The Ad Said (part one)
The Ad Said
The ad said, “Girls wanted. Good wages. Steady hours.”
It said also: “Must pass physical exam.”
“You’re crazy.” Their mother.
“Come on!” Hester smacked Hermina’s arm. “Let’s go down to the corner.”
Here, at the drugstore, they sometimes took a bet on a baseball game, from the bookmaker on his stool at the soda counter. They rarely cleaned up. And Hester, who was tall, would get in front of Hermina, block the view of her from the angled mirror over the cash register. Hermie would lift them something small, but needed…a jar of Ponds, false eyelashes, a packet of emery boards.
“Are we crazy, Hettie?”
Hettie blotted her lipstick—tomato red her shade when their mother was not there to comment—and snapped her compact. “I think it’s war work. That’s why they don’t say too much. Is a white slaver gonna advertise like that?”
“Well, I’ll go, if you can’t get off.” Hermie grinned. “Way over there, on the other side of town. If I worked there, I’d have to get a room…”
“Too bad. You’d hardly ever get back home for a visit.”
They laughed. They subsided, ducked into the store, and grabbed places at the counter.
“Nah, I’m chucking it,” Hettie said then. She got thirty cents an hour, at a candy factory. “We’ll room together.”
But this day, there’d been no job offer. Not even a chance to reach the front of the line. The woman who’d walked this, clipboard in hand, asking names, addresses—“Are you over eighteen? What’s your place of birth?”—had given them hope, at least. She’d worn a suit-jacket and skirt, glasses, hair rolled tight. So much respectability made Hermie certain her sister was right. War work. Real money.
“Okay, everyone. That’s it. Come back tomorrow.”
The sisters had nothing left. Lunch, they’d had to spend what was going, at a sort of workers’ canteen, in this neighborhood of mostly factories. No other choice.
But if there’d been a seat on the bus, they’d have grabbed it, and thought of something when it counted. The sister act had got them out of bus fares before.
All the women seeking this work filled even the aisle, and a couple dozen crowded the curb, only to see the bus pull away. The driver had been a crabby bastard, too, yelling at stragglers on the steps:
“All the room there is! Rest of you just get back…lemme close the damn door!”
“You trying to get cross town?”
In silent embarrassment, those assembled—no longer a group—had begun to edge and shuffle, pacing themselves to separate from one another. If they had a friend to speak to, speaking low.
“You two,” the woman said, coming up beside the sisters. “See that bridge?”
It was coming on sundown. But, yes…
There was chain-link around the yard, then a broad, empty field. A rail fence and another field, stretching to the river and its sickly fringe of trees. Girders in a sprawled rectangle…faint street lights, making a line of glowing bubbles, off beyond.
“That’s Regisville. There’s a subway station at the college. You can connect up, any other place.”
She crossed the street, saying this, and the sisters, throwing thanks, watched her pick up to a trot.
“It’s a railroad bridge,” Hermie said.
“What else are we gonna do? Maybe there isn’t any other bus.”
The Ad Said
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(2018, Stephanie Foster)