October 4, 2016

Fiction by Robert Wexelblatt: "The Thirteenth Studebaker"

Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published the story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone, The Decline of Our Neighborhood, The Artist Wears Rough Clothing, and Heiberg’s Twitch; a book of essays, Professors at Play; two short novels, Losses and The Derangement of Jules Torquemal, and essays, stories, and poems in a variety of scholarly and literary journals. His novel Zublinka Among Women won the Indie Book Awards first-place prize for fiction.  A collection of essays, The Posthumous Papers of Sidney Fein, is forthcoming.

The Thirteenth Studebaker

    “I’m absolutely not going there,” brayed the best man.
    “He will too,” Sonia whispered in my ear.
    “Of course I might just mention one little thing that happened during that Spring Break in Cancun. . . .”
    Sonia in profile wore a smug smile.  I gave her elbow a nudge.
    “It’s a tradition.  Public humiliation of the groom.”
    “Chagrin and shrivel?  Sure.  That happen to you?”
    “My best man was a poet.”
    “You mean he recited embarrassing doggerel?  There once was a man from Chicago?”
    “Nope.  A real poet, a real poem.  It was lovely, actually.”
    Sonia scoffed.  I’d observed that she did a lot of scoffing, expelling that little dismissive puff which signified the world’s altogether too pleased with itself and, like the bridegroom, in need of mocking.  It seemed to me that she was always lying in wait for something to scoff at.  Another of her favorites was “Sure, sure,” the double affirmative that makes a negative.  Her default face was almost expressionless but her tight mouth suggested restrained disapproval like a hanging judge’s or a professional poker player’s.
    She was in a bad mood even for her and I wondered if it were just the wedding.  Her asthma. Her hair.  Her outfit.  Her digestion.  Her joints.  Her meds.  Sonia had a lot of complaints and many of them were medical.  You’d need a lot of imagination to picture my cousin in a good mood.  
    At the rehearsal dinner, she’d doodled on a cocktail napkin and pushed it across the table.  Four plump, fluffy sheep and a fifth scrawny one.  As I looked, she learned across me and colored in the scrawny one.
    “Guess who,” she said unnecessarily.
    The best man, a beefy fellow with golfer’s hair and a weight-lifter’s neck, was enjoying himself too much, going on too long, and on a single theme.  “Now, I won’t say our Joe here sowed a whole bushel of wild oats but. . .”
    Sonia slapped her palm over my knuckles, curled her fingers around my hand.  
    “We have to get out of here. Come on.”
    “But, but we’re almost at the head table,” I objected in the loudest whisper I could manage.  “It’s rude and everybody’ll see.”   Was she drunk?  And why did she say “we”?  
    “It’s the fucking bridesmaids’ table,” she growled, getting to her feet and yanking my hand.
    At the head table, the mother of the bride glared and made sit-down gestures. The father turned away.  As for Sonia, she raised her free hand to her chin, as if to scratch it, and then did so with her middle finger. She pulled me along and, on the way out, neatly snatched up a bottle of champagne and a brace of glasses.  She seemed almost in a panic.
    “Come on.”
    People certainly did notice and they noises of disapproval followed us.
    The wedding was in the Berkshires in an Italianate pile built by a Jamesian millionaire for his daughter and her European husband.  According to the brochure, the couple stayed there only three times, never for as long as a month.  I wondered if it was the heiress who couldn’t stand the place or the once-impoverished marquis.  Maybe both felt imprisoned in it, by the father’s fortune.  A few years ago some corporation bought the place, fixed it up, and now it hosted what the management called “for conferences, joyous gatherings, and all your most special events.”  The grounds were spacious and lovely.  There were stone outbuildings, copses, two formal gardens, and huge swaths of grass. Sonia pulled me to the one that ran the length of a football field down to a stream and the woods.
    When my Aunt Elizabeth asked me to come to the wedding and, as she put it, “to squire my problem-daughter for the weekend,” I demurred.  Though we were never close, before I went off to college I saw my aunt and uncle and five female cousins on seasonal occasions.  But after I emigrated to the Midwest I’d scarcely seen them at all.  I planned to decline the wedding invitation as I had the last three, send a gift, and let it go at that.  But my aunt implored me, even offering airfare.  She almost luxuriated in her worries, cataloguing Sonia’s problems, explaining how fragile she was after her latest breakup—or breakdown.  She used everything she could think of, even the dubious claim that she missed me.  She must have crossed several names off the list if she got to mine.  So I gave in the way a real Midwesterner would.  
    I had the sense that my duty for the weekend was to be a kind of combination of bodyguard and medical orderly.  So, if Sonia was tearing out of the wedding luncheon, my obligation was to follow—“squire”—her.  The truth was I didn’t care what people thought any more than she did.  It wasn’t my little sister getting hitched or my parents who were aghast, or my three pretty sisters and their handsome husbands looking daggers at my back.  Anyway, nobody should have been surprised given the disgust Sonia had displayed at being a bridesmaid—or considering, well, Sonia.  You could see it coming in her body language, the way she kept her distance from the others, even in the group photographs, the way she looked down at her velvet dress and rolled her eyes, at her dyed shoes and shook her head.  It was entirely reasonable for her family to regard her as so much nitroglycerine.  When I said hello at the rehearsal dinner, she complained about the dress, the dyed shoes, scoffed openly at sisterhood.  The last time I’d seen her was at our mutual grandmother’s funeral, five years before.  To my surprise, when I said hello before the rehearsal dinner she took my arm and told me how she’d had a crush on me—“my big seven-years-older cousin”—and demanded to know everything I could remember about her, “aside from my being undersized, underweight, apart from the braces, eczema, and all the coughing.”
    The end of my marriage was still counted as family news.  The distant relatives who hadn’t yet been told asked where my wife was; some who knew pretended not to but most few said sotto voce that they were sorry, as if I’d just lost a tennis tournament on which they’d bet.  While my break-up with Sheila was fresh it wasn’t a wound.  On the contrary, our divorce was more than amicable, a cause for celebration, “like the release of Nelson Mandela,” cracked my irreverent ex.  We stuck it out “for three whole years,” as she put it, before Sheila pulled the trigger, for which I admire her.  If she hadn’t, who knows how long I’d have rationalized inertia as duty?  I liked Sheila and still do.  We got married for conventional reasons, mostly, I guess, because it seemed it was time to.  It took a little more time for her to discover she didn’t like being married to me and for me to find out I didn’t like being married at all.
    Sonia wanted to know all about it, of course.  For the juicy details she was even prepared to flirt.  “Sonia sounds a lot like Sheila.”
    Sonia was now twenty-three but I remembered her as a skinny kid with a rotten and morose attitude, entirely different from her sunny, athletic, talented sisters.  She suffered from respiratory problems, acne, bad periods, mood swings, hyperkinetic knees, scoliosis, thin hair and small breasts.  Her Rhine maiden sisters all had thick, straight hair, fine physiques, perfect teeth, grades, and ethical report cards.  In high school Sonia had a drug problem and started cutting herself.  Her graduation present was a diagnosis of fibromyalgia.  Somehow her father got her into a decent college.  She lasted one year before going off to hike around Europe with a bohemian peace crusader.  “Sonia claimed he had a degree in classics,” confided Aunt Elizabeth in a way that made me sure she had an eye-roll of her own.  Sonia was back in a month and in the hospital with a bacterial infection.  In short, my little cousin was trouble: talked back, swore, dressed inappropriately, lacked ambition, was sickly, self-destructive, and liked the wrong boys, music, art, books, and politics.  
    She also knew how to annoy people.  At the rehearsal dinner, one of the groom’s older sister introduced herself as therapist.
    “Physical?” Sonia asked with an innocent smile.
    “Not that kind, dear,” she said and stomped off.
    It was this encounter that led Sonia to tell me about her own course of therapy, the price her parents charged for giving her the cash to move to New York City.
    “The moron dressed like a fashion model and kept asking me what I was good at.  Tough one.”
    I took the risk of inquiring, “Well, what are you good at?  I mean apart from disrupting things.”
    I expected a caustic riposte but instead Sonia fetched a deep sigh.  “Not one damn thing, actually.  Which is the whole point.  You’d have thought a therapist might just pick up on that.  Of course I wanted to be all sorts of things.”
    “Oh, singer-songwriter.  Action painter.  Photojournalist.  War correspondent.  Orthodontist.  Actuary.  Expatriate systems manager.  All the usual stuff.  But how about you?  You always want to grow up to be a city-planner?”
    “I like the work well enough.  It doesn’t fill up every void, but it’s satisfying.”
    She perked up.  “So you’ve got voids?  I like that.  Good for you.  But, tell me.  My mother says you work for the city of Chicago?”
    “They write the paychecks, yep.”
    “How do you plan a city that’s already there?”
    “You making fun of me?”
    She smirked.  “I suspect you do a lot better at it.”
    We made our way down the long hill, all the wedding hullabaloo fading away behind us like a train headed off to Disneyworld.  There were birds, butterflies, quiet.
    Suddenly Sonia did a little pirouette.  “I wrote a screenplay.”  Was she was telling me an intimate secret, trying to prove that she was good at something, bragging?
    “Tell me about it.”
    “Oh, you know.  Cliché meets cliché, cliché loses cliché, another cliché helps cliché get cliché back by thwarting blocking cliché, then cliché gets cliché.  Everybody goes home happy.”
    “Hard on yourself, aren’t you?”   
    “Jesus.  Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, a million movies—all wet dreams for second-rate girls.  My screenplay?  Exactly the crap wish-fulfillment a waitress in New York would write—excuse me, female waitperson.”
    Open bitterness and fresh air seemed to put her in an expansive mood.  Maybe a manic one.  I felt like I might have strayed into a swamp seeded with mines, tried not to put a foot wrong.
    “I assume my mother told you that my boyfriend left me last month?”
    “She did mention something.”
    “Took the TV, espresso machine, my signed copy of Motherless Brooklyn.  And my favorite hoodie, the spiteful bastard.”
    I found myself clumsily echoing the relatives.  It just came out.  “I’m sorry.”
    “You are?  Well, I’m not.  Not really sorry.  He was just something to keep me from seeing the truth.  You should know.  There was Sheila.”
    “The truth being that we’re all alone?”
    “Isn’t it?”
    “I’m half and half on that one.  We’re part of a social species, like it or not, but also—not.”
    Sonia handed me the bottle of champagne, which was no longer cool, and sat down on the lush Berkshire grass.  I popped the cork, aiming for the woods below.  
    “Disruption, you said.  That I’ve got a talent for it.  That’s hitting the nail on the head all right.  I had these fantasies of how I could mess up the whole weekend.”
    I took the flutes and poured the wine. “Such as?”
    “Proposing a really rude toast.  Getting my lesbian-Trotskyite homie Kendra to write a political rant for me.  I’d supply a list of the companies everybody works plus, of course, the one my rich daddy’s name on it.”
    I laughed.  “If only I’d known.”
    “What if you had?”
    “We could have worked up a tasteless hip-hop routine or done a scene from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”
    “City planner,” she scoffed, delighted.  “If only I’d known about you.”
    “Creative destruction.”
    “That’s what you do when the city’s already there.  We. . . disrupt.”
    She smiled and I could see her loosen up a bit in the shoulders and neck.  We just sat quietly for a bit, sipping, looking down on the green trees, up at the blue sky, taking in the unplanned non-city.  When she spoke it was skyward and without an ironic edge.
    “I’m just a mess.  Always have been.”
    Aw,” she mocked.  “Combine twenty-three chromosomes with another twenty-three, do it five times and you run a good chance of popping out a misfit, a mistake, instead of, say, a strapping left tackle.  I haven’t done the actual arithmetic, mind you.”
    “You think you’re a genetic goof?”
    “You haven’t looked at my sisters—so pretty, accomplished, smart, married?  A whole quartet of cum laudes?  Just look at their skin, how easy they move in the world they were made for.  Or that was made for them.  Then look at me.”
    “Do you hate them?”
    Hate them?  Are you an idiot? I love them.  I even love my parents.  Why not?  They’re wonderful people.  No, what I do is. . . I revel and repine.  I revel and then I repine.  Or vice versa.  I mean, as soon as I do one I start doing the other.”
    I thought about her phrase, repeated it.  “Revel and repine.”  
    “Pretty good title, right?  Jane Austen could have used it, if she’d ever written about somebody like me.  Actually, sometimes I think she was like me.”  
    She laughed and lay back in star-gazing pose, fingers interlaced under her head.
    “How do you do it anyway?”
    “Calculate all the, you know, permutations.”
    I polished off my champagne, then assumed the star-gazing position beside Sonia.  I could see two clouds, one hawk, no planes, no stars.
    “Do you know the legend of the thirteenth Studebaker?”
    “What’s a Studebaker?”
    “Studebaker.  A car company that went belly up in the sixties.  They’d been around forever.  Before they made cars, they built wagons.  You’ve seen the Budweiser Clydesdales in those ads?”
    “Sure.  Big feet.”
    “The wagons they’re pulling were made by Studebaker more than a century ago.”
    “So, sturdy wagons then cars.  Studebakers.  Got it.  So what’s the thirteenth?”
    “My grandfather—the one that wasn’t yours too—told me the story when I was a kid.”
    “Studebakers turned out a lot of lemons.’
    “Why they went belly up.”
    “Right.  Owners were always complaining about them.  Somebody started a rumor that the workers on Studebaker’s assembly-line laid all the bad parts aside and then stuck them all on every one chassis.  The thirteenth.  So whenever people started complaining about their lousy Studebaker, somebody’d say, ‘Too bad you got the thirteenth,’ and everybody’d break up.”
    Sonia broke up.  “Great story!”
    “Urban legend.”
    “Urban planning!”  She was laughing so hard she could barely get the words out.  
    “Planned obsolescence.”
    Sonia burbled, “Planned Parenthood,” then began shaking.  “They’re all married now,” she sputtered.  
    I worked my arm under her head and gently pulled it against my shoulder.
    “It’s okay, kid.  You’re supposed to cry at other people’s weddings.  It’s traditional, like making the groom shrivel.”
    She wept and she giggled, as if it were a contest.  Revel versus repine.  Social versus solitary. Black sheep, white sheep.  Then, with a jerk, she pulled away and sat up.  She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, made it into a fist and punched my arm.
    “Ouch!  That hurt.”
    “It would have hurt twice as much if you’d tried to cheer me up.”
    Then, sobbing and laughing, my perfectly imperfect cousin laid her head down on my chest.
~Robert Wexelblatt 

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