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The Stepman

The Stepman

by David Margolis

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Sexy, funny, painful, and wise—The Stepman probes a broken family and a modern marriage. At its unusual and disturbing conclusion, it pins an ordinary man in the trap of his own personality.


Sexy, funny, painful, and wise—The Stepman probes a broken family and a modern marriage. At its unusual and disturbing conclusion, it pins an ordinary man in the trap of his own personality.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Very funny, and so far from sentimental that its insights often have a whiff of cruelty, Margolis's portrait of a marriage at the breaking point is narrated by Abner Minsky, a poet and college writing instructor in upstate New York, who feels suffocated by his wife, job counselor Lora Sachsman. Their 10-year-marriagewhich began as a hippie idyll in San Francisco after bohemian painter Lora's first husband abandoned her and their two kidsis now at a festering impasse. It's a duet of accusations, fights and mutual distrust. Abner feels like a stranger to Lora's rebellious teenage son and daughter, whom he lovingly raised, and even to their own two-year-old, Hannah. Al, Lora's ex, wants to come back into his children's lives, fueling the tension. From Lora's vantage, Abner is undemonstrative, unavailable, sarcastic, continually dissatisfied. A fight erupts, and Abner splits for the summer, back to old pals in California, where he contemplates divorce, works as a gardener, writes poetry fulfilling his "Jewish/Blakean vision of the world riddled with ecstasy." When the open road leads back to Lora, it's not at all a happy prodigal's return: Abner comes home to resume the messy negotiation of their lives, suffused as much by resignation as by contentedness. Both Abner and Lora are grandiose, but Margolis makes them vulnerable and, despite their flaws, sympathetic. He writes with rare insight into the dynamics of step-parenting and the divided loyalties that strain families. He also offers a witty take on the egoistic hazards of being a poet or pursuing any creative calling. (Nov.)
Library Journal
Angst, troubled marriage, flight, and reconciliation figure in this novel of 1970s life. Two former New York Jews meet in a California commune. Avner Minsky is a poet and explorer of sorts, and Lora Sachsman Rosen is an artist with two children whose father flits in and out of their lives. Told by Avner, the story focuses on step-parenting and its effect on his marriage to Lora. After moving his new family cross country to an academic setting in the East, Avner escapes for a summer, back to California. His old buddies aren't doing all that well, and he returns somewhat sobered to what can best be described as a "modern marriage." Nicely told but unremarkable, this is recommended for large fiction collections.-Molly Abramowitz, Silver Spring, Md.
Kirkus Reviews
First novel about a man who flees a floundering marriage in search of his past.

Abner Minsky drifts into San Francisco during the later days of flower power and, after going through a number of girlfriends, falls in love with a painfully indecisive woman, Lora. Abner fancies himself a poet who, like the Beats he admires, sees all the world reflected in ordinary things. When he's admitted to graduate school in Upstate New York, Lora and her two children reluctantly follow him. The couple then have a child of their own and settle into an impoverished, artistic, but more or less middle-class existence, with the gentle Abner trying hard to be a good stepdad. After ten years, though, the marriage has turned into the bleakly ordinary, with Abner at last aware that being a poet in American doesn't pay much, and facing the realization that he also isn't much of a poet. Meanwhile, Lora has become a committed feminist, so that she's continually railing at Abner for being uncaring, a chauvinist, etc. Confused, angry, he goes back to California, where he does some hard physical work and reconnects with old friends now living in a commune and trying (more or less) to remain true to their hippie ways. Before long, Abner makes a pass at someone else's old lady and gets tossed from the commune. Driving back to New York and Lora, Abner, somewhat the wiser, reflects ruefully that he's a "man whose personality is so cemented in its place that change is impossible. Consider that there may be no happy ending."

Indeed. Enough time has passed that Margolis's portrait of flower power San Francisco is entertaining, and he writes lyrically about ordinary love, capturing the way relationships can be eaten up by pettiness. But Abner's odyssey is rendered here in a fashion so exceedingly mundane that many readers will find themselves unmoved by Abner and Lora's woes.

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The Stepman

By David Margolis

The Permanent Press

Copyright © 1996 David Margolis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-2338-2


My name is Abner Minsky, a name combining biblical warrior with burlesque king. The great Minsky — the one who could pick the girls — was, as a matter of fact, some sort of remote fourth cousin to us Flatbush Minskys. And of course, since all the Jews are related to one another, even Abner — the Abner, King David's general — shares some blood with me. My own growing up, however, though it featured elements of vaudeville, had no conquests or gorgeous girls.

Early in life, however (such may be the power over us of our names), I chose a form of biblical burlesque for my work: I became a poet. That is not an unusual vocation for a Jew, I think, this wanting the tongue to kick up its legs and dance for the sake of God the High.

But poetry is an impractical choice. When we are young, we can live on joy, and the world cooperates to pay us a living for our songs. Not a lot, but I didn't mind being poor then, and there are alternative rewards for the poet: One joins the private brotherhood of unacknowledged legislators of the world; one knows oneself as maven of reality; one impresses certain types of women.

Poets get no honor, however. "Oh, you're a poet," a sociologist friend said once, dismissing an idea of mine, "you live in a fantasy world." Yes, this is an age when sociologists instruct poets. That may itself explain why poets live in a fantasy world. Do you know where sociologists live?

Next door to psychologists.

I know something about psychologists. Right now, in fact, I am sitting in my weekly menage-a-trois with Lora — that's my wife, Lora Sachsman — and our marriage counselor, Mrs. Kramer, a "trained" psychologist. One hour a week, the three of us sit together in a room and analyze selected events. The worst thing about psychologists is that they make you start to think like a psychologist, when what you want to do is think like a poet and not analyze every goddamn little —

Mrs. Kramer is a nice lady, crisp and soft-spoken, a few years younger than us, about thirty-two, pregnant with her first child. She has a serious face and caring brown eyes. In a different situation, I might like her. Here, I don't completely trust her, though she has merited my grudging respect by occasional sturdy insights. I also put up with her because, like many pregnant women, she has trouble keeping her knees together, and my attention is sometimes rewarded with a glimpse of upper thigh.

But I am not watching Mrs. Kramer now. Now I am turned to the other corner of our triangle, faced off with Lora Sachsman. It is much harder for me to describe Lora. Because I see Lora so much, I hardly know what she looks like. On the other hand, I hardly look at her most of the time, because I hate her so much.

But now I have met her eyes across our hypotenuse. I have just finished recounting a happening of last night. While I spoke, Lora was very noticeably restraining herself from violating the ground rule that allows each of us to speak without interruption. Little inarticulate half syllables popped out of her mouth, whole flowers of thought she had to nip in the bud. And she has been just not able to get comfortable in her chair — her legs, her arms, her head —. Yes, she has been a lovely study in exasperation, and my deep esthetic pleasure in this has even moved me to speak more slowly than I normally do, in order to enjoy her distress for a few moments more.

But now I am done at last, and my rough beast, her hour come round at last, readies her response.

This is my wife Lora Sachsman:

Her face is oval. Once it was angelically beautiful to me. Ten years have passed. At thirty-five, her features have thickened, she has gained some weight, her skin has coarsened, and I see her face objectively as rather plain, though it has both charm and "character." Her eyes are large and brown, and she has a very prominent nose, a strong Jewish nose with which she has an ancient love-hate relationship. Her best feature is her mouth, which is richly sensual with a small fish-like curl at the corner of one lip. It is an eater's mouth, with secrets.

Right at this moment, however, Lora's face is neither charming nor even plain and certainly not sensual. It is a gargoyle, hard as stone, the nose beak-like in anger. Her brown hair, which was once long and flowing and colored from sunshine with blonde and auburn highlights, Lora has recently cropped quite close, giving her the demented, slightly abused look of a French collaborator girl — this is a current feminist style, I think — and it stands right now in little upright tufts from Lora tugging at it in her exasperation. She is wearing a man's plaid flannel shirt under baggy purple overalls. Perhaps this is another feminist style, a cross between Paul Bunyan and Bozo the Clown.

Now she is getting ready to speak. Her palms pin her knees, making twin columns of her arms, and she thrusts her face forward. The muscles under her cheeks are grinding with irritation, and soon she will begin to say, in no uncertain tone, exactly what she thinks, precisely where I have gone wrong. I know from long experience, however, that my wife's militant honesty will not necessarily include such small subcategories of truthful discourse as factual accuracy or sticking to the topic; these she regards as forms of oppression, unfair restrictions on her right to free expression. The New Woman don't take no shit from nobody.

To be candid, I am not even certain what we are fighting about this time. Last night she started. I was in Hannah's room, playing with Hannah, our two-year-old. Lora was in the living room, mending Hannah's daycare blanket, or so I thought. Dinner was over; it was a quiet domestic scene. Then I heard her rattling in the kitchen. Then she marched in. "I'd like you to clean up the kitchen," she snapped.

Immediately, like an LSD flashback, I was in it, figuring. The kitchen has three main areas that require maintenance: the sink (with dishes), the countertops, the table. I had cleaned the counters earlier in the evening, after feeding Hannah her dinner. The dishes I'd be damned if I would do: Lora prepares food for herself, then leaves the dishes soaking in old water, in contravention of a clear agreement between us that we wash the dishes from our own snacks. Tonight I knew that, except for two coffee cups of mine and Hannah's bowl, all the dishes in the sink were Lora's — she saves them up for a week, then marches in and demands I do them. (It has a kind of raw logic to it: the dishes are dirty, she wants them cleaned — so who should wash them, Hannah?)

"I don't want to," I said politely.

Lora turned and went out with a face like a brick.

In a moment she was back, with mortar. "I feel you don't cooperate in our life together. It's not like having a husband, it's not even like having a roommate, it's like living with a hostile stranger —"

She stopped and stood there, demanding a response. I decided to cooperate. A soft answer turneth away wrath. A small docility might save me lots of talking later. But I wasn't about to bow down to her idol — there is some s. I will not eat. "I'll do the table, but I won't do the dishes," I told her with earnest civility. "I'm willing to help," I added, "but I don't like being barked at and ordered around."

Unimpressed, she wheeled angrily and went, probably to get her trowel.

Hannah is at the window calling "Yadoo yadoo" to things she sees flying through her head, my sparkling child. I am reclined in her comfy red vinyl beanbag chair, harmlessly hanging out, but I rise and lumber into the kitchen to take care of the table, as offered. But the grim-faced brick-layer is already there, slugging the phone book, the saltshaker and two days of junk mail onto the phone table, onto the spice shelf, into the garbage, her mouth looking as if she has been sucking strained squash through a straw for the last hour.

"I wanted it done right away," she informs me tightly.

Oh. Right away. Chop chop.

And do you know why? "Phyllis called and said she'd drop by and I don't want the kitchen looking like a wreck." Get it? — for the sake of her friend Phyllis. This is the stuff on which saints build whole careers; I should be grateful for the opportunities for spiritual advancement my wife offers me at every moment.

After Phyllis left (it was a good visit, I think, they analyzed their lives for a couple of hours and came out of the bedroom looking sweaty but relaxed, like ping-pong champions after a workout) — after Phyllis left, Lora and I sat in the living room. Hannah was asleep (I had put her to bed), the house was quiet. I was reading, Lora was sewing. Time to wind up and move toward bed ourselves. Lora said, "I don't feel like we spend any time together."

La bouche dropped open and a bilious tone dribbled out in words. "What are you talking about? What are we doing right now?"

"I feel like you don't want to spend time with me — to really be with me."

"Well," I said, all saintliness departed, "shall we look at the record?" I ticked off the days on my fingers: Thursday, a movie and out for a drink afterward; Friday afternoon, working together cleaning our apartment; Friday evening, together with friends; Saturday morning, home together; Saturday afternoon, shopping together; Sunday brunch together and a late afternoon picnic with friends; lunch together on Monday, just the two of us; last night separate activities, yes, and then this evening you pick a fight with me. What is the matter?

"I don't consider it quality time," she said, ticking her fingers back at me: no real companionship, too much time with friends, constant interruptions from Hannah, not being really together. "And a lot of Saturday morning I stayed in our room reading," she fingered at me finally, as if I had forced her in there to the lonely solace of her books.

I shrugged. I thought it was an okay week, as nice as a week with Lora can be, the fruit of my constant vigilance to get into no situation that might cause a fight. An exhausting vigilance, that, but I truly thought these last few days had been okay, better than the week before at least, with no ambushes, train wrecks, epidemics, or terrorist massacres; nicely contained. We passed for normal.

"You never want to be with me," she went on, relentless. "You never show me any affection."

"I never show —." I stop, imagining I will be able to calm myself, discuss this first with my inner heart, then provide an answer that will ease us out of our stalemate. Stale mate.

But I am fooling myself. I am too thin-skinned after these years of friction: touch me and I bleed, it all comes leaking out. "You are a goddamn porcupine, do you know that?" I inquire. "You present your sharp quills and then beg to be embraced." My voice becomes almost languid to my own ear, merely descriptive. I am not even angry as I say, "Why don't you just leave me alone?"

Lora is sitting in the armchair, looking down at her lap, her face a study in darkness as she stirs her own deep concoction of anger and grief, confusion and guilt. And love — yes, love is mixed up somewhere in this too, deeply mixed in.

She does not speak, she does not look at me. Finally she gets up and walks past me into the bedroom and shuts the door. I do not look at her or call to her as she goes.

Where are we now? What is happening to us now and what will happen next? Should I follow her, apologize — apologize for what? — and try to make it be all right? To leave it at this deadness I know will lead to new torments tomorrow. It would be politic to say something to her — Lora likes that. Lora will appreciate that. Otherwise, we'll be not-talking-to-each-other, and then we'll have to have a fight to break through it, or some sort of sodden emotional scene, thicker with misery the longer I wait, as I know from deadly experience. So yes, I agree with the voice of my best self, I should rise and knock, speak and comfort; I am moved to do it, almost.

I do not do it. I sit in my chair, enjoying the simplicity of solitude and silence, the small animal comforts left to me, postponing anything else. It is the familiar living room of my home, with its off-white walls, its shelves of books, its secondhand sofa and chairs with pictures — Lora's paintings — hanging above them, and I feel in it like a stranger, playing for my own grim pleasure the tape loops of my unhappiness, drinking the bitter elixir of my disappointment and somehow finding comfort in it. It is my heart, and I eat it because it is bitter and because it is my heart. Yes, and because no one can take it away from me.

After imbibing the dregs of this dark wine, I must have fallen asleep sitting up, for when I wake the lights are on and I feel drunk, hung over. It is 2 a.m. and the house is still. I stumble to the bathroom, then to the bedroom. Lora has not left the light on for me, which I know means, according to our code, that I am shit-deep in trouble.

But I don't mind; silence and darkness are my friends.

So I climb into the marriage bed and sleep along one edge, taking care neither to touch nor to disturb in any way my sleeping wife.

I wish on all my enemies a love affair like this.


When I recount this story to Mrs. Kramer, including but not primarily addressing Lora, I half hope to convince or cajole Mrs. Kramer into seeing that I am right. I want to compel her to break through her professional veneer for once and say the honest truth: that Lora acts like a hysterical teenage girl. The extent of Mrs. Kramer's responses, however, amount to allowing occasional small furrows of interest, concern, regret and possibly horror to pass across her features. She does not vote. When I am done, she nods and says, "Uh huh," then asks Lora to speak.

So now Lora comes up to bat and tells a story that is basically the same as mine but utterly different. In Lora's version, she came into Hannah's room and asked me — asked me! She has the gall to say it and, worse, the gall apparently to believe it — if I would help her straighten up the kitchen, but I flatly refused (refused!), as if I think she is supposed to be my servant. He ignores our previous agreement, she says, under which he has the obligation, if he prepares a meal for Hannah, to clean up after it — not merely swab the counters, she says in her best bitch tone, but wash the utensils and clear the table as well.

Now it is my turn to stop myself from interrupting. The dishes in the sink were, most of them, hers. I know it, but I cannot prove it; it is a classic case of my word against hers. And yet it is true, her dishes were in the sink —

My God, we are arguing over whose dishes are in the sink. This is how debased we have become. This is what the poet is reduced to. Violence would be nobler.

Lora is really warming up now, spewing details and accusations, but I have flown away. I am alone on a promontory overlooking the sea, far from the humiliation of disputing over who should wash a few dirty dishes. An ancient king wearing the bleak crown of humanity, I feel a familiar, almost pleasurable despair drop over my shoulders. Somewhere so far away that the sound of it is slightly disassociated from the moving of her lips, as music is from a seat in the upper reaches of the amphitheater, I can still hear Lora kvetching. Now she is accusing me of coldness, of refusing to respond when she brings up, as she did last night, such serious issues as my unwillingness to spend quality time with her (quality time, I remember dreamily, is a phrase generally used to describe child care).

She reproaches me for my continual dissatisfaction with everything — with her, with our family, with my job, with my life; for being grumpy and grimfaced all the time; for sarcasm; for failing to listen to her when she speaks; for greeting her enthusiasms with a look that stares past her; for not acting as if I care; for not caring; for not touching; for not making her feel loved. All my love, she complains, I give to Hannah; Hannah I cuddle with and coo to, Hannah I hold and confide in, Hannah I will take time out for, will go out of my way for. But with her, says my wife to our arbiter, with her I refuse to go anywhere. I never even want to go out of the house, let alone invite her to a movie or to dinner, and never never never, she says, do I ever say, "I love you," her voice breaking, "He never tells me he loves me any more."


Excerpted from The Stepman by David Margolis. Copyright © 1996 David Margolis. Excerpted by permission of The Permanent Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

David Margolis spent two years living on a West Coast commune. He is the author of The Stepman, The Muselmann, and The Time of Wandering. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and daughter.

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