Spring 2009, Volume 6

Fiction by Mona Panitz


Sylvie reached high to pin the last of her sheets on the backyard clothes line. Her damp hands were cold in the chilly April morning, but she paused to examine the patches she’d sewn on the week before and satisfied that they’d held, she stepped back and let the sheets take the wind and whip out flat.

She was small boned, barely five foot two and looking more like a girl than a twenty year old. Sylvie’s pale skin blushed easily and in the cold her cheeks were apple red. Her dark pinned-up hair was coming loose in the breeze and she was eager to get back to the warmth of her kitchen. Yet, she couldn’t resist the budding lilac bush growing in the corner of the small scrubby yard. Their scent was in the air and she stopped to fill her lungs, thinking that seven months from now, her loose button-down housedress would be tight across her belly. She took in another deep breath for the baby.

“Smell that?” she said. "That’s Lilac, it’s a beautiful purple color, and once you get here, you’ll love it as much as I do.”

She had one foot in the kitchen doorway when a rapid series of explosions, like Fourth of July fireworks, brought her running back out to peek over the wooden fence. There she saw an old car, square as a bread truck rounding the corner, spitting and sputtering and fouling the air with a rope of black smoke pouring out its rear. Sylvie’s eyes opened wide and then narrowed when she saw her husband Ben sitting high in the diver’s seat like a happy prince on his throne. Ben turned off the shivering motor and shouted, “Sylvie, come on out, lets get you up in the driver’s seat.”

She opened the wooden gate and approached the curb slowly, taking in the square hulk of an automobile with a dark green body and a black roof. A car she’d only seen years ago in magazine pictures. Ben hopped down and took her cold hands warming them in his.

“This is a Hupmobile Syl, he said, ignoring her suspicious look. “It’s one of the best engineered cars they ever made.”

Ben easily lifted her onto the driver’s seat as her feet dangled inches from the pedals. Gingerly she touched the wide jet-black steering wheel, then turned and looked deep into his blue eyes...

“How much Ben?” she asked her heart beating with apprehension.

“You won’t believe it,” he said shrugging his shoulders at the miracle.

“How much?” she repeated...

Ben lowered his eyes and continued, “This guy drives right up to the machine shop, jumps out and says to me, ‘What’ll you give me for it?’ By now the fellas are all over it, kicking the tires, and whistling.”

“How much Ben?” Sylvie repeated.

“Sylvie this is a 1925 Hupmobile, a true classic in its day. Who knows what its worth? So I just blurted out, ‘will you take five bucks for it?’ and the guy says, ‘Make it seven-fifty and it’s a deal.’”

“You paid seven dollars and fifty cents for this?” she cried. A ten year old piece of junk?”

“Junk? No Sylvie, this is not junk, this is a masterpiece of automobile engineering,”

“Oh my god,” she said. “I’m not sure we'll even have enough to last out the week, and you threw away all that money.”

“Honey” he said, lifting her down to the sidewalk, “With all due respect, you don’t know what you’re talking about. To get a Hupmobile for that price, even one that needs a little tune-up is like finding a five carat diamond in a pile of manure.”

“Some diamond,” she said, "when it smells more like a pile of manure to me.”

Their tiny one bedroom rental house with a narrow attached garage, sat on a small piece of land behind a larger two-story brick home. Theirs was wood shingled, freezing in the winter and stifling in summer. But it was 1935 and they felt lucky to be able to afford the rent. By May, the days were getting longer and Sylvie could see Ben through her kitchen window, working on the Hup every night after dinner, its engine parts laid out like old bones waiting to be resurrected, while the neighborhood kids and their fathers, offered advice, openly taking bets as to whether he’d ever get the Hup to run again. Ben worked until it was too dark to see by the small hanging bulb. On warm nights Sylvie sat in the driveway after the crowd went home. She’d watch as he hammered replacement parts he made at the shop or found at junkyards, all the while silently hoping for a boy who’d have Ben’s blonde hair and tall, strong body. He’d shower late at night and she’d be half awake when he climbed into bed, gently hugging her to him, patting her belly and smelling of engine oil.

Then, one Sunday morning in mid June, he got behind the wheel, turned his cap backward for good luck and started it up. After dying a few times the motor caught and the big car came to life, its engine put-putting like a healthy heart. He eased the big Hup out of the garage, down the narrow driveway, slow and steady and finally out onto the street, with no smoke and no explosions. He drove it around the block three times and up to the boulevard that had two lanes of traffic on each side. It ran like a top, and pulling up to their curb, Ben whooped like a kid.

The following Sunday Sylvie, (still skeptical,) and Ben set out for a day’s picnic to Lake Rochelle in the wilds of Westchester, a distance of thirty-three miles from their stifling little house in Brooklyn. Sylvie loaded the Hup’s big trunk with two blankets, sweaters, and a loaf of bread, sliced baloney, boiled potatoes, hardboiled eggs, mustard and four tomatoes.

Their first stop was to pick up Sylvie’s father Abe, a short barrel-chested widower in his late 50’s. A talented tailor before the depression, he was now earning a few dollars a week hemming men’s pants and renting a room with kitchen privileges from an elderly couple in the neighborhood. Abe disregarded the nosey neighbors who’d already placed their folding chairs in front of his building, ready to comment on every passerby. He nodded to the group, and then stood at the curb in his snappy felt fedora, vest, tie and a suit jacket folded over his arm.

“Hey Pop,” Ben said, as he pulled up. “Where d’you think you’re going dressed up like that?”

“When I go to Westchester, I don’t dress like a slob,” Abe said as he pulled himself up onto the running board and into the back seat, asking, “Are you sure this machine will take us there and back?”

A few minutes later, Ben stopped again, this time in an even shabbier neighborhood. Abe piped up, “Why do you stop here?”

“Pop you forget, my mother likes a car ride just as much as you do.” Ben said.

Abe’s mouth turned down. Sylvie knew that her father couldn’t stand Rose. For a brief time Sylvie and Ben thought their parents both widowed, might get together, if only to save on expenses. But they quickly gave up the idea. Rose was an attractive woman, with a healthy bosom, but also a born complainer, and even worse for Abe, she lacked culture and sucked her tea through a sugar cube.

Abe had trouble sliding over the mohair hair seats in his wool trousers.

“He won’t make room for me,” Rose whined.

“Yes he will,” Sylvie said. “Pop, c’mon slide over.”

“There’s no sliding on these seats!” Abe shouted.

Finally, the back door slammed shut and they were off.

“Oh how I love a car ride!” Rose bubbled.

As they drove over the Brooklyn Bridge, Sylvie and Ben heard exclamations of delight coming from the back seat. They smiled at one another, and Sylvie gave Ben’s thigh a little squeeze.

“This really is a very nice car,” she said, looking straight ahead at the New York skyline.

The ride up was slow with Manhattan Sunday traffic and public restroom stops that had to be made for Sylvie, Rose and Abe.

Lake Rochelle was heavenly. A forest of pines, maples and elms rimmed the lake, and in the distance were rowboats painted red and blue. “Someday, when we come back, Ben said, we’ll rent one of those boats and I’ll row you and the baby all around the lake.”

Striped black and white buoys cordoned off the swimming area, and unlike the hot and crowded Coney Island they were familiar with, the sand here was clean and the water clear blue to the bottom, with delicate waves slapping the shore. Sylvie and Ben spread their blankets on the white sand and all of them took off their shoes. Ben and Abe rolled up their pants and the ladies held up their skirts as they waded into the calm warm waters, laughing like children. A young boy carrying a white metal ice chest box strapped to his shoulders was hawking ice cream,"Five cents, ice cream sandwiches. How about some ice cream? Five cents,” he shouted.

“Oh I’d love an ice cream,” Rose said. “I haven’t had a taste of ice cream in over a year.”

Ben dug into his pants pocket and pulled out two buffalo nickels, making sure he felt for the two quarters he was saving for the gas home.

“Here kid lets have two of those,” he said.

Rose watched keenly, as Ben gave the first one to Sylvie and the other to her.”

“Oh” said Rose; I can see that already wives come before mothers.”

“No mom, Ben said, patting her shoulder, it’s that expecting ladies get served first.”

By late afternoon they’d eaten every crumb. The day had cooled and rain clouds were gathering above the trees on the horizon. Ben and Sylvie packed up, while Rose and Abe supervised.

Nearly two hours later they were on the bridge close to Brooklyn side, when the rains came, pelting the roof of the Hup with fierce thick drops. The windows steamed up and Ben reached out to clear a circle on his windshield. Then came the lightning and thunder that made them all shudder, while the East River below turned wild with whitecaps. In the next moment they heard a grinding noise, like two giant iron bars being scraped one against the other.

”Oh shit!” Ben muttered.

“What? What’s wrong?” Abe called out from the back, while Rose leaned forward to hear better. By now the car was swaying from side to side and Sylvie stifled a scream. Then came the enormous clang of metal falling onto the bridge. Ben, attempting to move the car a few feet to the side of the bridge road, pressed hard on the gas pedal and the engine screamed in complaint as black smoke billowed from under the hood. Ben, reached past Sylvie and emptied the glove compartment, then yelled, “Everybody out! Fast!

Grab everything from the trunk!”

“What happened?” Sylvie shouted, rain streaming across her face, as Ben helped her pull on her sweater.

“It’s the axle and God knows what else,” he said crouching down to unscrew the license plate with his pocket knife. Another crack of lightning and in the answering rumble of thunder, cars were skidding, hitting their brakes and piling up behind them. Furious drivers blowing their horns and leaning out into the rain were yelling, “Move that wreck!”

“We can’t just leave this automobile here. Abe yelled, “It’s not right.”

“Oh yeah?” Ben shouted, “You have a twenty to pay for a tow and another fifty for the fine?”

They heard police whistles and a siren screaming in the distance and Ben yelled, “Run!”

And run they did, dropping thermoses, plates, blankets, knives, forks, and even a few tools they had grabbed up from the trunk. With Ben in the lead, holding on to Sylvie, they hunched between the girders of the bridge and onto the footpath, slip-sliding on the wet metal grating and dropping the rest of the stuff as they ran, their lungs bursting and the soles of their shoes coming apart in wet.

Down they scrambled the last eight steps of the iron staircase and hatless, soaked and panting, they ran onto the sidewalk toward the lit up kiosk in the distance with its sign that said, ‘BMT Subway Flatbush’

Ben’s hands were shaking as he shoved a quarter along the worn wooden counter, muttering as the clerk took his sweet time making change, while police whistles could be heard close above. Each of them pushed hard through the heavy wooden turnstile and ran down the steps, hysterical as they saw their train pulling into the station. Ben sprinted ahead grabbing the door and pulling it open while they tumbled in and plopped down onto a row of empty seats exhausted, huddling together shivering, trying to catch their breath and avoid the stares of the other passengers.

Safe. They rocked as the train sped through tunnels and then out into the open. The storm was over and they leaned their heads back against the seats and felt the sun through the windows, warming their necks and shoulders.

Ben nudged Sylvie to look over at Rose and Abe, who were leaning head on shoulder, still gripping hands and fast asleep. Ben hugged Sylvie to him, felt her shiver and bent to kiss her.

“It was wrong to just leave the Hup there,” she said.

“Sylvie, you know, we didn’t have a choice.”

“No more cars” she said, shaking her head.

“Now wait a minute,” he said, drawing her closer...

BIO:Mona Panitz, having spent her early years in Brooklyn, New York, is a retired executive and psychotherapist, living in Long Beach with her husband, Ed. A winner of the Drury Award, she credits her growth as a writer of short fiction to the excellent faculty of the Long Beach City College Creative Writing Program.