Red Hook Stories

Red Hook Stories, published in 2007, is a collection about the Brooklyn neighborhood in the 1980s.

First story from the collection

OVER A WOODEN FENCE IN BROOKLYN

“Katie,” Jewel called, crossing her shady backyard patio painted turquoise and draped with leafy grapevines. She held her round belly and leaned forward on tiptoe into the late blooming rose bush, her nose settling like a bee in the center of a yellow flower. Last October was cold, she remembered: her husband had been sick with stones, and her landlady didn’t turn on the heat until Thanksgiving.

“Katie,” Jewel called again, this time peering over the old wooden fence between their yards. She knew Thursday was Kate’s day off from the publishing company and she could see her through the steamy kitchen window, moving back and forth like a live chicken from the sink to the stove. Jewel wondered what Katie was cooking, and if she would ever hang curtains. Finally, the back door swung open and Kate’s mutt, Leadbelly, leapt out, wagging his black tail.

Kate followed. She was as young as Jewel’s daughter, Alice, who had three kids and lived in Queens.

“I’ve got some, you know, gizzards and wings,” said Jewel. A plastic bag of frozen chicken parts dangled over the fence. When Kate and Ben moved in a year ago, Jewel told her husband: “Thomas, that dog barks as good as two,” and they gave their mutt away. Since then, Jewel felt an obligation to keep Kate’s dog extra-fed.

“How are you?” Kate asked, holding the plastic bag above Leadbelly’s nose.

“Alright, you know, thank God.” Jewel leaned her plump white elbows on the fence, examining what was left of Kate’s garden. She had watched Kate plant seeds last spring, half of them unfamiliar. “How’d the horseradish come out?”

“It’s potent,” Kate said, cocking her head. “I ground some up but the root is spindly. I’m letting it go until next year.” She jumped for Ben’s jeans flapping on the clothes line and proceeded to haul them in, stuffing them into the plastic basket. She half expected Jewel to scold her for not folding the clothes and, in the same breath, remind her to cut the coupons from the newspaper for her grocery shopping.

“You have more laundry than any two people I know!” Jewel said instead.

“Want some basil?” She knew Jewel’s daughter was visiting soon and that she liked it fresh. Kate bent over and picked a fragrant bouquet. “We’re getting a second raspberry crop.”

Jewel stuck her nose in the basil. She liked Kate and Ben. They reminded her of when she and Thomas were young and in love and had nothing. Last year when they bought the little green house next door that was rotten from the inside, Jewel told her landlady at the weekly poker game: “Seventeen years and we finally get us real neighbors. And he’s studying to be a doctor.”

“Did you hear Maddy yelling last night?” Jewel whispered, slicking her hair back into its tight rubber band. “That woman’s mouth is a shame. She’s got too many children, Katie. Nine! And Maddy is only thirty-four! And no teeth! And her husband is always sick with something else. Well, like my husband says, he ain’t that sick. Maddy has a baby near every year.”

Leadbelly barked at the back of the lot by the fast growing poplars. He had cornered a wild cat, bright as the marigolds. Kate was anxious to keep her dog quiet and dangling the plastic bag of gizzards in front of his nose, and led him toward the house.

“Katie, I’ve got to tell you,” Jewel called. “Saturday we were having a beer at the hall like we do, right? And we seen our friend Joe. He says, come on, I’m taking you to supper. Well, you know my Thomas don’t like to eat nowheres. Forget about it. So I begged Tommy and Joe called a car service and we went up to Brooklyn Heights.” Jewel’s eyes glowed. “I had the biggest steak and the biggest glass of beer that could have lasted me three days. Thomas had a plate of shrimps like you never seen and the bartender kept sending those big beers. Finally, I says to Joe: Take us home, it’s nine o’clock. So he called a car and that’s the last we seen of him.”

Kate winced. She recognized Jewel’s craving for spontaneity in her life and the retired husband she was bucking: for once Jewel’s story had a happy ending. But before she could say something positive, she pushed open her back door and ran inside: “I forgot I have tomato sauce on the stove!”

“Ah, well. My landlady is showing the house and I’ve got to fix my husband soup,” Jewel muttered to herself and her slick gray head dropped behind the fence.