The idea for this story came when BBC America was showing movie adaptations of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The station held a contest for new adaptations of the stories, and I was intrigued by the challenge. I looked up Chaucer’s work (I hadn’t read it since college), and I was drawn to “The Wife of Bath.” Now, in my adaptation the wife in question is a saucy Jewish grandma, but I managed to keep a lot of Chaucer’s story the same. I didn’t finish in time for the contest deadline, but I had a lot of fun in the process. I recommend this as an exercise for writers searching for an idea: Find a work of literature to rewrite with your own twist. “Bubbie’s Tale” was originally published by Wild Mind (2008).
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Based on “The Wife of Bath” from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales
So you found the photograph, did you. I was wondering when you would find it. All right already. Stop being such a nudnick. You want I should tell you everything? Fine, I’ll tell you everything. Have a nosh and I’ll tell you the whole megilla. Knew your grandma had some saucy secrets, but you never could have guessed this one.
No, dear, you’re seeing it correctly. No, I never told you. Your mother is such a kvetcsh I thought certainly she would have told you by now. He was my fifth husband. We were married in 1965 when he was 20 and I was 40. Look at him in that picture, his hippy hair, his beaded neck, his tanned bare chest, that shayna punim. His hair was the color of the summer sun at noon and his eyes were like liquid sky. How could I resist him? He was a luftmentsch, such a dreamer, and he was so well read, knew all the classics and old Bible stories your great-grandpa Meyer used to read to me. How many 20 year-olds do you know who can quote Ovid and recite Chaucer while keeping track of the sports scores? Some people thought he was a nebish, but he knew about freedom and living your best life and doing things your own damn way. He was dynamic and explosive and I thought that we would be happy together, that he was the one, that our age difference didn’t matter. Your mother can tell you more about that.
I’ve always regretted that I never asked him the question. Maybe then I would have fought to keep him when he wanted to leave. What question, you say? The same question I’ve asked every other husband of mine, the same question I taught you to ask your future husband: What is it that women really want? When you find a man who can answer that question you’ve found a man who is worth the trouble. I’ve been searching my whole life for a man who can answer the question, and if I ever do find one I’ll snatch him up for husband number six. Maybe then I’ll settle down. Some.
I bet you didn’t know your grandma was hot stuff in her day. The men wouldn’t keep away from me, and why would I want to keep them away? Who am I, the Virgin Mary? That’s the way God made us, with desires and wants. If I wanted a new dress I bought it. If I wanted a bottle of wine I drank it. If I wanted a man I had him. It was that simple.
I’ve had five husbands when some women never have one. Three of my husbands were good and two were bad, and still I’m thankful that I’ve been married so many times. Your grandfather? He was my second husband. After I eloped with my first husband your great-grandmother, a stern Russian woman, talked me into an annulment.
“What good is that man as a husband?” my mother yelled at me. “Can he buy you a nice house? Can he buy you diamonds? All he has is bubkes! He is nothing but a schnorrer. Find a man who can buy you some respectability. Do better!”
I liked the idea of doing better, but before I decided to get the annulment I asked my first husband the question: “What is it that women really want?”
“A husband who is good in bed,” he answered, and he was. Our sex life was great—that man loved me well. That’s why I married him in the first place, but it wasn’t enough so I left him. When I found your grandfather we married quickly and your mother was born soon after. No, you don’t need to count on your fingers. Yes, your mother knows. No, she never had much to do with my husbands, that is, until she found one to her liking.
He was a good man, your grandfather, even if he was a nebish. Shortly after we were married I asked him the question “What do women really want?” He answered, “They want to be provided for.” That wasn’t the answer, either, though I didn’t argue with him. He handed his paychecks to me and let me buy what I wanted. He brought home a good salary and gave me more stability than I had ever known before. Maybe that was why I started straying. He made things too easy for me. I had to make ashen porach out of him, so during the summers when we camped in the Catskills, during the week when your grandfather was working in the city, I’d meet one of the neighbors, a certain mechaya gentleman who looked like Cary Grant, and we’d have a few martinis and roll around on the floor. Your grandfather walked in on us once, but once was enough. He gave me a black eye and died of a heart attack three months later.
Of course I mourned for your grandfather. He was a mensch and treated me well. I mourned him for, well, for a while certainly. But I was young and beautiful–how long should I have worn drab black and walked with my head hung low? Men were making passes at me at your grandfather’s funeral. I was still alive. I still had desires and wants. Why should I have stayed away from men? For respectability? Sometimes you’re such a nudnick. You do make me laugh.
My third husband was too old to be anything but a schmendrick. But he was an old and rich fool, and I laughed when I asked him what women wanted more than anything and he answered, “To be widowed.” And that’s just what he did nine months after we were married, he widowed me. And he left me all his land and money. Husband number four thought that women wanted more than anything to be flattered and pleased, and though it wasn’t the right answer it was a good one, at least until he decided that I was good for being knocked around. I left him, just packed my bags and disappeared because, though I was getting older and sagging a bit, I was not going to allow myself to be anyone’s punching bag.
I met husband number five on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. He had bet too much on the fight and lost everything he had and more. The mobsters were going to take his life in exchange for the thousands he owed. I saw him shivering at the edge of the boardwalk, looking into the mad-fisted water like he saw the edge of his own grave and I knew he was in trouble. I coaxed him away from the water and I nudged his troubles from him with a few gins. I couldn’t help falling for him. I knew I had to help him. Only I had to be part of the bargain. Only I could not let that pretty boy go without ever feeling the warmth of his appreciation.
I would hardly consider it blackmail, dear. He didn’t have to accept my offer. I wasn’t the one holding a gun to his head. The poor schlemazel had had some bad luck so I told him I would give him the $100,000 to pay off his bookie on the condition that, if he accepted my money then he accepted me as his wife. And he had to marry me before I put the check in his pocket. I wasn’t going to have my pretty boy running away after his bill was paid.
He didn’t say yes right away; in fact, he was a little ferklempt when I made him the offer. He said he didn’t know what to do, kill himself, let Leo’s boys kill him or marry a yenta. But I knew he was desperate and I was desperate to have him so I waited. I went home, noshed a little, and waited.
It only took him 22 hours to come by with a ring, a tin one from a Cracker Jack box, and then we were married in the courthouse three days later. That night I discovered my new young husband did not want to consummate our marriage. Have you ever heard such a thing? He said it was like sleeping with Ernest Borgnine. I said to him, “You can call me whatever you want but I’m not paying Leo until after you’ve been in my bed.” So we slept together that night, my new young husband holding his breath like he was a deep-sea diver about to plunge into a shark reef. He was a meek husband, young and fresh, and after I plied him with gin and he relaxed he realized that I knew just how to make him howl and everyone looks the same in the dark.
Oh, grow up already. Maybe if you found yourself a mensch, a nice doctor or a lawyer maybe, you wouldn’t be such a yenta about your grandmother’s hot pants.
Our age difference wasn’t such a problem in the beginning. We enjoyed each other’s company. He was well cared for and I had a beautiful man to look at all day. But then he started changing towards me. Suddenly one day he began complaining that I was laying with every man I saw and he started arguing with me about every little thing. Then came the day after our first anniversary when I was a little late coming home. Maybe I teased him some and called him a boy. Maybe I sounded like his mother and infuriated him. Suddenly he snapped and took a swing at me with your grandfather’s urn. It was a heavy urn and he knocked me out cold. When I came to I was in the hospital. He was sitting there, crying and holding my hand, the schmendrick. He asked my forgiveness, and I forgave him, and then he told me that really he had been all ferklempt because he loved someone else and he didn’t know how to tell me. He said he felt like a chaza. I had saved his life and he had given me bubkes in return.
I told him I wished I had been enough for him. He said, “The girl I love is a younger version of you, the spitting image of you, a luftmentsh with a shayna punim.” When he smiled at me, I understood him completely. I let him go and wished him well.
There there, dear. It was nothing. We were only married a little while, one year—what is one year?—and then he married your mother and he loved her well.
It’s true, after everything my only regret is that I never asked him the question. He and I were so busy traveling the world and enjoying each other that it never occurred to me to ask him. But your mother asked him the question, and he knew! He knew the answer. But such is my life. Finally I find a man who can answer the question and he lives happily ever after with your mother. He knew that what every woman wants is to be an equal partner in her relationship and not be ruled over by her man. In the end, he knew exactly what I wanted. He knew exactly what I had been looking for all along.
I know what you’re going to ask me–what do we do now? Now, my dear, you need to find yourself a mensch who will love you well, and if he knows the answer to the question, well, that’s all the better.
And, while you’re at it, find a nice man for your Bubbie too.