Blue Money

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Overview

A union organizer returns to her hometown and her high school sweetheart, only to discover unexpected peril. A middle-aged man walks to meet his wife at work one day and loses her forever. A young writer's stage fright destroys her work and her marriage but offers her a new life. In Blue Money, Susan Hubbard creates a world in which the most ordinary things can be magical, and the most ordinary people can be extraordinary.

"Selling the House" is the enchanting story of Marianne, a young housewife whose life is ...

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Overview

A union organizer returns to her hometown and her high school sweetheart, only to discover unexpected peril. A middle-aged man walks to meet his wife at work one day and loses her forever. A young writer's stage fright destroys her work and her marriage but offers her a new life. In Blue Money, Susan Hubbard creates a world in which the most ordinary things can be magical, and the most ordinary people can be extraordinary.

"Selling the House" is the enchanting story of Marianne, a young housewife whose life is altered forever by a mysterious stranger. He suddenly appears on her doorstep one morning, offers to buy her home, quotes poetry, and just as suddenly disappears. Marianne soon discovers, however, that the stranger wants more than her house—he wants her. Although she does not accept the man's proposition, Marianne has been changed by it. His words echo throughout her life. "If she sometimes had trouble sleeping, if she spent more time reading poetry or staring out the window . . . well, those were small aberrations in an otherwise quite satisfactory life."

Strangers appear and disappear in Blue Money. Shoes charm and cure. A soiled shirt conjures conscience, and a clean one promises new identity. Hubbard brilliantly weaves these fantastic elements into the fabric of her fiction.

Women's relationships with men—whether they be fathers, lovers, or strangers—are a prominent theme of Hubbard's collection. "What Friends Are For" captures this theme at its most humorous and bizarre in the strange mishaps of two young girls trying to rid their lives of the stepfathers they despise. When their plan fails miserably, the girls are forced to accept the unwanted men, but not without finding brief comfort in the humor of their failure. "Then I start laughing too--a laugh I've never laughed before, like some exotic bird, high and shrill and free—and now [we're] laughing so hard that the voices outside fade away entirely."

Praised by Ploughshares as "an assured storyteller and a complex narrative stylist," Hubbard excels at writing spare yet powerfully evocative prose. Haunting in its suspense and subtle grace, Blue Money celebrates Hubbard's marvelous ability to explore the power of imagination.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Susan Hubbard writes with icy precision and a kind of close-focus attention to detail that is too little in evidence these days. In her work, she always gets it right, making the stories a perfect delight to read and the book an object of great satisfaction. A marvelous new collection."—Frederick Barthelme

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Devoted to the darker side of interpersonal relations, these 13 stories debunk Rockwellian myths of familial happiness. In "Mrs. Abernathy's Cottage," a young kleptomaniac, Leslie, figures as a surrogate daughter for a crotchety old woman. Pinching her silver spoons even as she politely pours the tea, Leslie intentionally corrupts their friendship and undermines the trust that the vulnerable Mrs. Abernathy places in her. In "Conversations with Men," a union organizer returns to Buffalo in order to salvage her relationship with her ailing father. After that attempt fails, she seeks solace in a father figure whose startling sexual advance leaves her even more disoriented. Despite the sorrows that beset her characters, Hubbard (Walking on Ice) relieves despair with moments of hope. Her characters find redemption in shared laughter or unexpected complicity. Their final words often abound with a complicated, sometimes ironic, optimism: "I'm lucky to be alive"; "I woke up laughing, amazed at my fertility"; "It will grow. It will grow." Unhappiness is, for these characters, an episode, and eerie encounters are containable. So when Marianne in "Selling the House" receives roses that "looked well for nearly two weeks, although they never fully bloomed," one knows that the bouquet augurs a future in which flowers bloom everywhere. (Mar.)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780826212108
  • Publisher: University of Missouri Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/1999
  • Pages: 200
  • Product dimensions: 5.25 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan Hubbard's first fiction collection, Walking on Ice, won the Associated Writing Programs' Short Fiction Prize. She currently teaches fiction writing at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

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Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


SELLING THE HOUSE


Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.
—"Holy Thursday," William Blake, 1789


The day did not begin with the Australian—it began when the doorbell rang. Marianne, still in her bathrobe, went to answer it. She was alone in the house. The children were at a soccer game, and their father was away on business.

    A uniformed delivery man carrying a cone of tissue paper stood outside.

    She smiled and opened the door. But the man already was turning away. "Sorry," he said. "Wrong house."

    Yes, that's where the day began—with a small disappointment. Marianne closed the door. The last man who had sent her flowers was ... she couldn't remember his name. It had happened more than ten years ago. White roses, they had been, and the man who brought them sat on the floor of her apartment and held her bare feet in his hands while he recited his poetry.

    Marianne knew that she should get dressed. She should think about clearing the kitchen table of the breakfast things. She should think about vacuuming and catching up with the laundry, and about making an up-to-date grocery list. But she was still thinking about the roses when the doorbell rang again.

    A man in a black raincoat stood outside, his shoulder toward the door, his head tilted back. He seemed to be studying the porch roof.

    When Marianne opened the door he spun around. "Good morning!" he said. "This house wouldn't be for sale, byany chance?"

    He had sleek dark hair, a lean face, bloodshot blue eyes, and a day's growth of beard.

    "Why would you think that?" Marianne asked.

    "I'm looking for a house," he said. "I like this one."

    He spoke with an accent she took to be Australian, and his tone had something final in it, as if he were accustomed to getting what he wanted.

    "We have thought of selling, from time to time," Marianne found herself saying. "Ted—my husband—thinks we'd be happier in a more modern house."

    The stranger shook his head. "How very misguided of him. Now, I myself wouldn't dream of living in a modern house. And I'm sure you agree. You look like the sort of person who appreciates old things."

    Marianne clutched the collar of her bathrobe and laughed nervously. The stranger ran his hands along the stonework of the doorway. "A perfect period piece," he murmured.

    "You must be a long way from home," Marianne said. She added, "I noticed your accent."

    "I was born in Perth," he said. "But I've been in the States for nearly five years. Look here, I haven't even introduced myself. I'm Ian Coburn."

    "I'm Marianne Baker," she said. They shook hands. His hand felt cool.

    "I know this is quite unusual," Coburn said. "But do you think I might just have a look round the house? I realize that you're not on the market now, but one never knows."

    Ted had been away for more than a week, and during that time Marianne had done as little housework as possible. She hesitated.

    "I do realize that this is an intrusion of your privacy," Coburn said. "But anyone who knows me would tell you, I really do love old houses."

    "Oh," Marianne said, and he walked forward. "The place needs cleaning," she said, but he was already in the living room.

    "Curious," he said, stepping over a pile of toys.

    "They're called Lego," Marianne said.

    "No, actually I meant this." He gestured toward the hole in the living room wall.

    "Ted did that," Marianne said. Coburn looked at her quizzically. "My husband. He did it last spring." Ted had made the hole with his fist after returning from an unsuccessful business trip, but she couldn't think of a tactful way to explain it.

    Coburn said, "Ah."

    "The house was built in 1855," Marianne said. "Built by a physician, we were told. He owned twenty-five acres, and after his death, his wife sold most of the land in parcels."

    Coburn was staring at the cracks in the living room ceiling. "You don't say."

    "The doctor's name was Crutch." Marianne smiled. "I always thought that was funny."

    Coburn looked at her.

    "Doctor Crutch," Marianne said, her voice thin.

    Coburn didn't say anything. Marianne began to walk toward the kitchen.

    "Of course," Coburn said suddenly. "I see. Doctor Crutch. Sounds like Happy Families, that card game children play. Mr. Snip, the barber. Mrs. Bunns, the baker's wife."

    Marianne retrieved a pair of children's socks from the corridor and entered the kitchen. Coburn followed her, muttering, "Doctor Crutch."

    On the kitchen counter, Amelia, Marianne's daughter, had left a half-full bowl of Trix cereal and milk. The cereal had stained the milk with streaks of red and yellow. Coburn gazed into the bowl as if he had never seen anything like it before. "Is that ... food?" he asked.

    "Something like that." Marianne wished she didn't have her oldest bathrobe on. Was that why he'd said she looked like the sort of person who appreciated old things?

    Next to the cereal bowl lay a half-eaten banana, a crust of cold toast, two lurid-pink vitamins, and a full cup of orange juice. Marianne walked past them swiftly.

    "The pantry is in here." She gestured broadly toward the adjoining room. "Laundry is over there. All pretty cluttered, as you see."

    "I've never minded clutter." Coburn's eyes looked even bluer in the bright light of the kitchen.

    "Where do you live now?" Marianne stood before the basement door. She hoped he wouldn't want to go down there. She could never explain the puddles of water on the floor, or how the furnace operated.

    "Where do I live. Nowhere much." Coburn plucked a thread from the sleeve of his trench coat. "I've just got divorced."

    "I'm sorry," Marianne said.

    "Oh, don't be. I've no regrets. I miss my kids, of course." He sighed. "I have a temporary place now. A big white box. You call this clutter, but to me it's very warm and cheery. How exquisitely the external world is fitted to the mind."

    Marianne blinked.


    "You haven't remodeled the kitchen," Coburn said.

    "Ted always intended to—"

    Coburn interrupted. "No, you were quite right to leave it alone. You'd never find a sink like this one anymore." He poked his head into the pantry and surveyed the shelves of canned food, then quickly turned around again. He was a good-looking man, Marianne realized suddenly—and he'd look even better once he had a good night's sleep and a shave.

    "Could I have a look upstairs?" Coburn said. "Just for a moment, to see the configuration of the rooms."

    "I haven't made the beds," Marianne said.

    "You know, I didn't make mine this morning, either." Coburn smiled and moved toward the staircase. "It's very good of you, letting me have a look." He took the stairs two at a time.

    Marianne picked up the cereal bowl and flung its contents into the garbage can. She thought of the pile of unironed shirts on the bedroom chair, and of the unsorted socks on Amelia's floor. She set the bowl in the sink. This house, she thought, is a mess.

    Marianne finished clearing the counter. She caught sight of her face in the mirror over the kitchen sink---her face was flushed, and her hair wasn't combed, but she did not look unattractive. The old chintz robe was oddly becoming. She tightened its belt.

    Minutes passed. She emptied the garbage and then moved on, into the laundry room. She sorted dark clothes from light ones. Then she loaded the washing machine and added detergent. Finally she could be patient no longer. She went to the bottom of the stairs. "Mr. Coburn?" she called.

    He bounded out from her bedroom and ran down the stairs. "Sorry, sorry," he said. "I was admiring the view from your windows. A green and pleasant land indeed!"

    And he looked at her with such good humor in his face that she thought, it's all right. "The downstairs bathroom is in here," she said, touching a door. "It's been modernized, I'm afraid."

    He swung the door open and peered inside. "Ah yes, yes. Pity. But what was done can be undone. The blow of his Hammer is Justice, the swing of his Hammer Mercy."

    "Excuse me?" Marianne said. "Were you quoting someone?"

    The clock in the dining room began to chime. "It can't be noon already," Marianne said. "I'm supposed to pick up my children."

    "How many children?" Coburn asked.

    "Two," she said.

    "That's not so many."

    He took a step closer to her, and her instinct was to move away. But her legs felt numb, as if they were asleep. "If you have children yourself, you'll understand," she said.

    He looked puzzled.

    "I mean, you'll understand the mess here." Marianne folded her arms.

    Their eyes locked.

    "I have to go now," she said slowly. "I have to pick up my children."

    "Right." He shook his head. "I'm sorry. I've taken enough of your time for today." He reached inside his coat and pulled out a wallet.

    Marianne thought, is he going to pay me?

    "Look, what would you want for this house?" The wallet sprang open in his hands. Bills and certified checks fanned out.

    Marianne said, "My goodness." Then she said, "I have no idea."

    "I can offer you $150,000 today." Coburn glanced at the money in his hand. "And another $20,000, in cash, if we close the deal this week."

    Marianne stared at the money, then at Coburn. "The house isn't for sale. It isn't mine to sell."

    Coburn extracted a card from the wallet. "Do you have a pen?"

    "By the phone." She gestured toward a table behind him.

    Coburn turned and picked up a pen. He began to write on the card. "Out of ink," he said, returning the pen to the table. He tried a pencil next, and crossed out something on the card and wrote in something else. "Now I want you to keep this in a very safe place," he said, handing the card to Marianne. "I've put down the numbers where you can reach me, day or night."

    Marianne read the card. Ian Coburn. COBURN ENVIRONMENTAL SYSTEMS LTD.

    "Environmental work?" she asked.

    "You might say I'm an environmental engineer. We do radon monitoring, asbestos removal," he said. "Things like that."

    He moved toward the door. Marianne followed, feeling like a sleepwalker. When he reached the door, he turned. He put one hand lightly on Marianne's waist. "The soul of sweet delight can never be defiled," he murmured. Then he removed his hand, and walked outside.

    Marianne stood in the doorway and watched him drive away in a small red car. I must get the children, she thought. She made herself move.

    About an hour later, amid the din of the children's cartoons and the susurration of the washing machine, the spell was broken. She wondered why she had ever let him into her house. She went from room to room, checking to see if anything was missing. But he hadn't taken a thing.


    When Ted returned from his business trip, he was excited to hear about Mr. Coburn. "He just walked in here and wanted to buy the house?" he said, marvel in his voice.

    Marianne didn't tell him about the hand on her waist, nor about the cryptic quotations—not that she wanted to hide anything. Her recollections were vague, dreamlike. She was beginning to think that she must have imagined some of what Mr. Coburn had said and done.

    Ted acted as if Coburn's interest were an omen. He had been complaining about the house for years—it wasn't efficiently insulated, he said, and it was too small. Its age made it "all maintenance, no convenience," he said. He had his eye on a new development over on Chase Road. They were laying the foundations now, and the houses would be in "move-in shape" before fall, he told Marianne. "You won't find any water in those basements," he said.

    Yes, Mr. Coburn's visit was a sign that they should make a move, Ted said. They could sell this house and make a profit. They could move into a brand new, larger house, and still have money for new furniture.

    Marianne loved the old house. It was small, true, and its walls were cracked, and its plumbing faulty. But it was the house into which she had brought her babies.

    They talked about moving for days. Gradually, Ted grew insistent. "What better time than now to move?" he said. "Amelia's old enough to hold her first slumber party. And Joe needs a space he can play in. I need a study—somewhere I can spread out my paperwork. And you could even have a sewing room, so you wouldn't have to set up the machine on the dining-room table anymore." He took a deep breath. "Those lots over on Chase Road are going fast. And we already have a potential buyer here."

    "But I love this house," Marianne said.

    Ted began to pace the length of the living room. "Be reasonable, Marianne, can't you? Just this once? You're acting as if we have a problem, but this is a golden opportunity."

    Eventually Marianne's resistance, admittedly never her strong suit, was worn away. Perhaps Ted was right. They might never have this chance again. "You win," she said, one night after the children had been put to bed. "Let's call Mr. Coburn."

    But, to her surprise, Ted said that was a bad idea. "He was just one fish in the ocean," he said. "Who knows how many bigger ones there might be?"

    "But he offered us $170,000."

    "No," Ted said, slamming his beer mug on the coffee table for emphasis. "We're going to do this thing right. We're going to hire professionals."

    And the very next day, the real estate agents arrived—two expensively dressed women wearing perfume that Marianne recognized from magazine inserts. The perfume was called Opium.

    "You'll have to clean this place up, dear," they told Marianne.


    By the end of the week, the "For Sale" sign was up, the house was clean, and every room reeked of Opium. Marianne found herself busy, dressing herself and the children each day with care, then scrubbing away evidence that a family of four was in residence. The real estate agents were supposed to telephone before they showed the house, but sometimes they didn't (although they always claimed that they had tried). The agents told Marianne not to talk when prospective buyers were around. "Let us do the selling," one of them said.

    But Marianne sometimes heard them whispering to prospective buyers that they hadn't seen anything yet—wait till they checked out the open house over on Chase Road. When she mentioned this to Ted, he said, "That's the way licensed realtors work."

    Meanwhile, Ted signed the papers to purchase the new house. He was so clearly delighted with the prospect of moving that Marianne tried to act as if she were, too. But in fact she was not thinking clearly these days. She felt as if she were waiting for something to happen. Not moving. Not selling the house. Something that would really make a difference.

    One night three weeks later, when Ted was away again, and the children were asleep, and she was in the living room, reading, the telephone rang.

    She recognized his voice at once. "How are you, Mrs. Baker?" he asked.

    "Mr.... Coburn?" she said.

    "The same," he said. "I've been waiting for you to call me."

    "Ted—my husband, you know—said it was better to work through a realtor."

    There was silence on the line. Finally Coburn said, "Wilt thou take the ape for thy councellor?"

    "That must be William Blake," Marianne said, excited. "I started reading poetry again after you came here. I went through a whole anthology, and the only one who sounded anything like you was William Blake."

    "Hear the voice of the Bard!" Coburn said. "Who present, past, and future sees! Sweet Marianne," he went on, his voice soft. "Sweet dreamer."

    "But why haven't you come to see the house?"

    "My circumstances are ... reduced," Coburn said.

    "Oh dear," Marianne said.

    "To tell you bluntly, my ex-wife took me to the cleaner's. First she took the kids. Now she's taken everything else."

    "I'm sorry to hear that."

    "It's of no consequence," Coburn said. "After all, what is the night or day to one o'erflow'd with woe?"

    "I'm very sorry." Marianne's right hand clutched her left shoulder, as she listened.

    "And in what houses dwell the wretched, drunk with woe forgotten, and shut up from cold despair?"

    When he'd finished, she said, shyly, "Some are born to sweet delight."

    "Some are born to endless night," Coburn said. "God, this is depressing even me. When can I see you?"

    "See me?" Marianne let go of her shoulder. "You mean, see the house."

    "I've seen the house," he said. "It's you I want."

    "I thought you were interested in buying the house," she said slowly.

    "And so I was," he said. "So I was. But I'm, um, I'm afraid that just now I lack the necessary cash. So. Come and dance with me. I'm in the laundromat, the Suds Your Duds down on Route 18. You could be here in five minutes."

    "I'm afraid that's impossible," Marianne said.

    "You won't come?"

    "I can't!"

    "Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires," Coburn said. "Wasn't that one in your anthology?"

    "I don't remember it. I'm not sure I understand it."

    "No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings," Coburn said. "Enough! Too much!"

    The line went dead.

    Marianne never saw or spoke to him again.


    Sometimes, as the years passed, she wondered if Coburn ever existed. But then she remembered the look in his blue eyes, and the sound of his voice, and even the touch of his hand on her waist. And there was his business card, which she kept in her jewelry box, with the penciled-in telephone numbers that she would never call.

    Yes, he had existed. And, when you came to think about it, he'd changed her life. She now lived in a new house with a fully modern kitchen. It was immaculate, and it seemed easy to keep it that way.

    The old house, on the other hand, remained on the market for more than a year, but in the end it was purchased (for just $110,000) by an insurance executive. The executive hired an architect, and eventually the house acquired an extension with skylights, a deck, and an inground pool. Marianne sometimes detoured for blocks, to avoid passing it.

    Ted, despite the low sales price, was happy in his new home, and delighted with Marianne's new devotion to housework. He had sought and acquired a promotion that took him off the road and forced him to pay more attention to his family. He never knew how much he owed to the Australian who had turned up at his door one morning in need of sleep and a shave.

    Yes, Marianne thought, in the end things worked out for the best. She liked happy endings. If she sometimes had trouble sleeping, if she spent more time reading poetry or staring out the window than making clothing in her new sewing room, and if she tended to slow her car whenever she passed the Suds Your Duds—well, those were small aberrations in an otherwise quite satisfactory life.

    Never pain to tell thy love, love that never told can be.


    One winter afternoon, as Marianne returned to her new home from the supermarket, she noticed a splash of dark red against the snow near her doorstep. Her heart began to beat fast. She picked up the two grocery bags and braced them against the car as she locked it. She carried the bags toward the house. Six red roses lay strewn across the snow, splayed as if they had been thrown there. No box or card accompanied them. Marianne stepped over the roses to unlock the front door. Inside, she made herself put the groceries away. Only after the last bag had been emptied and folded did she go back out. She gathered up the roses. Their buds were tightly curled; their color was a deep velvety red, bordering on black. She brought the flowers inside and put them in a vase with water and an aspirin. They looked well for nearly two weeks, although they never fully bloomed.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Selling the House 1
Charity 16
Under Glass 36
An Introduction to Philosophy 38
Conversations with Men 51
Shoes 69
What Friends Are For 73
Night Crossing 94
Why I Have to Marry the Pool Guy 109
Blue Money 112
Mrs. Abernathy's Cottage 141
Birth of a Poet 160
An Accident of Desire 173
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  • Posted February 15, 2011

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