“Shortcuts"

Fiction by Lona Rubenstein

He was a shortcut kind of guy; living on the edge. But that’s what made him so attractive. A kind of mystery man.

What’s more he was good at minding his own business, hustling men who needed to lose their money, listening to women’s hard luck tales and expertly managing their pleasures.

“So how the hell did I get caught up in this mess,” he asked himself, leaving the Sunday night Ranger game at Madison Square Garden, adjusting the collar of his navy peacoat, walking from Eighth to Broadway and then uptown toward 55th Street.

The mess was her.

His pace was easy, not fast, not slow. No hurry. The street was empty, too cold, too late on a Sunday night. He didn’t mind; just stayed alert for surprises from dimly lit storefronts. He knew she’d be waiting in the small apartment a friend had found for her to use for a while. The tenant, a fiddler, was on a postwar, 1950, tour of Europe.

And he was glad she was waiting for him. He didn’t like that feeling, a new feeling, this glad that she’d be there. He was used to easy-come-easy-go, and she disrupted that. Fair or not, he was angry at her for it, held it against her. Secretly held it against her. Maybe even a secret from himself.

Icicle gusts pierced the G.I.-issue pea jacket, no tall concrete buildings to shield him. He pushed the two half-dollar-size collar buttons, black buttons with patriotic anchor insets, pushed them through the sturdy woolen slots —­ and then hunching his broad shoulders, warmed his hands inside the deep jacket pockets. They were a fighter’s hands, square, compact, nothing wasted.

He always went to the games alone. And she always complained about that, wanting him to skip a few or at least wanting to tag along, though he knew she had no interest in hockey. Not that she wasn’t an athlete, mind you, but hockey?

“You have to be kidding,” she once said. “Why hockey?” 

So he refused to take her even though, perversely, they had met at a hockey game, where some young guy from her uptown neighborhood had taken her. 

She knew how to cheer, that’s what had caught his attention, jumping up and down out of her seat like a jack-in-the-box, giving it her all, rooting. He vaguely wondered what she was like in bed, but right then the Rangers scored. His own thoughts of scoring dissolved. Nevertheless he got her phone number. 

The hockey crowd was a friendly crowd, bound by a love for a second-rate sport. You’d be kidding yourself if you believed it could compete with baseball, football, basketball. (But hockey lovers didn’t mind. It was not what they were about. Like Joe, they were independent, decisive, and couldn’t care less about being marginal and what other people thought.)

As for him, he really liked it better. Going alone. This sport suited those living lives on the outskirts of society. Didn’t need company to make it good. Street smart. Self-contained, Joe Singer cared for hockey and the Rangers, enjoyed them, as much as he cared for anything. 

Maybe more. Until recently, that is. Like the icicle gusts, spear thrusts needling through his thick woolen jacket, she had pierced his shield, penetrated his protective armor.

Now there was this mess. Complications. She said she thought she might be pregnant. Yeah, right! Joe knew, knowing her, that Marush knew she was pregnant.

What kind of name was Marush, anyhow?

“Slavic for Mary,” she’d explained when they first met. “But you can say it any way you want,” she added, quickly writing it on a matchbook cover she had slipped him with her phone number when he asked. “And what’s your name?”

“You have a date; pay attention to the guy you came with,” he had said, disapprovingly. “You came with someone, remember?”

“Hey, I don’t need you to tell me what’s right,” she had laughed. Pointing to the fellow she was with, she said, “We’re friends, that’s all.”

When they left the Garden arena that night, it had already started to snow, a slick white sheet blanketing the sidewalk. The first snowfall, and in December. 

“Now there’s another present, maybe a white Christmas,” she called out to him, “Joe, right? That’s your name?” 

She was laughing, waving goodbye, holding on to the arm of the uptown kid she came with, as she slid on the icy mix. “I’m not too good at this, fall a lot.”

Yes, well, he was falling, too. His protective cloak of disinterest melting despite the ice snow that was quickly becoming a storm.

He waited a week, Joe did. But he had kept the matchbook cover. He called her.

“I was waiting. Hoping you would call. Not sure. You’re a tough guy to read, Mr. Joe,” she admitted naively over the phone. “You don’t make it easy.”

“I like it that way,” Joe Singer responded.

“So when will I see you?” she asked after a long pause.

“I’ll call you,” he replied.

And he did, a week later. Still wanting to see her. Something he couldn’t help. Another thing, reasonable or not, he held against her.

And that was that. She was his from then on. “I don’t know where I end and you begin,” she confessed one night when they made love in a dingy 42nd Street hotel room. (He was very careful with money, had to be in his business. He knew he couldn’t be on the hustle and squander cash.)

So it was Joe who found Ashland, cheap and safe, through his sister, a celebrated psychoanalyst with both flimsy credentials and celebrated patients. She was financially successful and unpredictably effective but valued by her troubled, affluent patients. Each became included in her notable circle of friends. She had a maxim which she shared with Marush. An axiomatic maxim, her bottom line.

“When it comes between you and another person, choose yourself, I always tell that to Joe.”

“That’s very nice,” Marush shot back. 

Joe liked his sister but kept his distance. He didn’t do the same with Marush. 

“When it comes between you and the world, Marush, bet on the world!” Joe advised when Marush repeated his sister’s words. Perhaps he warned her, then. It was the way he looked at things.

It was Joe who took her to Ashland. They stayed overnight at the hotel, had a light supper at the diner. She actually had oatmeal, a last-ditch effort, she told him, toward health and resistance. Scheduled as doctor’s first morning patient, Marush was not allowed to eat after 6 p.m.

It was a small Pennsylvania coal town —­ with the look of the jobless; barely 6,000 people survived there —­  that delivered the unborn to the soot-covered landfills around the perimeter.

Ashland, nonetheless, appeared to be a tourist destination, getting a lot of traffic from the big cities, including New Yorkers, who traveled there carrying a burden and returned home empty, less the $25 dollars the good doctor charged.

“Why so cheap?” Marush wondered.

“Everything is cheaper outside of New York,” Joe had answered.

And if you came alone, the good doctor let you sleep in his one-room hospital overnight. And if you came with the “perp,” he asked that the guy stay in the surgery room for the procedure. Penance? Perspective? Not many came. 

An interesting man, this country doctor, a regular industry for the town, supporting both the modest hotel near his office and the corner diner, as well, both on Main Street.

In the morning Joe shook her awake. They walked over to the office. He watched her change clothes, put on the green surgical gown, stretch herself out on the black leather gurney. It was when she raised her feet, putting them in the metal stirrups, that he exploded.

“This fricking place is ugly; everything about it is ugly,” he said. “What we’re doing is ugly. Get dressed — we’re getting the hell out of here.” 

“What?” she exclaimed.

“Get a bus to Maryland. Get fricking married. Have the fricking baby. You’ve ruined my whole life,” he added, with a half-smile, but not joking.

“How’d I do that? Don’t do me any favors! Everyone makes up his own mind,” she stood up for herself. 

“You were not in my plans.”

“Yes, well, when you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans,” she retorted, getting angrier.

“Yeah! Yeah!” he muttered. 

“Just get off that thing; you look stupid with your legs up in the air, and I can’t breathe in here.” (He actually thought he could faint, his mouth and nose covered, getting the whole picture like that, like a volcano erupting. Ugly, not pretty at all.) 

“Get your damn clothes on.” Clearly, he was in command. 

Joe ripped off the sterile face mask, dropped his sterile hospital gown to the floor, turned to the doctor, who was standing near the tray of stainless steel hospital probes. 

 All he said was, “Sorry, Doc.”

“Please leave the $25,” the good doctor told him, shaking his head, but with a kind of half-grin that said nothing would surprise him. “It’s not the first time.” 

“But what are we going to do? Where are we going to live? How are we going to live?” Marush argued. She had started to cry. “What was the whole point?”

“Forget crying! It won’t work. You should know that! Just shut up and get dressed,” Joe said, impatiently. “We’ll get a bus to Maryland.”

“Maryland?”

“Yeah, Maryland,” he grumbled, sounding angry. “Just get your legs down, shut up and get dressed!”

“Okay, Okay!” Marush sat up, legs dangling from the black cushioned operating table. It finally hit her, what all of this meant. Maryland! No blood tests! A shortcut!

“What should we name it?” she asked.


Lona Rubenstein moved to East Hampton more than 50 years ago. Her books include “Itzig,” a novel set in Germany from 1900 to 1935.