, , , , ,

Margaret BenbowMargaret Benbow’s story, “Joe Szabo and the Gypsy Bride” was published in the Winter, 2014 issue of The Antioch Review and is the winner of the Zona Gale Award for Short Fiction given by the Council for Wisconsin Writers. The story chronicles the day tailors Joe Szabo and his son Abel are asked by the aunt of a beautiful young lady, to make her a wedding gown. The day unfolds as only it can for this family of strong-willed men.

Abel …reflected that his father, his grandfather, and every single one of the Szabo forebears he’d ever heard about were the same:  swarthy, barrel-chested, raving men charging their demented projects with their tusks, focusing on the desire like blind wild pigs.



by Margaret Benbow

Perhaps the first seed of this story was planted when I was ten years old, and went to the Sauk County Fair with a friend. She pointed out the one family at the fair who stood out from all the others.

“That’s the gypsy family,” she whispered.

They had wild, dark, beautiful faces and bright clothes. They looked so different in kind that they seemed almost different in species from the placid German farmers and their blond offspring. Everybody knew there was only one farmer who would allow them to camp on his land. They returned for a few weeks each year. He said they always left the campsite cleaner than they found it.

During the year, at irregular intervals, he and his family would receive odd, lovely presents, sent without a note from different places. His wife said that the gypsies remembered their friends. They remembered their enemies, too.

I thought of them again in college, when a professor quoted Epictetus: “What is the use of one against the crowd? What is the use of the red border on the mantle? To stand apart from the rest, and to declare itself as color.”

Finally, many years later, I read an interview with a fashion designer who, after an early struggle, had become famous. He was known for his exquisite evening gowns, and the tropical islands that he bought. However, he said that the happiest day of his life had taken place when he was young, obscure, and “poorer than dirt.” A lovely gypsy girl brought fabric to him—he remembered it as being a luscious rose ombre silk—and asked him to invent a dress for her wedding. The marriage would be that night.

The designer worked, he said, “like a happy animal” all day. He did it for the hell of it, and the fun of it. As a Frenchman, he also did it pour ses beaux yeux, for her beautiful eyes.

The fabulous aspects of this task, like a very demanding fairy-tale, fascinated me. The designer had been given work which called on all his pride and skill. It was also linked to his idea of marriage as a sacrament, which in his eyes, and the bride’s, made his work holy. The young man was flattered to be asked. He slaved all day in a happy trance. The girl was ecstatic over the dress. They all but licked each other’s hands in gratitude. They came across as two of the sweetest people you could ever hope to meet. And that was the problem, when I decided to write about them.

Where were the burled ribs, the rocky backbone, the glitter in the eye of the story? Where was the hidden metal shrapnel which affected a character’s stride? The actual event couldn’t have happened to nicer folks. But when everybody is good and kind and sweet, and it’s all King Bubbles of the Happy Islands, the writer is in big trouble. Because without transgression, there is no story. You can cobble together an account, of a sort, with an unusual happening as its only material. But the uncommon plus transgression is better. It has more meat, it’s more interesting.

I decided that the character of the tailor, Joe, would be the transgressive core of the story. His heart is a tough drum of muscle indeed. He’s stubborn, bigoted, profane, and sometimes casually violent. His personal motto is, Rise early, and sharpen your knife.  He especially despises gypsies.

What could I do, what reason could I invent, that he would accept the task of busting his hump all day (as he’d put it) to oblige a young girl from a tribe he hates? And so the girl’s aunt Dolores rears up, with her insolent, damn-your eyes blue stare. She taunts, dares, and fools Joe into sewing the dress.  She’s a piece of work, tough as he is. Diamond has met diamond. And like everybody else in the story, she has her reasons.

The central event only seems to be Joe’s creation of the dress. When I brought the first draft to the manuscript group I attend, one man harrumphed, “This guy sews all day? What unpromising material.”

But there is no such thing as unpromising material. Treatment is everything. Any person or animal or object, any event or phenomenon of nature, is worth writing about. If we share the world with it, it’s not too puny for our attention.  It is only we who might be too puny.

The story keeps unfolding, backward and forward, like the endlessly intricate gores of the skirt Joe sews. Every character has a secret. Joe’s good side is unknown even to him. Gradually we see how hard he works; that he has a carefully concealed love for his son, Abel; and finally, a drive to create beauty which knows no fear and brooks no obstruction. Abel is gay, afraid to come out to his macho father. The Traveler aunt, Dolores, is carrying a beleaguered family on her strong shoulders. And what of Joe’s father, terrible Grandpa, smoldering and stinking in the wings? He never appears directly. But the life he led seventy years back is literally explosive, and by devious paths has brought all of these people together.

In the end, everything is revealed that should be. I don’t like endings that weakly dribble out, “open” (ugh) unresolved endings, or most sadistic of all, alternate conclusions. How can the writer not know how his own damn story ends? If he’s out to deliberately frustrate the reader, it’s a hostile tactic. The reader is not our enemy. He’s entitled to know what we know, last and best.

So by the end, Grandpa and the Traveler women and Abel yield up their hidden lives, their intimate marrow. And even Joe discovers, late—but not too late—that all of his life he’s carried a powerful mystery as close to him as one could be: in his bloodstream.  And he never knew it.


Margaret Benbow’s short stories have been published in The Antioch Review. Zoetrope: All-Story, The Georgia Review, Rosebud, and in other magazines and anthologies. She has completed a short story collection, Boy Into Panther, which was a finalist in the Iowa Short Fiction contest. She is now working on a second book whose linked stories are about outsider artists, their friends and enemies. She also writes poems, which have been widely published. A full-length collection, Stalking Joy, won the Walt McDonald First Book award and was published by Texas Tech University Press.

© 2015 The Antioch Review