Authors: Lara Prescott
She set up her shop—
USA Dresses and More for You
—in our basement apartment, and word of her talents spread. First- and second-generation Russian Americans sought her out for the intricate work she could do for a wedding or funeral or any special occasion. She boasted that she could stitch more sequins onto a bodice than anyone else on the continent. Soon enough she was known as the second-best Russian seamstress in the District. Number one was a woman named Bianka, with whom Mama had a bit of a rivalry. “She makes cuts,” she’d tell anyone who’d listen. “Her needlework, it’s sloppy. Her hems fall out if the wind blows. She has been in America far too long.”
Mama supported us with her business, even paying for my college tuition when I received only a partial scholarship to Trinity. But when our landlord threatened to raise our rent, it became critical that I get a job. As I sat in reception, surveying my competition, the thought settled in my chest and I pressed my hand against my sternum to suppress it.
Just as I was about to ask the receptionist where the ladies’ room was—so I could finally fix the paper towel that was now midway up my back—a man entered. He clapped his hands as if killing a fly. Then I recognized him: it was the same man who’d been waiting at the diner bathroom with the newspaper under his arm. My stomach fell through a hidden trapdoor.
“This it?” the man asked.
We all looked at one another, not knowing whom he was addressing.
The receptionist looked up. “Indeed.”
I felt like hiding behind the coat rack.
We followed the man down a hall and into a room arranged with rows of desks. On each one sat a typewriter and a stack of paper. I sat in the second row, not wanting to seem too eager. It seemed no one else wanted to appear too eager either, so the second row turned out to be the front row after all.
The man’s face—well, his nose anyway—made him look as if he’d once played hockey or boxed. He gave me a once-over as I took my seat but still didn’t seem to recognize me from the diner, thank God. He removed his suit jacket and rolled up his light blue sleeves.
“I’m Walter Anderson,” he began. “Anderson,” he repeated. I half-expected him to turn around, pull down a chalkboard, and write his name in cursive. Instead, he opened his briefcase and removed a stopwatch. “If you pass this first test, I’ll learn your names. If you can’t type fast, I recommend you leave now.”
He made eye contact with each of us and I looked right back at him the way Mama had always taught me to do. “They won’t respect you if you don’t look them in the eyes, Irina,” she’d told me. “Especially men.”
Some women shifted in their seats, but no one got up.
“Good,” Anderson said. “Let’s begin.”
“Excuse me,” the older woman in the heavy cardigan asked. She had her hand raised and I burned with embarrassment for her.
“I’m not your teacher,” Anderson said.
She dropped her hand. “Right.”
Anderson looked to the ceiling and exhaled. “Did you have a question?”
“What will we be typing?”
He sat at the large desk in the front of the room and removed a yellow book from his briefcase. It was a novel:
The Bridges at Toko-ri.
“Any literature fans?”
We all raised our hands.
“Good,” he said. “Any James Michener fans?
“I saw the movie,” I blurted out. “Grace Kelly was wonderful.”
“Good for you,” Anderson said. He opened the book to the first page. “Shall we begin?” He held up his stopwatch.
After, standing in the crowded elevator, I subtly plucked my blouse from my sweaty back. I reached underneath and fished around. Nothing. It was gone. Had the paper towel fallen out in the elevator? Or, God forbid, had it fallen out when I stood up after the test? Was Walter Anderson looking at the disgusting thing at that very moment? I thought about going back and retracing my steps to see where it might’ve come out but decided it didn’t matter. I wasn’t going to get the job anyway.
I was the second-slowest in the group, which I knew because Walter Anderson had tabulated, then read the results aloud.
“Well, that’s it, I guess,” the pretty young brunette named Becky said as the elevator descended. She’d been the slowest.
“There’ll be other opportunities,” said the older woman in the cardigan. She tried suppressing it, but I heard a tinge of joy in her voice—she had the best score by far.
“That guy seemed like a total creep, anyway,” Becky continued. “Did you see how he looked at us? Like a steak dinner.” She looked at me. “Especially you.”
“Yeah, right,” I said. I had noticed Anderson looking at me, but I thought it had just been in an interview kind of way. But that was always the case with me and men. If a man found me attractive, I was always the last to know. A man would have to tell me directly for me to believe it—and even then, I only half-believed it. I thought myself rather plain—the kind of woman you might pass on the street or sit down next to on the bus without a second glance. My mother always said I was the type of woman you had to get a good look at to appreciate. And to tell you the truth, I preferred fading into the background. Life was easier being unnoticed—without the whistles that trailed other women, the comments that made them cover their chest with their purse, the eyes that followed them everywhere.
There was a slight disappointment, though, when, at sixteen, I realized I wasn’t going to turn out to be the kind of beauty my mother had been in her youth. Whereas Mama was all curves, I was all angles. When I was a girl, she’d wear a shapeless housedress during the day while she worked. But sometimes, at night, she’d change into her handmade creations and model the dresses she’d made for wealthy women. She’d twirl and make the full skirts fly in our kitchen, and I’d tell her the dress would never again look as beautiful.
I’d seen a photograph of her at my age, wearing her factory uniform—an olive-green smock with matching cap. We couldn’t have looked more dissimilar. I looked so much more like my father. After he died, Mama kept a photograph of him wearing his army uniform in her bottom dresser drawer. Sometimes, when she was out of the house, I’d take it out and stare at that photograph, telling myself that if I ever forgot what he looked like, an empty space would open inside me that could never be closed again.
The applicants parted outside the Agency’s gates with a wave. The older woman who’d bested us all called out, “Good luck!”
“I’ll need it,” said the woman who’d sat next to me during the test, as she lit a cigarette.
I needed it too, although I didn’t believe in luck.
Two weeks passed and I found myself back at the kitchen table circling want ads while drinking tea. Mama was at the Ping-Pong table working on a dress for our landlord’s daughter’s Quinceañera in hopes of buttering him up not to raise our rent. She was telling me for the second time that day a story she’d read in the
about a woman who’d given birth to a baby girl on the Key Bridge. “They couldn’t make it to the hospital in time, so they stopped the car and delivered the baby right there! Can you believe this?” she called out from the next room. When I didn’t answer, she repeated the story, but two decibels louder.
“I heard you the first time!”
“Can you believe this?”
“I said, I can’t!”
I needed to get out of the house—to go for a walk, to go anywhere. Mama had me running errands for her, but besides that I didn’t have much to do. I’d responded to a dozen ads but secured only one interview for the following week. As I put on my coat, the phone rang. I ran into the living room just in time to see Mama pick up the receiver. “What do you say?” she said in the extra-loud voice she reserved for telephone calls.
“Who is it?” I asked.
“Irene? There is no Irene here. Why are you calling here?”
I grabbed the phone. “Hello?” Mama shrugged and went back to the Ping-Pong table.
“Miss Irina Droz-do-vah?” a woman’s voice asked.
“Yes, this is she. I’m sorry about that. My mother doesn’t—”
“Please hold for Walter Anderson.”
Classical music switched on, and my stomach muscles clenched. After a moment, the music stopped, cut off by Mr. Anderson’s voice. “We want you to come back in.”
“I thought I scored second to last?” I asked, then gritted my teeth. Did I really have to remind him of my mediocrity?
“And I thought there was only one position open?” Was I trying to self-sabotage?
“We liked what we saw.”
“I got the job?”
“Not yet, Speedy,” he said. “Or should I come up with a better nickname for you, given your typing skills? Can you come in at two?”
“Today?” I was supposed to go to a fabric store in Friendship Heights to help Mama pick out some silver sequins for the Quinceañera dress. Mama never liked to go to the fabric store alone because she thought the woman who owned it was prejudiced against Russians. “She charges me twice, no, three times as much!” she’d told me the last time she went by herself. “She looks at me like I’m about to drop the bomb on the store. Every time!”
“Yes. Today,” he said.
“Two?” Mama appeared in the entryway. “We have to go to the Friendship Heights at two.”
I waved her away. “I’ll be there,” I said, but was met with silence. Anderson had already hung up. I had one hour to get dressed and get downtown.
“So?” Mama asked.
“I have another interview. Today.”
“You already did the typing examination. What else do they want you to do? Perform gymnastics? Bake a cake? What else do they need to know?”
“I don’t know.”
She looked up and down at the flowered housedress I was wearing. “Whatever it is, you can’t go looking like that.”
This time, I wore the linen.
I was early again, but was escorted into Walter Anderson’s office as soon as I arrived. What he asked first was not a question I’d anticipated. He didn’t ask where I saw myself in five years, what I thought my biggest weakness was, or why I wanted the job. And he didn’t ask if I was a Communist, or if I had any allegiance to the place of my birth. “Tell me about your father,” he began as soon as I sat down. He opened a thick folder with my name on it. “Mikhail Abramovich Drozdov.” My chest tightened. I hadn’t heard his name spoken in years. Despite the linen, I could feel beads of sweat collect at the nape of my neck.
“I never knew my father.”
“One moment,” he said, and pulled back from his desk. He removed a tape recorder from the bottom drawer. “I’m always forgetting to turn this thing on. Do you mind?” Without waiting for me to answer, he clicked the button. “Says here he was sentenced to hard labor for illegally procuring travel documents.”
So that was it: that was why they’d taken him at the docks. But why had they let my mother go? I asked Anderson the question as soon as I thought it.
“Punishment,” he said.
I stared at the coffee stains on his desk, overlapping like Olympic rings. A flush of heat ran down my arms and legs and I felt unsteady. “I was eight when I found out,” I managed to say. For eight years, we knew nothing. As a child, I’d imagined the moment I’d be reunited with my father—what he’d look like and how he’d scoop me up into his arms and whether he’d have a certain smell to him, like tobacco or aftershave, as I’d imagined.
I scanned Anderson’s face for sympathy, but all I got was slight annoyance, as if I should’ve known what the Big Red Monster was capable of. “I’m sorry, what does this have to do with the typing position?”
“It has everything to do with your working here. If you’d like to stop now, if you find it too uncomfortable, that’s fine with me.”
“No, I…” I wanted to scream that it was all my fault, that it was I who’d caused his death, that if I hadn’t been conceived, they wouldn’t have risked so much. But I composed myself.
“Do you know how he died?” Anderson asked.
“We were told he had a heart attack in the tin mines at Berlag.”
“Do you believe that?”
“No. I don’t.” I’d always felt the answer buried deep inside but had never said it aloud, not even to Mama.
“He never made it to the camps. He died in Moscow.” He paused. “During interrogations.”
I wondered what Mama knew, and what she didn’t. Had she believed what was in the telegram from her sister about my father’s death? Or had she known better? Had she pretended all this time for my sake?
“How does that make you feel?” Anderson asked.
This was not a question I’d prepared for. I fixed my gaze on the coffee rings. “Confused.”
“Look.” He closed the folder with my name on it. “We see something in you.”
“What is this about?”
“We’re good at spotting hidden talents.”