NEA Literature Fellowships

Karen Bender

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(2002 - Prose)

from "Eternal Love"

Bob had first called six months ago, an April day in 1961. Ella had picked up the phone and heard a male voice whisper, almost plead, "Lena. Lena. Lena there?"

It was a question she rarely heard. "Who may I say is calling?" Ella asked.

"Bob. Goodwill. I drive trucks -- Bob --"

She knocked on Lena's door. "Lena. There's a--Bob on the phone for you."

Lena burst out of her room with a nakedly joyous expression on her face. "Tell him to wait," she exclaimed.

She was wearing a little rouge and perfume when; five minutes later, she deigned to pick up the phone. At first, Ella couldn't figure out why her daughter smelled familiar. Then she knew. Lena had put on some of her Chanel; Lena smelled like her.

Lena had been working at the Van Nuys Goodwill for five years. Her job was to sit at a long cafeteria table and sort socks and blouses that no one else wanted to own. Ella called Dolores; the coordinator of Goodwill's disabled employees, to check out Bob.

"Bob. Bob," muttered Dolores. "Why?"

"A Bob called Lena on the phone."

"This is so nice!" said Dolores. "We have five Bobs. Bob Winters is considerate, but a drooler. Bob Lanard I wouldn't let in my house, not if you care about your china surviving the night.' She paused. "Are you sure it's not a Rob? We have a Rob who's -- well -- a former convict, but I think he's very nice, too."

"It was Bob. He said he drove trucks. "

"Trucks," muttered Dolores. "Bob Silver."

"Tell me about him."

"A sweetie. Short, quiet, brown hair, good driver."

Ella tried to feel relieved but didn't, honestly, know what she felt. Bob Silver. It was just a name, but it seemed ferocious as a comet, hurtling toward her home to do some new damage.

Bob called again that night. "Is Lena there?"

"Lena who?" Ella asked.

She was sorry she said it; she could actually hear the terror mount in his breath. "Lena Rose."

"Who may I say is calling?"



Now he was dying. She heard his breathe everything slow on his end as he struggled not to tell her why he was calling.

"I just want to talk to her," said Bob.

Bob was half an hour early for their first date. He pulled up in an old, candy-apple red Ford that gleamed, dully, in the afternoon. While Lena sprayed her hair upstairs, Ella and Lou huddled in the sheer-curtained window by the door and watched him come toward them. Bob rushed up the walkway, his hands plunged deep into his pockets, head down as though he was walking into a wind.

Lou opened the door. "Glad to meet you," he boomed.

Bob kept his hands in his pockets, not lifting them to shake with Lou. The part in his hair was crooked, like a road that needed to be fixed.

"Bob, Lena's not ready." Ella lied, touching his arm; she wanted to see how normal he felt. His shoulder was a little damp and surprisingly muscular. Quickly, she removed her hand.

Bob glided deftly past her into the den and plucked up the TV Guide. He flipped wildly through its pages for a moment then stumbled across the room and clicked the channels until he found Gunsmoke.

Bob propped his feet on Lou's green vinyl footstool, slunk low into the couch, and thoughtfully eyed the action in Gunsmoke. He looked about 40. His short, bristly hair was gray, but his feet, in blue sneakers, bounced on the footstool with the blunt, coarse merriment of a boy. Ella was used to Lena's stubbiness, the way she seemed to bump up unsuccessfully against adulthood. But it seemed strange in Bob, and she could not help thinking that, even though he was taller than she, he resembled an aging dwarf.

Lou sat on the couch and rubbed his palms rapidly against his knees. His face looked as though it had been sculpted hurriedly into an expression of calm -- the cheeks were uneven, the smile was off. He surveyed Bob as he did any stranger -- as though deciding whether he would hire him. "You like Gunsmoke?"

Bob clasped his hands on his lap. "I like the man in the hat," he said.

Lou began to lean into another question; Ella felt he would ask the wrong ones. "How is the job?" Ella asked.

Bob arranged his hands around an invisible steering wheel and twisted it to the right until the wheel came to an abrupt stop. "I drive," he said. "I like to drive."

"Do you like -- big trucks or small ones?" Ella asked.

"I just drive big ones," he said, as though insulted.

Cowboys galloped, yelling, across a desert. Ella kept glancing at her aquamarine vase right by his elbow, pretending not to stare at him. There had to be reasons to like him. His fingernails shone. He had tied his shoes neatly. He had blue eyes. And the main point -- he wanted Lena.

Karen E. Bender grew up in Los Angeles and currently lives in New York with her husband and son. She is the author of the novel Like Normal People (Houghton Mifflin, 2000), and her short stories have appeared in magazines including The New Yorker, Granta, Zoetrope, Story, The Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review and others. Her fiction has been anthologized in the Best American Short Stories and Pushcart Prize series and has been read as part of the "Selected Short" series at Symphony Space in New York. In 1997, she received the Rona Jaffe Writer's award. Bender has taught fiction writing at the Writer's Voice program in New York, as well as the MFA programs at Antioch Los Angeles and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. She will use her NEA grant to work on a story collection titled, "Anything for Money."

Author's Statement

I was so honored to receive an NEA grant. I've been leading a full, fun, and exhausting life teaching, writing, and taking care of our three-year old, and this wonderful grant will allow me the time to work on my new collection of stories. My new collection, "Anything for Money," explores the interconnections between the desire for money, the yearning for status, and the inability to forge human connections. Having (or not having) money, yearning for it or shunning it is one way we define "worth" in our culture. I want to examine how this cultural obsession affects our attitudes toward ourselves and towards others. I look at the various ways in which emotion is expressed through our attitudes toward money, how we attempt to transform or mask ourselves through its getting, spending, saving and giving. Thank you, NEA, for giving the greatest gift to a writer - the gift of time.