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They had said little on the ride back to Belle's apartment. They had piled into the Buick, anxious to be gone before the reporters and the photographers from the yellow journals arrived. And even now they were quiet, as if any words they chose would be inadequate to the enormity of the horror they had seen. So they each set to a chosen task to fill the minutes.
Sina made coffee and set the cups and spoons on the table. She studied each of her companions as she waited for the water to boil and felt a love for them that she could never express in words. Otto, so much like what she imagined a brother to be. He had not left Sofia's side and tried to comfort her now. He'd wrapped her in a blanket to still the trembling of her body and to ease the chill that had nothing to do with the temperature of the room. And finally, he had made her smile.
She watched Belle as she treated Mel's burns. Perhaps now she had found a sister too. Belle looked so young, so open. She'd taken such a childlike delight in the sights and sounds of the city that it was hard to remember how strong and capable she really was. She fell asleep on the trolley and missed her stop almost every time she rode but today she had held young lives in her hands and saved them.
And this new man, this Mel Pappas. There was a strength and decency about him she found compelling. She watched him as he sat quietly while Belle applied ointment to his burns. His eyebrows and moustache were singed and his face was red, as if he had stayed too long in the summer sun. She had told him to take off his bloody shirt and he had resisted. He had only his undershirt on, he protested. It wouldn't be polite... She had snorted until she realized that his fingers were too badly burned to manage the buttons. So she had knelt and undone the buttons for him and his face had flamed even more red as her fingers had brushed lightly against his neck and chest, as she eased his arms out of his sleeves, shielding his hands with her own from the scrape of the cloth. He had looked away, embarrassed, and she had a sudden desire to know more about this student of anthropology with the muscular arms and shoulders of a workman, this scholar who would run into a burning building to save the lives of people he did not know.
The hissing of the coffeepot ended the wandering of her mind. She poured the coffee and beckoned for them all to come to the table. Mel was relieved to see that she had poured his into a bowl, so that he could press his palms against the sides and drink without bending his fingers. It was a little thing but he was grateful for her thoughtfulness.
Sofia sat down first and broke the silence. "I don't know how to say thank you. You are all so good..." Her voice threatened to break.
"How long have you been working there?" Sina asked, knowing that questions with specific answers would ground her, help her to concentrate.
"A year. Anton knows the owner and gets a job as boss and then he says I will work in his place now."
Belle joined in. "I didn't see Anton anywhere."
Sofia shook her head. "No, Anton is outside. I see him go into the stockroom and later he goes outside. Then the fire starts and I don't see him no more."
Sina's voice was cold. "What was he doing in the stockroom?"
Sofia shrugged. "He has a bottle he hides there. Sometimes he goes for a drink."
"And a smoke?" Sina 's blue eyes were as cold as ice.
Sofia turned to face her, her eyes filled with horror. "I don't know."
There was silence for a moment. Then Belle spoke. "They were all so young, maybe thirteen or fourteen year olds. Why was that?"
Before Sofia could speak, Sina leaned forward. "They're cheaper. An experienced stitcher can get maybe fourteen dollars a week. Girls like those just starting out, they're lucky to get nine or ten. More profit in someone's pocket." Her voice was softer as she asked, "Can you tell us what happened?"
Sofia drank her coffee as if she were drawing strength from it. "Always I am afraid for fire. The building is old, not like the last place I work. Not supposed to be a factory - too small, too crowded. Anton laughs and says maybe that's why the boss wants young girls for workers. They take up less space. Everywhere there is oil, cloth, rags, paper things to cut, shirts in baskets. Too many things to burn. When the fire starts, it goes fast. Some girls throw pails of water but it is not enough." She spoke quickly now, anxious to sort the facts out in her own mind. "We have hoses but no good. Everywhere rotten and they leak. So everybody starts to run."
Her voice was quiet almost a whisper. It was as if she were recalling the scene, playing it back in her mind like a moving picture at the nickelodeon, its images clear and striking but somehow unreal. No one interrupted her, no one had the words to comfort her.
"Nobody knows what to do, where to go. Nobody ever say. So everybody run like hell. But we can't fit in the door and the stairway is only so wide." She held her arms out less than a yard and Mel nodded his head to acknowledge the truth of it.
He added, "That's why it collapsed. It was never meant to hold that many people. Once it went, the rest were trapped up there." He was angry and his eyes darted around the room as if he were looking for something to break. But then his eyes met Sina's and her gaze seemed to calm him down. He sat back and spread his hands out on the table to steady himself.
The others were silent. They had not seen but they had heard the screams. It would be a long time before the echoes would fade, if ever at all.
Sina voice cut across their imaginings as she asked, "Sofia, who owns that sweatshop? Who is Anton's boss?"
" It is a Greek who is a friend of Anton for a long time. He buys many old buildings. Tenements, factories, old places that nobody wants. Anton and me, we live in one of the tenements once for part of Anton's pay but Anton says we must move. Too many people live there, is dirty, with rats and sometimes no water. Anton says his boss gives money to men from the city to look the other way and he gets very rich very fast. More money to buy more buildings."
"Do you know his name?"
Sofia shook her head, trying to remember. "He comes over on the boat with Anton. I dunno. Something Bellisarius."
Sina put her cup down on the table with a loud rap. "Aristotle Bellisarius?"
"Yes." Sofia took another sip of her coffee and her hand began to tremble and the coffee spilled over the edge of the cup. "I am sorry to make a mess. I can't stop shaking from the fire. Must be what Hell is like, I think..." Sofia began to weep softly and Belle crossed the room to hold her in her arms.
"Why don't you lie down for a while? We'll let Anton know where you are when he comes home." She led her to the bedroom and closed the door softly behind them. Sofia sat, numb, as Belle helped her out of her clothes. They stank of smoke and there were tiny holes where embers had scorched the thin material as she had stood on the ledge moments away from her own death.
Belle helped her into one of her own cotton nightgowns. "Try to get some sleep," she whispered as she brought the blanket up to cover Sofia's trembling body. She rose to leave but Sofia reached out and held her hand tightly, and would not, could not, let go. Belle sat beside her, murmuring, stroking her brow until finally the trembling ceased and Sofia slept, safe.
It was dark in the bedroom and Belle's eyes adjusted to the harsh light as she returned to the kitchen. The others had gone and only Sina remained. She poured Belle a cup of hot coffee but turned her face away, so that Belle could not read the expression there.
"That greedy bastard didn't give a damn about them. No fire drill, no sprinkler, not even a goddamned decent hose. Children dead because of his greed." Sina sat at the window looking out at the street. Her voice was low but there was an edge to it that Belle found more frightening than if she had screamed out her anger. "It's one thing to get money and presents from bored rich women who like the way you tango. But now he's gone too far. He won't get away with it. I'm gonna make him pay."
"The courts will take care of him, Sina. It's not like it used to be. There's a new union, The International Ladies Garment Workers Union. They'll bring charges against him. There are laws now."
Sina spun her head around. "I don't trust your laws." Her face was cold, hard. "And I don't trust him. He does harm and when you think this time he'll be punished, this time it will catch up with him, he walks away, smiling."
Belle rose and put her hand on Sina's forearm as she rested it on the windowsill. But the older woman pulled away sharply, as if rejecting any tenderness, any softness. "They were just kids. Little girls, just frightened little girls. They must have been so scared. And the ones who survived....fear like that....it kills a part of you too. I know."
And they sat and drank their coffee in silence for there was nothing left to say.
It was weeks later that Belle was awakened by the sound of voices on the landing in front of her door. At first she thought it might be someone needing her help but as she pulled on her dressing gown, she could make out a man's voice and a woman's. It was late, about the time that Sina usually came home from the theater. Cautiously, without putting on the light she opened the door a crack to see if there were any trouble.
"Stay away from me, Sina." It was Anton's voice, thick with drink or fear or both.
"What's the matter, Anton? What are you doing here? Can't you sleep at night anymore? Or maybe you just came out here for a little smoke. Like in the stockroom." Sina's voice was low, conversational.
"I don't know what you're talking about. I can smoke anywhere I damn well please." Anton was ill tempered, out of sorts. "Keep your nose out of my business."
"You're so tough, Anton. You weren't so tough when you ran down those stairs and left your wife and the others to burn to death. You started that fire, didn't you, and then you ran like hell, you bastard. You're gonna pay for that, Anton. You've been pressing your luck all along but this time you won't get away with it."
Belle opened the door, hoping that her presence would defuse the situation. Anton was a big man, a violent man, and she feared that Sina's accusations would force his hand. Sina was lithe and quick enough when she had the element of surprise on her side but this was a different matter. Anton was ready for a fight and his hatred for Sina was apparent in the look on his face.
But in the dim light of the hallway, Belle looked at Sina and she was as calm and as confident as the first time they had met. Surely she could sense the danger, Belle thought. But Sina stood in the middle of the hallway, blocking Anton's way as if they were friendly neighbors just stopping to chat. Belle had a sense of foreboding, sure that there would be trouble, fearing for Sina's life.
And then Anton walked toward her and muttered, "Get out of my way." Sina tilted her head and stepped back, letting him pass. Belle breathed a sigh of relief and began to retreat into her own apartment.
But then Anton stood in the center of the hallway and added, "And keep out of my way or else me and my friends'll take care of you just like we did your nigger boyfriend."
Belle spun around, more frightened than before. Sina stood in the hallway, her body rigid as she took in his words. She bent her head forward, her eyes wide, and raised one hand as if to catch the words in midair to examine them more closely. Her composure was shattered and Belle saw confusion in her eyes for the very first time. Her voice was grating, "What are you talking about?"
Anton smiled at her, pleased that his remark had shocked her so. He was cocky now, thinking her wounded and vulnerable. "Didn't know that, huh Sina? Think you know everything that goes on around here, don't you. Think again, Gypsy woman. Me and Ari go way back. He got real mad when you left him. Said those rich women were just business and you was being foolish. But I figured you was already makin' time with some other sucker. So Ari told me and my buddies to follow you around."
He was laughing at her now, his face inches from her own. Belle felt a tightness in her throat as she saw Sina take a deep breath, saw her regain her control, her balance. She was silent but her lips were a tight line and her eyes little more than narrow slits.
"I seen how you used to go down to that place in Harlem. And when they closed up, I didn't see you come out with the rest. You'd stay there half the night. We all figured out what you was doing. And with a nigger yet. Well, we took care of him." Anton pulled his body back and stood laughing at her. "He sure as hell ain't screwing any white women now. Or black ones neither." He turned his back to her and started back to his own apartment. He had his hand on the stairway banister when Sina spoke, soft and low.
"I knew you were mean and I knew you were ugly but I never knew how truly stupid you were. I should have taken care of you a long time ago." Belle watched wide eyed as Sina slipped out of her jacket and laid it across the banister.
"You can't pull any of your gypsy tricks on me, Sina. I'm not drunk this time. Maybe it's time I took care of you instead."
Belle cried "Sina, look out!" as she saw Anton open his switchblade and lunge toward her friend. She held her breath, expecting to see blood but Sina had stepped to the side. And she was smiling. Belle was stunned. There was no humor in that smile. It was cold, calculating.
"Oh, Anton. See? That only proves my point. Haven't you learned yet? It's not smart to pull a knife on me." Her voice was soft, taunting. Anton crouched, his knife in his hand, puzzled by her reaction. She moved slowly, circling him and it was as if the two were partners in some sort of lethal dance. "I'm a gypsy woman, Anton. Everyone knows how good gypsies are with a knife. And I'm good, Anton, very good. I could carve your heart out so fast you wouldn't know it was missing until you hit the ground."
Belle's throat was dry. She was paralyzed, fearful that the slightest movement would upset the delicate balance of wills here in the dim hallway. She cried out as she saw Anton dart forward but the cry caught in her throat. Sina caught his wrist with her left hand and she suddenly held the knife with her right. The light reflected off its bright metal surface as she held it before her and Anton was frightened now.
"Oh, but I'm not going to use a knife this time, Anton." She raised her arm and threw the knife across the hallway, sent it spinning in the air until it hit, its blade deeply embedded in the plaster wall. "I want you to feel my hands when I hit you."
Anton backed up, unsure of what to do next. He looked at the knife in the wall, judged his chances of getting to it before Sina and thought better of it. He was sweating now, angry and fearful at the same time.
Sina moved gracefully around him "It's about time you got a little of what Sofia has had to live with." Her hand flashed out and she slapped him in the face. He spun on his heel but she had drawn back now. "What's the matter, Anton? Haven't any of your women ever fought back?" She hit him again, harder, so quickly that he could barely react. There was a trickle of blood from his lip now and he wiped it away with his hand.
Belle watched, mesmerized. She had feared for Sina at the start but now she knew that Sina was in complete control. She was so calm, so sure of herself, like the barnyard cats back home who would pass the time toying with a field mouse before they would casually rip out its throat.
And then Anton rushed at Sina, reaching out to grab her by the neck. But she swirled and he found himself facing the wall instead. She stood behind him and bending her arm, she thrust her elbow into his back, above his kidneys. He lost his balance and the force sent him headlong into the wall. When he turned his lips were red with blood and Belle knew that his nose was broken.
"Oh Anton, don't be in such a hurry." Sina's voice was husky, almost seductive. "I've been looking forward to this for a long time." She was methodical, businesslike. Her hand would dart out, her fingers rigid like a board or balled into a fist and she would step back as he gasped and tried to keep his balance. And through it all, she smiled. It was not a smile of pleasure or of excitement. It was more that she was fulfilling an obligation and that she found satisfaction in doing it well.
And now Belle began to fear for Anton's life. In the past months she had found herself joining Sofia in a profound admiration for Sina. Her skepticism that first night had eroded until now she too saw the gypsy woman as the neighborhood did. It was not hard to attribute any good deed to Sina when she had done so many. If something were puzzling, Sina would explain it. If something were wrong, Sina would fix it. She was wise, she was wonderful.
But the woman Belle watched now had none of the warmth and sensitivity she had come to expect. There was no pity here, no suggestion of the tenderness and vulnerability that usually lay just below the surface in all of Sina's deeds and words. If she were an angel at all, it was not a guardian angel but an avenging one. The knot in Belle's stomach tightened as she realized that Anton was going to die.
And then Anton made a last desperate move. He risked turning his back to Sina for a second and with a shout he pulled the knife from the wall and swept it through the air hoping that he would slice her in half, that its blade would cut into her body, that she would suffer that most painful of deaths, eviscerated like a pig in a slaughterhouse.
But suddenly she was behind him instead and her foot shot out and struck him behind the knee. He fell face first on the floor and she landed on his back, kneeling on him, her weight pinning him down. She grabbed his hair in her hand and yanked until his head was twisted back. She cupped her hand around his chin and held him there for a second. "Well Anton, what'll it be? I could give a little twist and that would be the end of it. Or maybe I could just break your back." She drove her knee harder into his spine. "Like Marcus."
"Sina, don't," Belle cried out. "Don't. Please." Belle stood a few feet from them both and felt her hands trembling as if she held Anton's life in her hands instead of Sina. "Let him go. He's not worth it."
Sina looked up at her. It was as if she had been unaware of the other woman's presence, as if the whole world had ceased to exist for her beyond the darkened corridor. The only sounds were Anton's labored breathing and Belle's quiet pleas. She looked down at the cowering Anton and stepped away from him. Without a word she walked to the banister and picked up her jacket. She walked past Anton, past Belle and turned the knob to her own door. Now Anton was getting to his feet but he stood waiting for her to leave before he ventured home.
She turned and looked at him one more time. "Don't you ever touch one of my friends again."
And then she was gone.
Sina sat smoking at the window, the silver lighter cool in her hand. She was smoking entirely too much lately, she thought to herself. All the bad habits coming back. All those things in her past that she had tried so hard to control, to overcome, were becoming part of her life again. The cigarettes, Ari, the anger that swept over her, the violence in her that frightened everyone, that even frightened her.
"Why don't you just come by for a while before you go to the theater? The more people who show up the more impressive it'll be." Belle sat on Sina's settee while Otto rifled through sheet music at the kitchen table. "The way to fight these people is through the law, through the unions. The ILGWU is trying to bring charges against Ari for manslaughter. This labor rally will show everyone how many people really care about getting the laws changed to protect workers. There'll be speakers and some of the girls from the fire will be there too. It'll be like a memorial service."
Sina shook her head. "Factory owners are rich men. One rich man's wallet speaks louder than a hundred immigrant voices."
"You're such a skeptic. I'm not saying it'll happen overnight but if enough people in America want something badly enough, things can change. It's just that more people have to get involved, not just workers. Teachers, doctors, students, reformers. Mel says lots of the Columbia students are coming. I know how you feel about those poor girls, Sina. Come with us."
Sina shook her head. "No. And you and Mel better watch your step. There could be trouble."
"There won't be any trouble and besides, I've never seen you back off from a little trouble."
Sina was adamant. "You don't understand. You were born here. I'm an immigrant. If there were trouble, if the police come like they always do, it would be more than just a night in jail for me. If I were arrested, I'd be branded an anarchist and deported. I can't go back. I'm sorry but I can't go with you." She turned back to the window.
Belle was about to argue the point when she saw Otto shake his head, warning her off. She shrugged, confused, but Otto merely shook his head again. He walked up to the window and stood behind Sina, watchful, protective. Belle did not understand their response but she would respect it.
"Well, then Mel and I will give you the lowdown when it's all over. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to push you like that." She was pleased when she saw Sina turn to face her, a half smile on her lips.
"Well, the least I can do is give you and Mel a ride. I'll drop you off, what do you say?"
"Thank you, Sina," she said. Lord help me, she thought. Another ride in the Buick. She tried to make further conversation but Sina was even more quiet and withdrawn than usual and soon she and Otto took their leave.
It was getting dark now but Sina sat at the window long after Belle and Otto's footsteps had echoed down the hall. She heard the traffic in the street, watched her neighbors as they hurried home but tonight she barely saw them. Her mind was focussed on another time, another place. She closed her eyes and remembered as if it were yesterday.
That miserable theater in Berlin. Otto had been so excited to be on the same bill with her. Every night she'd watched him from the wings. He had been an apt student, learning how to dazzle an audience, how to pace himself. He was gaining a reputation and she was proud of her protégé.
But that night her head had pounded and she left the theater as soon as her number was through. It was raining and she'd cursed when there had been no carriage in sight. Everyone had been in the theater or the café across the way. She had seen no one. That was when he had grabbed her and pulled her into the alley behind the stage door. It was so dark, so quick, that she had never seen his face. The scent of his cologne would be in her memory forever but there was never a face to recall.
He had been a big man, tall, for he had lifted her off her feet as if she had been a child's rag doll. In seconds he had dragged her into the coal cellar, ground her face into the dirt, torn at her clothing. He'd stuffed a dirty rag in her mouth and she couldn't breathe, much less cry out. He had growled in her ear that he would make her grovel, make her beg. He had called her names, had told her what he was going to do to her.
But he had underestimated her strength and he had never guessed at the knife that was always sheathed in her high button shoe.
Otto had hidden her in his dressing room, had wrapped her in his coat to cover the torn and bloodstained clothes. Still in his tall silk hat and magician's jacket he had poured her a brandy and planned their next move. For from the moment she had come to him, there had been no question that the problem was now theirs and not hers alone. Otto had gone to the coal cellar and moved the body, wrapped it in a cloak and had draped an arm around his shoulders and dragged him down the street, like a pair of drunkards on a spree. And he'd left him in an alley far from the theater.
But he had taken the man's wallet and brought it back to her. She had been shocked and looked at him with dismay but Otto had said, we must make it look like a robbery. And together they had gone through his papers to learn what they could. He had been a rich man, a powerful city official and they knew that there would be no room for the truth in the crowd of questions that would come. There would be deception and lies but no justice. They did not wait to see if Otto's ruse had worked. The risk was too great. So they had dropped his money into the poorbox of the nearest church and had taken the next train out of Berlin. To the port of Hamburg, to safety, to America.
And neither one of them had ever spoken of it again. And she had never told anyone of the dreams, how she would wake up and feel his breath on her neck. How in the middle of the night she would sit up in her bed and feel her palms wet and slippery, how she would look at them expecting to see his blood still there but find it was only her own sweat instead.
The rational part of her knew that she was only defending herself, that he was a vicious rapist, worse than an animal. He was to blame, she told herself again and again. She had been his victim, she knew what he would have done. And afterward it might have been her own death if she had not defended herself.
But still she felt regret. She had killed him in fear and anger. It had not occurred to her to frighten him off or wound him so that she could escape. With all the force she could muster she had driven the blade straight into his heart. She had killed a man and then run away in the night. She who had always taken responsibility for her actions, who had always valued the truth above all else.
And other lives would be changed because of it. She wondered if he were married, if he had a wife, children. Now his wife would be a widow, perhaps his children would be orphans. She had killed a man but with that same single thrust of the knife she had wounded his family too. As the years went by she was more troubled by that than by the killing itself. What if they had not known of his actions, his vices. Perhaps they had waited up for him, waited while his corpse stiffened in a Berlin alleyway. They would curse the supposed robber, the murderer who had stolen him from them.
She lit another cigarette.
The streets were crowded the day of the rally and Sina's impatience was only matched by Belle's relief that for once, they would not careen through the streets at forty miles an hour. Mel sat quietly in the back seat. He was disappointed that Sina would not be joining them but Belle had warned him how strongly Sina felt about the matter and he was content that he might share her company for even this brief ride.
"Promise me that you'll keep your eye out." Sina was insistent. "The Factory Owners Association has its back to the wall and they have powerful friends."
"First sign of trouble we skedaddle, I promise. No one wants a riot, Sina. The idea is to honor the girls who were killed, not to get anyone else hurt." Belle was tired of Sina's warnings. "Do they look like a bunch of troublemakers to you?"
It was early and most of the crowd had not arrived yet. There were a few placards in sight and they heard the sound of hammering as someone put the final touches on the makeshift stage where the speakers stood. It was a beautiful spring day and everything was peaceful, as if it were a church social instead of a labor rally. As if to reinforce the image, an elderly clergyman talked to a group of teenage girls, survivors of the fire, who were dressed in their Sunday best and crowded together on the grass. Then a trolley stopped nearby and almost all its passengers clambered down the steps to join the others. A crowd was gathering now and one of the union leaders began to address them.
Belle was anxious to join them. "Don't bother to park. Mel and I will walk the rest of the way and you can head home. If you haven't gone to work when we get back, we'll tell you all about it, okay?"
Sina nodded and waved good bye. But she'd only gone a few blocks north of the park where the rally was to take place when the traffic ground to a halt. A pushcart had overturned and fruit and vegetables littered the street while children ran in all directions after apples and melons to take home in triumph. She muttered a curse and made a sharp turn. There was an alley here somewhere that she could use as a shortcut. There were few deliveries at this time of day and there would be plenty of room for the Buick.
But there was no room there at all. For the alley was filled with mounted policemen brandishing nightsticks and pistols. There were a number of paddywagons parked there too. They were ready for a riot that did not exist, ready for the riot they were about to create themselves. As soon as the rally got underway, before the crowd got much bigger, they would ride into their midst. There would be surprise, shouting. Someone would curse as he tried to avoid heavy hooves and would push someone else who would push back. There would be more shouting, curses and a rider would brandish his nightstick to clear a path, would swing it harder, wider until it met solid flesh. Then there would be anger and all hell would break loose.
Sina felt a chill of dread. She had seen it happen before, in Berlin, in Paris, in Chicago. It was like an avalanche, its force escalating in minutes, its destruction random and harsh. She threw the Buick into reverse and its tires screeched as she headed back to the park to search for her friends.
But other mounted policemen had already stationed themselves at the edge of the park and the commotion had begun as the onlookers watched uneasily. She spotted the two of them at the edge of the crowd and leaped out of the car, leaving its motor idling, to run to their side. "You've got to get out of here. It's a set up."
Even as she spoke, the first shout was heard. A woman cried out and it was not known if it was from injury or from dismay. Fear and anger washed over the crowd at the sound of it as the police advanced closer to the stage. There was a scuffle as one man shouted an obscenity and a horse neighed in response, as if offended by his remark. A nightstick was raised like a signal and came down on someone's shoulder and then it was as she had feared and the riot began in full force. Women screamed and tried to gather up their children in their arms. The crowd, mostly immigrants, ran stumbling, raising their arms to ward off the blows while some more daring, more angry reached out to grab at leather boots and bring the riders down.
Belle stood frozen, unbelieving. Seconds before it had been a scene of hope and good will. The demonstrators, the organizers, the girls in their neat Sunday dresses - her heart had swelled at the sight. All these people united, all sharing their sadness that so many young lives had been cut short, sharing the determination that it should not happen again. She felt a kinship with them all, a sense of righteousness, a confidence that things could change if so many brave and good people wished it so.
But now it was a nightmare, sudden, illogical, incomprehensible. Those who would keep the peace had destroyed it. She stood stunned as uniformed men swung their clubs relentlessly, unmindful of their targets. She watched almost frozen as horses' hooves tore up the grass in pursuit of small underfed factory workers. It was like pictures she had seen of a foxhunt and the unfairness of it all brought a heat to her face that was anger, fear and shame all rolled into one wave of emotion. Her eyes scanned the crowd and she almost laughed as she saw the frightened clergyman, his coattails flying, his hat tilted at an impossible angle, run to the relative safety of the speaker's platform, dragging his young charges behind him.
But the mounted men had the advantage and as the seconds passed, she saw falling bodies, people lying still on the grass. A man came running towards her, half his face covered in blood from a gash on his forehead. And at the sight, Belle broke from the stillness that had held her and she began to reach out to him.
But then suddenly Mel was beside her. He took her arm and without a word pulled her away to the safety of Sina's car. As if she were a bundle of laundry or a sack of groceries, he lifted her into the back seat and deposited her there. And before she could cry out his name, he had turned to rush back into the moving crowd to find Sina and drag her away as well.
But the tall woman was beyond his reach. One of the factory girls stood in her starched white dress, terrified, paralyzed with fear as a horseman drew nearer to her. Mel watched helplessly as he saw Sina lunge before the huge animal and push the girl away to safety. But not before its rider had swung his club at her. Mel saw her recoil from the force of it, saw her body bend as he hit her in the side.
And then he ducked their blows himself and pulled her by her arm to the Buick. She dove into the driver's seat and gunned the motor. And then she weaved in and out of the traffic and for once, Belle did not pray that she would slow down.
They were back at the flat in minutes. Belle was worried, anxious. "You should have an x-ray. Your ribs could be broken."
Sina sat on the side of Belle's bed and shook her head. "No, I'm all right." Her face was pale and she leaned forward, holding the edge of the mattress, her arms tense even as she struggled to keep her voice even and natural.
Mel watched her. "Let me take you to the hospital. That was a helluva whack you took." His voice was loud, as if he were spreading his anger around to disperse it safely.
"No, I hate hospitals." She closed her eyes for a moment and tried not to remember Viktor's face, not to remember the odor of carbolic that always smelled like death to her. "Belle can take care of it. Please."
"All right, but I still think you should have an x-ray." Belle went into the kitchen for her bag.
Mel saw her wince as she started to take off her jacket and so he sat down beside her. "You could have been arrested." He held the sleeve as she pulled her arm out slowly. "Belle says you're not a citizen. They could have deported you." He held the other sleeve. "You don't have to go all the way back to Europe if you want to be rid of me."
She gave him a lopsided smile as he laid her jacket on the bed. "So far we've been to a fire and a riot together. If you weren't around, what would I do for excitement?"
Her feeble joke landed on deaf ears. He knelt and lifted her ankles so that she sat on the bed now. He was all but sputtering and Sina realized that he was nervous, worried about her. "This is more excitement than I need. He could have got you in the face or the head. Suppose you hadn't moved quickly enough." He fussed with the pillows and helped her lean against them. "You could have ended up under that horse's hooves and God know what would've happened." He was angry, afraid as the images flashed through his mind. And without thinking he reached for the buttons of her shirtwaist to ready her for Belle's care, unbuttoned the top button as if for a child and reached for the next.
"I think I can manage that," she whispered and put her hand on his own. He sprang backward and rammed his hands into his pockets.
"I'm sorry. I was just..."
" I know. It's all right."
And then Belle walked towards them and sat down beside her. She reached over and brusquely pushed Sina's hands aside to finish the job Mel had started. "Let me see."
"Just tape it up for me. Please."
Mel turned his back to the pair as Belle gave him a pointed look and cocked her head in a brief command. She was in charge now.
"I'll go wait in the kitchen," he announced and retreated, shaking his head in embarrassment. He had only meant to help as he had undone the buttons and Sina seemed to understand that. But perhaps his fingers had moved so surely, so automatically, because he had imagined them doing just that a dozen times since he had met her. And he wondered if perhaps she had understood that too.
Sina turned slightly as Belle laid her shirtwaist at the foot of the bed. Belle gently pulled the camisole up over Sina's head and tried not to hear the sudden intake of breath. I'd be screaming blue murder by now, she thought. The bruise was red, tender and covered most of her right side. Belle had seen billyclubs before but never the damage they could do. The cop on the beat outside their apartment house swung his casually, comfortably as he walked past on his rounds. Sometimes he would swing it in circles for the amusement of children and it made a whirring sound as it spun through the air. She had never stopped to consider that it was a weapon, never thought of the harm it could do, the pain it could inflict. And Sina was a strong healthy woman. It was a young girl that she had pushed aside, for whom she had taken the blow.
"Here." She kept her voice low. "Let me check your ribs."
Sina nodded but then her body stiffened as Belle ran her fingers lightly over her side.
"I don't think anything's broken but I'd bet one or two of them is cracked. You should stay home tonight and let them start to heal." Belle reached into her bag for the tape. "Are you all set? Hang onto that."
Sina wrapped her hands around the bedpost and hung her head down as Belle sat behind her and began to run the tape around her body. They were silent but for the sound of Sina's breathing.
"I'm so sorry. It's all my fault." Belle's voice was barely more than a whisper.
"What are you talking about?" Sina's reply was breathy, quick. She closed her eyes as Belle wrapped her ribs tightly.
"You got hurt because of me. If I'd just listened to you, this never would have happened."
" I didn't move fast enough. Not your fault." Her grip on the post tightened as Belle pulled on the tape.
"You have every right to be angry with me." Belle tied off the end. "You told me not to go but I was stubborn."
Sina reached for her camisole. "I never told you not to go. I just wanted to be sure you knew what you were up against. I was sorry that I wasn't going myself, that's why I offered you the ride. You two did the right thing, you and Mel. Somebody has to say something. Sooner or later someone will hear."
Belle smiled at her and put the roll of tape in her bag. "Thanks for coming back for us."
"Thank Mel. He's the one who dragged us both out of there. He ran in like Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill." She smiled. "He's a handy man to have around."
Belle nodded. "Well, right now he's worried sick about you."
"Well, he doesn't have to worry. I'm perfectly fine."
But in the next room the minutes passed like hours as Mel waited. Maybe it was worse than they thought. Maybe her ribs were broken after all. Maybe she was bleeding internally. Maybe...No. Belle would have called him if there were a problem. Wouldn't she? Where the hell were they?
But when they emerged from the bedroom Sina was dressed for the theater and seemed relaxed. She caught the worried expression on Mel's face and smiled to reassure him. "It's okay. It's just a little bruised. Now that Belle's taped it up, I feel fine."
Mel was unconvinced and looked at Belle for confirmation. She snapped her bag shut and shrugged her shoulders. "You try talking to her. She won't listen to me. I don't think anything's broken but she should sit still tonight and take it easy."
Mel held Sina's jacket for her and watched her face as she slipped her arms into the sleeves. But her face was calm and unreadable. "Well then, at least let me drive you to the theater."
"I'm fine, I tell you. You don't have to worry about me. I can take care of myself."
Mel smiled. "I know that. But you did gasp every time you had to shift gears driving back here."
"I wasn't gasping."
"You were gasping. Very quietly but you were gasping."
She hesitated and then tossed him the keys. "You just want to see the show for free, don't you."
Mel was surprised and delighted that he had won this round. "Absolutely. And furthermore, I've never driven anything but an old ice truck. This is my first opportunity to drive a Buick and I'm not about to pass it up. Shall we go?"
The show had already begun when they arrived. Sina found a place for Mel to stand backstage where he could see the performances and still be out of the way. Then she disappeared and Mel was left to wonder at the strangeness of her world.
The theater was dimly lit except for the stage and the faces of the audience were a blur to him. The whole place smelled of greasepaint and tobacco smoke and there was a steady hum of conversation backstage as performers and stagehands readied themselves for each act. The limelights shone on center stage and already the air was hot.
Mel had only been to a few stage shows. Every penny he earned went to books and tuition and there was little left for entertainment. He stood next to a stage hand who pulled a jungle of ropes that moved the heavy velvet curtain and he smiled like a kid at the circus to be witness to it all. The first act was a troupe of acrobats who seemed to fill the stage as they tumbled in all directions and made a human pyramid with their very bodies. They signaled one another with hand claps and gestures and Mel wondered at their grace and speed.
That was what was called a "dumb act," the stagehand, Fred, explained. Cyclists, acrobats, animal acts. Always started out with something noisy and all over the place with nobody talking, he said. That way everybody could get into their seats and not miss nothing. Fred fancied himself an expert on vaudeville but had few opportunities to show off. Mel was an eager student and Fred was glad for the diversion.
Then Fred yanked on his ropes and the curtain closed and parted again as Sven took center stage. Mel smiled in recognition. Sven was a big man but dressed in little more than a loincloth, he was even more impressive. His great arms and legs glistened, each muscle accentuated by the play of the lights and Mel wondered if it were oil or Sven's own sweat. He lifted barbells and anvils, pulled a horseshoe until it became a rod and bent a rod until it became a horseshoe. The crowd loved every second and hooted and exclaimed in wonder.
Again the curtain closed and the orchestra played while Sven's props were pulled offstage and the scene set for the next act. When the curtain parted again, a baggy pants comic addressed the audience, his thick German dialect delivered in a deadpan manner that made the absurdity of his remarks even more of a hit. Mel listened and tried to remember each line, sure that he would dazzle Belle tomorrow at the settlement house as he would ask, "Have you heard this one?"
The crowd settled down as one act followed another. The acts seemed a little more polished as the evening wore on, more like stage performances than circus acts. Fred explained that the first half would be capped off by two of the headliners. Then after intermission, the cycle would begin again. No one performed for more than fifteen minutes and each act was paced so that the excitement built up until the audience was primed for the performers they had really come to see.
Otto stood beside him now waiting to go on. He had talked to Sina in her dressing room and said she'd sent him out to find Mel. She seemed fine, he said. It took more than a billyclub to slow Sina down. Then Fred nodded at him and Otto tugged at his waistcoat. "This was a lot easier when I had a helper."
Mel watched as Otto ran through his routine. He ran the gamut of card tricks, sleight of hand magic and then asked for volunteers from the audience to assist in his famous escapes. Burly longshoremen eager to impress their ladyfriends tied his feet and ankles with impossible knots and Otto was standing free before they could make it back to their seats. Even a cumbersome white straight jacket proved of little difficulty for Otto's nimble efforts. The audience roared their approval.
And then the audience was hushed as the last act of the first half took the stage, the headliner they had waited for. Serafina, as she was billed, smiled at the crowd and nodded to the orchestra leader. The lights that had shone so brightly on Otto and the other acts were dimmed now and when the music began, Mel was enchanted.
She was beautiful, that he already knew. But he had never heard her sing. She started with "Shine on Harvest Moon" and the familiar lyrics took on a poignancy that he had never felt before. She sang it slowly, like a ballad, not at all like the more famous rendition by Nora Bayes. Her voice was clear, lovely, without the showy trills of other singers. When she claimed that she'd "had no lovin' since January, February, June or July," Mel and half the audience ached to remedy the situation.
And then before the applause could die down, she sang the intro to "Alexander's Ragtime Band." The song was new but already a big hit and the audience clapped in time to the chorus as she smiled and invited them to come on along. Fred tugged at his rope and to Mel's chagrin, began to chat even as she sang.
"That one's got real class," he commented. "Not like them other floozies running around backstage in their tights and camisoles. Treats everybody the same, whether they're stagehands or headliners or whatever. Friendly like. Not flirty though. Keeps her private life to herself."
Mel tore his eyes away from the stage long enough to note that Fred was giving him the once over. Like an anxious father appraising his daughter's new suitor, Fred stared at Mel's face, took in his worn Woolworth's suit and wondered if he were worthy. "You a friend of hers, I see."
Mel bristled under his scrutiny. "I gave her a ride to the theater, that's all."
Fred shrugged and turned his attention to the figure onstage. "I thought maybe she'd finally got a new boyfriend. She hangs around with that escape artist, Otto, but I'm pretty sure they ain't ...you know." He pulled an cigar from his vest pocket and stuck the end of it in his mouth. "She ain't brought nobody backstage since the spic tango dancer. Never did like him though. Too good looking. Knew it too. I never seen nothin' like it. Was just like catnip with women, he was. All them chippies went crazy soon as they laid eyes on him. Couldn't get out of their scanties fast enuff, trying to get his attention."
Mel tried to concentrate on Sina's song. He supposed anyone dark would qualify as a "spic" to Fred and imagined that he would be classified as such in the future. He was irritated and realized that it was not so much by Fred's remarks as he was reluctant to hear him speak of Sina and Ari, of Sina and Ari together. But Fred was not to be put off by Mel's expression.
"Ari something or other. Him and Sina was a dance team a couple of years back. I used to watch 'em rehearse. He was a lucky sonofabitch. Made you break out in a sweat just seeing the way she looked at him. Like he was a ham sandwich and she hadn't et for a week. I hear he's a rich mucky muck now. Decided he'd rather be a fancy man to rich women uptown. Pretty Boy just screwed his way to success, the way I hear tell. Damned fool, if you ask me, go and give her up."
Mel turned to the stage. There was complete silence as they strained to hear each word and the houselights were dim and shone on her face. She was singing a new song, one he'd never heard before, "Melancholy Baby." She held the audience in the palm of her hand now and her voice was rich and soft. And there was a sweetness and longing there that reached out to every one of them and Mel closed his eyes and pretended that she sang it just for him.
But then Fred's voice cut into his imaginings. "That's funny. She's ain't moving much. She usually sashays across the stage when she's doing that number, right there during the chorus. Her voice is softer than usual too." He chewed on his cigar thoughtfully. "You never know with that one. Maybe she's trying out something new. Most of 'em do it the same every time. But she never does a song the same way twice. Always sounds good though. When Sina sings, it's more like she's singing to you, just you."
Then there was a thunder of applause and the lights went up on her and the orchestra played for her exit. It was intermission now and there was a flurry of activity where Mel stood. She had bowed and exited left and Mel mumbled his goodbye to Fred and went in search of her. There was a crowd of chorus girls, prop men, and he waded into their midst, nervous now. Something was wrong, he knew it.
And finally hidden away beneath a staircase, out of sight of the others he found her. She was doubled over, breathing in short shallow gasps, her arms wrapped around her midsection as if she feared it would burst apart if she did not contain it. She caught sight of him out of the corner of her eye and she stood upright, slowly and carefully.
He looked at her and found his voice. "Let me get the car so I can get you out of here."
"No, I'll be all right in a minute. I've got another number in the second show."
He looked at her face, saw the beads of perspiration on her brow and knew they were not because of the footlights alone. He knew that she was a woman who was used to having her way and who was quick to anger. But even at the risk of that anger, he leaned over and scooped her up in his arms. "Not tonight, Serafina. I'm taking you home."
She was startled by the sudden movement and the pain cut across her chest like a poker red hot from the fire. She would get to her feet, she told herself, as soon as she could speak or move. She pressed her cheek against his neck to steady herself until she could catch her breath. He smelled of soap, bay rum cologne and pipe tobacco. She breathed in the scent of him and felt her body begin to relax.
He was not much taller than she but he had lifted her easily and now he held her tightly and cushioned her body against his chest with his arm as he walked to the stagedoor. The orchestra started on the other side of the curtain and for one crazy moment, she felt like they were dancing. He moved surely, gracefully and she leaned against his body and felt the warmth of his embrace as it seemed to draw her own pain away.
She could breathe easier now. She cursed to herself when she realized that she'd clutched the back of his shirt when the pain had flashed through her, holding on like a child afraid of falling. But he said nothing and only held her tighter because of it. He started out the door and she knew that by the time they reached the car she would stand on her own and walk beside him. But until then, for just a moment, for just one fleeting moment, she felt like that little gypsy girl searching the crowd for someone who would claim her, care for her. And for now she rested in Mel's arms as if she'd belonged there from the very start.
By the time they reached her apartment, he thought she seemed more like herself. Her color had returned and she sat up straight and tall now. She opened the car door and stepped to the pavement before he could assist her and he shook his head. Her self reliance was admirable and maddening at the same time. He saw her hesitate as she contemplated the flights of stairs to her apartment, sensed how she needed to grip the banister for support but was unwilling to have him witness it. Without a word he offered her his arm, casually as any gentleman would a lady and she rewarded him with a smile.
He had imagined what the home of a vaudeville entertainer would be like. Flamboyant and artistic, he thought, paintings on the wall, velvet or silken hangings, perhaps a steamer trunk tucked in a corner brightly displaying all the railway station labels of its travels on the circuit. But her apartment was a revelation to him, nothing like he'd imagined. The room was almost a mirror image of his own, filled with books and music. While Sina retired to the room at the end of the hall to clean off her makeup and change her gown, he stood before the bookcases and scanned their leather spines.
Most of the volumes were second hand, a few were new. Her tastes were diverse, her thirst for knowledge as intense as his own. There were novels by Zola, Dreiser, Dickens. There were history books, books of philosophy, art, poetry. Some were in French or German but most were in English and he reminded himself that despite her fluency, it was not her native tongue.
But then he began to chuckle as he read the titles on a shelf by the settee. There was a well thumbed copy of Owen Wister's The Virginian and an equally worn copy of Mark Twain's Roughing It. Biographies of Jesse James and Wild Bill Hickock stood shoulder to shoulder with The Last of the Mohicans and the new bestseller, Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Gray.
"What's so funny?" she asked as she sat carefully on the settee. Her face was scrubbed and shining and her hair hung loose to her shoulders.
Mel sat on the Morris chair facing her. "It's just that I know your secret now. You want to be a cowboy when you grow up." He gestured to the shelf and smiled.
His teeth gleamed white behind his dark moustache and she liked the way his eyes flashed when he was amused. She smiled back and said, "I can't deny that. I grew up around horses. I love them. When I was a girl, a day didn't pass that I didn't ride."
He settled into the chair and crossed his long legs. "I would love to see that. I imagine you'd be pretty impressive on horseback. I can see you now, dark hair flowing over your shoulders, the reins in your hands, leather boots gleaming, riding across the sunset on a beautiful black stallion."
"No," she said. "A palomino, it would have to be a palomino. Nothing else will do."
He laughed and said, "A palomino it is, then."
She leaned back against the pillows. "I think I know your secret too. I bet every once in a while you skip school to go see Broncho Billy Anderson at the pictures with the other kids." They laughed together and it cost her. He saw her press her arm against her side as she fell silent.
"Are you all right? I can go get Belle."
She shook her head. "It's okay. You know what they say, it only hurts when I laugh." She raised a hand as if to reassure him and sat back against the pillows.
It was late and it was a long walk home. He knew he should go but he wanted to sit and talk with her. She was better now but he was still reluctant to leave her. He leaned back, trying to make conversation. "Serafina, is that just your stage name? It means angel, doesn't it? It's a pretty name. You should use it all the time."
She shook her head. "I'm no angel." Another woman might have said it playfully, even seductively but her voice was almost a whisper.
He wanted to deny it, to reassure her but she was a mystery and he promised himself that one day he would know her secrets. "Well, I like the sound of it. It's musical." Like you, he thought.
He sat up again, afraid he might begin to babble. "You must be hungry. Can I get you something before I go? A sandwich, a cup of coffee? I could scramble a couple of eggs if you have any."
"I'm not hungry. But thanks for offering. It's been a long time since anyone cooked for me. Not since Viktor." She noted his surprised expression and wondered why she had volunteered that fact. "He was my husband. Back in Europe. He died a long time ago."
"You must have been very young." He wondered about Viktor, wondered what he had been like to make her love him enough to marry, envied him that he had shared her life and her bed.
"I was a rough and ignorant girl. He taught me about art and music, the theater. He was so patient with me. I was very lucky." She thought of her awkwardness, her stubbornness. She had learned so much from Viktor and had had only her youth to give back in return. Not for the first time, she wondered if Viktor had ever regretted his rash choice of a young wife.
Their eyes met and she seemed discomforted, sorry to have brought up the subject at all. She loved him, he thought. Maybe she loves him now more than ever. He had thought he wanted to know her secrets but now he was not so sure.
He leaned back and said, "I think Viktor was the lucky one." She rolled her eyes as if he had made a joke and he hurried to change the topic of conversation. "Well, I'm probably can't cook as well as Viktor but maybe someday I'll make you my specialty - Southern fried chicken and biscuits."
"Where'd a nice Greek boy learn to cook fried chicken and biscuits?" She settled back, more at ease now.
"Actually, I was born in Virginia. You ever hear the one about the traveling salesman? My father was a tobacco salesman, my mother worked in a general store. Never knew him. And I never really met any Greeks until I got to New York. Everybody in my town was blond and blue eyed. Easy to find me in a crowd, you know? Dark skin, curly hair."
She nodded. "You're a long way from home, Mel."
" I left years ago. Ma threw me out when I was about twelve." He looked up nervously. But her eyes were warm, blue as the sea and she seemed to look into his soul. She pushed aside his uneasiness with a tilt of her head and he started to explain, wanted to explain. " I used to hang around with a colored boy named Atticus. My best friend. Well, his Daddy used to play guitar. Oh, how his Daddy could play. Sweet sad songs, about lost loves, broken hearts, going home. Sometimes on Sunday I used to sneak out and go to church with them just to hear him play and to hear everybody sing. Their church music was like nothing you've ever heard before. Well, my Momma found out where I'd been going and she beat the daylights out of me. She said I'd already brought her enough shame. Said that it wasn't bad enough I looked like a nigger, I might as well go live with them too."
Mel looked at his hands, avoiding her face. It had been so many years since then, since he'd first felt the fear and the loneliness. He had told no one about it, for there had been no one to tell, no one he wished to tell. And there were so many thousands like him, children who had learned to make their way alone. Some had been cast out, some had run away, some had left to make room for the newest, one less mouth to feed. Newsboys, messengers, factory girls, prostitutes - Plenty of jobs for the cheap labor of children's hands and bodies.
But tonight, with her, talking had made his own memories real again. And he had no idea what had compelled him to suddenly speak of them. She was a strong woman and brave. More than anything he wanted her respect, hoped that someday she might even admire him. But instead he spoke of a pathetic little bastard child and could not stop himself.
Then he looked at her and her expression was caring, wise. It was as if she had known his story all along and had just been waiting for him to trust her with it. He was ashamed of his tale when he told it but she accepted it, like a gift. And she smiled a half smile and her blue eyes met his own and held them.
"What did you do?" It was more than a polite response. Her voice was soft and low, as it had been when she sang.
And he shifted his gaze so that he could continue. "I rode a boxcar to Pennsylvania and then to New York. I did the usual - newsboy, messenger, dishwasher. Lots of kids like me on the streets so we stuck together. I could speak English to help them out and they showed me where to sleep, where I could go for food. After a while I smartened up and got night jobs so I could go to school during the day. I wasn't kidding about driving that ice truck."
She shifted her position, trying to get comfortable. "Did you ever think of going back home?"
He shrugged. "No, and now I'm glad I left. I love the University. I'm doing just what I always wanted to do. But once, when I graduated from high school, I was so excited I wanted to share it with someone. I thought maybe she'd finally be proud of me so I called her. She got on the phone and I never got a chance to say a word. She told me if I was looking for a handout to go find my old man, not to call her again. My fault. I should have known better."
He couldn't look her in the face. Instead he got to his feet, hoping to find something to do, to replace speech with action, to stop the self confession now before he made an even greater fool of himself. "How about some coffee?"
He glanced at her. She must be in pain again, he thought. Her head was bent, turned away from him and she hugged one of the sofa pillows to her body as if to protect it or perhaps herself.
"No. No thanks. But there's a bottle of brandy in the cupboard. Why don't you get us some?"
"Maybe I should just leave so that you can go to bed."
She shook her head. "No. It hurts to lie down. Stay a little longer. Have a brandy."
He poured the drinks and settled back into the chair. "You've got a nice home here. I always feel comfortable when I'm surrounded by books."
She stretched her neck and rested her head against the back of the settee. "It's not much of a home. Just a room in a boarding house, a place to eat and sleep."
He looked at the curve of her neck, the angular cut of her chin. She'd felt so good against his shoulder, her face warm, soft. He hoped that the smell of her perfume would linger for a while on his collar, that he could take a bit of her back with him. Then he caught himself and picked up his end of the conversation. "I imagine most performers must feel like that. I mean, you're on the road a lot."
She sipped her brandy and then stared into the amber liquid. "No, I've always felt like that ever since I was a little girl. My parents were killed when I was very young and the gypsies found me, raised me. It seems like I've been on the move ever since." Why was she telling him about her childhood, about Viktor? She wasn't given to babbling like this. Maybe it was the brandy.
Or maybe his company. It was late and he probably had to be at work early tomorrow. She should tell him good night, thank him for his help and send him on his way. He'd stood by her, all day and half the night. It was unfair to keep him here now that she was back home, settled down. But she wanted him to stay, just a little longer. She felt drowsy and knew she would fall asleep soon but somehow she wanted to hear the comforting rumble of his voice as she drifted off. Her body ached and it hurt to move but his voice wrapped around her like velvet and she felt better just listening to it.
Mel spoke softly, "I want a real home someday. I want a wife and kids - the whole shebang. Embroidered pillows on the sofa, "Home Sweet Home" on the wall."
She smiled, "Cat on the windowsill?"
"White picket fence."
She shook her head. "You sound like half the songs in the vaudeville repertoire. All except that mortgage part."
"Well, that's probably because it's so hard to rhyme." He sipped his brandy. "It figures though. There's hardly anyone in your audience who hasn't given up his home to be here. In America home's more like a feeling, a sense that you finally found a place that feels right. And you don't have to come from overseas to need that."
Mel saw a shadow cross her face and berated himself for keeping her up, prolonging his stay. He was more than a little uncomfortable by the confessions he had made and realized that she shared his uneasiness. Perhaps she was uncomfortable that he had confided in her. Maybe she was uneasy that she had revealed so much of herself to him too.
There was silence for a minute, both of them lost in their own thoughts. Then finally, Sina spoke. "Tell me about your studies. About Columbia. One thing I regret, I've never been to school a day in my life. I was already grown when Viktor taught me to read." Her voice was soft, her tone apologetic.
He glanced at the bookcases. "I'd say you've done pretty well on your own. Half of my homework assignments are to read books you've already read." She looked skeptical but he went on. "I had a literature class last year you would have liked..."
She leaned back against the pillows and listened but soon her head turned, her eyes closed and Mel saw that she had fallen asleep. She seemed younger, even more vulnerable than she had backstage. He sat quietly for a few minutes and then covered her with a blanket that he found folded at the foot of her bed. He was putting their brandy glasses in the sink when he heard her stir, heard her murmur, "Good night, Mel. Thank you."
He put out the light and watched her face in the moonlight until she fell back into sleep again. He leaned over, kissed her forehead softly and whispered, "Good night, Serafina." And then he closed the door behind him. But as he left her apartment, as he left her, he felt more like he was leaving home than going home.
"Why are you sitting in the dark?" Sina had knocked on Belle's door to invite her to supper but Belle was sitting at her kitchen table, still dressed in her uniform. It was winter now and the daylight waned early. Sina looked around in the semi-darkness and quickly moved to turn on the lights. "Belle, what's going on?"
"I've just come from Sofia's apartment. Anton's dead. He fell off a platform during rush hour and was crushed by a subway car. The police found his wallet with his address in it and they came to tell her. They just left. I sat with her a while and then I gave her some sleeping powders. She'll be out until tomorrow morning, if you want to see her then."
Sina nodded and sat down at the table across from her. "Was he drunk?"
Belle shrugged, "I guess so. He usually was. Nobody knows exactly what happened. The police said that the platform was very crowded. One minute he was waiting for a subway, the next minute he was dead. Either he fell or someone may have pushed him accidentally."
They were quiet for a moment. Then Sina spoke. "He should have died sooner. That would have spared everyone a lot of pain. He was a miserable mean bastard. I know he started that fire and left them all to die. He didn't deserve to live." She closed her eyes and saw the bodies on the ground, thought of Marcus helpless in his wooden chair.
Then she opened her eyes and looked into Belle's face. She had been ranting, she who was usually so quiet, so controlled. For once she had spoken out without thinking. The anger she always kept inside broke free and she had been glad he was dead, glad that he would never hurt a friend again.
But the expression on Belle's face caught her up short. The younger woman was tired, shocked but there was something else in her eyes that frightened Sina as Anton's knives and threats never had. Oh my God, she thinks I killed him, Sina thought. Her mind raced to her last confrontation with Anton, to their fight in the hallway. She had threatened him, hurt him. And Belle was witness to it all.
The silence in the room was heavy, ominous. Then Sina said, "Belle, I swear to you, I never..." Her heart pounded in her chest, for fear that this new friend would turn away from her in fear as others had.
But then Belle smiled and reached out to Sina. Her touch was warm as she took Sina's hand in her own. "Don't even say it. I know you Sina. I've seen you risk your life to protect people and I know you can hold your own in a fight. But I know you 'd never do anything like that and then just sneak away. You're a hero, not a murderer. There's no one I respect and admire more than you."
But Sina did not reply. Instead she looked at Belle's hand holding onto her own. Belle's hands saved lives, brought life into the world, kept families together. Her hands...slowly she drew her hand away from Belle's grasp. Then she stood up to leave and stopped at the door. "Let me know if there's anything Sofia needs." And she hurried out of the apartment.
And then, far from Belle's gaze, she stopped halfway down the hallway. With no one around, she turned and rested her palms against the wall. Her face flamed hot with shame, fear, regret and she leaned her forehead against the cool plaster wall and rested there a moment. She stood quiet, motionless, and then she straightened up and walked slowly to her own dark and empty apartment.
In the weeks that followed the newspapers were full of accounts of the court case that the ILGWU had brought against Ari. Belle had been pleased and proud when the charges of manslaughter had been announced. He would pay this time, she told Sina. In America there were laws to protect everyone, not just the rich. He would be fined, maybe sent to jail. It would be a lesson to others who exploited their immigrant workers. No matter how many times the police would break up a labor rally, there would be another until the unions grew stronger and the workers finally had a voice. Sina shrugged and said, we'll see.
But the power of the Factory Owners Association was firmly entrenched. If Ari were to found culpable, so might others. A team of lawyers assembled in court and one by one the charges were dissected and tossed aside. The building had no sprinkler. Unfortunate, but not a crime. Not all factories had them. No elevator - but that was not a law either and had the girls crowded into the cage of one, they would have been trapped as surely as they were on the staircase, for an elevator shaft was little better than a chimney in such a fire. The fire escape was not so old, they said - too many girls had foolishly crowded onto it at once, that was the problem.
Every night Belle read the accounts as Sina sipped her wine and stared out the window. Belle's hopes crumbled a little with each edition until it seemed that there would be no justice, no punishment at all. Sina made no comment or just shook her head. But Belle heard the "I told you so" in her own mind and felt her anger grow day by day.
She spread the newspaper across Sina's kitchen table and could barely force out the words. The experts said that the fire had started in the stockroom, so close to the stairway that there had been no means of escape. Young girls took the stand and told how Anton would disappear into the stockroom every afternoon for a drink and a smoke.
But then Ari took the stand and swore that it was not so. There was no smoking allowed in the factory at all. He had insisted upon that and Anton had complied. They were lying to protect themselves, pinning the blame on a poor dead man who was not here to defend himself. You know how they are. Ignorant greenhorns, just off the boat. One of them had probably sneaked there behind Anton's back for a cigarette and had started the fire herself.
He was only a small businessman who had given them jobs, given them a chance. It was unfair that he should be punished and shamed so, dragged into the courts when he had committed no crime. He was saddened by the tragedy. But they were their own worst enemies. If only they had done what they were supposed to, they'd be alive today.
And the charges were dismissed.
Belle had wept. She felt the tears of frustration fill her eyes and looked at Sina. "You knew all along he would get off. I didn't want to believe you but you knew. You were right. It's not fair. He does harm and walks away."
Sina face was hard as if cut from stone and her face was half in shadow as the daylight waned and her apartment grew darker. "I knew the courts would let him go. I never said I would let him walk away." As Belle walked to the door, Sina drummed her fingers on the tabletop and the sound of it was like the somber beating of a drum as in a court martial or an execution.
Belle shuddered at the sound of it. She stood in the hallway and said, "Sina, promise me you won't...."
"Good night Belle." And then Sina closed the door and she was alone in the hallway.
It was only a day or so later that Sofia joined them in Sina's apartment. She had knocked on the door timidly, uneasy in her new found freedom. She was free to come and go but old habits died hard.
She smiled as Sina poured her a cup of coffee. "Thank you. It is so nice to sit here with my friends. Always Anton was angry if I spoke to anyone. Mind your own business, he said. I think he did not want for me to have friends. I must have only Anton, just my husband. No one else." Belle cut her a piece of pie and she picked at it with her fork. She avoided their eyes but the words flowed as if a dam had broken and the debris had to be washed away.
"You don't know what is like to be married to a man like Anton, a man who likes to hurt women. There's no way to get out. Always he said it was my fault. I did something wrong or I shamed him. I tried so hard to do things right but no good. One time he breaks my arm and I think I will run away but he said if I tried he would find me and kill me. Always I am afraid. I am afraid when he hits me and the rest of the time, I am afraid I will make him mad and then he will hit me. Other women, trapped like me, they must feel the same."
Belle and Sina were silent. There was little they could say, so they let her speak and poured more coffee. The words tumbled out and still they sat quietly.
"When he went out at night to the saloons, I would sit and listen for his footsteps. Sometimes he would not come home for two, three days and I would think, maybe he has a fight or maybe an accident and maybe never come home again. But always he comes back and I think maybe next time." Sofia grabbed Sina's hand so tightly that the dark haired woman almost cried out. "You were the only one who tries to help me. But then I was afraid he would hurt you too."
She let go of her hand and looked into Sina's face, searching, her face troubled and confused. "When they told me he was dead, I was glad. Policeman say I am a widow now and I know he can't come back to hurt me no more, make me scared no more. I know is a sin but I am so happy now. I think I should feel ashamed to be so glad because Anton dies. Do you think God will forgive me?"
The seconds passed as Sofia waited for her guardian angel to bestow her forgiveness. Belle waited for the words that would put Sofia's mind at ease. So many times Sina had helped her when she was troubled, had known exactly what to say. Surely she could comfort Sofia now. It was as if Sofia were kneeling at a confessional, seeking absolution and there was no one in the world she trusted and loved more than Sina. If Sina forgave her, then she could forgive herself.
But Sina was silent. Her face was pale and she seemed stunned by Sofia's words. Her expression was haunted, confused and Belle was puzzled. Surely she could understand Sofia's reaction, the relief she must have felt to be delivered from such a living hell. But Sina sat as if Sofia's words were a revelation to her. She sat motionless, her hands resting on the tabletop.
So instead Belle hurried to sooth Sofia's guilt. "No, Sofia. It's Anton who needs God's forgiveness, not you. He was a cruel man who liked hurting people and he poisoned the lives of everyone he met. Not just you, Sofia. Everybody. He'd get mad and beat you. He'd go to bars and pick fights. I'd bet he started that fire and killed those girls. He would've killed someone else sooner or later, most likely you. There are so many men like Anton who spend their whole lives hurting people. He's dead but I don't feel sorry for Anton either."
Belle took a breath, hoping that she would find the right words to bring comfort. "You know who I feel sorry for? The man who was driving that subway car. It happened so fast he never had a chance to think. All he knows is that he took someone's life. Anton brought it on himself but if he's a decent man, it'll tear him up inside. But you know, because of him, all the people Anton would have hurt will be safe now. Especially you, Sofia. I hope he finds peace. It's too bad he'll never know that he was really giving you a second chance to start over and find happiness again."
There was quiet for a moment. Then Sina finally spoke and her voice was low, throaty. She looked at her hands as if seeing them for the first time. "She's right, Sofia. You know, they say everything happens for a reason. Even if you can't see it right off. Maybe things just had to work out the way they did." She cleared her throat and for a moment it seemed like she was going to say more. But instead she merely declared, "I could use another cup of coffee."
Belle had been concentrating on Sofia, had watched the expression of peace and relief settle over her features as she finally understood that she was safe, that her life would be better, easier. Belle hardly noticed when Sina rose to get the pot off the stove, was unaware that she hesitated for a moment behind Belle's chair and stood behind her silently. So she was shocked to feel Sina's hand touch her neck and shoulder and rest there for a moment, tenderly.
It was a little thing but it was so rare for Sina to make such a gesture, to touch someone unbidden, that Belle turned to search her face for an explanation. But Sina was already at the stove, her face impassive again. Well, Belle wondered, what the hell was that all about?
But her confusion was short lived for Sofia had something else on her mind but was uneasy about mentioning it. Belle saw her hesitance and tried to draw her out. "How did you come to marry Anton in the first place?"
Sofia shrugged. "Anton was from my home village. He wrote back and said that he wanted a wife. He said that American girls were no good to be wifes, didn't know their place. They didn't know the old country ways. So Anton's family and my father decided I would come to America. My father said it was a good thing. Maybe if I work hard, Anton and me, we get rich and I could maybe someday send for my little sister. But Anton wouldn't even let me write home once I got here."
She attacked her pie, now that she felt more at ease. She looked at Sina and spoke. "But now Anton is gone. I am not sure what to do. I want you should maybe give me advice. Otto has been good. He comes with me to make the funeral. And now he says he has a job for me. I can be magician's helper." She paused and it was clear she was not exactly sure what that was. "I knows he is your friend but I have nobody else to ask. I need a job but I am afraid too. He is very handsome and he has many girlfriends. Maybe he thinks different from what I think. I can trust him?"
Sina smiled. "Otto is a flirt but he's not a liar. He wouldn't take advantage of you. Otto's girlfriends usually want to get into show business and they use him to do it. You know, I can't remember him ever asking anyone to be his helper before. Usually girls talk him into it. Then they take his money and leave."
Sofia looked from Sina to Belle as if she could not believe her good fortune. "So he would not lie to me? I think he has a good heart and I think maybe he is lonely too. We talk and I tell him about my sister and how Anton would not let me write to her. Right away Otto gets a paper and pencil and we write. He says it is important to have family. He said Sina is the only family he has. She's like a sister, the only one who ever cares what happens to him. He makes jokes sometimes but not then. I don't know. You think it would be a good thing for me to take this job?"
Sina nodded. "Yes, Sofia. I think it would be a very good thing." She smiled to herself. For both of you.
Serafina's Song continues...