The afternoon’s snow still had the lift of an infant’s blanket—or teased hair, maybe a spongy Orlon sweater, the bed of cotton under jewelry. Jewelry. The girl couldn’t even think the word anymore without feeling the lot of the hopelessly cheap crawl into bed with her, every last scallop of “let’s pretend”—let’s pretend at midnight trysts, at cabs from here to there, at ocelot clutch-bags with their own matching lighters. This is why she never attempted jewelry: she couldn’t stomach “let’s pretend” for a lime rickey with the girls in offices down the hall and up and down the stairs. Stupid girls, nauseating girls—she herself just one more, an advert repeated all over town: Earnestly seeking security; will cross legs for early dinner and Gregory Peck picture.
This particular picture was Copley Square at dusk, lit the way only January can do—Trinity, the library, black cars moving like beetles in a box of baking soda—and beyond that row upon row of pinkish stone, with people inside, living their foreign lives. Her boss had called her attention to the blood-tinged rosiness of the sky, and as they stood in the window of his seventh-floor office, stood side by side before the limp glow, she thought that maybe what he wanted to share was the shameful innocence of this intrusion upon the most cheerless part of his day, this serendipitous injection of radiance into his seventh-floor view of the world.
In theory it made no sense to specify this part of her boss’s day as the most cheerless, as he always seemed to derive some vague satisfaction from the activity known as getting ready to go home. But he was an unhappy man getting ready to go home, and that was different from a man stuffing his hat on his head and dashing to get the 5:45 from South Station. He’d leave the office never wearing his overcoat; it would be slung over his arm, like something dead he was taking to a funeral parlor to have pressed out and made to look momentarily good. He’d pause at the threshold between her office and the shabby reception area shared by several businesses in the suite. He’d look at his hands as if waiting for them to say something, to break into conversation like a couple of stocking puppets, a snake and a weasel who hadn’t seen each other in ages. At one time she had thought he might make a pass at her, slide his hand up under her skirt with a sly silence, a cunning absence of narrative. She had no idea what she’d have done if this kind of thing happened, but she couldn’t help forever taking inventory of the lost benefits—credible jewelry, nice pairs of shoes, twenty-dollar bills—anything to make up for the monotony. She took inventory but was certainly wise to the fact that the sun never shines where the sun never shines, especially in the dead of winter.
She used to work for a jeweler, as the girl to fetch things. Initially the fetching was from the counter to the vault out back, but for some reason this fetching grew into transporting thousands of dollars worth of merchandise from the store downtown to the one in Central Square, via bus, right before closing. “Send the girl,” they’d say, and she’d be out on the street with precious commodities in her handbag, out on the street with her pair of dime-store nylons doing the work of Wells Fargo tires. They paid her next to nothing, and she was always afraid she’d accidentally drop the cache into some dark hole—a sewer drain, for instance—and be arrested without mercy, for being idiot enough to trust that the Johnny to whom she’d handed the stash would wait around to collect her as well. This conveyance went on for several months until early December, when it began to get dark before five. She’d got off at Central and noticed that the man in the black overcoat who’d crushed up next to her on the bus was now following her. For a split second it struck her as highly comical—this being tailed, like in the movies—but then her scant allotment of prudence kicked in, and she panicked, out-and-out panicked on the slushy street amid the rush-hour pedestrian flow. She walked briskly in the direction of the Baptist church at the intersection, which was difficult given the cheap construction of her over-the-shoe boots. She walked briskly but in slight hops, like she’d seen Chinese women do in the newsreels. She knew she was slopping up the backs of her nylons, and she knew the black overcoat was right behind her. Would she seek sanctuary in the church? This was indeed a solution, but only if your pursuers happened to be a hoard of toothless peasants with burning torches—like she’d seen in a picture after the newsreel.
Her disorientation suddenly seemed ludicrous, as ludicrous as running in those boots, and the thought of being ludicrous shortened her temper. She turned around to go back past the bus stop and on to the store, and when she turned she smacked directly into the chest of the overcoat. “Aw, honey,” the man said in a snide way as he gripped her shoulders, “I just wanted a little kiss.” He turned out to be the jeweler’s brother-in-law, and his following her was a test of her mettle, to see if she’d take note and proceed in a level-headed manner, soliciting an officer, seeking refuge in a well-lit store along Massachusetts Avenue. “We thought you weren’t just another skirt,” the jeweler said, counting out her mid-week settlement in singles. “We thought you had some moxie.”
In her next job she resumed with the fetching, but there was little risk of being followed and tested by a sinister-looking brother-in-law. She’d got so adept at spending her work time in transit that she became the girl for a dressmaker and a milliner who shared an atelier in the Back Bay. She delivered hats and taffeta and tuille ball gowns to ladies out in Brookline or just up the Hill. Sometimes she’d be left waiting for an hour outside the building, in a narrow brick pedestrian alley where she’d pace, smoke, and pinch at invisible ash specks on her teeth as she’d seen Ida Lupino do in some picture. Eventually the door would open and there’d be a hatbox shoved in her face: “Here, do something else with it. It’s complete rubbish. Tell Irma it’s rubbish.” Sometimes she’d be invited into the sanctum, the fussy boudoir of a hapless woman who was momentarily all the more flummoxed over how she should look, what would make her husband the most terribly happy man on the East Coast. “Tell me honestly what you think. This is an important party for Arthur. He must make an impression. I must make his impression.” Or else she’d have to help some shapeless woman hoist the stiff artfulness of stays and plastic pediments around her boxy midriff, the bulge of her breasts displaced in all directions, the red moles looking nothing like the moles on the Madame de Pompadours painted on the screens at the atelier of Mesdames Helena and Irma.
On a bus to Brookline she’d sit in one seat and have the dress under its encasement sitting next to her, like it was the ghost of a former companion. Her most robust ghostly companion was a beaded ballet-length gown with layers and layers of organdy; its destination was a house in Chestnut Hill—a mansion really—up beyond the reservoir. This gown was what the dressmaker called her chef-d’oeuvre; she’d hired four Armenian girls to sew the beads, and she’d gone down to Providence herself to select these beads. The woman for whom the dress had been made wore slacks and smoked with the aid of a short cigarette holder. She had a drink in her hand and a sister in from Florence. She spoke with the cigarette holder in the crook of her mouth and called herself and her sister “girls,” even though the sister’s husband in Florence was said by the two of them to be “an ancient gasbag.” “Embassy, you know,” the sister explained, “but then I don’t expect you’d know anything of embassy, would you? I don’t reckon you’d know anything of anything, would you, Patsy?” They seemed to find it a laugh riot to address her as Patsy, and she tried to ignore the tight midday gaiety of the Chestnut Hill world, figuring that it was some sort of trend among the drunkard wives of Florence to call the shopgirls Patsy. On the woman with the cigarette holder the dressmaker’s chef-d’oeuvre looked somewhat silly, but on her younger sister it worked as a passable barometer of strained opulence. She distinctly remembered the two of them half-dressed, brassiere straps falling down, pressing their foreheads together, giggling and whispering: “Who’ll ever see you? Who’ll ever know?”
When she got back to the atelier Helena shouted, “But where is the dress?” She explained the situation of Mrs. Rahill’s sister, that Mrs. Rahill’s sister had decided to take the gown. “But Mrs. Rahill only just telephoned! She told me the dress was sent back with you, for adjustments to the length! What have you done with my dress!” By the next day Madame Helena well understood what had happened, but at the base of this shock and embarrassment was the messenger, the girl, and there was nothing to do but quietly bury the evidence, like a cat patting soil over its droppings. The girl scolded herself for being so stupid; she knew something was up when she left the house and Mrs. Rahill had urged, “Here, take the box. We don’t need the box.” She refused to take the box, saying that Madame Helena would consider it improper. When she said “improper” Mrs. Rahill had laughed through her nose, and the sister chimed in: “You don’t even know where Florence is, do you, Patsy?” This was a moment indeed, for in it she considered all the options open to her on the earth of her own access, and she said, “Isn’t it in California, where they grow the oranges?”
Because of this brief history she could not help but think of herself as someone you immediately sent away—“the send-away girl,” like it was her role in the school play. Getting out of scrapes had become a way of life—small, tedious scrapes, gauche situations. She had come to Boston from nowhere, only because there was an elderly cousin of already old relatives who thought this elder cousin would never tire of her own company. But suddenly she did this at eighty-four—tire of her own company. This cousin, Lucile, had a badly papered flat in the West End—five cramped rooms, pipes running along the baseboards in full view, pipes surrounded by the brown aura of wasted hours flushed past, hours and days and months and years. The girl couldn’t help but dwell on the sadness of Cousin Lucile’s pipes, the way they sullied the rose- and-peony wallpaper that reminded you of how people used to want to see flowers all the time. The room out back allowed a subtle and handy escape route for a lodger, kin or no—through the kitchen and onto the landing of the back stairs. The girl spent no time in that kitchen beyond this split-second transit. She took her meals at luncheonettes and often skipped dinner. If a date was enacted, meal-worthy packets of oyster crackers and roasted peanuts might find their way into her handbag. On random evenings and Sunday afternoons she’d sit with Lucile as Lucile rocked in her rocker. She gave the old woman more money than the situation was worth, but she knew that without the old woman she would never have arrived in Boston, because in the nowhere from which she came there lacked gumption on the part of the locals to make anything happen.
The man in the flat upstairs was said to be an actuary, although she did not want to think what being an actuary meant. She had never seen him, only heard his footsteps cross the floorboards overhead. When the record was over he’d walk to the phonograph and put the needle back to the start, to play “The Rose Room” yet another time. Some nights she’d lie in bed on her back smoking, unable to sleep even though she’d contributed to the ruin of cheap shoes by walking all over town that day. Hearing the same song over and over from start to finish made the world seem stuck, not spinning happily away on its axis as they’d once told her. The music wasn’t loud enough to justify her screaming out the window that people were trying to get some sleep around here and that wasn’t he a funny one with his one song. And the repetition wasn’t at all soothing, lulling her with the cadence of sheep hopping a low fence. “The Rose Room” dozens of times seemed an oblique message, come to her in the middle of the night, while the decent world was ensconced in slumber: nothing is ever going to change.
Her own room contained nothing to suggest the brassiness of modern times except a paper-covered book loaned to her by one of the girls who worked in the building, a file clerk. The book’s cover depicted a woman collapsed at the side of a bed, crying into her elbow. The woman wore a clinging negligee, and though you could not see her face, you could tell from the wave of her shiny auburn hair that she was beautiful in the customary way. The bedroom was of a chic style of some years past, with an ornate white telephone on the bedside table and a frilly lamp and shade suggesting a poodle with a ruff. The book was called Bleak Teardrops, and the file clerk had been given it by her cousin so that she might have her heart broken just as her cousin’s was. The girl didn’t even have to open the book to know the manner in which her own heart was slated for demolition; she only had to read what was written on the back of the cover showing the woman crying into her elbow: “The Other Woman—tormented by a love that is above all love, yet bound to secrecy, to the mercy of the whispering night. Will she do What Is Right? The Man—handsome, dashing, chained within a loveless marriage. Will he do What Is Right? The passion! the anguish! that causes such bleak teardrops. Read for yourself this riveting tale of lustful desire and tremulous Fate!”
A lucky girl was she to have been made the secretary of a successful man, even one so unhappily successful—unhappy and quiet and admirably regular. She had waited in a tiny reception lobby like any other, sitting in a worn leather chair that sunk at that exact place where her behind was wedged. It was right after Christmas, when the murky scent of wet woolens and warped floors blended in with the cigar smoke that seemed to live in the building. The hiss and clink of radiators could be heard up and down the stairwell to many other places of employment as she sat sinking, her knees pressed tightly together, a dainty puddle of the expired outdoors forming around her cheap boots. She flipped through an issue of Collier’s from the year before, vaguely noting how these men’s every whimsical conjecture had already been proved wrong—these men who wrote Collier’s. The advertisements for brands of cigarettes all seemed to show the same man enjoying his smoke. That he was so everywhere made him all the more elusive. He’d wear a hat, but you knew he wasn’t balding; he’d wear an open-neck shirt, but you knew that on most days he was buttoned up with a suitable tie. Her idle mind had been following this man like a hesitant child would an older playmate when she heard a voice that seemed, quite mysteriously, to match this persona that skittered across the pages of Collier’s. It was a voice youthful but certain, direct but considerate; what this voice was saying did not even register, but later she figured that it must have been “Send her in.” She was sent in by a pretty secretary, and she got this woman’s job, even though she had no secretarial experience. It was for this reason that she anticipated an overture; perhaps her hairstyle, the fit of her sweater, was what he’d fancied. Perhaps it was that of the many applicants who’d sat with their behinds wedged into that worn leather chair, her proportions had, by luck of the draw, dovetailed with what he imagined he needed.
In the small anteroom to her boss’s front-window office the implements of paperwork and perfumed toil were deemed hers and hers alone. She started off with “let’s pretend”—let’s pretend at shorthand, at the proper forms of business address, at inserting carbon paper into the cylinder of the typewriter, at stapling Exhibit A to Commensurate B. “Good morning, Mr. Perkins’s office,” she’d rehearsed at night in her room out back, with a delivery so melodic as to be a caricature of rosy efficiency, a tone she’d once heard a nightclub entertainer use to impersonate a voluptuous receptionist. She spent a month of after-work Mondays through Thursdays at the library across the square, poring over the manuals and grammar books she’d never much bothered with in school, because every day at Mr. Perkins’s office she was happy not to be sent away after something, and she’d been out of regular work for several months, smoking in her room late into the morning, making Cousin Lucile nervous. She soon found that her physical attributes—which she so assiduously worked at maintaining—were not at all what Mr. Perkins had in mind when he hired her. She turned out to be a serviceable secretary, which, to her amazement, is what he had uncannily perceived.
She was not and had never been a bad sort; she had come from a brood of bad sorts but was conscious of striking this aspect of her history from public view, like a string of X’s over material that her boss decided he did not want said. She had never become jocularly familiar, let alone intimate, with a married man, even though this is what all working girls were said to do. The rationale was that you had to, really, if you wanted to keep your days and nights from running into a slurp of melted hopes, like the two soupy spoonfuls that remained of your Bailey’s sundae. She worked on being good, however, as if virtue were a wood-burning hobby or a regimen to correct splayed, bleeding cuticles. Still, there was the matter of his voice, as well as the matter of his signature. She’d been oddly enamored since the first she saw of this signature—the graceful swoops, the careful slant, but also the stress that removed any undertone of femininity. “Why’d I have to see his handwriting?” she asked herself, not bothering to blanch at the absurdity—that, as his secretary, his handwriting was practically all she got to see. And she never saw him slouch at his desk or heard him get angry on the telephone or speak in incomplete sentences. He would dictate slowly and carefully with that voice, and everything he said beyond dictation seemed to register with a period, a comma, or a semicolon. Only once did he specify that she use an exclamation point. It was in a letter to a client who was wintering on one of the Keys: “My envy to you in sunny Florida!” He had paused after that sentence to ask her, “Envy—is that a bad choice?” She hadn’t even to ponder the issue: “Of course not. Everyone wants to be envied. It’s highly flattering.” Then he proceeded along in a weighty tone with what ought to have been a frivolous letter, taking care at the end to reiterate, “And just one exclamation point after Florida, not two.”
It had been a satisfactory year of employment—no moments of duress, no predicaments involving breaches of etiquette. Before Christmas he had handed her an envelope on which her name was written in his hand. The envelope contained twenty-five dollars in five-dollar bills. This was the only bonus she’d ever been given, and she was not ungrateful, but there remained a discomforting feeling about the envelope, perhaps because he had written her first name without the last. He called her by her first name, which most girls’ bosses did not do, fearing suspicion of things that might or might not be happening. She attributed this openness to the fact that her Christian name was hopelessly traditional; spoken in full, it sounded like homage to a long-dead grandmother or a beloved old schoolteacher got up like a Gibson girl. The girls, her own breezy pool to pal around with, had shortened her name, played with it like taffy, coming up with a panoply of perky identities. When you were single and went to work in zipped-up skirts, it seemed that you could be loose with your name, pass it around like a toy that was amusing only when handled by grown-ups.
There was another reason for the envelope’s instilling a discomforting feeling, however: she had done her boss a personal favor, and he probably felt that he owed her. It was sad to receive an envelope of cash—a payoff—under the guise of Christmas cheer, especially when it was handed to you by a man whose unhappy presence provoked such sympathy. One afternoon at the start of December he had asked her to have a seat in his office without her steno pad. “Just please sit down there,” he said with a motion of his hand, as if she were the wife of a wealthy client. He moved behind his tidy mahogany desk and opened a lower drawer in a manner that suggested he’d often done this before, whatever he was about to do. He placed in front of him a large jeweler’s box, lifted its lid, removed the contents wrapped in a thick burgundy cloth, and carefully set back each of the four flaps. “This belonged to my wife’s late mother,” he said, “and my wife doesn’t at all favor it. In fact, she dislikes the lot.”
He informed her that his wife’s mother had “passed on” in the fall and that the estate consisted of some rather fine jewelry in horrible settings and amalgamations. Mrs. Perkins had been quite distressed with the contents of her mother’s jewel box—the gems and stones and braids of gold and silver all in a tarnished, tiresome heap. “What do you think I can have done with this?” he said courteously, neatly clasping his hands as though he were a jeweler himself. “I’d like to have it made into something she’d like, as a Christmas gift, but I haven’t a clue as to how to proceed. You worked for a jeweler, didn’t you?”
From the jewel box her boss had taken a gold necklace saturated with black pearls—pearls set as droplets all the way around, with tiny diamonds at their base. This was the item he’d selected for reconfiguring, as representative of his dewy love. He didn’t say this—“dewy love”—but this was the language buzzing about her head since she began dawdling around various cosmetics counters decked out for the holiday season.
She leaned forward on her chair to peer at Exhibit A. “You might have difficulty getting anything done so soon before Christmas,” she advised, pretending to have some professional instinct in the matter. She studied the necklace but was really marveling at how this was the first time in nearly a year that he spoke of his “wife” versus the staid, distant “Mrs. Perkins” who was often wanting him on the phone. “Oh, yes, he speaks about you,” Mrs. Perkins had said to her the first time she rang him up, feeling no obligation to expound on the matter, to indicate whether he spoke about her in a positive or negative way. The girl immediately realized that there was to be no infantile chatting with Mrs. Perkins, no cute teasing about reducing regimens, no comparisons of hairdressing, no pretense about the elusiveness of one’s age—the very game the wife and the secretary were expected to play.
“Do you have any kind of ‘in’ with that jeweler?” he asked.
“Not really,” she said, reaching a finger toward her throat, as if there were pearls there to fidget with. “I was fired by that jeweler.”
He looked dismayed, and she wondered whether it was because she didn’t have an in with the jeweler or because she hadn’t told him that she’d been fired by that jeweler.
“I do have a friend whose fiancé is an apprentice to a gem specialist,” she said. “That’s what my friend calls this man—a ‘gem specialist.’ He does this sort of thing, and I could ask her tonight for you.”
“Would you do that?” He perked right up, something she’d never seen him do. “That would be ideal.”
“I’ll ask her to have her fiancé phone you tomorrow.”
“Perfect,” he said officiously, placing his palms flat on the desk surface, on either side of the necklace. “But what do you think? What would you do if this necklace was yours?”
She wanted to say, “Hock it and buy a pair of fur-lined boots that I wouldn’t even need to wear in sunny Florida,” but she knew his feelings would be hurt. “I’d take just one of each for a pair of earrings,” she said, “one teardrop with a diamond at the base. That would be nice. That would look lovely with a strapless gown.”
“And would you have a necklace made up to match?”
“No—no necklace. That’d be too much. You’d want just the earrings, the black above milky skin. That’s the effect a woman would want. At least that’s what I would want.”
It was painful in an indiscriminate way, having Ruthie’s fiancé pick up the necklace in a parcel that contained typed instructions, her instructions, for producing teardrop earrings for the optimum effect. The earrings were delivered to the office on December 23rd, and on the 24th the envelope addressed in her boss’s hand was presented to her, in her boss’s hand. For Christmas Day Cousin Lucile had bought a hastily plucked chicken from some dicey butcher in the North End. She insisted on doing all the cooking, so everything came to the table blackened in some way. Two elderly strangers joined in for the holiday meal—a lady and a gentleman whom Cousin Lucile had known of. The three of them seemed unperturbed at the somber table of burnt food, so busy were they being shocked at how they’d lived to see the day when a divorced man believed that he might run the country. She’d look out the window and then back at the singed feathers affixed to the drumsticks, and once during this routine she wondered what Mrs. Perkins was making of her Christmas gift, her husband’s objectification of dewy love.
Even on Christmas night, when she’d gone to bed ridiculously early, the man upstairs was playing “The Rose Room” over and over on his phonograph. Every night of the year it was with him. She had already begun to imagine his flat as just one room, one big room that was all rose. Not a pale rose but a thick cantaloupe shade—the rose of a harsh cologne, the kind of cologne that broken women use to douse the pain of broken hearts. She had heard the man upstairs early that morning say to a fellow tenant on the back landing, “Nobody talks of the war anymore.” It was a guttural voice, almost severe, and she could tell by his tone that he was a veteran. The other tenant on the landing sounded like an old fellow: “I was talkin’ ’bout the one just was, Mister. Read the papers once in a while!” Part of Cousin Lucile’s tepid Christmas dinner conversation had consisted of stories she’d heard circulated about this actuary. “He’s a Swedenborgian, I’m told,” Cousin Lucile informed her guests, “and we all know what that means.” Then the three of them nodded. She herself did not know what being a Swedenborgian meant, but she assumed that whatever guided the man was based on a nostalgia for something he no longer had.
It was at a point into the New Year when “winter wonderland” seemed like a tedious old joke that the girl stood next to her boss, looking out her boss’s window. “It makes the world seem easy,” was all she could think to say, “like we all could get what we want.” What did she want but a decent pair of boots, a cab home, a bed more comfortable than an army cot? It was hypnotic, the silence, this muffled score to the Cinemascope view of row upon row of pinkish stone with people inside living their foreign lives. As she envisioned a bed more comfortable than an army cot—perhaps a giant cradle filled with cotton balls and skeins of angora yarn—it struck her how at odds everyone was in his or her desire to get what he or she wants, even (and perhaps especially) within this office of two.
“Can I show you something?” her boss proposed in a low voice. She watched him go to his desk and open a drawer and then lick an index finger to ruffle the pages of Vogue, stopping at a spot marked by a ripped-off envelope flap. “This dress here,” he said handing her the magazine. “Do you like that dress, that color?”
It was satin, off the shoulders, like the Edith Head number on Bette Davis in All about Eve. Here it was a pale orchid, and the mannequin’s shoulders stuck out like powdered chicken bones. All in all, however, a gossamer rendition of radiance. “This is a beautiful gown,” she declared.
“I am thinking of having a similar dress made up for my wife, for Valentine’s Day, to wear below those earrings, as you said. Do you think that color’s correct?”
“I haven’t met Mrs. Perkins.”
“Chestnut hair, not black as this girl here. And of course the frame isn’t the same—Mrs. Perkins has had three children.”
She didn’t care about Mrs. Perkins’s frame or Mrs. Perkins’s chestnut-out-of-a-bottle. “I would make it the rose of that sky out there,” she said with a nod. “A heady rose, for Valentine’s Day. And the bow, the corsage, should be in the back, in the small of the back. I can’t tell what’s going on back there, but I would have the decoration there, and the front plain and smooth.”
“You worked for a dressmaker, didn’t you?”
“Madame Helena. She’s the best, they say.”
“Would you phone her for me, and send this picture?”
“But she would have to fit your wife. You cannot make a dress like this without a fitting.”
“My wife is the same shape as you.”
So, I have the frame of a mother of three, have I? Bitterly was how she wanted to think this, but she could not be bitter toward him. “Well, that doesn’t help you much, does it?”
“But couldn’t you be fit for the gown, at Madame Helena’s?”
“I would feel terribly uncomfortable with that.”
“Oh, but I’d have the dress delivered right to Mrs. Perkins. There would be nothing untoward.”
“What I mean is, I was fired by Madame Helena.”
She ended up standing like a doll in the salon of Mr. Praeger, “the second best” in the Back Bay. “Ees for wife but he fits to you?” a heavy woman named Mathilde said, laughing like Maurice Chevalier. Mathilde seemed to smoke, talk, and laugh like Maurice Chevalier all at the same time, fussing under the armpits of Mrs. Perkins’s proxy. The girl thought of how Mr. Praeger was often shown in the Herald-American pulling at the delicate white cuffs under his tuxedo, but in reality this Mathilde with the fingers like sandpaper created all the gauzy hoopla and dazzle. “He’d rather have her surprised than sitting pretty and comfortable in her gown,” the girl told Mathilde, who just grunted. She went back a second time to be set into the gown, and the vision of herself in the arc of mirrors elicited no emotion whatsoever. Mathilde used the pad of her fist to pound at the center of her mannequin’s back. “You must always stand straight inside these gowns!”
Valentine’s Day came and went, but the winter stayed on, like a drifter allowed to sleep in the barn. Her boss didn’t bother to mention how the gown was received by Mrs. Perkins, as had been the case with the earrings. On the phone Mrs. Perkins’s voice remained exactly the same: “My husband, please.” These two situations involving the procurement of surprise gifts for his wife were the only indications of life she’d witnessed in her boss, and one day at the start of a leonine March it occurred to her that maybe it was Mrs. Perkins who was failing to love her spouse—that maybe she was the kind of woman a man would walk the earth for, even after her frame had been compromised by the delivery of three children. All that year she had assumed, as most girls would, that her boss’s unhappiness stemmed from disappointment with his home life. His desk supported no pictures of the chestnut-haired Mrs. Perkins or their probably blond little angels. That her boss’s unhappiness could have stemmed from his wife’s disappointment with him was a new thought, and pondering it seemed to open up another world of possibility—to this and every situation. For everyone who no longer loved there was someone who was no longer loved, and she saw the world as consisting of these people interleaved with people such as herself, the blanks to separate the two kinds, to buffer these strong ways of feeling.
“Don’t you want to get married, to be taken care of?” This is what all men asked her, and this is what a man named Harvey asked her on a first date, at a tavern where men ate oysters and steamers while standing up in their coats and hats—the men, that is, not the clams and oysters. Harvey had hollered for chilled mugs of ale, and when hers came she felt too cold to even touch it. “I was born on a Saturday,” she said in reply, no longer finding any novelty in this practiced quip, for it was the punch line to a joke she’d heard long ago, a joke about a lumberjack and a prostitute.
“But still don’t you want to get married?” Harvey asked. His hand was locked into the mug’s handle as if the mug was a machine he was operating, as if this was the way he’d been taught to grip artillery in the war, something he did in the turret of a tank. She’d heard so many stories on so many dates that were like the fine print in those ads in the Combat comic books you could at one time find lying around everywhere—ads for things boys would want to send away for. The serial numbers of guns and bigger guns and how you take them apart to clean and then put them back together; the types of land mines you never mixed up, no siree Bob. “I’ll never forget those numbers,” they’d say, “scratched right into my brain they are.” And yet they all recounted to her the procedurals of their soldier identities with apprehension, as if once they forgot the sequence of numbers it would come to be that it all never really happened; they were never battalions with rifles but actuaries with phonographs, Swedenborgians with one-room flats.
Harvey was a new chum of Ruthie’s fiancé. He kept books for a shipping firm on India Row, and Ruthie had fixed them up with the grave warning, “Don’t let this one get away!” Because of this gravity, the girl had the sense to eventually chill her hands around the ale, to forget the sawdust floor and the coats and hats slurping their oysters and beer. She told Harvey, “Of course I want to get married. I don’t look like that much of an idiot, do I?” Later that night Harvey touched her all over on the back landing, making sounds the neighbors should not hear. During all this touching a very thin moment elapsed as her nose was pressed into the thick of his smoke-doused overcoat: the awareness that this could be it, that all she’d have to do was be the girl he could phone at the number he’d written into a matchbook.
Dates with Harvey went on for the month of March without her boss knowing of the sudden liaison; she’d wait at the office for him to pick her up at six, when her boss was long gone with his overcoat. A few days before Easter, however, the presence of Harvey made its way into office hours in the form of a skimpy bunch of daffodils.
“What are those?” her boss asked after lunch, pointing to the bouquet on her desk.
“Did you go out and get them?”
“They came for me.”
“Who brought them?”
“A delivery boy.”
“Who sent them?”
Her boss moved closer to her desk and pinched one of the petals like he was trying to make the flower cry. “I didn’t know you had a boyfriend.”
“Of course you didn’t. I didn’t tell you.”
He shut his door slowly, with a ka-clip, and she pressed her fingertips into her eyes; this is how, she was told, nurses prevented themselves from crying over the children who wound up dead on the operating table.
On Easter Sunday Harvey took her to dinner at the Parker House and gave her a diamond in a box that said it was from the gem specialist who employed Ruthie’s fiancé. “If you say no I’ll shoot myself,” he said. It was April—cold enough for wool coats but with a sky the blue of a robin’s egg, the satin insides of a music box—and he was serious about deciding she should marry him. Harvey was a big man, and his elbows on the table crowding out the plates suddenly made her nervous. “We’ve only known each other a month,” she said. “I’m flattered, Harvey, but it’s one month.”
“You said you wanted to get married, that you didn’t want to be an idiot.” His face was red; she took note of this because the little dab of mint jelly on his plate was such a manly green, like shaving gel. His face was red and she could smell his perspiration.
“I’ll have to sleep on it,” she said with a horrible little laugh. “A girl’s got to sleep on it!”
“I’ve got to go up to Portsmouth tomorrow,” he said, “and I’ll be back on Wednesday. You can sleep on it for three nights.” They got drunk as usual, and he touched her all over on the back landing as usual, but he hadn’t let her leave the table at the Parker House without her taking the velveteen box, which fell to the bottom of her handbag like an anchor, not a package of oyster crackers.
What she slept on that night was a bed like an army cot, although she slept wide awake, with “The Rose Room” to keep her company. The next day it rained buckets, so that when she got to the office her hair was as much of a mess as her nerves.
“Has something happened?” her boss asked as he removed his galoshes, just as bosses all over town were probably just then doing. He removed everything in her tiny office, not his own. The coat rack was there, next to the rubber tray that fit only his galoshes. She waited until he’d tugged at his jacket, was all ready to greet this exemplar of cheerless days.
“Harvey wants to get married,” she said.
His eyes fell to the floor, as they often did during certain conversations. This habit reminded her of a doll going to sleep without being put down. His eyes came up a bit to the dead daffodils on her desk and then to her hands at the typewriter, to the spot where a ring ought to be.
“What will you do?” he asked.
“I ought to get married, don’t you think?” she said.
“It’s a decision to make,” he said, turning to look at the coat rack as if it were someone he’d forgotten was in the room.
“I don’t love Harvey,” she said honestly, “but I ought to get married.”
“Miss Cumberland worked even after marriage,” he offered. “The former Miss Cumberland, I mean—Mrs. Tallady. But then Miss Cumberland was married in a compromised position.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Of course you didn’t,” he said. “I didn’t tell you.”
Much later in the day, before her boss commenced with the ritual of getting ready to go home, he asked her into his office. “Look at that,” he said of his seventh-floor view of the square. “My mother called it the dismal wearies, days like this.” Within the gray there seemed no third dimension, and she felt her sleepless face, her whole presence, as flat as a board, a board propped up next to him. He had one hand in the pocket of his trousers; the other he lifted to the back of his neck, to begin a tired rub that continued on over his face. “I have to show you something,” he said. He walked over to the old walnut credenza that he never seemed to use for anything. There was a key in the lock, and he turned the key, opened the doors to three shelves filled with nothing much but a dress box. He took out the box, and squarely in the center on top of it was a brown velvet jewelers’ box. “Here,” he said, moving toward her, “you might as well have these. After they were done, I could not see them as separate from you. I saw the picture, but the picture was of you.” There was no decision to be made whether to extend her arms, for the box seemed to be already in her possession. He set it onto her arms like a fireman she’d once seen in a picture, a fireman setting a child’s limp body into a woman’s arms.
“I’m feeling ill,” she said. “I have to go home.”
It rained hard on the dress box, and when she got “home” she threw it on her bed, and then she changed her mind and threw it on the floor, so that she could throw herself on the bed. The rain kept on with the metal tinking sound, like the world to be rained on was all made of tin; it was the time of year, the time of day, when you had to decide if the lights should be on. On or off? On or off? It was a decision to make, and it put her to sleep, so that soon she was inside that shamelessly rosy gown, with the pearl earrings dangling above, and she was in an empty room, an enormous empty room. She swirled around and around as if she were dancing, but she was all alone, and as the gown flared out she could see it was segmented like petals, and she could see that the distant walls of the enormous room were rose. As she twirled and twirled her skirt got thicker and thicker, with more and more petals, and she could feel the thickness getting tighter and tighter at her waist, so that her waist was up to her throat, and she couldn’t breathe.
She sat up in the dark, all wet, even though she wasn’t out in the rain. The terrible clanging on the tin matched the terrible banging of her heart. As she pulled the damp sweater over her head, she realized that it wasn’t raining, that the sound was a voice, a hacking sound, coughing and gagging in the midst of “The Rose Room” from above.
Cousin Lucile had collapsed between the kitchen and the dining room so that the swinging door was closed upon her, like it was a toothless mouth biting down on her. The old woman’s terrible sounds had ceased almost the instant the girl flicked on the kitchen light. Despite all the small ugly things she’d seen, she had never witnessed death. Cousin Lucile’s eyes were half open, and her jaw jutted out. The girl had to step over the ghastly picture to get out the front door and to the phone on the landing on the floor below. She knocked awake the Winslows, the busybody superintendents, who scolded her to “get back up there with the poor soul.” She scampered around like somebody’s child, and by this time she could tell the whole building was up and busily dressing for the arrival of the ambulance. She forced herself to stare at the body of the poor old soul, out of respect, and she found herself looking for something to wedge into the door, to keep it open, to keep it from biting down onto Cousin Lucile. She grabbed the unread book in her room and stuck it into the door’s crevice. She stood guard with her arms folded, only once cocking her head to read the words “tremulous Fate!”
The men who came to take Lucile away in an ambulance asked after “next of kin.” “I don’t know,” she said. “I’m only just a lodger.” Then the busybody superintendents took over, as apparently Cousin Lucile had at one time specified that indeed they should. Mr. and Mrs. Winslow went with the ambulance, and before she pulled a silly Easter hat over her half-set hair, Mrs. Winslow warned her, “Don’t go pinching things. We know what she had.” The motley array of tenants who felt entitled to be in Cousin Lucile’s flat glared at her as if she’d done something wrong, as if she had caused the old woman’s death. After getting quite used to shivering, it occurred to her that they were glaring because she was only wearing a slip and a skirt. She recognized the faces of all these tenants except one tall man with an extremely large white forehead and only one arm. He stood by the back door and looked at her sympathetically, not as if he wanted to help her but as if he was sad that there was nothing he could ever do. When he saw that he’d been acknowledged, he moved closer, at the same time moving his stump of an arm a little behind him, so that from one angle you couldn’t even tell. The book that had kept Cousin Lucile’s body from being bitten was lying face up on the kitchen table. The man nodded at it with his extremely large white forehead. “Are you fond of the novels?” he asked.
The book suddenly seemed to her like some kind of filthy evidence: Did they all think the woman on the paper cover was her? She felt cheated, and she was almost ready to cry in front of these strange people, but then she heard something equally strange. What she heard was the noise of the street, the noise of the building at its nighttime repose: there was no “Rose Room.” She looked up at the wide face of the one-armed man. “Where do you live?” she asked. “Up there,” he said, lifting his eyes. How could she cry? How could she even think about crying when this was the Swedenborgian actuary? Here he was, yet another someone who either no longer loved or was no longer loved, and she felt, sadly and coldly, that she’d been right about the world, had been right all along. She was the person interleaved between her boss on the seventh floor and this man from upstairs; she was the blank to separate these two kinds, or maybe these same kinds, of strong feeling.
A pink-haired woman from some other flat had her by the shoulders. “Hasn’t anyone bothered to get you your robe, dear?” She hadn’t the mind to explain to this woman that she owned no robe, that because Cousin Lucile could barely see she’d felt comfortable walking around the flat in her underwear. Finding no robe, the woman gave her a pill to make her sleep. As she was put down on her bed like an army cot, she could see the actuary’s hulking frame taking up most of the doorway of her room, and she had to whisper to the pink-haired woman, “Make him go away.”
Early the next day she took the dress out of the box and wound the ribbon stirrups around the neck of a wire hanger; then she looped its petticoat around as well and hung the affair on the nail on the back of the door to her room. The dress had been stained by the wet tissue, and the weight of the gown was already causing the hanger to bend. She lit a cigarette and observed this odd ghost, this bus companion who’d made the journey all the way home with her. The more the hanger bent, the more the gown resembled a lynching victim. The dress and its petticoat remained hanging on the back of the bedroom door when she left Cousin Lucile’s flat. She did take a cameo owned by Cousin Lucile, the only item of value from the premises. “Who’ll ever see you?” she said to herself. “Who’ll ever know?” Only she knew that Cousin Lucile always kept the cameo right on the collar of her blue Sunday dress in the closet, not in the locked treasure chest next to her bed.
During these two and a half years out in the world she’d never gone anywhere that required a fancy dress, and after she’d hocked Harvey’s diamond and her boss’s pearl earrings and Cousin Lucile’s cameo she tried to remember back to when she was young, if she ever imagined herself going somewhere in a satin gown. She got the train at South Station—not to sunny Florida but to windy Chicago, where one of the girls had just moved and was pleading for company, as the man this girl was slated to marry had skipped town, and the girls in the rooming house where she lived were resentful of new arrivals from the East Coast. She thought about her boss in his office, dialing up the employment agency for another bunch of girls to be sent over, so that each could wedge her behind into that worn leather chair. She thought about her boss in his office with the old walnut credenza temporarily empty, her boss waiting for the moment he could get ready to go home. This friend in Chicago had complained that the girls in her rooming house wore completely different shades of lipstick and called everything that was got at a soda fountain by different names. This, anyway, seemed much preferable to a city full of ghosts, dead or alive. For the moment, being someone you immediately sent away seemed preferable to being an apparition of loveliness, someone you might cry over but never bother to touch.
Barbara Sutton’s story collection, The Send-Away Girl (University of Georgia Press, 2004), won the Flannery O’Connor Award. Her stories have appeared in The Missouri Review, The Antioch Review, The Chicago Quarterly Review, AGNI, Harvard Review, Image, and elsewhere. A government speechwriter based in New York City, she blogs at Demands Fabulous Fees. (10/2021)