There were rules. According to the cadets, discipline kept their girls in line and was key to running a profitable house for the New York syndicate. The girls obeyed, and not only from fear of punishment. Nafkas, filthy whores, couldn’t gaze in fancy store windows, watch a theater show or a children’s clown. They didn’t go to the dentist. Best to follow instructions, distract themselves from pointless desires. Mother’s lasagna…goulash…schnitzel…baklava.
Breastfeeding a newborn.
These longings swelled, too painful to touch. Best to forget, to focus on the mundane to help push away unwanted thoughts.
Here in the tenement, their house, the girls could fight over the lone hairbrush, mock the one with the lisp, jostle for a seat at the kitchen table to eat their portion of clear broth.
“Come on, now. You have to get up,” Sophia said to the new girl slumped in the crook of her elbow. They sat on the floor in the upstairs hallway. The teen had collapsed into hysterics just as Sophia was getting ready for her monthly evening with Boris.
“You’ll get regulars. Most of the men are quick. It gets better, I promise.” In earlier days, she’d believed her words and spoken them with tenderness and courage. Though by now Sophia heard her own patter as that of the saleswoman she’d become, the girl stopped hyperventilating and sat up.
“Hurry, Sophia,” Boris called from the landing below. “We leave in ten.” Ten minutes alone with the new girl gave him enough time to get her set up.
Sophia went to her room to prepare for the night ahead. In the vanity mirror she brushed powder across her nose and dabbed rouge on cheeks no longer round and girlish. She ran her comb through her black hair and then pulled it straight back over the crown, the way her Mamme used to do before Shabbos. Her two younger brothers got in trouble if they wrestled on Saturday. She tried to summon the echoes of their play but all she heard were noises from the next room.
Shackles dragging across the wood floor made a deceptively dainty soprano ring. Sophia knew what was happening on the other side of the wall.
The new girl would wait on the edge of a bed, hugging her knees to her body so her torn blouse tented to hide her chest. Boris would maintain eye contact with her, as if she were a rabid dog, and then he’d take hold of her wrists. She’d let him because she had little fight left. Thin folds of skin always caught when he locked the cuffs. Sophia heard her cry out. To keep you from harming yourself, Boris would whisper with a fatherly nod. Then he’d push her shoulders back to make her lie down. Veins in her neck bulged when she resisted, but Boris was strong and steady. Stay down. Good girl. She’d barely feel the needle go into her flesh but then heat would spread through her limbs as he strapped each ankle to the bed rail. The air would fill with pink dots that glided with her thoughts. Understand? She’d nod even though she didn’t. Then looking down from over the bed, he’d reach under her skirt, caress her leg up to the thigh, and give a good squeeze before he left.
“How long for her?” Sophia whispered to her own reflection.
When she was new, just thirteen, Sophia went in and out of cuffs for months. “Halb-vit. Stubborn and stupid is the worst combination,” her roommate said as she applied salve to Sophia’s swollen wrists and then to the throbbing contusion on her forehead, a souvenir from being thrust face-first against a steel washbowl. Even for a village girl who spoke no English and thought she’d live happily in America with her respectable new husband, the raw terror of having her head held underwater gave Sophia clarity: She could never fight her way out.
Sophia put on the dress she wore for her work with Boris. Repeated pressing over ten years couldn’t smooth the pilled satin or twisted lace, and few modern girls wore balloon sleeves. At least the dress still fit, though not the way it did when she first put it on at fifteen. Fifteen. Had she ever been that young? Before she passed, Tabitha had worn the dress and accompanied Boris.
It was quiet as she walked past the new girl’s room. She was likely asleep now. The only escape.
Boris waited by the front door. “Put this on,” he said, tossing her an embroidered wool shawl. When she set it over her shoulders, he said, “Better. But wasn’t that dress blue? Might be its last turn.”
She nodded. It might be her last, too. Sweat dampened the sweep of her lower back, visceral proof of desire, an emotion she thought she’d chopped off long ago, like a gangrenous leg. She wanted something for herself, which wasn’t allowed, which was dangerous and undeserved. God might forgive the sin of circumstance, but what of the sinful acts of survival? There was something lower than house prostitution. The other girls had no idea. She envied them their purity.
They headed south toward the piers, past a cart pusher selling the last of his mackerel. In the early days, Boris’s grip on her forearm left bruises in the shape of his thick thumb. Now they moved like a weary married couple.
When he heard his name shouted from down the street, Boris shoved Sophia into the hollow behind a stoop just in time. He suffered Cantor Weiss’s pleasantries and toothy smile to keep his membership to the Lower East Side Synagogue and the coveted third-row seats where he could show off his new cufflinks and his wife’s flower-covered hat. Along with monthly dues, annual contributions to the building fund and a donation for the new Torah scroll would be strongly suggested once his oldest boy started Hebrew school. Sure, Boris already bought his aliyah every Rosh Hashanah and had a set of keys to the building. But big players in the syndicate, like district directors and the boss himself, attended the uptown Bryant Park Synagogue, and that required either sponsorship or a lot more money.
“I’m sorry, Boris. I tried,” Cantor Weiss said. “The Bryant board said your application didn’t have enough merit.”
“What does that mean? That’s why you went there.”
“Of course. But you have to understand, I’m not one of their members. They let me speak as a courtesy. Not for long, but I did get to see the solid silver yad.” He flashed his grin and then glanced around at the darkening streets. “What are you doing out so late, my friend?”
“Bastard,” Boris muttered to Sophia when the cantor turned the corner. “What’s he doing out so late? I can donate enough yahrzeit candles to light up all of Canal Street, but I still don’t have enough merit. Bunch of hypocrites.”
She ran her comb through her black hair and then pulled it straight back over the crown, the way her Mamme used to do before Shabbos.
Nearing twelve years as a cadet, Boris needed to get out of the house and into management or he’d get tossed for being too old and end up mucking out the Central Park stables like his father, a bookkeeper until his wife cheated so he threw her out and found a taste for gin. Even the fresh-boaters sneered at his father’s dung-stained overalls. A membership at Bryant Park meant a chance to move uptown, away from the painted trash, and eat steak at Delmonico’s with the syndicate heads like a real macher.
“Sophia, who’s covering for you tonight?” He wouldn’t let Sophia short the night’s take just because they had a fun jaunt.
In the deepening night, the winter wind came off the East River in short bursts that stung Sophia’s chapped lips.
“We gotta make this a quick one. I got plans with my wife in the morning,” Boris said.
According to his pay stubs, Boris worked for J. C. Newman Cigar Company, the reason he smelled of cigar smoke and worked odd hours. Even the wife believed stogie sales were lucrative. Sophia figured his wife didn’t care too much. Why should she? She had a quiet life with Sunday outings and a door that locked from the inside.
After normal business hours, large meeting rooms and community lodges turned into dance halls for the Lower East Siders who put in fourteen-hour days for less than five dollars a week. When it was too cold for parks and touring carnivals, Liberty Hall packed in as many as five hundred workers eager to shed their boredom. With their coats checked, Boris moved them to a good vantage point, straightened his lapels, and smoothed down his hair. To anyone watching, Sophia knew, he could have been any young fellow looking for a dance partner.
“Sophia, did you hear me? Damn, you’re not paying attention again. Listen.” He repeated what they needed and Sophia nodded. A simple transaction.
When she’d first arrived in New York, Sophia had marveled at so many strangers pressed together and the intimate way they mingled; men and women never touched in public or danced together in her shtetl. The orchestra sounded flat. The room smelled of spilled liquor, smoke, sweat, and lemon cologne. But banners and mirrors on the walls added a festive feel. Gathered were men with calloused hands and factory girls in homemade skirts that bunched at the knees when they leaned over to whisper or twist around for attention.
Boris preferred a girl nestled with friends so that prying her loose took skills not unlike the carnival game of lifting the bottle with a ring attached to a length of a rope. Occasionally, he had to put in extra effort, arrange a few dates and show up at the dance hall with flowers. Tonight, however, he didn’t have time to play. Making a loop around the perimeter, he spotted what the bosses in Chicago wanted: a redhead in exchange for the new girl they’d sent to New York. Boris checked his watch, confident he could get home on time. He went back to where he’d left Sophia.
He gave her a firm shake and she followed him. Time to get to work.
The target was no more than seventeen, skin as delicate as clouds. Her eyebrows were the color of pumpkins, her hair a shade darker. Some of the men demanded that the fair ones cover their veins with makeup. Tabitha had said they didn’t like the thought of arteries and blood, proof of the girls as living creatures.
One day after Tabitha died, Sophia had asked for her job.
“I can do better,” she’d said early that morning, the others upstairs unable to close their eyes, too drunk to dream, or lying prostrate on the floor with rosaries in their palms and the imprints of wood slats on their cheeks. “You see how we look alike. Remember when that butcher thought I was your skinny little sister and gave you a discount? I can bring in twice what Tabitha did and take just a fourth. If you save my money for me to use later. To leave. Just think how I can make things easier for you.”
Boris laughed. “You want to buy yourself out? Is that what you’re saying to me? How are you still such a stupid girl? They’ll never allow it.”
They. The syndicate. Boris’s obsession. “Who says we tell anyone about our deal? I’ll bring in twice. And you’ll make a little extra cash. No one has to know.”
From his waiting spot, Boris watched Sophia move toward the group of four girls.
Get it done. Boris shouted the phrase to his crew of harlots and cadets-in-training, and yet it sounded foreign when his boss screamed it back at him. If Boris got the redhead tonight, then he’d be given the promotion. His boss had promised.
The ginger turned in his direction, so he lowered his gaze and toed at the floor. Boris hated red hair. It reminded him of his mother. She’d worn her auburn hair in ringlets the night she’d left home, a week before his bar mitzvah. The rabbi had offered to postpone the ceremony so Boris could recover, but his father wouldn’t allow his son to act like a coward. The other boys had laughed when he cried during his Haftorah. Those boys now worked for pennies at the iron mill. Sometimes Boris went by the mill as they got off work just to pass by in his finest suit.
Once he worked at headquarters, he’d put one of his pretty young girls in a real nice dress and walk her by the mill. The most respected men had uptown mistresses.
“Excuse me. I’m so sorry to bother you. But my brother over there…” Sophia turned and pointed to where Boris waited, “is very shy. I mean, my mother worries he’ll never meet a nice girl to carry on his name and share his life. Anyway, we love getting out of our stuffy house to hear music and chew the fat. And he thinks you’re all so beautiful. Oh, my goodness. My name’s Harriet. My brother is Nathan.”
The girls introduced themselves. Sophia only cared about the redhead.
“Darlene, would you like to dance with my brother? I know it’s silly, but he really is shy. But oh so sweet. Truly. And he’s a wonderful dancer. I promise.”
Their giggles triggered her own. How long had it been since she’d laughed in earnest? Her voice sounded too high-pitched, imported, and she felt a pinprick of fear. Before Boris beat out her accent and misused pronouns, Sophia couldn’t have pulled off such a ruse. When she’d first arrived, she sounded foreign, misplaced. American men wouldn’t pay top dollar for relations with unclean immigrants, and immigrant men craved everything American. Even the men who couldn’t speak English didn’t want Yiddish chatter to bring back memories. In America, their new life could be anything they desired, forged by the sweat of their brows and hitched to the flight of dreams. Sophia held her breath and listened as the friends carried on with their banter and then encouraged Darlene to follow Sophia. Boris waited with a schoolboy’s blush.
Her thoughts drifted back to the late afternoon when the stranger had approached her little house as she took her family’s underthings off the line. Unlike Boris, he had a wide grin and a gentleman’s beard. That’s what Mamme called thick whiskers worn by men in the shtetl. The breeze had smelled of Mamme’s rosemary plant, and the old women who sat by their front doors to shuck wheat berries sang folk tunes until the sound a grainy alto unison.
Darlene’s friends were beckoning Sophia back to them. They handed her a glass of something clear, then patted her shoulder and turned away to talk among themselves. She swallowed the cheap vodka then watched the couple dancing. She hadn’t lied. Boris was a good dancer, and he had a pleasant singing voice. On slow days, like when the circus was in town and the family men were busy, he hummed Sousa marches while the girls lined up along the wall for a turn around the parlor. Required.
The happy couple returned heated from the two-step so Boris offered to fetch drinks. Before he left, he tilted his head toward Sophia. It was her turn.
Sophia knew well how to put strangers at ease. With just a few questions, Darlene babbled about the factory job she hated and the overbearing parents she couldn’t wait to escape. Though Sophia asked, Boris wouldn’t say how he knew which girl to choose.
“Enough about me. I’m so common,” Darlene said. “But you don’t look like a factory girl. Your hands aren’t crusty from the chemicals. A shop?”
“Yes, I work at our family’s — ”
“Harriet, no need to bore Darlene with that.” Boris handed them each a cup.
“Nathan, don’t be silly. Our family owns a store. We both work there,” Sophia said.
“It’s my father’s.” Boris turned his attention away to give Sophia a moment.
Sophia leaned toward Darlene and whispered. “Have you ever heard of Henri Bendel’s?”
The girl nodded. Of course she had. They ran weekly advertisements in The New York Sun. Sophia put her index finger to her lips. Their little secret. Darlene’s eyes widened. She drained the rest of her glass and peppered Boris with questions about his work and success. Then, after he’d trotted out his opinions about dime novels and popular music, she introduced Boris to her friends. He charmed them with lawyer jokes and a story about once taking a famous vaudevillian to dinner. Sophia didn’t mention how the great actor paid a visit to her room when Boris brought him back to the house afterward.
As the loud music continued, Boris slipped extra whiskey into their drinks. Sophia could tell the girls were beginning to confuse reality with possibility. Even so, a good girl would refuse an improper offer without Sophia and her critical role.
“Nathan, we should probably get home. Mother” — Sophia paused to let the protective weight of the word sink in — “will notice if we’re not back soon.”
“Yes, you’re right,” Boris agreed. “May Harriet and I walk you home?” he asked Darlene.
“Oh, I don’t know if I should. Besides, my friends…”
Sophia knew what Boris wanted her to say next. The room was warm and she wiped her forehead with the back of her hand.
“I’ll be there as your chaperone,” Sophia said. “And your friends can come, too.”
As the girls conferred, Boris whispered to Sophia. “That’s not how we — ”
Sophia jerked away. His hot breath was like a devil’s pitchfork lunging for her brain.
“We lost at least three because of friends who talked them out of it,” Sophia said. “And what about that sliver of a thing who shouted for the police when you tried to take her outside. I have an idea. Trust me. This will work. Just take Darlene to get her coat.”
When Boris obeyed, Sophia felt lightheaded.
With Darlene and Boris ahead, Sophia explained her idea to the friends. They huddled, giddy to be conspirators in their friend’s romance. Once they all met outside on the street, the dark-haired leader hugged Sophia as Boris distracted Darlene away.
“Your friends decided they wanted to get home on their own. They think you two make a lovely couple,” Sophia said when she caught up to them.
Darlene’s lips quivered into a faint smile.
Her voice sounded too high-pitched, imported, and she felt a pinprick of fear. Before Boris beat out her accent and misused pronouns, Sophia couldn’t have pulled off such a ruse.
Boris couldn’t remember her name, but just the same he complimented her eyes, nose, cheeks, dress, figure, and then mouth. When he asked for a kiss, she agreed more quickly than some, which he appreciated and would reward with gentleness. They were standing just a few steps from an alley when he began the lines from a tired script. He’d fallen in love at first sight and now had wild thoughts of marriage and children. They all wanted to be rescued. Most believed life elsewhere would be better, easier. A few fled violent husbands or starving children, but the details didn’t matter and he wasn’t one to judge. The knack, his boss called the way Boris perceived the needy girls. Boris simply understood. Away, they wanted. Away, she had wanted. That’s what his mother said the night she returned in a bluster of tears and apologies for the affair. Boris had listened from the kitchen until his father tossed her out without letting Boris say goodbye. Painted trash, his father called her.
Sophia guarded the mouth of the alley. Alone in dark shadows, she recalled how her tatte had held the strange man’s shoulder as they shook hands. A shtetl boy himself, the man had found fortune in the land of milk and honey and returned to his homeland to find a good wife. American girls were too modern. He wanted a wholesome girl, one who knew Polish lullabies and made cholent. He wasn’t really a stranger, her mother said while she packed the family’s only trunk. American homes had wood floors, and people were never cold or hungry, she continued. They didn’t share plates with the neighbors or sleep beside the chickens when the temperature dropped. No tears, my beautiful Sophila. The good man says he will send for us all. You’ll see. And in America, they have many jobs. Your Mamme can work in a shop, wear a hat. Tatte maybe delivers the milk. Think of it, Sophila. Like a shammash. A blessing from above. You will see us again soon.
Darlene emerged from the alley first, her skirt askew and the belt from her coat missing. Sophia tucked herself into the shadows and hoped that somehow this one wouldn’t fathom her role in the fable. But the girl looked at her and pinched her lips into the unlucky turn of a horseshoe. The rebound of betrayal wrapped around Sophia’s neck.
Boris found this part boring, and yet he knew the situation’s delicacy. “Of course you can go back to your family. But what if your father finds out you’re not, well, pure anymore. You could even be with child. No, I hate to think your father would turn you out…darling. Because, I love you. I want to take care of you. Be a father. I don’t want you to work your fingers to the bone. We can get married right away in New Jersey. We’ll catch the last train if you come with me now. Married. Just think of it. Come.”
Sophila, the good man will take care of you.
The train was running five minutes late. At least he only had to take the redhead as far as Hoboken. In the second-class rail car, he’d help her compose a letter to her family to share news of a dreamy elopement. That would keep her calm. Then when they met the handoff man on the platform, he’d get this one to smile big. Good teeth were a bonus, and he never knew who was watching. Working at headquarters came with lots of perks and his wife wanted a modern enamel sink.
Back in her room, Sophia tallied the night’s earnings in her notebook, the earliest numbers had faded to a pale grey. With this final entry, she’d reached the agreed upon sum. Getting out meant she not only saved herself. She could help the others, or at least try, she told herself. Her head pulsed, making her skin feel too tight. In all her planning, she hadn’t considered the reality of freedom, its shape for a castoff woman, with few skills, little money, and nowhere to go. Even if she’d saved enough for a steamer ticker, she couldn’t go home. She could never explain the truth of her life in America and why she’d left her husband. And factories paid such a pittance that many workers chose the life Sophia wanted so desperately to leave. Sophia yearned to believe in fortune and in faith. Just as Tatte had believed when he offered up his only daughter. She dropped her notebook.
On the nights when Mamme portioned out one potato for each of them, Tatte claimed he was already full on Torah stories. While the rest of the family ate, he closed his eyes and began to speak. The sun-weathered crease across his forehead became the split in the Red Sea, and David’s staff and sling moved to the rhythm of Tatte’s index finger. He favored tales of the weak who were victorious over those who justified their misdeeds with more equanimity than Sophia could ever muster. As she dwelled on her dealings with Boris, the corner of her eye began to sting. She’d made a gentlemen’s agreement without any gentlemen.
Boris knew the boss would arrive any minute to review the quarterly numbers and, if he kept his word, give him a promotion out of the house. Boris had to get Sophia to leave the parlor. He ordered her back upstairs. She didn’t go.
“You’re lucky I don’t have time for the belt. What do you want? Quickly.”
She wanted her money and presented a small ledger. He was in no mood to talk about their bargain, and certainly the boss couldn’t overhear anything about it. Besides, he didn’t owe Sophia anything more than the roof he provided and the meals she ate, including meat on Fridays. None of the other cadets scrounged for brisket to keep their girls energetic. Another reason he deserved a promotion – and if he wasn’t promoted, Sophia would never be able to leave anyway.
He sneered at her, but even that didn’t get rid of her smile. No one knew about their deal. He glanced toward the hallway.
“Now’s not the time, Sophia. You need to leave.”
“I know. That’s why I’m here,” she said, thankful her voice didn’t quiver, her hands in the pockets of her dress so he wouldn’t see them shake. Anger felt like a rod down her back, though she couldn’t tell if she was madder at Boris or herself. He didn’t want to let her go, give away the money he considered his own, or explain to his boss how a profitable girl got away. How could she have been so stupid?
The bustle of street noise suddenly filled the room. Someone had opened the door to the building. Boris stood and again told Sophia to leave as heavy footsteps from the stairwell missed the downbeat. Everyone knew that the syndicate boss had a limp. Boris couldn’t wait for his promotion, if only to tell the cantor he was moving his family uptown and taking his dues with him.
“Look, Sophia, we both know your little list of numbers doesn’t prove anything, and no way the boss listens to you. Leave and I’ll put in a good word so you can go out to the dance halls with the next cadet. You know, keep making a bit extra for yourself.”
The doorknob twisted.
“Miriam,” Sophia said.
“I said, Miriam.”
He looked at her. How did she know his wife’s name? How long had she known it?
They were alike, he and Sophia. Too alike. Boris remembered the way his parents screamed that last night. He’d never before witnessed the kind of rage that filled the apartment with an ostinato pulse and the smell of burnt garlic forgotten on the stove. She fell to her knees and pleaded to stay, wept through vows of repentance and offered herself as a lamb for slaughter. Mother would do anything but Father wanted nothing and seized her by the hair. She landed beside a puddle of dirt and soot and Boris saw the edges of her light blue skirt turn black as Father slammed the door shut.
His father never admitted how much he’d needed his wife, except to the booze that took his life. And yet in trying to avoid becoming his father, hadn’t he been lured into his mother’s plight of lies and secrets? Beneath the swagger, Boris obeyed the syndicate so his own wife wouldn’t toss him to the street to live among his own kind. He couldn’t ever let that happen. Sophia watched as Boris quickly calculated the weight of her intent. She let her eyes deaden and focused on a question Boris wouldn’t ever understand. Would she ruin yet another woman’s life to save her own?
The door opened and both looked. Then they turned back to face one another. Each knew what they had to do. Neither knew for sure.
Gina Pfeffer-Mulligan is the author of two historical fictions (writing as Gina L. Mulligan) and the founder of the national charity Girls Love Mail. She’s currently working on a novel inspired by “Land of Milk and Honey.” In fall 2022, Gina will begin her MA in Creative Writing Prose Fiction at the University of East Anglia.