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The Boarder
Shelley Ettinger
Everybody on the bus is sniffling this morning. There's a scratchy tickle in the back of Vera's throat. Her eyes itch. Her seatmate just sneezed. Her nose drips. Glorious springtime!

She doesn't mind. Detroit in bloom. The season is fleeting; it drifts through after the cold and before the heat. Precious weeks that will be gone in a wink. First rain came, and now, finally, green, to sweep away some of the grime legions of auto workers sprinkle like fairy dust across the land. Every day of every year, microscopic particles of steel shavings and god knows what else dance eastward from the River Rouge megaliths, west from the smokestacks of Dodge Main, landing on Bagley, on Dexter Boulevard, on all points in between, an invisible shower of shmutz that insinuates itself into the dank Great Lakes air and clogs every sinus, lingers in every lung–this year more than ever, with Messrs. Ford and Chrysler and their martial rival Gen. Motors stepping up production to fill military orders. Steel must be milled. Tanks assembled. A year and a half into battle, the plants run 24 hours. Assembly lines have been retooled, timetables revised. There's a war on, woman! as Rosie the Riveter reminds her from ads on the side of the bus. But there are flowers everywhere–from the geraniums and petunias, burgundy and crimson, encircling the oak trees that march along Grand Boulevard to the apricot tulips and tawny primroses Gussie has planted around the house to catch the rainwater runoff that drips from the roof gutters–and Vera would rather smell them than dwell on all that death. At least until after work.

Tonight, as every night, she will reboard the bus. She will watch the blocks pass. She will step off onto Dexter Boulevard. Inch up the sidewalk dreading the telegram. Every muscle clenched. So far, luck. So far, there is no shiny five-pointed poster plastered to the puny window of her attic room, no pretty emblem of another soldier dead. She is not a gold star mother yet.

Willy. Her handsome hero of a son. Fine-featured gift from the gods. Glamorous flyboy, doing his duty for god and country. Until he dies. I fail to see the glory in that, Vera thinks, reaching for the pull cord as the bus tips toward Woodward. Or what his flights over North Africa have to do with freedom. She opens her pocketbook, pops her compact, inspects her face. Good. Lipstick intact despite her tendency to press her mouth into a tight, thin line. Eyebrows neatly plucked above the deep wells from which her friend used to say Vera's soul peeked. Long ago.

She stands, sighs, eases into the aisle. She smoothes her skirt, rights the line of her blouse, runs a hand along perfectly coifed waves of brown going to gray. Steps off the bus. So, Vera thinks. Irving Berlin I'm not. God bless America? Fine. Sure. But it won't bring back Cousin Gittel, Tanteh Malke. Hitler might not like the Allied bombing raids over Tunisia–he wants the African markets just as Wall Street does–but it doesn't matter how many torpedoes Willy drops. It won't save the Jews of Europe.

"So?" Her mother's voice fills her mind as Vera begins walking briskly down the block. "What else is new?" Mama, the old red. Dead over 20 years now, still imparting her Bolshie brand of wisdom. "That's not what this war is about, Veraleh, and you know it. What does FDR care from the Jews? Gittel, Malke–face it, girlchik, they're ash. He doesn't give a damn." So if Willy dies? It's for nothing? "Your boy won't die," Mama whispers. Vera can nearly feel her mother's cool breath caressing her cheek. She tastes salt as a single tear wets her lip.

Mama's right, she tells herself as she approaches Harry Pleck's Record Shack. She turns at the corner, and again at the alley. She heads inside by the back entrance. Pull yourself together. He lives, that's all that matters. Willy lives.

Vera is lucky in her co-workers. Really, no complaints in that department. Only, must Harry's secretary play the radio quite so loud quite so early in the morning? Must the inventory clerk whistle incessantly? Is it absolutely necessary that the two perky, ponytailed typists smack their keyboards in just that never-ending cadence, clackety clack until the cows come home? And smack the gum they constantly chew, too, the two of them in unison like demented bobby-soxed cuckoo clocks?

Whoa there. It's only 9:15. She's been in barely 45 minutes and she needs a break. Can she get away with one this soon? I'd better, she thinks, or I'll snap at someone and then this little office will shrink even more.

"Betty," she says to the secretary, "would you cover for me if Harry comes through? I've just got to have a second cup of coffee."

"Sure, hon. You do look a little bleary-eyed. Get me one too, would you?"

"Honestly, I don't know what's wrong with me this morning." To be honest, she does, and it isn't only Willy. "Cream and sugar?" Betty nods. "I'll be back in a flash."

"Don't worry. He'll never even know you're gone."

"You're a doll." Vera pulls her pocketbook out of a drawer, pats Betty's shoulder as she passes her, grabs her sweater from the peg next to the secretary's desk and bounds down the stairs. She leaves the way she came in, through the back door. The record store doesn't open until 10.

The morning air is still cool. The day feels quiet. Slow. The sidewalk is clear, everyone inside offices, Wayne classrooms, the little stores that line Woodward leading down to J.L. Hudson's department store. Vera breathes easier.

Flower boxes flank the curb. She stoops to sniff. Straightening, she reaches into her pocketbook for her little gold lighter and a smoke. She lights up, takes a deep draw and squares her shoulders. There. Relax, Vera Steiner. It was only one brief turn on a tiny scrap of a dance floor. No one knows. And it'll never happen again.

It's not that, she tells herself. She crosses the street to the coffee shop. I'm exhausted, that's all. I don't know what my brother was thinking, keeping me out until last call. Why, I didn't get to bed until nearly 3 a.m. Did I sleep at all?

The counterman hands her two steaming cups. She hands him two bits. I hope this props my eyes open, she thinks. It's easy enough for Mickey. He'll roll out of bed hours from now. Does he ever once think about me? A working girl needs her rest. Oh hell, he'll never understand, crazy way he lives, him and his musician friends. To tell the truth, though, she can't complain. He drags her to gigs, his or his pals', and she has a blast. The jazz is grand. The pulse, on the once-in-a-blue-moon nights when Mickey passes through, feels like life. Lord knows she's found little enough in this place.

Thirteen years she's been here. She had no choice if she wanted to see her boy, even for the measly two hours a month her ex-husband Peter allowed during Willy's growing-up years. Peter had moved to the Midwest without warning, joining his brother in a discount jewelry business after the stock market crash cramped the style of his fershtinkeneh-rich customers in New York. Jerked Willy away, put 600 miles between mother and child. It took Vera five panicky months, working extra shifts in a fourth-floor filing room on West 51st Street, borrowing, scrimping until she pulled together the money and made the arrangements and managed to follow them to this city of auto plants and alleyways. Perpetual cloud cover, abounding lack of grace, christ what a hard-muscled, uncultured numbskull of a place. But she came. And she stays, day after dismal Detroit day.

No, she can't complain if Mickey keeps her up late when he breezes through town. What would be the point anyway? I could pick up the phone this morning, she thinks, scold him for an hour. Tonight he'd be on the horn again begging me to join him at some hot new spot, promising I won't regret it.

Do I? Regret last night? Back behind Pleck's, Vera stops short at the door. She sips her coffee. Maybe one more cigarette before she goes in.

How long did she dance? Four minutes, five, that's all, then it was over and like Cinderella rushing after midnight from the ball Vera tottered to the table without looking back. The song had ended, a slow number, familiar though for the life of her she can't remember it now, the music pausing only for an instant, people dropping coins into the jukebox, one record starting up right after the last one ended. It was in that instant between tunes, as the WAC let go of Vera's hand to brush a stray hair from her face, looked up, grinned and looked away, that the noise of a hundred chattering voices, clinking ice in dripping glasses, laughter, someone clapping to get someone else's attention, the smell of sweat and alcohol fumes and fruity scents from too much perfume, that was when the too-much, too-real feel of the place broke through, broke the spell and Vera pulled swiftly away.

Before that, she'd been bewitched. For four minutes, five at the most. By a short, solid female soldier with brown hair, a baby face and a hand that felt like heaven pressed lightly against Vera's back. She'd danced. Floated, for yes, she'd had a drink or three under Mickey's decidedly evil influence, and it was a romantic number and it had been forever since she'd felt a womanly palm firm in the small of her back, a warmth radiating up her spine, down her legs. With her other hand the WAC clasped Vera's. She held it tight, up close against her shoulder. Vera's fingers tingled at the touch. She closed her eyes. She glided, surrendering to those hands. Trusting them to guide her in this long forsaken homeland.

She laid her cheek on the WAC's shoulder. The girl smelled soapy, clean. A dreamboat.

Did I put my lips to her skin? Vera swallows, an acidic sting in her gullet as the coffee goes down. Oh god, did I get that carried away? Vera presses her forehead against the wall. Get a grip, girlchik, she tells herself. One kiss, it's not as though you crossed the River Styx. The slightest little nip on the neck, a split second, that's all, and then the song ended and in the pause before the next one she'd lifted her head and come to her senses and slipped away. The WAC didn't pursue her. Vera caught sight of her once or twice, swinging with younger gals. Probably realized I'm too old. Probably wondered what an old broad like me was doing at Gigi's.

Vera turns the knob and opens Pleck's back door. I have no business at a place like that, she thinks. Last night was the second time she let Mickey talk her into it. She resolves to tell him that's the end. Wherever else, I'm game, she thinks. Only not Gigi's. Not Menjo's. Her brother means well. He doesn't see the danger.

Not yet noon. Although Vera wants only to sleep, hours of work remain. She has to stay awake. Soon, on her lunch break, she'll get some more spring air. One of Detroit's rare clear days. First, 15 more minutes here. At her station. Counting Harry Pleck's funds.

Vera is good with numbers. Not a natural adept, but put an adding machine in front of her and she can hold her own. I ought to, she thinks, running a pencil over the column of figures. I've been at it long enough.

She's content pressing keys, double-checking totals, carefully printing them in Harry's green ledger books, one per budget quarter. Maybe content isn't the right word. Settled, then. Vera isn't someone who really fits anywhere, ever, she knows that well enough, but the task of keeping Harry's books suits her. She's glad to have a routine. And this job isn't so bad, what with Betty's radio providing background music and plenty of small talk available from the secretary herself, the typists and clerks. Harry plows through several times a day. Here he comes now, a friendly pat on the back to the boys, "Hello, Vera, how ya doing, my dear" to her. "I'm all right, Harry," she replies. "How about you, Betty, my beloved," as he passes his secretary and enters his private sanctum. Cigar smoke wafts through the outer office in his wake. "Just swell, Harry, just swell," Betty yells, for he's already inside, door closed. She winks at Vera, who shakes her head, smiles back, and clasps her nose as a plume of smoke envelops her.

If she has to have a boss, Vera knows, she could do a lot worse. Harry's always asking about Willy with what seems like genuine concern. Concern you can't take to the bank, of course, and all right it wouldn't kill him to up her pay, especially now with business picking up. Harry Pleck likes to make a buck, there's no question about that. This war has been good to him. The country's gone music-crazy these last few years. Records fly out of here. It's funny, considering that the man has no taste whatsoever. Music? He doesn't know Crosby from Caruso. But he's good at picking underlings. Everyone on the selling floor is hep as all get-out. They move the product, he watches what they sell, they fill him in on trends, he taps the profit. Sometimes Vera wonders if the sales staff resent the way their expertise lines his pockets. She's seen some of these kids, cigarettes and coffee instead of lunch. Does it ever eckle them, his hail-fellow-well-met act, when meanwhile he ducks out at 4 or 5 to drive his Chrysler Imperial to his Tudor house in Sherwood Forest? Betty has been there at the next desk nearly as long as I've been here at mine. He must have hired her in '32, '33. Yet I'll bet my bottom dollar she hasn't had a raise in at least five years. Does she ever wonder why the guy can't spare her a few more cents?

He's a good boss, a nice man, never harsh, always reasonable, but it does get to you after a while when you sit recording his numbers day in day out and the numbers keep rising and you're still a lousy boarder in someone's attic, the quiet of your cell invaded every night by tinny emissions lifting from Gussie and Ben's big old Philco through their bedroom ceiling. When your piano was taken along with your child a lifetime ago, and your fingers' only chance to touch the kind of keyboard they crave is if you walk down to the Grinnell Brothers' showroom after work. If that salesman is on hand, the fey one with the trim gray mustache, if they're not busy and if you catch his eye and he gives the nod, you can sit at a grand piano and play for a quarter-hour or so. When you have to sneak small pleasures like that you can't help but wish for a little cash in your pocket. When Vera looks at all Harry has, summers with his wife and kids at their place on Cass Lake while she can't afford to live in even a tiny studio apartment of her own, it takes a mighty effort to stave off bitterness.

Betty's voice interrupts her reverie. "You are something else!"


"The way you keep punching those numbers in and pulling that lever. It's like your fingers have a mind of their own."

"You know, they must–because I've been a million miles away."

"I know. I just looked over at you and your eyes–I mean, they're flicking back and forth between the invoices and the adding machine and I just bet you haven't made a single darned mistake, and yet at the same time your eyes are, well they're like you said, a million miles away." Vera lifts her eyebrows. "Even now, we're talking and still you're tapping that machine. How in the world do you do it?"

Vera shrugs. She pushes her chair back from the desk. She regards Betty and the other girls. We work like dogs, she thinks. No matter how we feel we carry on. Automatons. Extensions of our machines. Betty attached to that switchboard, the bobbysoxers typewriting fiends. Me a human calculator. All of us cogs in the Pleck moneymaking machine. Next time Mickey starts in about his beloved CIO, I ought to ask him why the union doesn't do something for the girls in the back office like me.

"Ready for lunch, Vera?" She nods, but declines Betty's suggestion that they eat together, sit at that lunch counter on Warren, watch out the window as Wayne students rush between classes. "Why so blue?" Betty asks.

"What do you mean? I've got some errands to run, that's all."

Not true. She just feels like eating alone.

She munches grilled cheese at a greasy spoon much like the one Betty'd picked but further east. After a few bites she stops. Smells and sounds perfuse the crowded lunch spot, making her queasy. Garlic fuming up from chili someone slurps noisily in the booth behind her. Radio blasting Harry Heilmann's Tigers play-by-play. The joint is none too clean, either. When the cook plops Vera's glass of ginger ale in front of her, it slides along the slick film covering the countertop. Skip it. She rises. She wipes her fingers on a paper napkin. She pays. She leaves.

Ten minutes until she has to go back to Pleck's. She finds a bench at a bus stop on John R. She sits, inhaling May's flowery scents mixed with Motor City traffic particulates. This morning's allergic sniffle recommences. She pulls a hankie from her purse, dabs at her nose.

She was a fool to go to Gigi's. Didn't she know what it would do to her? Stupid, stupid, stupid. How many hours before she can get some sleep? She lets her eyes close. Behind her lids she sees the WAC. Sweet-faced girl. Her hand on my back.

A horn honks. Her eyes open. This will never do.

She rises with a small sigh, recoiling at a popping sound then looking around, embarrassed, when she realizes it was her knees cracking. Jesus Christ. I'm turning into an alte kocker, she thinks.

Forget the girl. The quotidian, though. The day-in, day-out of it all.

The mood digs in. Refuses to release her. The afternoon drags.

After work, at last, back on the bus. When she gets to Gussie and Ben's, she'll yoo-hoo a quick howdy-doo then head up to the attic and go to bed. If her luck holds, they'll keep the radio low and their teenaged daughters will study quietly. This is all Vera hopes: a good night's sleep.

If she had her own place she wouldn't have to worry. Yep, and if I had a million dollars I'd be a millionaire. She squeezes into an aisle seat as the bus lumbers forth. She shouldn't grouse, she knows. Should be darned grateful, in fact. Mickey's connections got her the job at Pleck's in 1930. She's kept it all this time. People hungry, desperation all around but platters keep spinning so Pleck's record store keeps selling and Vera is kept busy entering the figures. Desperation all around. She's fortunate. So what she's alone. A boarder in someone else's home. Big deal. At least there's a roof over her head. A job. A visiting brother now and then.

She watches Woodward pass. The bus's aisles are packed. As it takes a left onto Grand Boulevard, men and women flex their knees, cling to poles. Vera grips the seat in front of her. That's something right there, she thinks. You've got a seat. True, there's no room to lift a book, not with standing passengers crammed up against you, no chance to retreat into a daydream as they jabber block after block. Small potatoes, in the scheme of things. She knows what Mama would tell her. Workers and soldiers starving, dying. You have no reason to gripe.

Right. She pictures her passbook with its pages of minutely multiplying numbers. Now there's a happy thought. After all these years as a boarder, she has managed to save a bit again. My hope chest. She smiles. So what if her hopes have whittled down to the humblest of dreams? Her own place. It's something, at least.

It would be lovely to live in Palmer Park. She'd take the Hamilton line home. And on a spring evening like this, she imagines, she might stay on past her stop, not getting off until Seven Mile Road so she could stroll south through the park itself, smell flowers, smile at picnickers, watch small children feed the ducks before she heads home. A little apartment where she could sleep and read and broil a lamb chop beholden to no one for use of the kitchen. Pull back the curtains and watch the weather and wait for Willy. Lie in the bathtub as long as she wants, unworried whether someone might hear her weep.

A young woman stands next to Vera. She digs into her purse, hands at Vera's eye level. Vera remembers the feel of the WAC's fingers on her back. A twinge of desire overtakes her. She shifts in her seat. Watch out, she tells herself, or you'll miss your stop. Good dancer, the WAC. Vera doesn't even know her name.

An ache of aloneness wracks her. She's off the bus, walking up Dexter. One dance, it's all I allowed myself, why can't I have her name? A name to go with the face when I close my eyes at night. It's little enough.

She makes a fist, punches her palm, purses her lips. Stifles the sniveling before it begins. Approaches Gussie and Ben's. And shifts from one emptiness to the next. Willy.

Stepping along the sidewalk, Vera readies herself to hear he's dead.

She's practiced often enough. With each battle she's tried to prepare. Guadalcanal. Salerno. Dysentery, drowned, shot to bits. Downed, brought crashing to earth or sea. The daily ritual, though familiar, chills her. She shivers. She throws her favorite spring sweater over her shoulders. Pale green cashmere, beaded monogram at the heart. Her blood pumps. Step step. A thudding at her temples. She clutches her pocketbook. He's dead, she tells herself. Give up. Give up.

She's at the house. She stands still, eyes the cracked pavement, draws a jagged breath, smoothes her skirt with clammy palms. Lights a cigarette. Raises her head. No gold star. She takes a deep draft, releases the smoke along with the dread. Willy lives.

Vera takes out her keys, heads up the driveway, enters Gussie and Ben's house. It's quiet. Thank heaven. No one around.

The boarder crosses the kitchen. Ascends the stairs. Unlocks the attic door.

She drops her purse, steps out of her shoes, spreads her toes against the cool wood floor. Sits down on the bed. Looks out the window. Watches the sky until stars appear.


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