In each of the stories in Robert Oldshue’s debut collection, the characters want to be decent but find that hard to define. In the first story, an elderly couple is told that delivery of their Thanksgiving dinner has been canceled due to an impending blizzard. Unwilling to have guests but nothing to serve them, they make a run to the grocery, hoping to get there and back before the snow, but crash their car into the last of their neighbors. In “The Receiving Line,” a male prostitute tricks a closeted suburban schoolteacher only to learn that the trick is on him. In “The Woman On The Road,” a twelve-year-old girl negotiates the competing demands of her faith and her family as she is bat mitzvahed in the feminist ferment of the 1980s. The lessons she learns are the lessons learned by a ten-year-old boy in “Fergus B. Fergus,” after which, in “Summer Friend,” two women and one man renegotiate their sixty-year intimacy when sadly, but inevitably, one of them gets ill. “The Home Of The Holy Assumption” offers a benediction. A quadriplegic goes missing at a nursing home. Was she assumed? In the process of finding out, all are reminded that caring for others, however imperfectly—even laughably—is the only shot at assumption we have. In upstate New York, a November storm is one that comes early in the season. If it catches people off-guard, it can change them in the ways Oldshue’s characters are changed by different but equally surprising storms.
About the Author
When he isn’t writing, Robert Oldshue practices family medicine at a community health center in Boston. He holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College, and his work has appeared in the Bellevue Literary Review, the Gettysburg Review, and New England Review. He is married and has two children.
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By Robert Oldshue
University of Iowa PressCopyright © 2016 Robert Oldshue
All rights reserved.
That Thanksgiving, Andy was coming, so Doris thought the call was from him. "Maybe he's got car trouble," she said when the phone rang.
"Maybe he's got someplace better to go," said her husband, Ed.
But it was a woman from Wegmans, the grocery that had their dinner. "Because of the snow, we're canceling deliveries."
"It isn't snowing here," Doris told her.
"A foot by noon and two feet by tonight and wind chills of thirty below."
"They said a dusting or maybe nothing."
"That's not what they're saying now, ma'am. I'm sorry, ma'am."
It was shortly before nine, and, if Andy hadn't called, he and Jen and the grandchildren were out on I-90, facing the kind of storms there could be in upstate New York. When the boys were still swimming, the family had driven to a meet in Corning, in the winter, and the weather had gotten bad and then worse and there'd been talk of stopping the meet early. Some of the parents had taken their boys and gone home, but Dan had done well in his qualifying heats, and Tom was on a relay that would lose if he didn't stay, and Andy was too young to participate but was generally willing to sit and watch. By the time it was over, the snow was coming in sheets and there was wind, and, by the time they hit the Thruway, the road was a mess but Ed was beyond talking to. If we stop, no telling when we can start again, he kept saying. No telling how much work I'll have to miss and how much school for the boys and, even if we find a motel, how are we going to eat for two days? Now he was somebody's eighty-year-old grandpa stooped and swaying in her kitchen, his once handsome face puffy, his hair white and wild, his hands dusky and sometimes shaking, the backs covered with ragged, red spots.
"Well?" she asked when she'd given him the news.
"Well, what do you think?"
"What am I supposed to think?"
Doris thought how easily she or anyone could send him sprawling with a push. Instead she asked if they could get the dinner themselves, and the woman said they could.
"Could someone help us load it in the car?"
"Absolutely," said the woman.
"And you'll have it all ready?"
"I'll put it together now."
Doris told her they'd be over and hung up, and Ed waved his hands as if, after fifty-three years of marriage, he'd finally seen everything.
"Why'd you let them get away with it?"
"It isn't them. It's the storm."
"What storm?" he roared, pointing to the window and through it to their street, Royal Crescent. A snowflake drifted past, another, several. For a moment there were none, and then there were another two or three, and, by the time Ed had tried the weather channel and heard about a flood in Texas and Doris had tried Andy's cell and gotten a series of recordings, the flakes were more than just a few.
"What's that?" Doris asked when Ed had backed the car out and she'd gotten in, their places on the front seat separated by an old rubber boot.
"I want to get the buckle fixed," he said.
"Does it have to be today?"
"Yeah," he growled. "If it's going to snow."
The house across the street had been the Spectors', and, in the 1950s, when the houses had been built, Helen Spector had invited Doris and the other Royal mothers for coffee, and they'd sat in her kitchen and talked about their children and their husbands and their houses and the schools and what they'd seen on television or at the movies. As the kids had gotten older, the coffees had gotten fewer and then stopped, and then Dick Spector had passed, and Helen had sold the house to a couple with a motorboat who'd sold it to a man who lived alone and kept his shades drawn and the car in the garage with the door closed, and now it was owned by a woman with an eleven-year-old son and a boyfriend Doris sometimes saw and sometimes didn't. The next house was the Bromleys', Pete and Betty, whose son had weight-lifted with Dan and Tom when the two of them were doing it twice a day and drinking carrot juice and other concoctions that were fine with Doris as long as they paid for them and said what was in them and didn't leave them rotting in the refrigerator. They'd had a daughter a year behind Dan who'd been a cheerleader when Dan was playing football, but by then Betty was unhappy with the house, and they'd bought a bigger one a mile or so away, and, except once in a while around town, Doris never saw them again. In fact, of all the first families, there were just them and the Olneys, and the Olneys had a cottage in Maine they went to every summer, and Doris and Ed had a condo in Florida they went to every winter, and, besides, Ed had gone to college but a technical institute not a liberal arts college, and Doris had finished high school but that was all. The Olneys had met at Oberlin, and Sue had studied painting and sculpture and still took lessons and filled their house with pieces she'd done and others she'd collected and went to museum shows and lectures and films and read books and thought about them, and Paul was a chemist and worked at Kodak, the same as Ed, but the two of them might have been from different planets. They might have fought for different countries in the war, or so it seemed when the discussion came to politics, which, thanks to the women, it never did. Rather than watch Paul stiffen as Ed supported Reagan or even Nixon or mocked the do-gooding lame brains opposed to nuclear energy, everyone spoke in coded generalities until Ed began to fidget and then nod and Doris had to wake him up and take everybody home. Once the kids were gone, the two couples had settled into watching each other's comings and goings and promising, when they met, to get together soon.
"Looks like the Olneys are away," Doris said as they passed.
"Paul and Sue. They usually have Thanksgiving with the Teetermans but the house is all dark and I haven't seen them today."
"Are the Teetermans people I'm supposed to know?"
"Don and Loretta."
"Never heard of them."
"They have a son named Jeff and a daughter named Tracy. Jeff was a year ahead of Dan, and Tracy was a year ahead of Tom, and Don and Loretta were in Parent's Forum."
"Everybody was in Parent's Forum."
After Royal, they turned onto Pine Crest and drove past the Sullivans' house, or former house. The Sullivans were an older couple; their children were grown by the time Doris and Ed had their three. Doris only knew they were the Sullivans because it said so on the wrought iron lamppost in their yard, and she'd only known that Mr. Sullivan had gone to a nursing home when she no longer saw him in the yard and that's what someone had said. After that the yard had been cut by someone Doris never saw until one day the sign was gone and there was a car she didn't know in the driveway, and, after that, when she drove by, Doris looked at the house and looked away, as she did now but only after she'd noticed the yard and the driveway and the roof, noting that there wasn't any snow on the roof or on the roof of the next house, formerly the Weinbergers', or the next house, formerly the Ginns'. Then they turned onto Indian Trail and the houses were bigger and older and there were fewer that she knew or had ever known, just the Isaacs' where there was nothing on the yard or driveway and what little was on the roof she couldn't see for sure. There might have been the faintest whitening, or it might have been the uncertain black-gray color of the roof; she'd never before had reason to look at it closely or the roof on the next house, a house that had once caught fire. Again the yard and the driveway were fine, and the road was still fine, but the roof looked a little whiter than she remembered or a little softer, or maybe a roof wasn't something you could remember exactly. Then they turned onto List and passed the grade school, and there was no longer any doubt. Just beyond it was the middle school, and, just beyond that, was the high school, and the snow gusted in great, dark swarms across the fields that ran between and all around the schools. It seemed to consume them and with them her boys, her memory of her boys, her memory of all the years they'd gone to one or the other of the schools and she'd dropped them off and picked them up and gone to conferences with their teachers and concerts and plays and P.T.A. and Parent's Forum meetings and swim meets and baseball and football and lacrosse games. She felt as if the storm was ready to consume a part of her, and she was relieved when they were past the schools and entered the commercial strip that separated Irondequoit, their town, from the city.
A sign in the shoemaker's window said, Closed.
"He's closed," said Doris when they pulled in.
"How do you know?"
Doris pointed, and Ed looked, but he turned off the motor and got out.
"What are you doing?"
"I want to see for myself."
"See what for yourself?"
"If he's there."
"How could he be there?"
"How should I know? People do all kinds of crazy things."
He walked up along the car, one hand on the hood, one hand holding the boot as he took his now slow and careful steps to the door and looked in, and Doris wondered how long the sign had been there. She wondered how the shoemaker could still be in business. He'd been there since she remembered, and he'd never seemed old, but he'd never seemed young, and, anyway, everybody they knew had gotten old. Maybe he had a son who was helping him or a nephew or some other kind of help, or maybe he was old but, by some miracle, hanging on, or maybe he'd sold the business and she hadn't heard. After walking to the window and looking through it and looking, again, at the sign and then, again, through the window, Ed walked back along the car and got in.
"He's closed," he said, brushing the snow off his pants.
* * *
Until the sixties, it was just another supermarket in a plaza further down Hudson. Doris had taken the boys when they were little and let them go on increasingly long searches for what she needed, and, whenever they got bored, she could go on about her shopping and know that people would be watching and that she'd hear if the boys called. Over the years, she got to know where everything was on every shelf, and she got to know Bob in the meat department and Ted in the bakery and Delores and Vivian at check-out and all the people she didn't know except by sight but always nodded to and sometimes spoke to, and, sometimes, there was one or another of the Wegmans themselves. Then they'd built the first of the new superstores, a monstrosity the size of a commercial jet hangar or convention hall, and Doris occasionally saw people from Royal or the surrounding streets or some other parent from one or another of the boys' schools or sports teams but it was never as comfortable. The conversation always drifted toward the size of the place, the challenge of finding things or finding your shopping cart if you left it on one of the thirty-odd aisles, and, while prices were good and the selection was amazing and the employees were courteous and competent and attractive and professionally dressed, you never saw them twice or seemed to and their friendliness was the kind that left you feeling as if you didn't have a friend in the world. With the holiday and the storm, the parking lot was jammed, and, inside, because the holiday had left the store short of staff, things were even worse. Despite her efforts to pull him one way or the other, Ed kept running into people, and, when they got to the deli section, the counter was three and four deep, and there was just the one woman doing everything.
"Can I help you?" she asked when it was finally their turn. But when Ed said their name, she stopped, as if startled.
"What's the matter?"
"What's wrong with it now?"
"Nothing, but — I didn't know. I mean, I couldn't tell on the phone."
"You couldn't tell what on the phone? We've seen bigger storms than this. We drove all the way to Corning in a storm like this. Remember that, Dory? Remember that swim meet? We didn't let it bother us. We just jumped in the car and barreled through."
"Boom!" he said, making a fist and thrusting it at the woman.
But when the woman had gotten their dinner and put it in a box and gotten a boy to carry it, the snow had changed from flakes to a steady, bone-white powder, and seeing it through the window by the exit, Ed wanted candles, batteries too. "Meet you at the car," he said and stomped off, leaving Doris to realize that she didn't have a key.
"You don't have to wait," she told the boy.
"We could come get you."
"I'm fine. Really."
The boy's hair was moussed into short, yellow spikes, and one of his ears was pierced with a ring, and there was stubble on his jaw that spread disreputably up his otherwise smooth and youthful cheeks. For all the anger of his appearance, someone had taught him to be polite to old people, so Doris continued. "Have you worked here long?"
"Since the summer."
"When do you do your schoolwork?"
She asked where he went to school and expected him to say Irondequoit, the high school her boys had attended. Instead, he said East Ridge, the school across town.
"Will Thanksgiving be at home?"
"We're going to my aunt's house."
"Will she be cooking?"
"She's cooking some, and my mom's cooking some and bringing it over, and my other aunt and my uncle and my grandmother are cooking."
"So everybody's helping. That's nice."
Doris spoke as if she'd had many such Thanksgivings, although they'd had only one. She and Ed were from Chicago, and, when the boys were old enough, they'd driven there for the holiday but had found the traffic impossible and hadn't done it again.
"How many will you be?"
Twenty-eight, twenty-nine with his brother's new baby, the boy replied, and Doris wondered if she and Ed had made a mistake. At every opportunity, they'd prepared their boys to leave home and they had. She'd helped them with their grade school and middle school homework, and Ed had helped them, in high school, with their chemistry, physics, and calculus. He'd encouraged them to be practical and self-reliant, and Dan had gone to Carnegie Mellon and had studied computer science and worked for an investment bank in New York, and Tom had gone to Cornell and had studied hotel management and worked for a chain in California, and Andy had gotten lost at Ohio State but had found himself and gone to social work school and worked with the probate department in Cleveland and had a wife who was a speech pathologist. West Irondequoit had all the scientists from Kodak, the main industry in Rochester, and East Irondequoit had everybody else, and, with lower incomes to tax, the east had lower budgets, lower salaries, less equipment, and fewer teams that won and fewer kids that went to college. But maybe they'd been lucky, Doris thought as the boy said that his aunt was cooking three twenty-five-pound turkeys.
"Could I ask you a personal question?"
The boy smiled the way her boys had smiled when, by some irreproducible accident, she or someone else had gotten beneath their need to act like Ed. "That depends."
"Could I ask about your earring?"
"What about it?"
"Did it hurt?"
"Does it hurt now?"
"Not when you catch it on things? That's why I never got one."
"That's why I got a small one."
"It is elegant," Doris admitted. "Do people like it?"
"But not your dad."
"He thinks it means I'm queer."
"What does it mean?"
"It means I have an earring," the boy replied with an emphasis he'd used while fighting with his dad, Doris was sure.
"I think he'll get over it."
"I don't know."
"I do. I think he respects you."
The boy shifted the weight of the box in his arms. "Then why did he make me walk?"
"To the piercing place. He wouldn't give me a ride, and he wouldn't let my mom give me a ride, and he wouldn't let her pay."
Doris was about to reply when Ed returned and took her by the arm and the three of them went outside where the snow stung Doris' face and bare hands so badly that she closed her eyes and nearly fell. The footing was unsure, and Doris pulled on Ed, and Ed pulled on Doris until the boy took the dinner in one arm and used his other to guide them to the car where he helped them get in, after which Doris told the boy goodbye and good luck and felt relaxed for the first time since the woman had called that morning. In a minute, they'd be home and could put the dinner in the oven and light a fire in the living room fireplace and set out some cheese and crackers and olives and nuts, and, once Andy arrived, the snow wouldn't matter. They could watch it come down and feel safe and happy with the fire and each other and the dinner they'd earned whether or not they'd done the cooking.
Excerpted from November Storm by Robert Oldshue. Copyright © 2016 Robert Oldshue. Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa Press.
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Table of Contents
The Receiving Line,
The Field of Machpelah,
The Woman on the Road,
Fergus B. Fergus,
The Home of the Holy Assumption,