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 said.
Hester smacked Hermina’s arm. “Come on! Let’s go down to the corner.”
The corner meant the drugstore, where they might take a bet on a baseball game, if the radio was going and the guys were at the counter. The sisters rarely cleaned up. Hester, who was tall, would get in front of Hermina, block the view of her from the angled mirror opposite 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 got hired, I’d have to get a room…”
“Too bad. You’d hardly ever make it home for a visit.”
They laughed. They subsided, ducked into the store, and grabbed stools.
“Nah, I’m chucking it,” Hettie said then. Hettie made thirty cents an hour at the candy factory. “We’ll room together.”
But that day, there was no job offer. Not even a chance to reach the front of the line. The woman who 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 wore a suit-jacket and skirt, glasses, hair rolled tight. So much respectability made Hermie sure 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, stuck for choice with a sort of workers’ canteen, in this neighborhood of mostly factories.
But if there’d been a seat on the bus, they would have grabbed it, and dreamed up a dodge 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 was a crabby bastard, too, yelling at stragglers on the steps:
“All the room there is! Rest of you 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.
And if they had a friend to speak to, speaking low.
“You two,” the woman said, coming up beside the sisters. “Cross town?”
Hettie spoke. Hermie got shy with strangers.
“See that bridge?”
It was coming on sundown. But yes…
There was chainlink around the yard, then a broad, empty field. Another fence and another field, stretching to the river and its sickly fringe of trees. Girders in a sprawled rectangle…then faint street lights, a line of glass bubbles, off beyond.
“That’s Regisville. There’s a subway depot at the college. You can connect up, any other place.”
She left them at the corner, saying this, and the sisters, throwing thanks, watched her pick up to a trot, thumb towards town at a truck that didn’t slow.
“It’s a railroad bridge,” Hermie said.
“What else are we gonna do? Maybe there isn’t any other bus.”
They giggled at first, when Hettie’s heeled shoe, then Hermie’s, slipped in patches of mud, where tractors had mashed weeds into hummocky rows. Bravado got old, by the time they had scrabbled over the second fence. They pieced their way down the ditch and up, and stopped, in full darkness, to take inventory. The lights that beckoned from the suburb shone brighter. And yet they seemed of a size with those that pooled here and there on warehouse lots, from where the girls had come.
“I’m freezing,” Hermie said.
Her sister shrugged. “Hup, two, three, four.”
An hour ago, funny.
“Seriously,” Hettie went on. “We’ll have to pick it up. Forget the shoes. Forget the stockings.”
They marched. They counted cadence. It grew apparent—a moon had risen—that the tracks were built up well above the field. They would have to climb an embankment of cinder and gravel. And the planks, the bed of the bridge where the rails were laid, had gaps of many inches between. So crossing, even, would be no stroll in the park. You could tell that from here.
Hermie burst out laughing.
“You wanna sit down and rest?”
he Ad Said
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(2018, Stephanie Foster)