Fiction: Paved With Gold

First Prize in Lilith’s 2020 Fiction Contest

“WHAT IF the journey kills us?” she asks him night after night. “If we stay, surely they will put us in the ground,” is what he answers her every time.

So they leave, two more huddled masses sailing from old world to new. The newlyweds carry their tightly bundled life on board: Candlesticks, prayer shawl, brown crusted bread,
hand-stitched lace, a family ring tightly sewn into the band of her thick wool skirt.

On day three as she begins to form sky blue and pickle green dreams of home, the young wife is yanked awake by the sound of her name. “Anna,” her new husband whispers before clutching his chest and taking in two shallow breaths. In that moment Anna understands that pleasantly shaded dreams will never visit her sleep again.

Up on deck she feels clean air on her face for the first time since setting sail. The salty spray stings her skin turning her cheeks and the tip of her nose a raw, fiery red. Four queasy strangers hurl her husband into the deepest of graves. His eyes wide open. His shoes still on his feet. The ocean’s rage dampens the sound his clothed body makes when it smacks the sea. Jagged waves use him for a watery game of catch. Finally to the bottom he sinks. “See,” she wants to tell the man she’ll never get to know. “They aren’t putting you in the ground.”

Man overboard. Woman journeying on.

WHENEVER SHE COULD, Anna made a point of detouring through this alley, an especially putrid one that others made a point of avoiding. The closeness of the buildings kept the space dark even at noon on the sunniest day and the narrow strip captured every odor that blew south of 10th Street and east of the Bowery. Anna, who rarely felt sorry for anyone, took pity on this forgotten strip. Perhaps because she understood what it felt like to gasp for fresh air and never get any. Mostly Anna came here to be alone, something that she missed from her old life more than almost anything else, more than her dead husband, more than her old lumpy feather bed, more than her sisters, her parents, and the life she left behind.

“Good enough,” Anna thought as she dislodged a pebble from her shoe. She steadied herself against the dilapidated building’s corner to re-lace it for the rest of the way home. As she lifted her foot she noticed her heel was loose.

“Two days early,” Anna mumbled.”

It was only Thursday. The glue usually gives out on Sunday allowing her to fix it using the jar next to the table where she makes buttonholes 60 hours a week. She didn’t know why the glue always sat there next to the two women who pieced together men’s pant legs or, for that matter, if anyone else ever used it. What she did know was that if she got there early enough no one noticed her opening the jar with the German label. At home—at what used to be home—she wouldn’t so much as pluck a blade of grass from ground that belonged to someone else. But that was before. Before the noise, before broken shoes, and before
overcrowded rooms and sewing shops became her life.

Manhattan’s Lower East Side following the turn of the century was packed tighter than the steamship that carried 22-year-old Anna to it. The streets were like scenes from fever dreams she couldn’t untangle, teeming with peddlers with their off-balance carts, pale children with their equally pasty families, wagons with their dirty horses that defecated at will in the street, and the occasional diseased chicken with its filthy feathers molting. It smelled as bad as it looked. The odor of uncontained sewage, rarely washed bodies, and the stink of survival clung to the entire neighborhood and permanently worked its way into her hair and clothes. But the worst part for Anna was the noise. Inescapable noise. High-pitched noise, deep booming noise, hissing noise, rhythmic noise, random noise. Noise that infiltrated her sleep. Noise that made it hard for her to eat. Noise that shot bullet holes through her best memories.

With all that noise, it was the constant beat of the sewing machine that she hated the most. The rapid fire of the needle piercing cloth wafted through every street, every apartment, every butcher shop, so no matter where you stood inside or outside you could hear the Singers cry. For Anna, who found it to be the cruelest of the noises, the sounds of the stitching factories registered on her skin. Usually on her arms between her elbows and wrists. She swore she could feel each stitch being put down. It pounded on her every minute of every day. That is except for when she walked through this one nameless and otherwise horrible alley. Her arms and head quieted in this foul-smelling, dark shred of a place that couldn’t fit three people across. In the alley she could hear herself hum. Anna didn’t even know she liked to hum until she arrived in New York City.

But a loose heel on a Thursday was nothing to hum about. The same mud puddle that gifted her the pebble must have loosened her heel. She shook her head. Anna Gold’s luck ran like that. It didn’t know one day of the week from the next but always seemed to show up at the wrong time all the same. It got lost in muck and small bottles of forgotten glue in windowless apartments turned makeshift sewing factories so it never showed up for the big stuff. It might provide a place to scratch your back but only after it first led you to coarse wool or a cold stove. Still, she acknowledged that her luck at least bumped into her on occasion unlike some of the women who didn’t even have enough rough wool for a sweater or found themselves with gaping holes in the bottom of their shoes too big to be fixed with borrowed glue.

Footsteps took Anna out of her head. Someone else was in the alley. Her alley. Quickly she fixed her shoe, and took a step away from the wall before preparing to walk the rest of the way home on the screaming streets. At the moment the first set of footsteps passed her, another man rounded the corner so fast and so carelessly that it knocked her backwards.

“Sorry,” he said. “My apologies, Ma’am,” he offered his hand and looked at her eyes. “Oh, I mean, Miss.”

Anna did not correct him. Anyway she wasn’t sure if she qualified as a miss or ma’am anymore. She was used to people thinking she was younger. A lot younger. Her skin and figure were almost that of a girl. Only her hands, her feet, and her broken soul hinted at the truth. Anna refused his hand and steadied herself once again before carefully turning on her glued heels. Instead of stepping aside to let her navigate the tight passage the man moved closer to her face.

“I bet you have a pretty smile,” he said with his stare fixed on her eyes. “When you smile.”

He leaned in and ran his thumb across her jawline before turning his head.

“How much?” he whispered into her ear. His hot breath stung like forgotten onions rotting from the inside out.

How much, she thought. How much for what? For a hundred pair of shoes? For a hundred bottles of glue? For a hundred ways to reverse what she knew would be the fate of the people she left behind? For a hundred minutes of quiet in a row? For a hundred days of sleep? She knew he didn’t have “how much.” No one in the world had that “how much.”

“Now, there, you don’t have to play shy with me” he told her ear.

Anna made her mouth form the shape of a smile. His posture relaxed as her lips tilted upward. And, right at that moment she growled. He looked surprised but didn’t move out of the way. He pressed his thumb down harder into the flesh of her cheek. It hurt. She opened her mouth, shook her head, and bit his finger. She was pleased to see that she had drawn blood. Before the shock of the bite and blood wore off, Anna ran home leaving both heels in the street. The downbeat of the Singers followed.

MONTHS LATER WHEN they meet again in her alley the rotten-onion-breathed man does not recognize Anna. Stolen German glue no longer holds her shoes together and her sweater has been replaced with a proper ladies coat. It’s a deep brown; the color of early spring earth and its soft velvet collar rests on the patch of skin on her back that once screamed from coarse wool. Anna’s ear turns hot as she tells him the price for her best girl, three times the going rate. He doesn’t flinch at the number and, this time, she does not smile.

“Be careful, some of us bite,” Anna warned him as they walk away. She then watches the man and girl disappear into her alley and feels the pain of a hundred phantom pebbles lodged in her shoe.