By Mel Klein
Sarah Kessner knew brassieres. Since she was fourteen years old she had sat at a sewing machine stitching together the cups that shaped the bosoms of other women, women she sometimes pictured in her mind.
The factory occupied a converted apartment house on Livonia Avenue under the IRT elevated New Lots line, but Sarah rarely heard the trains passing overhead because the train noise was drowned out by the sixty-eight sewing machines on the second floor of Nu Yu Foundations. The girls in the cutting room on the third floor listened to the radio between trains, but in the sewing room that was impossible. So for nine hours a day, with thirty minutes for lunch and two ten minute breaks, Sarah occupied her head with her own variations on the stories she read in the Yiddish newspaper riding the same IRT train home.
One of the stories that fascinated her was of a girl her age, eighteen, nineteen, who left home without telling anyone where she was going. One day she simply got on a bus and never came back. Her mother cried her eyes out and her father went from synagogue to synagogue showing her picture to the men who came to evening prayers, describing her in detail, asking them to pass the information along to their wives and daughters. He promised a hundred dollar reward, though he had no idea where the money would come from, he being a stock clerk in a men’s clothing store on Third Avenue in Manhattan.
After a month the mother declared the daughter dead. She consulted the rabbi who advised her that, though it was unlikely the daughter was still alive, she could not be declared dead either. So, with no memorial, no kaddish, no candle, the daughter lingered, not quite dead, not quite alive. The father continued to show her picture. He raised the reward to two hundred dollars, more than he earned in a month, but there were no claims and no news.
What the parents didn’t know was that the daughter, Shaindele, had taken the bus to Manhattan to explore the Port Authority Bus Terminal which had opened a few months earlier, and which she had seen in a newsreel at the movie theater. Shaindele was fascinated by the destinations on the busses - Poughkeepsie, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago. She had never been to any of them; she had never been outside The Bronx until that day. On an impulse she bought a ticket to Chicago, without much idea where it was. She imagined it was an hour away, about the distance from her home a block off the Grand Concourse to midtown.
In Philadelphia a man took the seat next to her. He was tall and straight, not much older than her. He told her his name was Harry and that he was in the Army. She asked him why he wasn’t wearing a uniform, and he said he was on furlough, but a while later he said he was on duty but traveling incognito, and she realized he was lying to her. But when Harry offered her half his sandwich she politely took it because by now it was dark and she was famished. She was surprised by the texture and taste and asked what it was; ham and cheese he said. She gagged, but, with nowhere to spit, swallowed it, and a few minutes later took another bite, then another, and it was gone.
Later they shared a Lucky Strike, her first, which made her cough. By Pittsburgh she was asleep on his shoulder. His right arm, now wrapped around her, soon touched her where no man ever had. She was ashamed of herself, but was also thrilled, so she did not protest. She slept in his arm and awoke to daylight in Indiana, where Harry departed without saying goodbye. She was in Chicago by noon, alone, wrinkled, with just a dollar in her purse. A man in a porkpie hat inquired if she was lost and she confessed she was. He bought her a cup of coffee and offered her a job in his restaurant.
When Shaindele arrived with him for work she discovered that it was not a restaurant but a bar. And it was not his. He introduced her to another man as Sindy. The other man sent her to a back room where he ordered her to change into a green blowsy dress as he watched. By midnight she had been with six different men and was no longer a virgin.
This, dear reader, the newspaper concluded, is the fate of a girl who ventures out of her parents’ home unescorted. Let that be a lesson. Sarah Kessner cried when she first read it. She could never get the story out of her head, where it took on a life in the din of the sewing room as she stitched together a hundred and seventy brassiere cups an hour.
Sarah found herself ambivalent about Shaindele. She brought pain to her parents and shame to herself. How could she go from a sweet curious Jewish girl from the Bronx to a harlot in a single day? That was the danger of curiosity. That was the risk of adventure. That was the punishment for eating ham. Sarah felt overwhelming pity for the parents. She felt anger toward Shaindele. But sometimes the anger turned to envy, and of this she was ashamed.
She imagined herself in Shaindele’s shoes. Would she have taken the bus to Chicago? It was difficult to say. She too had never been outside the city, except for a trip by bus to visit her aunt in Jersey City. They had taken the tunnel under the river and she panicked momentarily when she suddenly felt the pressure in her ears, but remembered the same sensation when the subway crossed under the East River and she relaxed. Would she have taken the bus to Chicago? Yes, she concluded, but not without telling her mother where she was going. She could afford it, of course, working year round almost five years. She split her wages in thirds. One third she gave her mother to help with the household. One third she spent on herself for clothing and shoes and carfare, for lunch out once a week and for little things she wanted, and one third she deposited in her account at the Dime Savings Bank. But even though she could, and was now an adult, she wouldn’t leave as Shaindele did, without telling her parents.
Would she eat the ham sandwich? Again, her initial impulse was to refuse it, but upon reflection she wasn’t sure. She had never eaten pork in her life, was nauseated by the mere idea. But she had tasted shrimp by accident at the birthday party of an Irish girl who worked in the cutting room. She thought they were French fries, though after the first bite she knew they weren’t. But she swallowed her mouthful and nothing happened. And what of this prohibition against eating pork? That was written long ago when pork carried disease. This was the nineteen-fifties. There was modern sanitation. Meat was cooked and refrigerated. Government inspectors made certain no diseased meat reached the market. And the rabbis that inspected the kosher meat, what was their qualification? She thought about it at length. If she had been on that bus what would she have done? It was not like bringing pork into her home - this was away from home, on a bus in a different state. Hunger was a factor, too, even though she discarded the notion that this was a matter of life and death, because she knew that Shaindele was in no danger of starvation. But on the road, no other available alternative, all in all she decided, tentatively, that she would have eaten the sandwich.
And she pondered whether she would have rested her head on Harry’s shoulder. This was difficult. She had never been touched by a boy, though she often thought about it. Two summers ago, when she was sixteen, the owner’s nephew, Neil, worked in the shipping department. He was a student at New York University where he majored in business. She caught his eye and he made excuses to talk with her. Once he came over to her machine and asked her if she knew who Inspector 9 was. Sure, she said, it was Mildred with the red hair. But it occurred to her that he lingered a bit too long before going off in search of Mildred. Another time he asked if she would join him for lunch at the candy store at the corner of Hinsdale Street. She told him she brought her own lunch from home, which was true four days a week. But in truth she was afraid of breaking the ice with him.
Now, thinking of Shaindele and Harry, she wondered what might have been if she’d gone to lunch with Neil. Would he demand something in return? Would he have touched her? Her mother had been adamant: never, ever let a boy touch you. Yet she craved being touched. Just holding hands was prohibited, her mother told her, but she saw other girls holding hands with boys in the neighborhood. She even saw Rivka, a girl from across the street, holding hands with a boy, and Rivka still attended Hebrew school. If it was her on the bus, she thought, she would not have rested her head, but she might offer her hand. And if he had wanted more? She would definitely refuse. At least she thought she would.
And what if she found herself alone and penniless in Chicago? She would never be penniless because she saved her money and always had a few dollars in her purse. But if she was all alone, nowhere to stay. She would never be so alone, never so poor. Besides, her mother had told her many times if you get in trouble just call home. If you don’t have money, call collect. That’s what she would have done, she would have called collect. Her mother said reverse the charges, but everybody else said call collect.
And what about the shame? What shame? she replied. Her thoughts had turned into a dialog, complete with different voices, debating, sometimes arguing, with each other. These debates went on for weeks. Although she read other stories on the train, all morality tales directed at the young working girl, Sarah kept returning to the Shaindele story, most likely because it hit so close to home.
In November, at the wedding of her cousin in New Jersey, an aunt she didn’t know inquired why she wasn’t married yet. Her mother said give her time, she just turned nineteen, she was working and earning a good living, but the aunt, Ida, wouldn’t accept the answer, and told her mother that there was a boy in the synagogue just perfect for her and that she would give him her phone number. Her mother said don’t bother, but a few days later there was a call for Sarah which she didn’t have the heart to refuse.
The boy spoke with a sing song indicating right off the bat that he had come recently from Europe, because American born boys didn’t speak that way. He asked if she was Sarah Kessner and she said she was. He told her he was Aaron Pevsner from Williamsburg, and that her aunt had suggested he give her a call. After a bit of chit-chat, during which the operator interrupted twice for more coins, she agreed to meet him on the East Side on Sunday for lunch.
The following Sunday Sarah arrived at the delicatessen a few minutes after one o’clock. The restaurant was crowded, but as she scanned the tables she noted only three that were occupied by lone men. One was old, in his sixties, it appeared. He was almost done with a roast beef platter, bits of cut-away fat piled on a piece of wax paper, a gift, she assumed, for a cat or dog. The second was a young man in a well-tailored suit with an expensive looking silk four-in-hand tie, reading The Eagle. Sarah straightened up and approached him. "Aaron?" she asked, a bit too excitedly.
"No. Sorry, I’m not Aaron." He extended his hand, "Ed Weinberg. You’re not Mrs. Goldwasser?" She took his hand and shook her head. "I didn’t think so," he said. Ed Weinberg went back to his newspaper. And then it struck her that Aaron Pevsner must be the huge man at the small table facing the bathroom. She could only see his back, but what she saw frightened her. He wore a black gabardine suit, shiny in places, taut over his mammoth back, the seam of the right sleeve ripped exposing the stained white lining. His colossal head was covered by a black Homburg hat, with a black velvet yarmulke sticking out in back, covering his closely cropped salt and pepper hair, trimmed at each ear by long, rolled side curls. Her stomach sank and she had a sudden urge to vomit. She turned around and left.
She walked the street for forty minutes thinking about all the Aaron Pevsners she’d seen in her neighborhood. Tall, heavy ones, like the one in the restaurant. Short ones. Skinny ones. Pale ones. All the Aaron Pevsners whom she’d been matched with. She had resisted thinking of them, told her mother she was far too young to be thinking about marriage. But now, at nineteen, she herself began wondering what kind of man she would ultimately wind up marrying. A Hassid like Aaron Pevsner? Or a tradesman like the carpenter her mother urged on her? None of them appealed. She wanted someone smart, interesting, a man she could talk with. But what did she offer in return? A girl who only completed the seventh grade, a girl who could sew well enough, but had only sewn brassiere cups for the past four years?
She stopped to wait for a green light before crossing the street and, when she looked up, noticed on the light pole a blue sign, "Port Authority Bus Terminal" with an arrow pointing left. She turned in that direction and walked west until she saw the vast building with its sculpted exterior wall. Drawn by the story she’d read in the newspaper, she wandered the ticket counters and bus platforms reading the destinations as Shaindele had before disappearing forever. The temptation was overwhelming, but she remembered the warning at the story’s end and took heed. Finally, she came to her senses and returned home.
"How was the boy?" asked her mother, before the door was closed.
"He’s not a boy. He’s an old fat man."
"What does he do for a living?" the mother replied.
"I don’t know."
"You didn’t ask?"
"I didn’t talk to him."
"Huh? You’re mute for the first time in your life?"
"Momma, I didn’t even come near him. I saw him sitting there and my stomach began to turn over."
"Sit down, I’ll get you bicarb." It was clear she didn’t understand. But Sarah saw the opportunity to change the subject, so she nodded her head and a moment later her mother brought a glass of water, a box of bicarb and a teaspoon. Sarah stirred, swallowed and belched.
Monday Sarah returned to work. She immersed herself in sewing cups. Her stitching was good that day, neat, tight stitches, smooth straight seams. She had read another story in the paper that morning, a story about a widow who had met a man she thought looked familiar, and it turned out he was her neighbor in Krakow before the war. They spoke about the old days, about the relatives they had lost, and he asked about her sister. She wept and told him that her sister had perished in the camps, and he told her it couldn’t be, he had seen her in Tel Aviv where she had married a pharmacist. The woman broke down with shock and joy. She began writing to government agencies in Israel, making expensive overseas calls, asking travelers coming if they knew her and going if they’d look for her. Finally she received a letter from her sister, who had indeed married and had a son, and who informed her that their father was alive in America and gave his address. The widow realized that her father lived just a few blocks away.
This was an engaging story, and Sarah turned it over in her head. Are such coincidences really possible? Does God play tricks on us? But soon she began to picture the man who brought the news to the widow, and in her mind she pictured Aaron Pevsner, torn sleeve and all. The following day she occupied herself thinking about Princess Elizabeth who was to be crowned the following month, and the seamstresses of the royal court who were sewing her coronation gowns. Sarah imagined herself making the princess’ brassiere from silk, not the cheap cotton she usually worked with. She envisioned the princess being fitted, and herself making adjustments. She imagined the princess undressing for the prince that night, her first night as queen, and him touching her breast through the silk brassiere that Sarah Kessner had sewn. But soon she was again gagging at the thought of Aaron Pevsner stroking her breast with his fat hand, his black velvet yarmulke perched on his head.
That night the telephone rang, and her father, home early from the hospital where he worked in the boiler room, answered and called out to her. She said she wasn’t interested in talking, because she was convinced she knew who it was, but she was wrong. It was Ida, the aunt who had given her name to Aaron Pevsner. "I was talking with this boy I gave him your number, and he says you made him wait two hours and you weren’t there."
"I couldn’t remember the place and I had no way to get in touch," she lied.
"Oh, and you didn’t bother to call me?"
"No, I didn’t know your number."
"OK, I tell him to call you again. He’s a nice boy, a butcher."
"Uh, how old is he?"
"How old? I don’t know, I don’t ask such things."
"Just an idea how old. Is he twenty? Thirty? Forty? Just an idea."
"I have no idea. He came from Romania after the war, he was in the camps."
"I don’t think I’m interested in meeting him." Sarah was finally being honest.
"What do you mean not interested. He’s a fine boy, and you’re not getting younger."
"I’m nineteen years old. I have plenty of time."
"Listen to me. Not every day comes a boy like this. Talk to him, have a bite to eat, you’ll like him finer, you’ll see." And with that Ida hung up.
The following evening the phone rang and it was Aaron. Sarah was polite but told him she was not ready to settle down and did not want to lead him on. He told her he was not being led on, and he could meet her Thursday evening in Williamsburg, not far from where she lived, at the home of his uncle, a prayer book merchant.
Sarah knew this would not go well. A home is different from a delicatessen. She would be under the gaze of his family and she could not walk out. But the date had been set and she dutifully came over at six thirty, walked up four flights of stairs through hallways that smelled of cabbage and fish, and knocked on the door. She was met by the uncle who himself wore much the same outfit as Aaron. He escorted her into the living room where Aaron took a seat on a chair and she was pointed toward the sofa. On the little cocktail table were crackers topped by pieces of herring, a bottle of slivovitz whiskey and four small glasses. The uncle poured and the aunt seated herself next to Sarah.
"What kind of work you do?" the aunt asked. No small talk.
"I sew in a factory," Sarah replied honestly.
"A good factory or a sweatshop?"
"No. Not union, but a good factory."
"You have insurance?"
Sarah didn’t like where this was going. "Why do you ask?"
"Aaron has kidney stones."
"Listen," Sarah mustered her courage, "I haven’t even met the man and you’re asking me about insurance. I have to leave." She stood up and retrieved her coat from the bedroom where she’d seen the aunt place it. Without more she unlatched the door and left.
When she got home her mother told her she’d had two calls. "Who?"
"Aunt Ida and a boy Aaron."
"He’s not a boy. Momma, he’s an old man with kidney stones."
"Ida says he’s twenty-six years old."
"He’s maybe forty-six."
"Nah, Ida isn’t a liar."
"Maybe, but she is stupid if she believes him he’s twenty-six."
"And you, you’re not getting younger."
"Momma, leave me alone." She took off her shoes and poured herself hot tea.
"You gonna call back?"
"No." Sarah thought about Shaindele. She had seen the Port Authority and the buses to all those cities. She had money in her pocket and more in the Dime Savings Bank. She went to bed without supper, that time having passed two hours earlier while she was busy with Aaron Pevsner and his relatives.
The following morning she was surprised to see Neil, the owner’s nephew, in the factory. He was rushing around telling the workers to clean up here, wipe off there, stack up the boxes, pick up the scraps. She wondered what was going on. A while later Neil approached her. "You were born here, right?"
"A buyer is coming in and I want you to take him around."
"Oh, really? Why me?"
"Because you speak like an American and you know what you’re talking about."
Sarah was flattered. "I do? What am I supposed to show him?"
"Just walk him through the factory. Show him what each station does, the cups, the straps, the cutters, the packers. Give him a tour. Be nice to him. This can be a big customer."
"Oh, really? Where is this customer from, if I can ask?"
"California. He has stores that sell to movie stars."
"Oh." Sarah felt butterflies in her stomach. "Are you sure you want me to do it?"
"Positive." Neil acted as though he owned the place. His father and his uncle were partners, but
his father was killed at Normandy, and it now occurred to Sarah that perhaps Neil inherited his father’s half of the business and indeed was an owner.
As soon as he left, she went to the bathroom and washed her hands with soap twice. Then she put on powder and lipstick and watched herself in the mirror practicing her smile. When she returned to her machine she saw that someone else had cleaned up her station. A girl from the strap room was sweeping the floor. Another girl was piling boxes up against the wall.
Soon Neil entered with a tall, mustached man dressed in a sharp suit with a boutonni re . He walked him over to Sarah’s station. "Sarah, this is Mr. Melshire."
"Delighted," she said, the only word that came to her mind.
"The pleasure is mine," Mr. Melshire said, taking her hand.
"Go ahead and show Mr. Melshire the factory."
Sarah shut the light over her machine and stepped out from behind it as Neil left. Melshire had a grace she’d never seen in real life in Brooklyn. It was a grace she’d seen in movies, a Charles Boyer grace, but no one she knew walked or talked like that. She showed him around the factory, chatting animatedly, joking a bit with him, though she was not accustomed to. She escorted him to the third floor where they cut the fabric, and to the ground floor where they packed the brassieres, and pointed to the fourth floor where the offices were but where she’d never been.
Neil met them on the third floor and thanked her and asked Mr. Melshire, "Lunch?"
"Yes," he said, and, addressing Sarah, "would you join us?"
Sarah looked momentarily confused, so Neil answered, "Certainly. Sarah, get your coat." Sarah did as she’d been told.
At the restaurant Neil and Melshire ordered shrimp cocktails. Sarah ordered iceberg salad. When the salads came she must have stared at the shrimp, and Melshire asked if she’d like to try one. She shook her head no, demurely he thought, and he repeated the offer.
"Go ahead," said Neil, "give it a try. You’ve never had shrimp, have you?"
"No," she sort of lied.
Melshire held out a fork with a shrimp and Sarah took it from him and placed it in her mouth. This time she didn’t gag. The sharp cocktail sauce surprised her, but she chewed it and discovered that it had a pleasant taste and texture. "Thank you, Mr. Melshire."
Melshire ordered steaks all around, and when they arrived Sarah’s trepidation vanished with the sight and smell of the t-bones. The potato had a large glob of melting butter, and, though she resisted for a few minutes, soon succumbed. The men talked about delivery and packaging, about cost and sizing. Sarah listened. When Melshire excused himself to use the restroom, Neil leaned over and whispered, "He likes you." Sarah blushed. She was not quite sure what Neil had in mind.
After lunch they returned to the factory and Sarah thanked them for the lunch, calling him Mr. Melshire, again, and being invited, again, to call him Fred. Then she returned to her machine and the men left. But before she finished for the day Neil came over and asked her to join him in the office. She climbed the stairs to the fourth floor, nervous that she had said or done something offensive.
Neil was seated in his uncle’s office, no sign of the uncle anywhere, and it occurred to her that the uncle hadn’t been seen all day. "Come in. Sit down." She did as she was told.
"He likes you. I can tell he likes you."
"It doesn’t matter." Neil withdrew a roll of bills from his pocket and peeled off ten ten dollar notes. "He’s at the Biltmore Hotel, room 436. Go visit him."
"Are you asking me to..."
"Just go visit him."
"I’m not a harlot."
"Just use your head. Visit him, this is important."
"I don’t know, this is not what I expected."
"His contract is important. Listen. I’ll give you five percent of any business he sends us."
"I’m not a harlot."
"I know, I know. Ten percent."
"Yeah, ten percent."
"Put it in writing." One of the stories she’d read on the train was about a welched business deal that hadn’t been written down.
He wrote it on a piece of note paper.
"Sign it." He signed it. "And put today’s date." He did this, too.
"What was the room number?"
She got up, took the signed paper, and left.
At the Biltmore Hotel she asked the desk clerk for room 436. He rang up and handed her the phone.
"Mr. Melshire. This is Sarah. I’m in the lobby, would you care to join me?"
A minute later he exited the elevator and approached her. "What are you doing here?"
"Neil sent me over. He says you want to talk with me."
"He did? What about?"
"Oh, yes, the business, the business. Do you think the factory is well-run?
This came as a surprise. No one had ever consulted her about business. She thought about it for a moment. "It’s well-run, sure, but the quality is sometimes so-so."
"Yes. I saw that. I won’t do business with a supplier that doesn’t meet the highest standards."
"I know what you mean."
"Would you care for a drink?"
"Yes, I would." He ordered two dry martinis.
"I was wondering," he said when the drinks arrived, "are you happy with what you do?"
"I’m not unhappy," she hedged. "Why do you ask?"
"You’re intelligent. I like that in a girl."
"Would you be interested in coming to work for me?"
"My shops are in California, but the clothes are made here in New York and some in Chicago."
"Have you been there?"
"No, but I’d like to see it."
"I need a buyer. Someone who knows ladies’ foundations. Would you be interested in that?"
"I don’t know. What would I do?"
"I have a new kind of brassiere, something the movie stars are crazy about. I’m getting ready to introduce it into the general market. I need someone smart to meet with the designers, talk with the pattern makers, the cutters. Look at material, imports, choose the best. And make sure the quality of the merchandise is the very highest."
"And you think I’d be good at that?"
"I think you would. You know the goods and the business. You’ll need go to Chicago once a month, and come out to Hollywood three or four times a year. Have you ever been to Los Angeles?"
"No. Is it as beautiful as it looks in the magazines?"
"You’ll come out and see it." He paused and sipped his drink. "How much will I have to pay
Sarah thought about it. She had no idea what to ask for. "What are you offering?"
"I can pay you six hundred a month and a commission of two percent. Would that do it?"
She deliberately took a long moment to think about it. "Traveling to Chicago and Los Angeles is expensive."
"We’ll pay the travel and hotels."
"You know I get a commission from Nu Yu."
"That’s none of my business. Whatever you get from them is your business. As long as it doesn’t interfere, I don’t care."
"OK. This drink is good. What’s it called?"
"Martini. What do you think of the offer?"
"It sounds good. Can I think it over and let you know in the morning?"
"Yes. Certainly." He extended his hand, she took it and shook. He stood up to leave, then turned one more time. "Call me in the morning, early, I have to leave at ten."
"I will, Mr. Melshire."
It was eight thirty when Sarah left the hotel. She hadn’t called her mother to tell her she’d be late. Perhaps her mother thought she was meeting with Aaron Pevsner. Let her think. She walked to the subway and paid her fare, but, instead of taking the train to Williamsburg she headed toward the Port Authority. In the terminal she walked from platform to platform, reading the destinations and wondering which cities she would explore in her new career. She took out the slip of paper from her purse and looked at Neil’s signature. Should she tell him what Fred had offered her? Why should she? Should she tell him Fred was not interested in sleeping with her? Why should she? Let him imagine what he wished.
She passed a hotel and, on a whim, entered the lobby bar and ordered a martini. For the first time she noticed how men looked at her. She was quite drunk and very tired. Then she remembered the hundred dollars Neil had given her. She walked to the desk and took a room, and asked the clerk to wake her at eight, just as she had seen in the movies. Eight would give her plenty of time to call Fred, and then she could take the rest of the day to shop for a new dress.
She ordered another martini and drank it seated in a wing chair in the lobby. She could feel the eyes of men watching her. She stood up and on shaky legs walked toward the elevator, picking up a Daily News from a table in the lobby. As she waited for the elevator she pondered whether to call her mother. If she didn’t would her mother think she’d been kidnapped? That she’d been run over by a bus? That she’d run away? That she’d married Aaron Pevsner? Would her father take her picture around to the synagogues offering a reward?
In her room she kicked off her shoes and began reading the apartment rental ads.
Let them think.
Copyright © Mel Klein 2011
Mel Klein grew up in Brooklyn and graduated from Brooklyn College. After serving in the Air Force and receiving advanced degrees from the University of Colorado and Southern Methodist University, he settled in Dallas where he practiced law for over 30 years. Mel has been writing fiction and screenplays since college and expects to publish a collection of stories in 2012. He is currently editing his novel, The Redheaded Girl. Mel is married and has two grown children.