I live in the basement of the tenement where I grew up. Studio is a misnomer. There’s no light, no one ever painted here, not even the walls. What I love about it is that I have a shoe-eye view of the city.
My best friend, Tina, has a brother, Hoebart, who is happily married. He met his wife in the House of Doughnuts downstairs from where we all grew up together. People in our neighborhood travel only as far as their imaginations, which is usually to the next-door tenement. Except the men. They don’t move at all, literally, until they disappear into thin air. But Tina’s brother is different. He met his wife by coincidence. She was on her way to work and so was he.
Every day at three o’clock, I see Hoebart’s wife’s, Layla’s, high heels clonk by and then Hoebart’s work boots and then the purple high heels go up on higher tip toes and Hoebart’s work boots stay put and then the shoes stay still for a few minutes right outside my window and then the high heels turn and they both walk back to the front door. This is my view of true love. I’ve buried three husbands while living here and none of them for love. Though I did like my first husband a lot, Chauncey. We were close until he became obsessed with ferrets and that put an end to it. I blame his death on the ferrets.
Tina has two sisters and a brother from which I’ve concluded that if you have a crappy childhood, you have a one in four chance of ending up happy in marriage.
Our mothers were best friends, and we were each named after the other’s mother, Tina and Trudy. It simplified their lives. All they had to do was say, “Trudy dear, would you get me a beer?” and the beer was bound to materialize. Our apartments were stacked on top of each other with matching rooms which further simplified things, and that’s something they needed a lot of, simplification as opposed to beautification, a concept they knew nothing about.
They spent the days of our childhood drinking coffee at the kitchen table in their flowered housedresses. They were wide wide women, my mother’s housedress was purple and yellow, Tina’s mother’s was blue and red so that when they stood side by side, our kitchen was transformed into a field of wildflowers, and it gave us the hearty complexion of children raised in the country. They’d circle jobs in the free paper to make themselves feel virtuous. Wanted: Woman to sit on swing in bar. Wanted: Woman to caretake blind albino boa constrictor. Reading these, imagining a job, they felt wanted in a world where their husbands were absent, though they never applied.
I don’t need a job yet, I have disability for paranoids. It’s not that I don’t want to become a good citizen, able and willing to work, I just need to buy some time to figure out what I can contribute to society besides supporting the concept of a nuclear family weapon by getting married. I want to learn to get married in a way that doesn’t end up in a massive explosion and death, like my last three marriages.
Way back, Tina and I decided to change the course of our crappy childhoods; we sat wearing queen costumes from Ben Hur’s five and dime. We put chewed-up gum on string and lay down on the sidewalk next to those big grates and pulled up change people dropped there. Come Halloween, we had enough money to buy two Disney costumes each, one in a size up so that when summer came along, we could still sit with our mothers in the field-of-wildflowers kitchen dressed up as queens. I was Snow White and Tina was Sleeping Beauty. We had big blue and white collars, and I attribute my life-long good posture to all that practice sitting at the kitchen table drinking Kool-Aid with a big blue queen’s collar around my neck. I’ve since learned there are worse things that can hang around your neck, such as my second husband, Gyser, who was maybe a minor gangster.
I figured out that my chances were one in fifty thousand three hundred and eight of being widowed three times by the age of twenty-nine, and if I can squeeze into that statistical range, it should be a piece of cake to fit into the one in four chance of a crappy childhood, happy marriage statistic. The only problem was, after the third husband-that-I-don’t-remember (because when things happen over and over, you don’t remember the details such as who they were) died, and I decided to really try to make a go at love, I realized that the only man I’d ever truly loved was Hoebart, and he was taken and I set my mind to fixing that problem.
It’s a match made in heaven. God’s on my side and that’s how come God gave me the one in a fifty thousand three hundred and eight chance, and now I have three husbands in heaven. The three of them are rooting for me, too, and celebrating with cigars. I imagine them lighting their cigars with that match made in heaven, and I wonder, with three on a match, where is there for them to go if they die all over again? If you’re innocent, where is there to go after heaven? It’s a serious question that I spend a lot of time thinking about as I watch the shoes pass by my window.
Needless to say, they found Layla washed up on the riverbank, and I swear to god I wasn’t anywhere near the river when it happened even though the police did come by and bring a shoe that they found stuck in the mud nearby. It did look exactly like my shoe, the very distinctive green pumps with sparkly silver buckles. They had some questions. People in town had seen me wearing shoes exactly like it. “You think I have three legs or something?” I asked and showed them the pair in my closet. They didn’t seem convinced. Where did they think I was hiding my third leg? I don’t have any midriff bulge revealing I might be a contortionist who wound it around my waist.
I shouldn’t have blown it all over the neighborhood how I loved Hoebart. I thought maybe Gyser had killed her, I never actually saw his body, it was so burned up. Eventually tests showed the shoe wasn’t a real match for mine. Anyway, lucky for me, eventually Hoebart found a suicide note in Layla’s purple high heel. She wasn’t from these parts.
Like Hoebart, I had coincidences that ended in love. Chauncey, my first husband, and I were both not on our way to work at exactly the same moment, so we didn’t meet for two years. I used this to convince Hoebart that we have a lot in common, but he’s in mourning. Who can blame him for asking me to stay away? In my experience, people always mean exactly the opposite of what they say.
As in olden times, let me count the ways that Hoebart loves me:
1. Tina said that all the shoofly pies I leave for Hoebart outside his door are driving him crazy. She said he hates molasses and he can’t eat them and he throws them out and they attract maggots and he has to take them out to the trash every day and I should stop. What do you know about love? I say. You’ve got three babies with no daddy, and I’ve got myself a man taking the garbage out every day. In my experience driving a man crazy’s the fastest route to love.
2. The next thing I did was dress up in purple high heels and stand right in the middle of the sidewalk when he came home from work. He has the only longevity job that ever hit this neighborhood—filleting fish down at the harbor. Now where’s he going to get a girl who loves fish smell like aftershave? I wouldn’t be surprised if Layla’s suicide note read: Dear Hoebart, I just don’t like fish smell. Sorry. See you in heaven. Nothing smells in heaven.
Next thing you know Hoebart comes along with his long strides and I block his way with my smack-on–the-lips kiss and a few tongue exercises and Hoebart takes a step back and spits on the ground and I know I’ve won him over cause there’s nothing he loves more than watching CC Sabathia spit on the baseball diamond and if he wants to give me that pleasure its as good as love. It’s a spit in the wind kind of love we have, it all comes back.
3. I went for advice to Tina and Trudy seniors. They live in our old apartment together while Tina raises her babies upstairs, where she grew up. It gives her some continuity that she needs with no daddies around. Tina and Trudy had some housedress replacements on in the same colors I grew up with only the flowers were bigger so I felt like I was on vacation in Hawaii. They’ve grown wider, so when Trudy went to pour me some coffee, her waddle even looked like she was dancing the hula.
“I want advice about men,” I said.
“If you ask us for advice about men,” Mama said, “you need a good headshrinker.” They both laughed at her wit.
“So tell me what you didn’t do and I’ll do that,” I said. “I want to marry Hoebart.”
Trudy stood right up and came over to me and put her arms around me and then sat back down and she and Mama started crying and howling and then Mama said, “If you could mix up our genes in your belly and make something of it, why you’d make us the happiest women on earth.”
Then Trudy turned to Mama and said, “Now why didn’t we think of this sooner?”
To which Mama said, “Because they were both already married before we noticed they were old enough.”
Trudy went to the refrigerator and brought over a six-pack of Bud. “We need this to help us think of something new.”
We sat there alternating between sips of Bud and sips of coffee. Mama still felt a twinge of having to pretend she was a respectable mother with me, her daughter, even though I keep trying to tell her we’re equals now, so Trudy spoke for them both. “We didn’t cook except cold hotdogs, we didn’t rub their feet, and we never bought those magenta and black peek-a-poo negligees that travelling salesman came by with one day. He offered us a payment plan, and that’s when we started looking at those help wanted ads.”
Right then and there we devised a plan, and the next night Hoebart went up after work under false premises that his mother wanted help rearranging the furniture. After I saw his work boots pass by my shoe-eye view, he tended to sprint by these days, I counted to one thousand one hundred and eleven, just like they said I should, while Hoebart went home, changed out of his rubber apron and stuff and went upstairs and moved the kitchen table ten inches to the right.
That’s when I burst in wearing a peek-a-poo magenta and black negligee (that I found at Goodwill just like the ones Trudy and Tina didn’t buy) and carrying a platter of piping hot spaghetti with meatballs and tomato sauce. I walked around the table three times while Trudy and Tina exclaimed in unison, “Why Trudy, I had no idea you were so voluptuous.” They kept looking at Hoebart and saying, still in unison, “Isn’t she the most voluptuous tiger you ever laid eyes on?” over and over. Then Trudy tied a big bib around Hoebart and I saw her loop it through the top of his chair so he couldn’t escape, accidentally or otherwise.
I put the whole platter down in front of Hoebart and kind of force-fed him the first few bites, and when he started eating on his own, I climbed under the table making sure he got a good long glimpse of my derriere, a word I learned from the package instructions, before I disappeared down below. I crawled over to his work boots, took them off as slowly as I could, in order to be seductive about it, and rubbed his feet.
He had a twitch in his leg and was kind of accidentally kicking me. I just love a man who plays hard to get. In my book, there’s no fun like the pure fun of the chase and that gives me a genius idea—I’ll become a productive member of society by writing a self-help book called: How to Chase, Tackle and Capture the Man in Your Dreams, the One You Want, Not the Boogie Man One. I’ll give you a sneak preview: What men really want in a woman is the soul of a linebacker ready to tackle, wrapped up in a bustful, lustful baby-doll package, and that’s exactly what I was, crawling around under the table treating Hoebart like the God he is by rubbing his feet.
4. The fourth and final count of all the ways Hoebart proved his love for me is the fact that the very next day, after my peek-a-poo-purchase-food-foot-rub tactical strategical play, Hoebart disappeared. He wanted me to prove that I was up to the demands of an Extreme Sports Sadie Hawkins Chase. He didn’t go to work and he didn’t return from work and he didn’t call either his mother Trudy or his future-wife Trudy, so we figured out that he left during the night. Trudy and Tina and Tina and I searched through every corner of his apartment looking for clues. All we found were some missing clothes, a missing duffle bag, and a missing rubber apron, so I figured he was headed for a fishing capital to find new work as a professional fish scaler. Just like I seduced him by doing exactly what Trudy and Mama didn’t do, I knew I’d have to think up the escape route Hoebart would take that I couldn’t think of. It was a demanding challenge. While I looked out my window at all those shoes tromping by, high-heeled sandals, alligator oxfords, running shoes, basketball sneakers, and sequined Chinese slippers, I prayed to the heaven innocents go to after they die in heaven # 1, looking for inspiration. Then it hit me while I watched all those shoes. Hoebart didn’t take his work boots with him, but he did take Layla’s purple high heels. He was headed, I was now sure, to a city where there is a high employment rate for fish scalers with transvestite feet. It’s an idea I’d have never thought of. There’s only one place like that on earth: Montreal.
I knew that proving myself worthy to Hoebart would have to include surpassing a dangerous feat, so I took the Chinatown bus from New York City to Montreal that passes through town. It’s dirt cheap and as good as guaranteed to put you in a life-threatening situation like the time the bus driver didn’t speak English, so when the passengers tried to tell him that the bus was on fire, he ignored them and kept right on driving until finally the smoke was making it hard for him to see out the front window and he pulled over, and two seconds after everyone ran off the bus, the bus exploded.
Our neighborhood has a magnetic pull on every female ever raised here. I used to feel the force of it just going across town to the dental clinic, which I’ve done a couple of times, like I’m a tiny shard of metal sucked up by a giant magnet that lives in Trudy’s and Tina’s closet. The pull to return, to go home, to be with people I’ve known my whole life, people who would leap in front of an intruder for me, and even risk telling me when I need that extra shower in the week, is almost impossible to overcome. I could feel the pull as I boarded the bus. I watched the edge of town turn into deep forest as I leaned my head against the window and watched my new life unfold. I felt the pull to return all the way to the Canadian border, and only the knowledge that I’d find Hoebart at the end of my journey enabled me to resist knocking out the driver by clonking him on the head with my flashlight and running off the bus.
I thanked the god of the heaven-after, the one my dead husbands are in, for the fake passport Tina gave me as a going away present, when the Canadian Mounties came on the bus to check that we weren’t terrorists returning to Big Bear Lake.
I’m the only girl to ever escape from our neighborhood. I haven’t found the transvestite feet fish scaler’s market yet. First I stayed at the YWCA where I met Nicole Cannellini, and she and I are roomies now, as she calls it. We have a pushcart license and have a business called Retro-Is-Us. We sell anything we can think up. Our biggest sellers are the pet rocks we paint with a bright colored marijuana leaf and clashing background color on them. Green on orange, pink on black, that kind of thing. A lot of students buy them and use them as doorstoppers in their dorm rooms. I’m worried it’s a code, but I figure even if you can go to jail as a drug cartel for painting a leaf on a rock, my name will get in the papers, and then Hoebart will know where to find me.
Even though I never wrote the first book, I’m writing the second book now: Finding a Man in the Wilderness of Life; How I Learned That Patience, Fortitude, and Inventiveness Can Save Your Life. I keep walking along the waterfront searching for Hoebart, and by the time my book is finished, I’ll be married to Hoebart, and we’ll discuss returning home. I have no idea what will come of these discussions, only that we will be well on our way to having our first child, and I’ll follow Hoebart to the ends of the earth.
Beth O’Sullivan is a short story writer who resides in Cambridge MA. A private writer’s stipend enables her to write in Paris for part of the year. She encourages others to similarly provide financial support to individual writers. It was just such support that enabled To Kill a Mockingbird to be written.