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Someone has come for hersomeone is here!and gossip speeds so readily through Ladies’ Undergarments that Frieda, in a twinkling, is forewarned. (The elevator boy tells the stock girl, who tells her.) She grins, but as the newest- hired wrapper at Jordan Marsh she’s still minded awfully closely by Mr. Crowley, so she struggles against the glee and keeps to work. She snaps a box open and handily tucks its ends, crimps tissue around the latest stranger’s buys: a nainsook chemise, a crepe de Chine camisole. But her fingers, as she’s knotting up the package, snarl the string.
She’s been waiting for him to come again, conjuring. Every day this week, she’s woken half an hour early to wash her hair and put herself together. On the modest black shirtwaist required by Jordan’s dress code gleams her only brooch: Papa’s gold seashell. She’s nibbled at tablets of arsenic to pale her face, rubbed lemon zest on her wrists and her throat: the pinpoints where her flurried pulse beats. A girl who can’t afford to buy perfume finds other lures.
Now, at last, Felix has come, as he promised. She fills her mouth with the hum of his name: Feel-ix. The feel of his thumbs on her hipbones, hooked hard. The taste of his taut, brazen lips.
He’s come for her at work again, for where else could he search? Their firsttheir onlytime, they didn’t use her room (the landlady would have kicked her out, and quick). Instead they went where he wanted, and afterward, in her fluster (her brain swirly with passion, with a fib she’d caught him telling), she neglected to give him her address. Her rooming house has no telephone.
Lou, who was with Frieda when Felix swept her off, predicted he would soon enough be back. Lou didn’t speak to him but says she didn’t have to; she knows from boys, knows all she needs. Frieda scans the department for her surefire companion, hoping to score a last bit of advice. But Lou is nowhere to be seen. She must be in the fitting room with a customer.
It hits Frieda that Minnie, the stock girl, said someone. Why not say a man? Or speak in code? The shopgirls have their secret tricks of talk. “Oh, Henrietta!” one will call, although no clerk goes by that name, meaning: That customer’s a hen, not worth the bother. And if a cash girl whispers, “Could you hand me some of that?” she means, Don’t look yet, but is he handsome!
Minnie didn’t ask to be handed anything; all she said was “Someone’s here for you.” For an instant Frieda fears that the visitor is Mama; Mama’s tracked her down and come to fume. Frieda is still six months shy of eighteen, so Mama retains parental rights. She could have Frieda booked on a charge of stubbornness. She could force her to go live with awful Hirsch.
Silly, no, the explanation’s simpler: Minnie’s just too new to know the code. She’s worked at Jordan’s less than two full weeks.
Frieda had her own missed-signal mishap, her very first Friday at the store. She was struggling after lunch to keep pace at the wrapping counter when Lou, her new pal, hastened by, tapping her wrist twice for the time. Strangethat very wrist was adorned with an Elgin watchbut Frieda’s mind was cottony with fatigue; she said, “Ten past two,” and went back to her bundles.
Seconds later, she heard, “Excuse me,” and looked up. The man was gray-templed, enticingly tall, a crisp-rimmed homburg in his hands.
“Yes,” he said. “Hello. What I need are undergarments. Corsets, brassieres, camisoles.” “I’m sorry, sir,” said Frieda. “I’m just a bundle wrapper. You’d have to find a salesclerk for that. Try Miss Garneau”that was Lou“or Miss Fitzroy.” “No, no,” he said. His gaze skittered oddly across her features, as though following the flight of a bug he hoped to swat.
“You can help me, miss. I’m sure you can.” “I’m sorry,” she repeated, nervous not only that her incompetence would be spotted (what did she know of boning or figured broché?) but that the clerks would be mad at her for meddling.
“But you see,” said the man, leaning over the counter so that Frieda smelled his oversweet breath, “I’m aiming to surprise a lady friend. Naturally, I wasn’t able to ask her size. But you look just about her dimensions. The salesclerk, if I may say, is a bit too saggy in the bosom.” He stretched saggy to sound exactly like its meaning, and Frieda couldn’t stifle a rising laugh.
“Would you mind terribly telling me your size?” he said. “I lack any experience in these matters.” His voice was cultured, Frieda thought, the kind of voice that could get away with talking Frenchwords like amour and sonata (or was that Spanish?). He had a moth-eaten attractiveness, his features clearly hand-me- downs from a previous, more vital self. His eyees were the color of tarnished pennies.
“Eaton,” he said. “George Eaton. Would you help me?” The first and last rule in the Jordan Marsh manualllll: The customer must always be served. Frieda told the man her measurements.
Soon enough she found herself wrapping a large package of their priciest hand-embroidered undergarments: fine albatross, in slow-burn shades of rose. Grace Fitzroy, who’d booked the sale, took the finished bundle and gave it, Frieda saw, to Eaton.
But instead of heading left, toward the bank of elevators, he turned right and sauntered straight to Frieda. Atop the package sat his careful note: “For you, with the hope that I might see how they become you. Meet me out front. Six o’clock.” As soon as he was gone, Lou came rushing. “You batty, Frieda? Why’d you talk to him?” “He’s a customer. He asked for my advice.” “Not him, though. He’s notorious! Why didn’t you mind my signal?” When Frieda professed ignorance, Lou had to explain that two taps of the timepiece meant Watch out. The store teemed with disreputable men. “Next time,” she admonished, “tell him off.” Frieda couldn’t fathom why the gifts should be returnedhadn’t Eaton paid for them in cash?but Lou and Grace said she had to do it. (Grace crossed herself: “There but for God.”) Obediently Frieda gave them up, but kept as her secret where she planned to go at closing time. She exited as usual by the employees’ alley door, then crept round, keeping in the shadows. George Eaton was waiting by the main glass-door entrance, whistling a nonchalant song. Whistling and waiting, just for her.
Frieda stood tremblingten minutes, fifteenstudying this man who wanted her. Eaton placidly tipped his hat to passersby, now and again checked his pocket watch. She couldn’t quite judge if he was dashing or disturbingor if maybe there wasn’t all that big a difference. How would it feel to ask so boldly for what you wanted?
She took two jittery steps in his direction, then scuttled back to shadowed safety. Her tongue turned edgy, sharp within her mouth. And her heart, by the time Eaton shrugged and loped away, thumped so hard she feared it might bruise.
Which is how she feels now, minus the doubt: Felix is no lewd lurker preying on the guileless; he’s a mensch, a U.S. Army private, ready to brave the trenches Over There. (His uniform! Its manful, raspy feel.) Sure, maybe she’s loonythey’ve kept company but the once, which ended with Frieda running offbut something tells her he might be a keeper. She knows it by the fierce, delicious tension in her joints. Her whole self is a knuckle that needs cracking.
From the skein, she snips off a prickly length of twine. She’ll count to tenno, twentythen allow a quick peek up. By then, she thinks, he’ll be right here. Here.
She’s at twelvedoubting she can last eight further countswhen a lady’s treacly voice says, “Frieda Mintz?” Instinct almost makes Frieda deny it. She hates to hear her name asked as a question. In a tiny, grudging tone she says, “I’m her.” “Good, then. Wonderful. How easy.” Get on with it, Frieda wants to say.
Get on with it and get the heck away from my counter so I can be alone when Felix shows.
The lady has a damsel’s braids the color of a dusty blackboard, as though her schoolgirl self was aged abruptly. Her smile shows a neat set of teeth. “I’m sorry to have come to your workplace,” she says, “but it’s all the information we were given. Is there somewhere we can speak more privately?” Only now does Frieda see that Felix isn’t coming, that her visitor iswho? How does this stranger know her name? The pressure in her joints pinches tight. “No,” she says. “I’ve got to stay. I’m working.” “But I really must speak with you, Miss Mintz.” “I had my break already,” Frieda says.
“Then I guess we’ll just have to talk here.” The woman shivers slightly, hunch-shouldered and indignant, like someone caught suddenly in the rain. “I’m Mrs. Sprague. I’m with the Committee on Prevention of Social Evils Surrounding Military Camps.” The long, daunting name is a gale that buffets Frieda, dizzying, disorienting. Evils.
“You’re familiar with our work?” Frieda manages to mumble no.
“Well, we’re trying to do our bit to win the war. For those of us who can’t actually enlist ourselves and fight, that means supporting our boys in every wayisn’t that right?” Mrs. Sprague’s churchy tone reminds Frieda of the man who came into Jordan’s last Thursday to train a squad of four-minute speakers. (As if Boston needs another squad! At every movie hall and subway stop she’s heard them, preaching in the same zealous accent.) When Frieda walked past the employees’ room at lunch, she heard the speech coach’s red-blooded baritone (“Whenever possible, address crowds in the first-person plural. It makes them feel invested, don’t we think?”) and the class’s steel- trap response (“We do!”).
“I said, isn’t that right, Miss Mintz?” Frieda stares at her twine-roughened fingers. “Suppose so.” “You ‘suppose.’ But do you really understand?” The lady’s smile widens, showing more tidy teeth. “Too many girlstoo many pretty ones like youget their desire to help soldiers all mixed up with . . . well, with desire itself.” How does she know of Frieda’s longing for a soldier? Did she spy her with Felix at the ballgame? (The game was the only public place they went.) “And here’s something I bet you haven’t heard,” says Mrs. Sprague. “Have you heard that more soldiers are hospitalized now with social diseases than with battle wounds?” Frieda, in confusion, shakes her head. How could a disease be something social?
“Most girls don’t know that. Most don’t want to. And if a soldier’s hurt when he goes over the top, that’s the price of freedom, and we’ll pay it. But any man hit by this other kind of sicknesswell, he’s crippled in his body and his soul.” The last word seems to trigger something in the woman; she takes one of her gray braids and twists it round her thumb, as if remembering long-ago pain. “A bullet wound can heal. Not a soul.” Frieda glimpses Mr. Crowley standing ten yards off, with the floorwalker from the Notions department. Can he hear? Does he see that she’s not wrapping? Twice last week he scolded her for minuscule infractions (sitting before her break, excessive laughter). What would he inflict for this transgression? “You’re scaring me,” she says to the strange woman. “Would you please leave?” She grabs a slip of tissue to stuff within a frock, but her fingers only fold the flimsy paper.
“No,” says Mrs. Sprague. “No, I can’t. It seems that your name and addresswell, the fact that you work herewere given by a soldier to the Camp Devens guardand then to our Committee on Preventionwhen the soldier was found to be infected.” “Infected?” Mrs. Sprague colors and looks down, away from Frieda.
She plucks a mote of cotton from her sleeve. “You might have heard the layman’s terms. The pox. The clap.” Despite her lowered voice, the consonants resound; the smack of them seems to make her wince. “The soldier has reported that you were his last contact. We have to assume you were the source.” But Frieda thought you had to “go the limit” to risk sicknessand she hasn’t, not with anyone but Felix. (Well, and Jack Galassi, but that was long ago.) “Felix?” she says. “I don’t . . . I can’t believe it.” “I’m not at liberty to disclose the soldier’s name.” Lou arrives with two piqué petticoats to be wrapped, and piles them onto Frieda’s growing backlog. She taps Frieda’s right shoulder: You all right?
Frieda nods, but the movement nauseates her. In the teeter of her panic she tries to summon Felix’s face; haziness is all that she can muster. His smell, though, storms upon herpistachios, spilled spiritsand the agitated rapture of his kisses.
“Okay?” Lou says, this time aloud.
Before Frieda can answer, Mr. Crowley sees them huddled and he scowls; Lou returns to her customers.
“You’re lucky,” explains Mrs. Sprague. “Because you met this soldier outside of the moral zone, we don’t have authority to arrest you. And we can’t force a medical exam.” She peers at Frieda as if judging the future of a stained dress. Is it salvageable as rags, or just trash? “But here’s warning: if you’re found anywhere within five miles of Camp Devensor any installation for that matterbelieve me, you’ll be head and ears in trouble. Stay away from the town of Ayer. Hear?” As if ducking a blow, Frieda nods.
“Our hope,” Mrs. Sprague continues, her tone a bit tempered, “is that you’ll volunteer for medical careand help us all by helping your own health. It’s not too late to turn away from ruin.” But Frieda can taste the ruin already, a spoiled-milk acridness near her tonsils. She feels sweator something worse?beneath her skirts.
Mrs. Sprague finds a pad and pencil in her purse. “Do you live at home? We’d like to reach your parents.” “They’re dead,” Frieda mutters. (Papa is; Mama might as well be.) “You’re adrift.” The woman marks something in her book. “Then tell me where you yourself live.” “Harrison,” comes out automatically, but she’s quick enough to falsify the number. “Seventy-two,” she saysMama’s Chambers Street address.
“Telephone?” Frieda shakes her head.
Mrs. Sprague makes another note and tucks her pad away, looking saddened by the thought of such privation. One after the other she lifts her gray braids, which have fallen in front of her hunched shoulders, and places them back behind her neck.
The gesture’s exactness reminds Frieda of Jenny Cohn, the best- off girl in first grade; every day, Jenny brought her doll to school and shared it, encouraging Frieda to pretend, but all the while would stand there watching every move, ready to snatch the doll away if Frieda played wrong.
“I know life is hard,” says Mrs. Sprague, “for a girl like you. But believe me, it could get a great deal worse. I visit the girls we catchwe have a brig in the Ayer Town Halland I’ll tell you, they don’t look very well. Once they’ve really come a cropper, they’re begging for their old problems.” “Excuse me, ma’am,” says Mr. Crowley, fast upon them. Spittle wets his mustache at its twists. “Miss Mintz here has some purchases to wrap. If you need assistance, can one of the salesladies help you?” “No,” she says. “My business here is done.” Then to Frieda: “We do this because we careremember that. I’ll hope to see you soon. It’s not too late.” She turns toward the elevators and disappears.
Frieda doesn’t look at her, and not at Mr. Crowley, but at the mound of unmentionables on the counter. She folds two chiffon negligeesslippery, obsceneand boxes them as fast as she can manage, cutting string, tying stony knots.
Copyright © 2007 by Michael Lowenthal. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.