In her brilliant 2013 novel, A Town of Empty Rooms, a Jewish family must relocate to the South after the grief-stricken heroine, Serena, shattered by her father’s death, charges $8,000 of jewelry on the company charge card. Like Serena, the impecunious characters in Refund are too confused, exhausted, and overworked to find security in poorly-paid jobs. In these wrenchingly realistic short stories, people barely get by as they miserably struggle to provide for their families.
Bender’s style is forceful but simple as she shares her ironic, compassionate insights into money, security, and family life.
In “The Third Child,” Bender describes the numbness of family life after the Goldmans move to a small city in South Carolina where they can afford a house and car. When Jane Goldman, a freelance editor for technical manuals, gets pregnant with a third child, she decides to have an abortion. The financial responsiblity and love and boredom of raising the two children they already have is enough. And in a way she has a third child: their eight-year-old neighbor, Mary Grace, the daughter of Baptists, is the only person who ever knocks on their door.
Jane’s view of the neighborhood and family from the front porch is humorous and compassionate.
The screaming was the sound of children protesting everything: eating, bathing, sharing toys, going to sleep…. This was her life now, at forty. She had married a man whom she admired and loved, and after the initial confusion of early marriage–the fact that they betrayed the other simply by being themselves–they fell into the exhausting momentum that was their lives.
Bender’s characters have to be flexible in their work and their expectations.. In the title story, “Refund,” one of the best 9-11 stories I have read, two artists realize that their art is an extravagance. Clarissa and Josh are almost 40, they are soon to lose their rent-controlled apartment, and they realize they need full-time jobs. Clarissa suddenly wants to send their son to an elite pre-school, Rainbows ($10,000 a year). How can they afford it? How can they pay their bills? They find teaching jobs for three weeks at a university in Virginia and sublet their apartment in Tribeca near the World Trade Center to a Canadian woman, Kim. But they are away on 9-11, and when they return, Kim sends them crazy letters saying she wants a full refund. While ash and dust coat their neighborhood, Josh finds a full-time job, Clarissa discovers the shallowness of the mothers at the pre-school, and learns that Kim’s plight is not as simple as it seems. All of them could use a refund, whether of the monetary or emotional kind.
Many of Bender’s characters are similarly beleaguered by violence. In “The Sea Turtle Hospital,” the narrator, a teaching assistant in a kindergarten class, describes the experience of being in lockdown when a shooter invades the school. Most of the teachers are poorly-paid and work a second job to survive; but now survival seems unlikely as they listen to the unidentified noises in the school. The police tell the children to close their eyes and walk with their hands on the shoulders of the person in front of them down the hall, but most of them see the tracks in blood and their dead principal .. The narrator comforts herself by taking a student to see wounded sea turtles at a “sea turtle hospital.” When they return to Keisha’s neighborhood, the police are there because they feared more violence.
In “Reunion,” the narrator, Anna Green, attends her 20-year high school reunion to distribute business cards for her failing home appliance repair business. One of her classmates takes out a gun and starts shooting, and Anna’s now obese ex-boyfriend, Warren, a realtor, leads her out. She doesn’t immediately tell her husband, a social worker who is having a small breakdown and lending money to his clients. Unable to pay the bills and concerned that their daughter refuses to sleep, Anna escapes her life by visiting Warren in his shoddy office, and is so confused she buys a property from him.
One of the stories, “Anything for Money,” is about ostentatious wealth. Lenny Weiss is the host of the game show “Anything for Money.” His guests must humiliate themselves for money: singing in a phone booth filled with bugs, etc.. Lenny came up with the concept for the show when his daughter had an ear infection and he had no money to take her to the doctor. Years later, there is a parallel situation when his grandchild comes to visit while her mother is in rehab. She steals meaningless personal objects so she feels she is in control and can reconstruct people’s stories. When she becomes ill, Lenny’s money cannot help her.
The arrangement of the stories in a collection is important, and I have one criticism. Two of the showier stories, “Anything for Money” and “Theft” are anomalous, yet appear near the beginning of the book. Perhaps one of the more effective stories about lower middle-class people struggling. would have worked better there. Overall these stories are almost as connected as chapters of a novel.
I loved reading Refund . It made me question how people end up living in houses in developments with thin walls “slapped together with drywall and paste” and “the bullish SUVs parked in the driveways, testament of dreams of safety and endless oil.” Well, it’s because they have nowhere better to go, and they’re afraid, yes? Bender doesn’t despise these people, but she doesn’t want to be where they are. Nor do her characters.