual, and then later tonight we can go over to McFadden’s for a couple of beers. My mother will watch the baby. I’ll call her now, if you want. It’ll do us both good to get out for a change,” he says.
“And like what should we do about the water that’s sure to be rising in the basement? I’m afraid to go down and look. She looks at the door to the basement, but doesn’t move from the kitchen counter.
He doesn’t go down to the basement, though he knows she would want him to. Instead, he walks to the parlor window and looks out at the brightening sky. “It’s barely drizzling,” he says. “Come look, he says with a forced laugh. The sun is coming out.” When she doesn’t join him in the parlor, or answer him, he calls to her again. “The water is rolling off the sidewalk and back into the gutter,” he shouts into the kitchen. “The sewers are taking the water. The water’s not even on our sidewalk. Come and look.”
But she does not go into the parlor. And she does not say a word from the kitchen.
He returns to the kitchen telling her again that they can get in some dancing. “It’ll be fun at McFadden’s. Everybody from work will be there tonight,” he repeats. “All the wives are going to be there tonight.” He opens the door leading to the basement and descends the creaking stairs. “Dry as a bone,” he yells up to her. And when he reenters the kitchen he repeats that the basement floor is as dry as a bone.
“This is just great,” she says. “This is just typical,” she tells him. “You want to go out carousing and boozing with your precious friends from work while we’ve got nothing but bills coming out of our ears.” She tells him this with her back turned to him, her eyes fixed on the meat that she had placed in the sink.
He knows the tone of her voice, knows that he should not respond, but does nonetheless. He says that he wasn’t planning on carousing and boozing, he just wanted to have a few beers with the guys from work. And to do some dancing. “Just to get out for once,” he says sharply. “That’s all.”
But she does not answer. He lowers his voice and says again that all the wives will be there. “A couple of beers after working all week, it’s no big deal,” he tells her.
Her attention is still on the meat in the sink. So he walks over to her and puts his hand on her shoulder and then lets his fingers slip down to her bare arm. He turns his hand over and lets his knuckles slide further down the inside of her arm. When their fingers meet he laces his into hers and whispers, “Come on. It’ll be fun. We can dress up a bit. Get us out for a few hours to do some dancing. All the wives are going to be there.”
“Easy for you to say,” she says sternly. She uncouples their fingers, pulls away from him. His hand drops from her wrist when she pulls away to reach for a dishrag. She pushes the rag across the sides of the sink, leaves it beneath the faucet to catch the dripping water, and suddenly grips the kitchen counter-top with both hands. She begins to rock back and forth, catching her breath. She is pressing her fingertips against the countertop with such force that her fingertips and fingernails turn pink.
Now what, he wonders?
“I wrack my brain day in and day out trying to figure out how to make the bills,” she says. “It’s up to me to figure out how to make ends meet. I have to figure out what to tell the bill collectors. I actually disguise my voice when they telephone their threats about how they’re going to repossess one thing or another.
“And then you walk in all bubbly and excited because it’s Friday, and all of your friends are going carousing and boozing. And we should just pick ourselves up and go along just like that. You come home and in five minutes you’re prepared to ruin my budget and everything else with it,” she says. “My
whole budget for the entire week gets ruined because you want to spend money carousing and boozing with your work-buddies. “You’ve got a case of beer in the house for that,” she snaps.
“Honey,” he says, “it’s a couple of bucks, is all. Ten dollars, not more, for the two of us to have a night out dancing. We can swing that, he says. I know we can. And it’s not just the guys I work with. All of the wives will be there, I told you.”
But it’s as though he has never mentioned the wives. She starts in again on his work-buddies. She tells him that his work buddies stop in at McFadden’s every day after work. She tells him that she knows that they are always late for dinner. “Do you know that they are short on the paycheck every Friday for what they owe McFadden for a week’s worth of drinking? Well, do you?”
This time he knows that she means these to be questions. And that she expects him to apologize again. Instead he asks her why she’s bringing that up. “You know I don’t do any of that anymore. I’m home right after work. No stops. No short paycheck on Friday. I told you I won’t do that anymore, and I don’t. I don’t care what they do.”
It’s as though what he has just said went in one ear and out the other, he thinks. She simply goes on, not swayed to his side one bit, he realizes. She reaches up to the top of the refrigerator where she keeps the mail. She pulls down a stack of envelopes held together by a thick rubber band. She waves the package of bills before his face. “Look at these,” she says. “This is what I deal with every day of the week.”
She removes the rubber band and throws it onto the counter-top. She shuffles the envelopes, one behind the other as she announces the contents without looking.
“Sears, $467.00 balance. All of it overdue, but they’ll take $28.00 a month. And J.C. Penny, we owe $877. Three payments past due, and we only bought the bedroom set four months ago. How about Wal-Mart,” she says. “They only got half a payment last month.” Her voice breaks and he watches the tears well in her eyes. He sees that she knows all of this without taking the statements from their envelopes. She’s memorized all of this, he tells himself.
He tells her quietly that they will all be paid, eventually. “You have to admit that,” he adds, hoping to soothe her. “It’s robbing Peter to pay Paul,” you know. “It’s what everybody else does around here.”
She begins to cry. “We’re supposed to make these payments, plus the gas and electricity. And what about the telephone,” she asks. It’s back to the questions that only sound like questions but aren’t true questions, he tells himself
“They can see that we’re trying to pay our bill,” he says timidly. “All the stores know we’re making an effort,” he says. Her tears hurt him. He moves toward her, intent on comforting her. He doesn’t want to see her like this, he tells her.
He reaches for her hand, but she moves her hand away, and lifts the meat from the sink. She turns her back to him, and cradles the meat, sobbing. He takes a step toward her, whispers her name, and tells her not to cry. After she lowers the meat onto a tray in the sink, she spins around, and with both hands raised, tells him to not come any closer. “I got plenty to cry about,” she shouts at him.
“The monthly payments have to be paid from this paycheck,” she reminds him. “Like, we’re behind on everything this month. And what about the gas and electric? What about the telephone bill? We’re already behind on our telephone because you had the big idea to call your sister for her birthday instead of sending her a card. I asked you to send her a Hallmark. But no. Maybe she and her big deal husband can afford long-distance calls, but we can’t. A long distance call,” she says, shaking her head. Her voice chokes with sobs. “And you had to talk to her forever instead of just wishing her a happy birthday and hanging up before the phone bill ran up”.
He walks back to the kitchen window. He lights a cigarette.
She asks him if he has any idea at all what it will cost to pump the water from the basement. “Because,” she follows-up, “you were too cheap to go in partners with the other neighbors for that sump-pump.”
“It’s not raining anymore,” he says. “The basement is as dry as a bone.” No, it was you, he tells himself, it was you who didn’t want to lay out the money for the sump-pump. How many times will we get to use it, you said over and over. Because of you, he tells himself, because of you we’re the only house on our end of the block that didn’t chip in for the sump-pump.
“Did you say something just now” she demands? “This is just like you. This is typical,” she shouts from the sink. “I bet you’re blaming me again for that sump-pump business. Do you want to know something? I’ll tell you something. You leave this house every morning with a good breakfast in your belly and a full lunch under your arm. And then you come home to a hot meal, and a clean house, and clean clothes, and a kid who’s taken care of morning, noon, and night. You just take it all for granted. You act like it’s the easiest, most natural thing in the world. It’s like with all that I do you act like you’ve got it coming to you or something.” Her voice is cracking again. He turns to see her eyes fill with new tears. He sees that the expression on her face has turned from hopelessness to anger. He wonders what will come next. Will she throw something, he wonders?
“And what do I get for it? Like, you don’t care what I have to put up with. The aggravation. The phone calls from the creditors. All the bills. The letters threaten us, and say that they are going to do this, and do that to us if we don’t pay our bills on time.
“Do you know what the man from the second-hand store said to me? The man went and told me, ‘Lady you’re going to be washing your clothes in
the Delaware River if I don’t get that payment on Friday.’ He’s going to send the truck to repossess the washing machine. And then he says, in the future I better not look for credit from anybody. Future? What future? That’s what I wanted to say to him. What future?
The tears spill from her eyes, and roll down her face. She wipes her cheeks with the back of one hand, holds a can of DelMonte peas in the other.
“You don’t care,” she tells him through her sobs.
“But I do care,” he says. “You know I do.”
“My God,” she says, still crying. “Sears. J.C. Penny. Wal-Mart. The gas. The electric. And now the extra telephone bill because you had to call your sister long distance. We can’t even pay the rent in full,” she says.
She’s shaking. And she screams out how sick of it she is. “I’m goddamn sick of this, month after month,” she screams. “Sick of it. Sick of it all.”
And then there is the longest silence.
She wipes her face, but new tears flood her eyes.
Finally he says in his quiet way that he thought she’d enjoy getting out a little. “You always say that we never go anywhere,” he says.
She doesn’t say anything to this.
He watches her wipe her eyes with a paper towel. She stares into the sink saying nothing at all. She pokes her forefinger into the defrosting meat packet. She sprinkles it with meat tenderizer, pounds it with the bottom of a juice glass, and then swiftly opens the oven door with her free hand. She slides the tray of meat beneath the broiler, closes the door, and turns toward him.
She accepts the cigarette he has lighted for her. “We don’t have to go,” he tells her. “It was just an idea. It’s the end of the week. You know, a Friday after working all week. That’s all it really was,” he adds with a false laugh. “It was nothing, really. No big deal.”
He reaches for her thin pale arm and this time she does not move away. After a moment she takes a paper napkin from the holder, and blows her nose. He puts his arm around her shoulder and she responds by leaning into him. Her head comes to rest against his chest. They stay like this for a moment before she moves from him and edges toward the stove. He returns to the window.
She tells him again how hard it is for her to make it on his salary. She tells how she has to scrape and scratch to make ends meet. The bills come in week after week. The end of the month is the worst, she tells him. There’s no let up. No let up at all, she tells him again. She says this in a voice that is now soft, calm, and even. She has stopped crying.
She holds out the can of peas for him to open. “There’s no let up,” she says again.
He helps her set the table.
“It’s all on my shoulders,” she says at the kitchen table.
“I think you can forget about buying your uncle’s Chevy. Not until the color TV and refrigerator are paid off,” she says very business like.
“Do you know that we still have six more payments on the refrigerator? After all this time,” she reminds him, “we still have six payments left.
“If only you brought home a little more in your paycheck. Like, if you could get a raise. Or more overtime. Maybe get some more overtime.”
She begins to cut the piece of meat she has placed on his dinner plate. She cuts the meat into bite size pieces, and then pushes the pieces to one side of the plate to make room for the peas. “Do you want me to leave the skin on your potato?” she asks.
He empties the bowl of steaming peas onto their dinner plates, putting more on her plate than his own. He steps to the sink and kisses her cheek. He squeezes her shoulder. He does both without saying a word. She takes the baked potatoes from the oven, and cuts them down the center before moving them to the table. She makes an island on each dinner plate, and places the baked potatoes in the open space.
The early evening sun streaks through the kitchen window and onto the table where they are eating their dinner.
“Is it good?” she asks him.
“It tastes great,” he answers. “The meat is tender as can be.” He makes sounds that tell her that he is enjoying the meal.
“I made Jell-O,” she says. “It’s in the ‘fridge.”
“Really?” he says. He wears a smile big enough to make her smile.
“I have a can of Cool Whip behind the milk carton,” she tells him.
He notices that her eyes hold a sparkle. And as he eats the last bite of the meat she has cut for him he guesses that in the two and a half years that they have been married he has heard her complaints about the bills and the lack of money at least fifty times over. He has heard her tell about the bill collectors who tell her she has not paid this bill and that bill on time. He has seen her cry when she tells how they threaten to repossess their furniture. He has watched her tremble and cry when she tells him these things. He’s heard her tell how it’s all on her shoulders. He’s heard her say that she can’t take it anymore. About fifty times over he has heard her tell him these things.
He remembers that he had heard his mother tell his father these same things. He had heard these same stories from his mother’s lips at least a hundred times, he tells himself. And he remembers that he had heard this same story told by his neighbors and by his friends. He realizes that this story is being told in every kitchen on every block in the neighborhood. And in every kitchen a wife will tell her husband that he has to do better. He’ll be told to ask for overtime. He’ll be told that he has to get a raise so that she can manage the bills better.
She looks up from her plate and tells him that she is sorry about tonight. She tells him she would love to go to McFadden’s, but they simply can’t afford to spend any money this month. “My budget is down to the penny,” she says calmly. And then she says he was sweet to ask her along. “But there has to be give and take in a marriage. “After all, that’s what it’s all about,” she says.
He reaches into the fridge and passes her the can of Cool Whip for her Jell-O. He takes a can of beer for himself.
“You’re right,” he tells her. “There has to be give and take in a marriage.” He drinks the can of beer in two long swallows. He takes a second, and a third can from the fridge and opens each before he sits down.
He drinks the second beer a bit more slowly this time. He watches as she shakes the Cool Whip can vigorously, and then presses her forefinger against the nozzle shooting a spiral cone of white over her Jell-O. He tells her again that she’s right. “There has to be give and take in a marriage,” he repeats. “Everybody knows that. Even a dumb guy like me, he adds,” laughing.
She laughs along with him. And then she feeds him a spoonful of Jell-O topped with a generous portion of Cool Whip. He swallows it and smiles at her. She licks the spoon before offering him more.
Beneath the table his jittery fingers squeeze the empty beer can until it is twisted out of shape and crushed into the palms of his calloused hands.
End of Guest Post
End of Guest Post
Love Sketches on Amazon
Appleby's blog is HERE and is very interesting.
I will be posting in the next few weeks a number of additional stories by the author and am greatly honored to be allowed to share these wonderful stories with my readers. I will also do one of my "normal" posts on some of his longer stories.
Again my thanks to David,