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Authors: Alice Mattison

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After Pearl and Mike had been living with Hilda and Nathan for a little more than a week, Hilda said there might be a job in her office for Pearl. Pearl had been reading the want ads in the paper every morning, but she couldn't find anything that looked right. She didn't want to work in a factory, but she thought she might have to. Hilda was the bookkeeper for a small company that made women's blouses, and she said they needed a receptionist. Pearl would have to type a little, too. Pearl had taken an academic course in high school, not a commercial course, but she'd taken one year of typing as an elective. She explained to Hilda what she'd done at the hotel, and realized that she had learned something over the summer. She had learned to write things down in order and keep pieces of paper having to do with the same thing in one place. At the candy store, her father wrote on scraps of paper that he stuck under the corner of the cash register and never saw again. He didn't know how much money he had or what he ordered each time the salesmen came through. Partway through the summer, after the hotel manager had spoken sharply to Pearl for not writing something down, she had suddenly realized that it was possible to keep track of things. She had decided that must be what people learned in the commercial course, and maybe now she knew it. She was sure she could work in Hilda's office.

“There are two bosses,” Hilda said. “Mr. Glynnis and Mr. Carmichael. Mr. Glynnis seems nice but I like Mr. Carmichael better, even though he seems strict.”

Pearl listened eagerly. “Is Mr. Carmichael older?”

“I guess they're about the same age. Mr. Carmichael might be a few years older.” She arranged for Pearl to have an interview.

Pearl had to take the subway alone to Hilda's office in downtown Manhattan because Hilda left for work early in the morning, but the bosses had said Pearl should come in at about eleven. Pearl was nervous. She was home alone for an hour when the others had gone to work. The last person she saw was Nathan, who left a little later than Hilda and Mike. He had worked in a printing plant, he'd told her, but he'd become active in the union, and now he was a full-time union organizer.

“Do you like it?” Pearl said.

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I don't want a strike,” said Nathan. “I'm afraid of a strike.” He wanted to quit and be a teacher, and he had passed his exam and was waiting to be called from the list.

“Do you go around and make speeches?” Pearl said that morning, to keep Nathan a moment.

“No, I leave that to other people,” Nathan said. “I write, and I organize meetings. Today I have to make sure the door will be open and the lights will be on for a meeting tonight. Very exciting.”


I
think it's exciting,” said Pearl loyally.

“Maybe it is,” said Nathan, and he sighed and looked sorrowful, but she'd noticed that he often looked that way. “Maybe it's a great moment in history.”

Pearl followed Hilda's directions and reached the right building twenty minutes early. It was on Nassau Street. She walked two blocks away and back and it was still ten minutes early. Then she crossed the street and counted the items in the window of a stationery store. When she reached one hundred, she shrugged and went across the street and into the building, whether it was early or not. The blouse company, called Bobbie's, was on the second floor, and when she'd climbed the stairs she found herself in a large room where women were sorting and folding blouses. Hilda had explained that the blouses were not made on the premises, but at a factory in Brooklyn. Here, however, they were labeled, folded, and readied for shipment to stores. “In the big season, we all have to pack,” she said. “I don't mind. It's fun. Mr. Carmichael brings in delicatessen and we're there late.”

At one side of the room were the offices, separated by glass partitions from the floor. The room was noisy. Pearl stood in the door-way of the first office until she was noticed. She didn't see Hilda. Finally someone told her where to go, and she found Hilda, too, in an anteroom to Mr. Glynnis's and Mr. Carmichael's offices at the back of the big room. Hilda looked her over and took her in to see Mr. Carmichael. Pearl thought Hilda didn't like something about what she was wearing—or maybe she was sorry she'd suggested the interview.

“Now, can you handle yourself on the phone is the main thing?” said Mr. Carmichael, even before asking her to sit down. “Do you have a Brooklyn accent?” He didn't give Pearl a chance to answer. “Let's say I'm an impatient customer and I call up. What do you say? Ring!”

“Hello?” said Pearl, giggling and putting an imaginary receiver to her face. It was like a game.

“No. Wrong. You say, ‘Bobbie's, can I help you?'”

“Bobbie's, can I help you?” said Pearl.

“Much better,” said Mr. Glynnis, who had come in behind her. They had only a few more questions. They seemed pleased that she was Hilda's sister-in-law. She got the job. Riding home on the subway, she worried about whether Hilda had disapproved of her dress or her hat—whether Hilda would be ashamed of her.

“You have no idea how lucky you are,” Mike said that night, although Pearl wasn't a baby and she knew she was lucky, that jobs were almost impossible to find.

Pearl started to work at Bobbie's, and she and Hilda rode there together every day and rode back home at night. Hilda introduced her to the other women in the office, and one of them showed Pearl what she was supposed to do. Pearl liked being a receptionist. She had some trouble with the switchboard but gradually she caught on. She spent much of her time filing, which wasn't hard, and sometimes she typed letters. Mike taught her a little shorthand, and she learned to take dictation, although she was faking it, and she hid her notes—a combination of shorthand, abbreviations of her own, spelled-out words, and blanks where she'd have to remember or invent when she typed. Luckily, the letters Mr. Glynnis and Mr. Carmichael dictated were short.

Pearl had more problems at home than at work. Mike said it would be a good idea to stay with the Levensons for a few more weeks and save up some money, and he insisted that he and Nathan had talked it over and Nathan had said it was fine. They needed extra money for furniture, he pointed out. But Pearl wanted to find an apartment and move out. She thought more about not displeasing Hilda than she did about her new husband. They contributed money for food, but Pearl worried that Hilda thought they ate too much. Mike was always looking for snacks, and she thought he ate more than the rest of them put together. And Hilda wouldn't let Pearl cook. “
I
don't cook,” she insisted. “I just put something on the stove. I don't fuss.”

It was true that their meals were simple—baked potatoes, canned vegetables, some kind of meat. Sometimes Hilda made a meat loaf. One day she said she'd make beef stew, and then she went out of the room for a little while. She had a headache, she said; she'd just lie down. They'd come home from work a few minutes earlier and Pearl was tired, but she thought she ought to start the beef stew, and she began browning the meat. Hilda came into the kitchen in her bathrobe, her dark eyes flashing. “I
told
you I'd do it,” she said.

“Why shouldn't I do it?”

“Look, I'm trying to rest. I have to get rid of this headache. Here I am jumping up because I can smell the meat browning. Why can't you just leave it alone?”

Pearl was bewildered. “But I don't understand,” she said, fighting tears. “Did I use the wrong pan?”

“No, you didn't use the wrong pan,” Hilda said, and returned to her bedroom. Pearl turned off the light under the meat and went into the bathroom, where she laid her face on her towel and sobbed. She stayed there as long as she dared—there was no place else in the apartment where she could be alone—and when she came out, pushing the hair that had come loose off her face and trying to get her mussed braid back into place, Hilda, still in her robe, was making the beef stew.

“I'm sorry,” Pearl said.

“It's all right,” said Hilda. Pearl peeled potatoes and carrots and set the table. That night, in whispers, she tried to explain what had happened.

“She was just tired,” Mike said.

“She doesn't like me.”

“Why shouldn't she like you?”

“She hates me,” Pearl insisted.

Mike was impatient with her, but she thought he was also interested. He wasn't used to people who hated each other. It was like something out of the movies. He said they could start trying to find an apartment, and from then on, they spent their weekends looking. It helped. Hilda seemed friendlier when they came back, even if they hadn't seen anything that would do at all.

Pearl didn't find out whether Hilda disliked the dress or hat she had worn to her job interview, but after a while she didn't think it was her clothes. Hilda couldn't help backing away from her at times the way some people couldn't help from shrinking if a cat brushed against them. “I'm a ninny,” Pearl told herself, excusing Hilda. One night the four of them put on jazz records and danced, and when Pearl got excited, and danced fast with Mike until he stumbled away, then danced on her own with an imaginary partner, she caught Hilda looking at her and her look was not hateful or friendly either but eager, as if she wanted to
become
Pearl. Yet that night, too, Hilda grew bitter and tired. “I suppose you know enough to turn the lights out when you go to bed?” she said, going to her bedroom while Pearl was still dancing.

When they found an apartment it was only two blocks from Nathan and Hilda's place. Pearl was afraid they'd mind, but Nathan borrowed a car from a friend to help them move, and Hilda said she'd help Pearl put shelving paper in the kitchen cabinets. The apartment was on the second floor of a building with an elevator. Pearl liked the dim hallway with its armorial ornaments, and liked pushing the large round buttons to make the elevator come. The elevator didn't work until you had closed first the heavy outer door, which had a long handle, and then the inner door, made of metal strips in an accordion pattern that threatened to pinch Pearl's fingers. The first time she took Hilda there, she had to struggle to make it work. Hilda was impatient. “We could take the stairs,” she said.

They took the elevator and Pearl showed Hilda the apartment, and then they put on aprons and began cleaning the kitchen cabinets. Hilda stood on the sink to clean them. She insisted it was necessary, though the apartment had just been painted. Pearl cut shelving paper. Hilda didn't look quite as formidable, perched on Pearl's new sink.

“I won't have much to put into the cupboards,” Pearl said. Her mother had given her some pots and pans, and she'd received a few wedding presents. She did have
some
things.

“You'll put food up here, won't you?” said Hilda. “I think pots and pans below.”

“Oh, that's right.” Of course that was right. She'd have to make a shopping list. She'd never bought food herself before, except under her mother's direction—she'd never thought about what was needed.

“You're going to cook a lot,” Hilda said. “Mike eats so much.”

Pearl laughed and nodded. “They're so different, even though they're brothers.”

“Very different.”

Pearl was a little afraid of Nathan. He was older than Mike, who was older than she was, and he seemed older yet. He never lost his temper. He knew about music and kept track of world events. He listened to everything Pearl said as if he expected her to be interesting, even though she knew she wasn't. She'd asked him shyly why he was a socialist, and he'd said with a sigh that he couldn't understand why everyone wasn't, that it was only fair. “Go talk to the people in the shantytowns,” he said. “Ask them how much good capitalism has done them.”

Pearl said she agreed with him, that socialism was much better. Only later did she remember that her father owned a business—he was a capitalist, she supposed. But when she asked Nathan he said no, not really, Mr. Sutter was not the problem. Nathan was starting to get bald, and he combed his hair back so his bare scalp showed. When he stared at Pearl she felt extremely looked at.

Now she watched Hilda competently cleaning cupboards. Like Nathan, she looked as if she knew how things would turn out and had agreed to them. But Pearl still thought Hilda didn't like her.

“Nathan's wise,” she said. “I never knew anybody before who was wise.”

“No, he's not,” Hilda said. “He's just pretending. He can be as dumb as anybody else.”

“I'd like to see it.” Pearl finished putting the shelving paper down and Hilda cleaned the stove, clucking over its condition. “You can see that they
think
they cleaned it,” she said. “Now this is the sort of thing that would upset Mrs. Levenson.”

Their mutual mother-in-law—now there was a person who made Pearl nervous. They had all gone to see her a few days after the wedding. Mrs. Levenson was a small woman with dark gray hair, not white or black, who hugged herself as if she was cold, or as if she thought somebody wanted to take away her clothes.

“It's open,” she called when they rang the doorbell, and they found her sitting in the kitchen, where Nathan and Mike both bent to kiss her. Hilda kissed her too, and Pearl thought maybe she ought to, but they hadn't been introduced yet. The four of them stood around the old lady in the tiny kitchen, where there weren't enough chairs for them. Finally Hilda said, “Mom, come sit in the living room,” and urged Mrs. Levenson along.

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