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The personnel manager dropped the telephone back in the cradle, the radiator behind her made a little whistling sound and right after that there came a buzz from the inner mechanism of the electric clock on the corner of the desk. Wham! Whistle! Buzz! As if there was some idiotic relationship between the three noises, leading through a brief climax to a finality, Virginia Braun thought. And she almost laughed out loud.
The personnel manager shuffled the pink application blank and the little white card from the employment agency. "I'm sorry, Miss Braun," she said, "but the only opening we have here right now is for an experienced office girl. You'd have to have a professional knowledge of shorthand as well as typing. I'm sorry."
"I see," Virginia said. "Thank you."
She got up from the chair, pulling her coat around her. She had dropped one of her gloves. She noticed it then, a limp, brown cotton glove, lying alone and forlorn on the floor, the fingers curling upward pathetically, a hole in the forefinger and threads hanging where it had been mended before. Virginia picked up the glove quickly, and turned away.
The woman behind the desk smiled her professionally warm and friendly smile. "I'll keep your application on file, Miss Braun. There might be an opening for you later, maybe after the holidays. If there should be, I'll get in touch with you."
"Thank you," Virginia said again. She went on past the door into the outer office. There was a long line of girls, each with a pink-colored application blank, still waiting to be interviewed. She walked the length of the line to the elevator.
In the lobby, Virginia hesitated beside the revolving doors and turned the collar of her flimsy, tan-colored polo coat higher around her throat. Out on the street, the air was sharp and cold, the wind blowing a few fine pellets of snow with it. A patient-faced Salvation Army woman in a black bonnet stood beside a kettle and tripod, clanging her bell drearily. Virginia was swallowed up in the crowd that jammed the sidewalks, people hurrying along in both directions, shoving and bumping, their arms laden with packages.
Just then the Christmas decoration lights came on, hundreds of vari-colored bulbs amid the green festoons strung across Main Street. Above, a mist of smoke hung between the middling-tall buildings, the fine soot settling everywhere, begriming the green festoons and the patches of snow at the curb. The sky overhead was the same gray color of the smoke; and the sidewalks and fronts of buildings were colorless drab in the dull afternoon light. Restaurants and drug stores, pawn shops and all-night movie theatres punctuated the rows of garishly lighted store windows which were packed with holiday merchandise and trimmed with a glitter of tinsel and cellophane. From somewhere over the noise of the traffic came the sound of a factory whistle blowing, and then another one, the beginning of a cacophony that meant that the afternoon shifts were coming off in factories all over town. The whistles cut through the thin organ music of recorded Christmas carols broadcast through loud speakers onto the streets.
On the corner, a skinny Santa Claus with a dirty, scraggly beard appealed without enthusiasm to the passersby to contribute to some charity that guaranteed to give every child in the city a Merry Christmas.
The traffic policeman blew his whistle, gesturing with his arm, and the crowd surged across the street. There was a drug store on the corner and on the curb in front of it there was a sign that said "Bus Stop" and a schedule mounted on a metal pedestal. Virginia stopped to read the time table, her whole slight body shivering in the cold wind, one hand lifted to hold her hat. She craned her neck to see the illuminated dial of a clock in a jeweler's window across the street and then she pushed her way across the sidewalk. Inside the drug store there was a lunch counter along one wall, and Virginia climbed on the nearest stool.
"I'd like a cup of coffee, please," she said to the boy in the white coat. While she waited she opened the purse on her knees and drew out a letter, the writing blurred, the postmark smudged, the whole envelope creased and dirty from carrying. She took the one sheet of paper out of the envelope and spread it out carefully on the counter top beside her coffee. A short letter, dated "November Second" at the top and signed "love, Bill" at the bottom. In between it said that he was working hard, that he missed her, that guys with lots lower draft numbers than his still hadn't been called yet, that he wished that he could see her. She read it over many times, oblivious to the crowd around her. The corners of her mouth turned down tragically, and at last she put the letter away in her purse. She twisted around on the stool to catch a glimpse of the clock, and then she finished her coffee and picked up her check.
The cashier stamped her check and returned it to her. Virginia hesitated a moment with the little white square of paper in her hand. The lottery box was right in front of her, a pencil secured to the top of it by a chain. Virginia wrote her name and address carefully on the back of the check and then dropped it in the slot in the top of the box. There was a sheet of white cardboard on the wall above the box with a ten-dollar bill, the prize of the week, pinned to it, and beside it was printed the name of this week's lucky winner of the drawing, a Polish name, Mrs. Stanley Walezewski.
Outside the door a little knot of people had formed, waiting for the buses, shoppers with their bundles, pert, chattering office girls, and a few grimy factory workers with their dinner pails. Virginia stood close up against the plate-glass window out of the way of the crowd and the wind. A little drift of snow formed suddenly, eddied around her ankles and then was gone before the wind like a wraith. There was a hole in her silk stocking just above the top of her shoe, and the wide ladder of a runner coming up her leg. She leaned down and touched it with her finger, a helpless, hopeless gesture, with shocked concern on her face, as if it were an overwhelming catastrophe.
Just then a bus pulled up to the curb and Virginia hurried into the line of people that formed waiting to board it.
"Move to the back of the bus, please," the driver kept saying patiently over the ringing of nickels down the slot. "All right, hurry up! Step up, please!"
And over his voice and the roar of the traffic, came the sudden wail of an ambulance siren.
It happened on the chromium line just ten minutes before the day shift went off. It happened on the chromium line, where the thick, wet heat rises up from the vats and meets the dry, blue-green light pouring down the last ten minutes of the daylight shift, at the last vat of all in the line of great vats where racks of shining automobile bumpers were doused rhythmically up and down by cables. The last vat on the line before the bumpers were dried and polished and trucked away to meet scores of other auto parts on assembly lines in Detroit and Flint.
It wasn't the vitriol vat nor the chromic-acid vat; just plain water, boiling water, nine feet of it, bubbling and boiling in a vat. The guard rail there was weak. Everybody knew it was weak the men who worked there, the foreman, the superintendent on the chromium line. Everybody knew it was weak, but they hadn't gotten around to putting in a new one yet.
Stan Walezewski knew about it too. He never leaned against it, because he knew it wasn't safe. Stan was big, six feet tall (they hire tall men on the chromium line because it takes a tall man to reach the switches). And Stan was heavy, over two hundred pounds, two hundred pounds of big bone and flesh and smooth muscle to his strong young body. He had worked on the chromium line for three months, and he knew about the guard rail, all the boys did, but he was careful.
It was ten minutes before the day shift went off, and Stan was feeling fine. He was going home to Anna and the baby in a few minutes. He'd stop at the corner and drink a bottle of beer while he waited for the bus, and then he would go home. Anna was a fine wife, a big raw-boned Polish girl, almost as tall as Stan himself. And the baby was a fine kid. The next one would be a boy. Anna was four months gone with it. The next kid would be a boy, and he would grow up big and strong and healthy like his father. Oh, he was getting to be a regular family man now, Stan exulted. And tomorrow was pay day. And tomorrow night was the wedding. Anna's kid sister was getting married to a Polish fellow from Dearborn. He was going to get drunk tomorrow afternoon, Stan gloated. He was going to get roaring drunk and dance his feet sore at the wedding and eat his belly full, and keep right on drinking and never sober up till Monday morning.
It was almost quitting time, and Stan felt fine. Another rack of bumpers came clattering along the track. Stan waved his arm and pulled his face out of shape at Joe Braun who worked beside him. Joe Braun was tall, like Stan, but skinny with a pale, sour face. Just to look at Joe always made Stan aware of what a big fine strong man he was. A real man in a fight, a real man when it came to drinking, and a real man in bed. Anna four months along with a boy. He and Anna would have lots of kids. Why not? He made good money in the factory; they could have a lot of kids.
"Hey, you, Joe! Wake up! That whistle gonna blow in a minute!" Stan yelled loud over the clatter. Joe Braun scowled at him. Stan laughed loud and long, his voice mixed in and lost with the noise here. He felt so good he'd like to yell and holler.
His eyes followed the rack of bumpers automatically, the rack slid into place on the track and automatically he moved to throw the switch. Poor old Joe, Stan was thinking, sickly sourpuss bastard! Bet he wishes he was like Stan Walezewski, bet he wishes he was fine, big man with wife and kids, bet he . . .
With the timing just right, Stan stretched up tall, reaching for the switch, stretched his tall heavy body upward, the light shining down on his thick yellow hair, turning gold-colored the hairs along his powerful bare arms, the muscles rippling under the ragged sweat-shirt, wet with the sweat of his body so that it stuck to his broad powerful back.
But the planking was wet, and, although the shoes he wore had rubber soles, his foot slipped. With his body flung upward his foot slipped and he lost his balance. He grabbed for the switch and closed his blunt fingers on the empty air. And in that second with his body out of balance falling forward, Stan Walezewski knew what was going to happen, because he knew the guard rail was weak. He thought of Anna briefly, but of himself, himself, Stan Walezewski, young and strong, and the fine good life of his body, and of pain and of death. And Stan Walezewski screamed with all the strength of his lungs.
Joe Braun saw it all. Stan's foot slipped, he missed the switch, he fell forward screaming, his face distorted, mad with terror. His heavy body crashed through that guard rail as if it had been made of paper. Water, nine feet of it, bubbling and boiling, head first, arms flailing, arc of strong smooth bare back above his trousers. As if he hung there in the air thick with heat, blue-green with light. As if he hung there in the air, oh, Jesus, as if he hung there in the air!
Joe Braun covered his face with his two hands, and his legs slowly crumpled under him and he huddled close to the wet planking. He couldn't get any air into his lungs and the hot blood pounded against the thin fragile bone of his skull. Why couldn't he quit screaming, Joe Braun was thinking frenziedly, why couldn't the goddam son of a bitch die and quit screaming, he was boiled, wasn't he? Why couldn't he quit screaming then? Christ, make him cut it out! Stop him making that noise! He was boiled, wasn't he? Shut his mouth, God! Keep him quiet! Goddam him to hell, make him stop that screaming!
Joe Braun huddled on the wet boards unnoticed, his face covered with his two hands, shaking all through his body, and the screams tearing out of his own raw, straining throat.
The dinner business at Toresca's restaurant was slow that night. It was still early, but the crowd was thinning out. Sally Otis, trim in her starched green-and-white uniform, stood beside an empty table with a stack of menus in her hand. Alertly she watched the last table of diners in her section, waiting to serve them their dessert. The room was warm and comfortably furnished and full of the modulated hum of voices. Another of the waitresses walked up the length of the counter along the wall and joined Sally by the empty table. She was a tall girl with a heavily made-up mouth and her dark hair in stiff elaborate curls. She walked with a studied sinuous motion of her hips, swinging her menus idly as she walked.
"The boss says you can go off now, if you want," she said to Sally.
Sally turned to her with her quick, warm, wide-lipped smile. "Gee, swell! Business is slow tonight, all right, but it sure wasn't this afternoon. My feet are just about dead. How about you, Lee?"
Lee shifted her weight to one foot and dabbed at the curls across the back of her head. "I just heard somebody talkin'. There was an accident out to the Kelton works this afternoon. Somebody got killed out there."
Sally's face sobered instantly and her last table of diners were momentarily forgotten. "Gosh!" she said.
"You got a brother workin' out to Kelton's, ain't you?" Lee asked, her fingers still busy with the stiff little curls.
"Yeah," Sally said worriedly. "My brother Joe works out there, and Johnny O'Connor the O'Connors got an apartment in the same house where we live he works out there too. You didn't hear 'em say what . . ."
"Naw," Lee said. "They just said there was an accident 'n somebody got killed."
Sally's eyes drifted back to her table again, but the worried look was still on her face. Lee shifted her weight to the other foot with an exaggerated motion of her hips and raised her little stack of menus up to her lips. "Jesus, ain't he something, though!" she murmured, with a sort of wistful awe in her voice.
"Who's that?" Sally asked automatically, her eyes still on the diners.
"Nicky Toresca. Who yuh think I'm talkin' about?" Lee went on talking softly. "Ain't he swell-looking? And smooth! Jesus, I sure could go for him, if I got the chance! They say he's terrible after women too. They say he changes women like he changes his shirts! But ain't he the smoothest-looking guy you ever saw, though?"
Sally smiled. "Why, I don't know," she said, with a little amusement in her voice. "I never seen him. I've heard about him but . . ."
"You dope!" Lee hissed behind the menus. "He's in here right now. He's been in two or three times lately!"
Sally turned to Lee with her eyes widening. "Honest? You mean the big boss? Which one is he?"
"He's alone to that table by the wall toward the back, see? Jesus, don't you think he . . ."
Sally looked down the length of the room in the direction indicated. "Oh, my gosh!" she said in a kind of amused concern. "Is that who that man is? Why, I waited on him just the other day!"
"That's who he is, all right," Lee said.
"Well, it's a good thing I didn't know," Sally said, "or I'd probably a been so nervous I'd a dropped my tray or something. Gee, he could have you fired around here as easy as he could wink his eye!"
"He sure could," Lee murmured. "But ain't he good-looking, though? He looks just like that guy in the movies, what's his name."
Sally looked at the man too. "Yeah," she said. "I know the one you mean. The one that plays gangsters and parts like that."
The man at the table by the wall sat slouched back in his chair, a cup of coffee in front of him, and a cigarette dangling from his lips. He wore a gray suit with immaculate shirt, tie and handkerchief. His hair was sleek black, his face dark and smooth and expressionless. Just then he turned his head a little, his eyes moving idly, and suddenly he looked directly at them. He kept on looking, his face not changing expression at all.
Sally looked away hastily, but Lee continued to stare. She moved her hips a little and raised one hand to her hair again, the tentative beginning of a smile on her rouged mouth.
"I wish those folks would hurry up and have their dessert," Sally said. "I got supper to get when I get home."
Lee was still looking toward Nicky Toresca's table. "Look, honey," she said, "you go ahead, if you want, I'll give 'em their dessert. I just as soon. I ain't in no hurry."
"Would you? Aw, thanks a lot, Lee. You can have the tip if you will."
"Naw, that's all right," Lee said. "I'll save the tip for yuh. I just as soon do it, I ain't in no hurry."
"Swell," Sally said gratefully. "I'll beat it then." She handed her menus to Lee and hurried toward the back of the restaurant. She pushed open the unmarked door at the back that led into the employees' washroom. It was a small, bare, cold room, with a toilet cubicle in one corner, in the other, a washbowl with a small mirror hanging above it, and hooks along one wall where coats were hung. Sally was across the room in a flash and grabbed a worn black-and-white coat and a blue felt hat from one of the hooks. She went over to the mirror, dropped the hat on top of the faucets in the washbowl and slipped the coat on hurriedly. Her fingers made quick work of the buttons and with her other hand she searched her coat pockets for her gloves.
She leaned close to the mirror to remove the pins that secured the little green-and-white cap to her hair. The light was poor, just the one dim bulb hanging from the cord above her head, and it took her a minute or two to find the pins. She stuffed the cap into her pocket and smoothed her short dark curly hair with her fingers, but in spite of the smoothing it wouldn't stay in place. It rose in unexpected peaks and curls on her head, like a child's hair.
Because she was intent and hurried, she didn't hear the door opening quietly behind her, nor did she catch a glimpse of him in the mirror when he stepped into the room. He came up behind her, walking lightly on the balls of his feet, without a sound. When he took hold of her shoulders, Sally jumped, her hat fell to the floor, and she made a little frightened strangling sound in her throat. She turned around quickly, and Nicky Toresca pulled her toward him, his face bent down to kiss her. She jerked away from him so hard that her body fell back against the edge of the washbowl. Sally's face was white and frightened. "Don't do that," she said in a small shaky voice.
Nicky Toresca's face was unperturbed and a little amused. He stood easily in front of her, his hands in his pockets. He laughed a little, easily, too, with a faint mockery in his voice.
"You're done work now. Is that right?" he said. "So put your hat on and I'll take you home." As he spoke he bent down smoothly from the waist and picked up her hat from the floor. Sally caught the odor of the oil on his sleek hair and then he offered her the hat. She took it automatically and held it with unsteady hands.
Her face looked desperate, and she licked her lips a little before she spoke. "Thanks a lot," she said, "but I can't. I I have to meet my sister. We go home together on the bus."
He stopped looking amused, his face went blank and expressionless again, and he just stood there close in front of her. Sally leaned further back against the washbowl and she fumbled with the hat in her hands.
"Thanks just the same, but I have to meet my sister. We always I mean she'd worry I . . ." Sally's voice fluttered out helplessly.
The door opened again, but noisily this time. It was the Negro boy who cleaned up the back rooms. He came in banging his mop and pail against the door frame.
Nicky Toresca spun around toward him. "What you doin', busting in here?" he said angrily.
It was to Sally that the boy looked first, one swift glance, and then he looked up at Nicky Toresca, his eyes rolling nervously. "I'm sorry, Mist' Toresca," he said. "I sure didn't know you-all was in here. I jus' come in to clean up like I always do. I didn't know . . ."
Nicky Toresca's voice was taut with anger. "So you come busting in before the girls are outa here even. So maybe I should teach you to knock on doors. Is that right? You little sonofabitch! So maybe I should teach you to keep your nose out a what isn't none a your business. Maybe I should . . ."
"I sure am sorry, Mist' Toresca!" The boy backed out the door, rattling his mop and pail together. Sally moved then, rushing across the floor and crowding out the door with him.
"I'm late for my bus. I guess I gotta run," she mumbled to nobody in particular. She hurried through the restaurant and out the front door blindly. She was almost to the bus stop before she became aware of the sharp cold wind blowing at her hair and ears and remembered that she was still carrying her hat in her hands.
Copyright ©1942 by Maritta Wolff
Copyright renewed ©1970 by Maritta Wolff Stegman