Thursday, February 25, 2016

'What’s Love?' -- a short story

Author Harry M. Zubkoff in the '70s
Harry's books were his greatest possession. In 2011, he wrote an email to dear friends describing his 2007 move with my mother, from their house to an apartment: “The most traumatic thing about moving for me is that I had to get rid of a thousand books or more, but now I’m starting to accumulate them again.” 

Unfortunately, he parted with hundreds more when he prepared to move again in 2014 to an elderly friendly community. During another painstaking process, my dad (then 92) held up one book at a time, told us (his family) a brief story about it, and decided which pile it should grace – “keep” or “donate.” As for stacks of
long-stored boxes, he insisted he “keep them all.” I never imagined that only months later, after he passed away, I’d open those boxes to find unpublished novels, stories, and poems he’d written over a lifetime.

In one of those stories, Harry tells a tale of someone else who was making a move, and moving on with his life.

“After all,” said Pop, “what’s love? Is it more important than food? Will it fill an empty stomach?” His face crinkled up as he smiled, and his eyes almost closed.

“Listen,” said Phil, his eyes fixed grimly on the road ahead, “don’t give me any of that curbstone philosophy. Maybe love makes me miserable, but I’m still crazy about her, even if she is marrying that half-baked jerk.”

“Aha!” said Pop. “Then it is love that’s bothering you. You have that look.”

“What look?”

“My boy,” said Pop, “when you’re as old as I, you’ll know what look I mean. What’s your name?”

“Phil. Phil Kimberly. What’s yours?”

“Everybody calls me Pop. How old are you?”

“Twenty-one,” said Phil. “By the way, I really appreciate this lift. It’s a long walk from Chicago to Buffalo.”

“That’s all right,” said Pop. He glanced quickly at Phil, while his big hands guided the truck carefully through the night. “Are you hungry?” He asked softly.

“No,” said Phil.

“Well,” said Pop, “what’s hunger, after all? An emptiness in your stomach. What’s an emptiness? Nothing. So what’s hunger? Nothing! Just the same, wouldn’t you like to stop at the Truck Bar up ahead and have a bite with me?”

“Okay, okay,” said Phil. “I guess maybe I could go for a cup of coffee, at that.”

“Fine,” said Pop. “Anything is better than nothing, especially on an empty stomach.”

* * *

In the lighted restaurant, Phil looked even younger than twenty-one. Only his stubborn jaw kept him from looking like a boy of sixteen.

“Would you like to tell me about her?” said Pop, two sandwiches and two cups of coffee later.

“I don’t know,” said Phil. “There isn’t much to tell. We wrote to each other while I was in Vietnam, and she promised to wait for me. But when I came home, I was broke and I just couldn’t afford to get married. I don’t have a job and I can’t find a job. Now I ask you, would any guy in his right mind get married without a job and no prospects?”

“Some people do,” said Pop, “but go on. What happened?”

“That’s all there is,” said Phil. “I guess she got tired of waiting. Anyway, she told me she decided to marry some guy who was chasing after her all the time I was overseas. A guy with a job who has something to offer, I suppose.”

“I see,” said Pop, “and being the noble young man you are, you decided she’d be better off with him so you ran away. Right?”

“It’s not that so much,” said Phil. “It’s just that all of a sudden I got fed up with being a nobody, without a job and no chance of getting one. So I thought I’d just go to New York and see if I could get a break there.”

“Yeah,” said Pop, I know. You figured to make a quick fortune there and then come back for a visit someday and show her what she could have had if she’d waited for you. Come on, let’s go. I’ve got a schedule to keep.”

* * *

It was raining steadily on the steel top of the truck cab, and the wind moaned past the side windows, monotonously, soothingly.

“There’s plenty of room to relax, if you’d like to take a short nap,” said Pop.

“No, thanks,” said Phil. “I don’t feel like sleeping.”

“Ah, well,” said Pop, “after all, what’s sleep? You close your eyes, you stop thinking, your mouth opens, your muscles relax, your heart beats slower, your blood moves slower and it’s almost like being a little bit dead.”

“That’s a nice, morbid thought,” said Phil. “Do you always talk like that?”

“Oh, it’s just a habit, I guess,” Pop shrugged. “Being alone on the road so much gets a guy to thinking. There’s not much else to do but drive my truck – it’s my own, by the way – and think, except when I pick up hitchhikers like you. Then I drive and talk.”

“You think I ran away, don’t you?”

“Well, partly,” said Pop, “but I also think that you don’t love the girl. Not really.”

“Oh, but you’re wrong,” Phil protested. “I do love her. That’s why I left. I don’t mean to be noble exactly, but – well, you know what I mean. Maybe I didn’t think it all out like you did, but you figured it about right back there in the restaurant.”

“No,” said Pop, “you don’t love her. Consider, now, what’s love? It’s a desire for someone. A desire to share your life with someone, to make a home together, to raise a family. Not to leave her, to spend the rest of your life apart. That’s not love. That’s a sacrifice. Maybe not even a sacrifice. It’s probably just your pride that makes you want to run away. Your pride, that won’t let you stay and face her and everyone else.”

“Look,” said Phil, “if you want to give me lectures like that, just stop the truck and I’ll get out and walk.”

He sat back in the seat, his stubborn jaw sticking out at an absurd angle.

Pop laughed.

“That’s your pride speaking again,” he said more gently. “Look, Phil, let me tell you a story. It’s about a guy I knew once. We’ll call him Joe. Joe was in pretty much the same boat you’re in. Oh, he wasn’t a veteran and he didn’t have a problem in adjusting to civilian life after a war, or anything, but he did live through some pretty hard times.

“Anyway, he didn’t have a job when he fell in love. Nice girl, too. But instead of running away, like you, he married her. He really loved her, you see, and couldn’t imagine a life for himself without her.

“Well, they had three kids, and with each one things were a little tougher. Believe me, son, they had a mighty rough time of it. They even lost one child because they just didn’t have enough money for doctors and medicine. But they never stopped loving each other, not once, and today they’re just as happy as anyone would want to be. He still isn’t making much money, but they’re together, and that’s what counts. And if they had it all to do over again, they still wouldn’t do it any differently.”

They were both silent for a moment, lost in thought, while the big truck droned steadily through the night.

Phil broke the silence.

“That doesn’t prove anything,” he said. “Maybe it worked out okay for them, but that doesn’t mean it would for everyone. And besides, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t ask a wife of mine to go through so much … hardship. It just wouldn’t be right for me, that’s all.” He wondered if the mythical Joe were Pop himself. But no, Pop wasn’t old enough. He was no more than thirty-five, maybe forty at the most. Still, he did look as though he’d known many hardships in his life. Well, maybe he had.

* * *

He woke up when the truck stopped. It was just getting light out and it had stopped raining.

“Time for breakfast,” said Pop, seeing his eyes open. “You must have been pretty tired.”

“Yeah,” Phil yawned, “guess I was. What time is it?”

“Almost five. You’ve been sleeping over two hours.”

“I’ve been thinking,” said Phil, “about that guy Joe you were talking about. I can’t help wondering how it would have worked out if he hadn’t gotten married right away, if he and his girl had waited till they could afford it.”

“Well,” said Pop, “let’s eat first, and then I’ll tell you another story.”

* * *

The countryside looked freshly washed and the air smelled sweet and clean in the early morning. The big truck seemed to drive itself with only an occasional nudge from Pop’s capable hands. Now he looked older, somehow, or more tired, and his voice was slightly husky as he spoke.

“This guy’s name was Joe, too,” he said, “and like the other Joe, he didn’t have a job either when he fell in love. So he decided to wait. Well, he waited and he waited and because his girl was so fine and understanding about it, almost eight years went by before he realized it. By that time, he was making enough to get married, even by his standards.

“But then a terrible thing happened. You see, after being a bachelor for so long, the thought of marriage suddenly became terrifying to him. What’s even worse, he realized that he didn’t love her after all. Not enough to give up his so-called freedom, anyway.

“On the other hand, he was aware of the sacrifice his girl had made, waiting so long for him, and ruining her chances for another marriage. Who would marry a girl who had been engaged to one man for eight years? And besides, she did love him, or at least she claimed to. No, in all fairness to her, he just couldn’t leave her flat. His conscience just wouldn’t permit it.

“So he married her. And their marriage has not been a happy one. No, it has not been a happy one. They’ve been miserable together, just plain miserable.”

“Well,” said Phil after a moment, “that’s not an encouraging prospect, is it?”


“Of course,” Phil went on, half to himself, “that’s kind of carrying it to extremes. After all, who’d expect two people to stay engaged for eight years? I know I certainly wouldn’t ask any girl to do that. I mean, she might want to wait for me, but we wouldn’t be engaged. She’d be free to go out with other guys, too. That way, if someone else came along, she wouldn’t be tied down, so to speak. Anyway, you see my point, don’t you?”

“Sure,” said Pop. “What you’re saying is that it couldn’t happen to you. Maybe to someone else, but not to you.”

“Okay,” said Phil uncomfortably, “have you got any more stories up your sleeve?”

“As a matter of fact,” Pop smiled, “I have. Just by way of variety …”

“I know,” Phil interrupted, “This guy’s name is Joe, too.”

“Yeah,” said Pop, “how did you know? Anyway, this Joe was something like you. Young, very much in love, and not earning enough money to marry on. His girl, her name was Norma, would have married him. She was working, and she could have continued working, but no, he was too proud – or foolish – to let his wife work.

“Well, she waited for a couple years, but when she saw that Joe wasn’t getting any closer to setting the date, she broke it up and told him that she couldn’t wait any longer, that she was going to marry someone else.

“So he ran away, just like you. And for ten years he worked away from home, making a decent living and wondering all the time what happened to Norma. Do you know what the tragedy of his life is? It’s this, that for ten years he wanted nothing so much as to go back to her, but he never had enough nerve. He was a coward.

“For ten long years, his mind was full of her. There never was another girl for him. Many times he almost wrote to her. But he never made it. So for ten years, he lived like half a man. You see, Phil, a man without a woman to love is only half a man. Why, he never even knew if she married the other guy. He only wondered, and wondered, and sometimes in the lonely night, he even cried.”

The truck had reached the outskirts of Buffalo before Phil spoke again.

“I can’t go back,” he said miserably, “I’d feel like a fool.”

“A fool?” said Pop. “What’s a fool? Someone whose pride has been hurt. Nothing more. All of us have been fools at one time or another. All of us have too much pride.”

“Besides,” said Phil, “I’m broke. I can’t go back like this, with nothing to offer her.”

“You have yourself,” said Pop, “and your future. But it won’t be a good future unless you share it with someone.”

“Okay, okay, you win,” Phil sighed, then grinned. “Can I hitch a ride with you on your return trip?”

“No,” said Pop, “I’m not going back – not for a while, anyway.” He smiled, and for an instant he looked almost as young as Phil. “You see,” he added, “I’m getting married today.”

“No kidding!” Phil gasped.

“Yes,” said Pop, “it took me ten years to get back here, but I finally made it. You see, she never did marry that other guy. She’s been waiting for me all this time, and if I’d come home the day after I ran away, we’d have been married ten years by now.

“Someone once said that experience is the name we give to our mistakes, Phil, so don’t make the same mistake I did. You’ll never forgive yourself, not if you really love her.”

“Pop,” said Phil, “I’ll send you an invitation to our wedding. What’s your address?”

“Just send it to Joe and Norma Poppin, care of the Poppin Trucking Company, Chicago.”

“Thanks, thanks Pop, thanks for everything. And I really do love her, too.”

“Well, after all,” said Pop, “what’s love? An extra heartbeat. What’s a heartbeat? Life. So what’s love? Why, it’s life itself! Good luck, Phil.”


Copyright 2016
Elaine Blackman 

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