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The Free Thinkers

The amateur marriage-brokers don’t know what they’re up against when they plot a match for Ida.

A few months after Ida got a raise and moved into an apartment hotel, her sister Bessie, who was married to a doctor, came over to invite Ida to a gathering.

“I’m giving an evening, a gathering, with Eena,” she said, “at her house. I want you to come.” Would she say she would?

“You found me a bachelor again?” said Ida. “I’m not coming.”

“Why should I find you a bachelor?” Bessie drew back in mock shock.

“Who is it? Berman? I don’t need a watch. I have a watch.” Ida held up her wrist.

“I don’t know,” Bessie equivocated bravely. But it was true. Ida had guessed well. The week before Weissman, her husband, had said at the supper table, “Your watch, it’s running all right?”

“Sure, why not?” said Bessie.

“Well, you see, Berman was in to see me today. Something was bothering him, his stomach.” He flushed endearingly as no doctor should for betraying a confidence. “You’ll get an ulcer, my friend, I told him, if you don’t start to eat right. He asked about you, about the children and then he asked about your watch.”

That was when the plan for the evening came to life. Berman needed somebody to take care of him and Ida needed to be married.

The next day Bessie went to see Berman with her wrist-watch in her handbag so she could pull it out and say it wasn’t keeping good time. In the tiny shop on the eleventh floor of the Stevens Building, there were watches everywhere, hanging in rows on long rods, pinned to the wall, in the showcase, on Berman’s worktable. A good sign, a good business. In shirtsleeves, his bald head reflecting the ceiling light, he remained serious even as he raised his head from his work and smiled.

Taking the watch, he sat down again, examined it with a loop in one eye, saying nothing. Berman was not a big talker. Did he see that it was working all right? What would she say? But, no, he made an infinitesimal adjustment, handed it back and said, “Now it will keep better time. Bring it in for a cleaning one of these days.”

Then she invited him to her evening at her friend Eena’s home. He thanked her gravely, almost bowing, asked her what time again even though she’d just told him.

“Eight, eight-thirty, no later.”

“I’m always on time,” said Berman.

You’d almost think he knew why I came, she thought going down in the elevator. Maybe he did. Even though she’d known him over the years she felt she hardly knew him.

Actually nobody knew Berman. That is not to say it was not known in which town in the Pale he was born and from which he left to come to America, and that he had been apprenticed to a watchmaker. It was natural he should again become an apprentice when he arrived as a young man. No, in Chicago not exactly an apprentice. What he did was go to work for an old watchmaker and as anybody could have predicted he learned everything the old watchmaker had to teach him. Until the old watchmaker died, Berman did not wait on customers but sat with a loop all day examining watches under a strong light, any kind a customer might bring in, and then fixing them. He could fix them all.

When the watchmaker died, his widow let Berman buy the business and pay for it in many small installments, an income for her. A business? Could such a small enterprise be blessed with the term business? It was only a small office with a work space behind the showcase counter in which stock was displayed, a desk with a light, and parts sorted out into tiny bins behind the counter. Here Berman worked, sold watches, fixed them, made estimates, filled out order forms, gave receipts, paid his bills, and left every day at exactly seven, on Fridays at six.

He lived in a rooming house on Douglas Boulevard, one of the last rooming houses to survive from the early days of heavy immigration. All the other young men who had first lived in rooming houses had long ago married and now lived in flats throughout the west side of Chicago. How he joined Branch One of the Labor Zionists nobody remembered exactly. He was a faithful member, came to meetings every time and on time as well. Some people thought he had joined because the membership made up a nice constituency of customers, especially if one included the wives, all of whom had small fragile wristwatches that easily fell into soapy water. When a son or daughter was to graduate from high school, the member went to Berman for a graduation watch. During the sometimes violent arguments about policy that Branch One occasionally burst into, Berman sat waiting. What was he waiting for?

There were those who thought he was waiting for the perfect wife. If not, why wasn’t he already married? This question irked the members’ wives who often depended on him as a guest, usually on Friday nights. He came, behaved with exemplary politeness, used good table manners and left, sadly for the hostess and her hopes, alone. He said good night, thanked her for a good meal and a good evening.

For all that, nobody knew Berman. What did he think, really think, about life? Could he have endured some terrible tragedy which had silenced his real being long before, perhaps a young wife taken too soon? But nobody could remember such an event. It was simply Berman in his nice, well-pressed clothes, his good manners, his eligibility which everybody knew about. Yes, also a good watchmaker. Maybe he put all his passions into the good job he always did when he fixed a watch. Ida, open, fluent, easy to know, was a different matter. Whoever became acquainted with her felt he or she knew her. As with Berman, where she came from, when and with whom she had arrived, what she did upon arrival and next after that, were all known. Everybody knew she was now living in a room with a bath and kitchenette in a neighborhood hotel and that she was forever scandalizing her sister Bessie by not getting married. Strangely it was not known why. Could it be that nobody wanted her? Or was it truly so that she didn’t want to be married? How could a person be so unnatural?

Once in a while, not as often as Berman was invited, Ida was invited to meet a widower sometimes still shaken from his loss, at a Friday night supper or, less often lately, a newcomer so bewildered he didn’t know whether to use a fork or spoon as he ate at the supper table, flustered and lost. From these events Ida went home alone too.

How strange that to this moment nobody had had the idea of arranging for Ida and Berman to meet, these two veterans of arranged meetings?

“Why didn’t I think of it before?” Bessie said to her friend Eena.

“Because we see him all the time, that’s why,” Eena answered. “Ida you see all the time and Berman is always at meetings. We’ll make a nice evening for them, good food, plenty of tea. Then we’ll see.”

“Oh,” said Bessie, “I want her to be married. How much I want it for her. For her own good.” Then she went over to Ida’s to invite her.

“Come on,” Bessie was saying now. “If by chance Berman happens to be there, you don’t have to talk to him if you don’t want to.”

“I know,” said Ida. “If you talk to him or don’t, it’s the same. He hardly says anything. Is he afraid of something?”

“What I’d like to know is, are you afraid of something?”

“I’m not afraid,” said Ida, “of anything.”

“Then you’ll come?” Bessie said.

“What’s so special? Don’t tell me. I know. I should get married.”

“Why should I want you to be married?” said Bessie.

They both laughed.

But it was no laughing matter to Bessie and sometimes not to Ida either.

Four months before, Ida had gotten a raise of five dollars a week through the union on her job as a working forelady in a women’s skirt shop where she sat all day at a sewing machine like the other workers. Right away she went out to look for a place to live. Up to then she’d been in the little bedroom off the kitchen in Bessie’s flat.

“You a widow lady?” one landlord had asked. Nobody wanted to rent to a woman living alone.

“How could I be a widow? I never got married.”

“A shame,” said the landlord’s wife. “It’s not nice.”

“Let Doc go with you,” Bessie said when Ida told her, “and the landlord will let you have a flat.”

“I don’t want a flat anymore,” said Ida. “I have to work. A flat is more work.” She rented an apartment in a hotel with furniture and a maid who changed the sheets and towels once a week.

“It smells funny,” said Bessie the first time she came to visit.

“They don’t clean good.”

“It’s clean, don’t worry,” said Ida. “I don’t notice. Anyway I work all day.”

“Sit down,” said Bessie.

“You’re telling me to sit down in my own home?”

“You call this a home?” Bessie waved at the machine-turned, walnut-stained china cabinet. “Look, it’s ugly. Also there’s no cover on the toilet.”

“I won’t fall in,” said Ida. “It’s not cheap. I pay a lot of money.”

Ida did sit down. “You going to make like Mama again? Tell me what to do?”

That stopped Bessie, but not for long. “I’ll come right to the point.”

Ida pursed her lips. “All right. I’m waiting.”

“You don’t have to work.” Bessie was making a speech. “You don’t have to live like this. You could have a home, a four-room flat. You could have your own furniture. In the afternoon on Wednesdays you could come to my literary circle. You would have time to do what you want. You wouldn’t have to wash your underwear in the kitchen sink.” She looked insultingly at the miniature sink under a shelf on which stood a hot plate. This was the kitchenette.

“You could have a washing machine,” Bessie went on.

Ida raised her hands. “I’m scared I’ll get electrocuted.” True she always sat at the opposite end of the table if there was a toaster. “I don’t want to be electrocuted. I’m not a criminal. I’m not Loeb and Leopold. The hot plate I have to use. That’s enough.”

“What you are is a girl who isn’t getting younger. Look at you.”

“Every day,” said Ida, “I look. In the bathroom mirror.”

“I’m ashamed. What’s wrong with your sister? my friends are always asking me.”

“You’re ashamed?”

“You’re not trying. Why don’t you try?”

“How do you try?” asked Ida. “Tell me,” she said sarcastically. “You should know.”

“How can I answer a question like that?”

Friday evening of the gathering Ida arrived at Bessie’s exactly on time. She came wearing a black velvet dress, short, coming just below her knees and going straight up and down like a tube. Her hair was marcelled and she had powder on her nose and even some rouge on her cheeks.

“I wasn’t sure you’d come,” said Bessie, admiring Ida. “My fancy sister.”

As they left to go to Eena’s, Bessie in her last year’s black coat with a kit fox collar and Ida in her sumptuous new fur coat, sealskin, which she’d bought with her savings, it looked as though it were Ida the lucky one and Bessie the unlucky. But they each knew that some people looked on them in exactly the opposite way, since Ida was not married and Bessie was, to a fine husband who was a doctor and had two wonderful daughters. They turned into Independence Boulevard and came to the only building on the west side built of white-tiled bricks, just the same as the walls of a bathroom. Here lived the chairman of Branch One of the Labor Zionists and his wife Eena. She was a large soft woman like a pillow with a perpetual smile for the whole world.

“Why doesn’t she ever stop?” Ida had once said. “She’s showing off her teeth, the fine dental work she can afford.”

As Bessie came up the stairs with Ida following, Eena smiled a little more than usual to show she was glad to see them. “Come in, come in,” she said. “Everything’s ready. We only have to wait for the guests.”

Ida held up her head as to smell out trouble. Eena and Bessie were acting as though they indeed had planned something in particular. If not Berman, another bachelor. She said nothing.

“Come in. Take off your coat, make yourself at home,” said Eena.

Ahead of them the dining room table beyond the door fairly sagged under heaps of food.

“You worked hard, my dear Eena,” said Bessie.

Ida hung up her fur coat, glanced into the living room, saw everything ready, ashtrays on every surface, the pillows plumped up in the corner of the sofa, the drapes just so, ready for a gathering.

“Who’s coming?” she said.

“Oh I don’t know,” said Eena like a fool.

Didn’t she know whom she had asked?

“We’ll see,” Eena said.

“Like a surprise party,” said Ida and went to sit in the living room. She leaned against a pillow and looked around. There were dishes of peanuts next to the ashtrays.

Bessie and Eena were talking in the dining room in hushed voices. Ida leaned forward to hear. Then she got up and moved softly across the recently vacuumed carpet to the entrance of the living room.

Bessie was saying, “Do something. For God’s sake, Eena. She has to be married. I think of our mother. What would she say? How she would suffer. A daughter like that without a husband.”

“Sh, she can hear you.”

“She knows,” said Bessie in a normal voice. “I talk to her all the time. It doesn’t help. She has to want to. Also she has to find somebody first.” Then dropping her voice again she said once more, “Do something. I’ve tried everything myself.”

“You have such a happy marriage?” asked Eena who could have been giving her permanent smile a vacation for a moment.

“Happy, not happy, that’s not the point. A woman has to be married.”

Ida who’d come to America as a little girl with her parents had gone to work early while Bessie, born right here in Chicago, was still in school. When Bessie finished high school she said, “I’m marrying Hyman, you know, he’s going to medical school.”

“You’re not getting married,” said their mother. “Ida has to get married first.”

“That’s not American,” said Bessie. “A girl gets married when she has a boy, not after her sister gets married.”

“Go ahead. Let her,” said Ida.

“What’s the matter?” said their mother. “You want to be left behind?”

“I’m not left behind. I’m working. Let her. She wants to.”

In her clear Chicago voice Bessie said, “You got converted? You sound crazy. You’re supposed to get married. Everybody has to.”

“I know,” said Ida. “Someday I’ll take a day off and get married.”

Their mother started, looked up from the pan of dough she was kneading on the kitchen sink and raised her floury hands. “You got somebody? You never told me. Who? Quick, tell me. I want to know.”

“Like the Lawndale Theatre,” said Bessie. “A drama.”

“I’m not telling you,” said Ida. “I’m busy.”

“You know who it is?” their mother asked Bessie.

“She ain’t got nobody,” Bessie said keeping the good grammar she’d learned in high school for positive achievements. “All she’s got is that job. She’s married to the job.”

So, said Ida to herself, sitting down again in the living room, that’s how it is. But it was no news to her. Bessie would never give up. She pounded the upholstery next to her, noticed that no dust arose. Eena was a good housekeeper. What was she doing noticing dust or no dust? Only the married tended to such matters.

She leaned back. Never, she thought, at the same time uncovering a secret wound she didn’t often admit existed within her being. If only Berman knew how to speak, if only he knew what to do. She tried to imagine Berman playing this role. How did men know how to proceed? Was their knowledge installed as they drank their mother’s milk? Be forward. Is that what the mother says to the son and then to the daughter, wait, wait for him to speak? He will speak to you first, for that is how it is fixed in this life. Then you say yes and jump up and down with pleasure. At last, a bride.

Ida shook her head for her thoughts. Not for her. Hadn’t she made up her mind long ago? Better not a wife, better not a husband. Why else had she been brought to America as a child if not to do as she wished?

The doorbell rang.

“Already?” said Eena in the dining room. “You told him eight, half-past eight. Must be somebody else.”

How could she forget her own guests? Ida wondered.

No, she hadn’t forgotten. It was simply somebody else whose importance had retreated under the urgency of their project. Ida had no more doubts. She and Berman were being brought together with one object in view. Suddenly she laughed, alone in the living room lit up like a stage and waiting for action, Berman too, if it was Berman, must be obliged to undergo these encounters. So far, as she had, he had escaped.

The somebody else was the downstairs neighbor coming in from the grocery store who’d decided to come right up, scarcely a real guest. She went into the dining room with her paper bag and joined Bessie and Eena in making small stylish sandwiches. Should she go in too? Ida wondered. No, she would spoil her black velvet dress.

Eena came in as on an inspection. “All right,” she said. “The guests will be here soon. You just rest.” She turned to go, then faced Ida and said, “You know that Berman is a very cultured man. You will have a lot to talk about.”

“I know,” said Ida. So it was Berman. “Bessie will get him tickets to take me to the show. Maybe this time it will be modern dance.” She got up from the couch and showed what she meant. She thrust her arms out one after the other, forward, upward, sideways and a little back which was harder, then stalked a step in one direction and in another. “Modern dance,” she said. “See, like machines.”

“Really? Like that?” said Eena in astonishment. “People dance like that?”

Ida was left to wait some more. It became apparent that Berman was late. Would he come at all? Was he weary of endless unmarried women? The downstairs neighbor came in to keep Ida company. A couple arrived, doffed their coats, entered the living room. Eena and Bessie were in the kitchen then. They could hear Eena say, “It doesn’t work. What will we do? The coffeemaker is broken.”

“Nothing,” said Bessie as in the living room the guests listened. “Nothing, just the plug.”

“I’ll go,” Eena said. “I’ll get Gordon.” Gordon was the only man in the living room so far. “He’ll fix it.”

Gordon, hearing, got up, waiting to be called. No call came. He sat down. Not long after, the fragrance of coffee drifted into the living room.

Eena and Bessie came to sit down too. “I fixed it,” said Bessie. “I fixed it with a hairpin like they say. Only a little something wrong with the plug. I used the end of a paring knife.” Absently she pulled out a hairpin and stuck it back in more securely. Bessie was the only one who hadn’t cut her hair yet.

“In that case what do you need us for?” said Gordon.

“That’s right,” said Ida.

Bessie glared at her, crossed her mouth with her finger to let Ida know she was to say no more.

Weissman, Bessie’s husband, arrived alone, rushed. “I had an emergency,” he said as Bessie beamed one more time in this life at the importance of a doctor and of being married to a doctor. Ida had seen Bessie beaming in just this way often.

Still no Berman.

“Do you think he forgot?” said Eena.

Weissman shrugged. “With him anything can happen,” he said as though talking about a new unknown Berman.

At just this moment as Weissman finished his shrug the doorbell rang again. Eena opened the door.

“Hello, you’re late,” she said in a tone that could only be addressed to her own husband.

“Look who’s coming with me,” he answered from the stairs and entered followed by Berman who fussily removed his hat, then stood waiting for somebody to tell him what to do next.

This was to remove his coat, hand it over along with his hat and go into the living room. He entered rubbing his hands together looking for a seat. He shook hands with Gordon and Weissman, then sat on the piano stool with his back to the closed upright piano.

More men in the living room had given a turn to the conversation until then in the hands of the women. They finished their sentences and waited for the men to begin to talk.

“How’s business?” said Gordon.

“Not bad, not bad,” said Berman. “As long as people want to know the time I’m all right.”

“True, true,” said Gordon. “Not the same with the dress business.” Gordon owned a dress store on Halsted Street. “The neighborhood is changing. Soon I will have to move to the west side, maybe Roosevelt Road.”

“A lot of trouble moving,” said Mrs. Gordon.

“You should know,” said Bessie, “what went on when we moved Weissman’s office.”

Weissman smiled as though trying to remember that he had once moved his office.

“When was that?” said Ida.

Bessie looked at her in amazement. How could she ask, a member of the family? Then as understanding came to her that Ida was trying to be sociable, Bessie said, “Three years ago this November.”

Berman did not say another word. Maybe he never had had to move his office. Everybody knew his small room in the Stevens Building on State Street very convenient for going shopping at Mandel Brothers.

Ida said, “You never moved?” directly to Berman. He would have to speak.

“No, I rented the place twelve years ago and that’s where I am until now. No complaints.”

Eena now said, “You come with me. I need your advice, ladies. Come into the bedroom. I want to show you some samples. I’m ordering new drapes.”

“Drapes?” said Gordon. “What for? You have nice drapes. Damask, no?”

“You too,” said Mrs. Gordon. “In that case, you come too. We need your advice.”

Flattered, Gordon joined them as they left. Weissman tagged along.

Ida was saying, “I’ll come too.”

“No, not necessary,” said Bessie. “What do you know about such things?” and left, the last to leave the room.

“What do you think of that?” said Ida. “I’m offended. My own sister. What does she mean?”

Berman listened, heard, said nothing.

As if I didn’t know, she said to herself.

Then Berman spoke. He said, “It happens to me from time to time.”

Ida looked at him in surprise that he spoke this way. He’d understood everything, that the evening had been arranged for them to get together, to be together and that they had been left alone by plan in the living room.

He smiled weakly. “What can I do? They invite me. I go.”

“You know what?” said Ida. “It happens to me too.”

“Is that so? I never thought of that.” He got up from the piano stool and went to sit at the end of the couch to be a little closer.

Ida wondered, was somebody eavesdropping? Knowing the layout of the flat, she knew it was not possible. But if Eena could, if Bessie could, they would be listening. They were alone, she and Berman.

“You always go,” he asked, “when they invite you?” This was Berman the only bachelor in Branch One speaking, who was often invited to meet unmarried sisters, aunts, widowed ladies and until now had plainly resisted. Many good meals he must have eaten in the company of prospective wives and their relatives.

“Not always,” said Ida. “I’m an independent woman. Sometimes I say no, I’m busy. I have tickets.”

“I never say no. I like a good meal,” said Berman.

“Me too, but if I want a good meal, you know what, I cook it myself. Sometimes I go to a restaurant.”

“I must admit,” said Berman in sorrow, “I’m tired of restaurants. But what can a man do?”

Ida had an answer out of Bessie’s mouth. She did not give it to him. “Is that so?” she said enigmatically. Why tell him what he knows for sure? For good meals not in a restaurant on a regular basis a person needs to be married.

“I have to eat,” he said.

“We all have to eat.”

“Did you say you get tickets sometimes?”

“I go to the theatre sometimes.”

“The Lawndale, to the Yiddish theatre?”

“Sometimes the Lawndale. Sometimes I go downtown to the American theatre.”

“You know, I never went,” said Berman.

“All right,” said Ida. “I tell you what. I’ll buy tickets. Then next week when somebody says to you, come have a meal with us, my sister, she just lost her husband, will be with us, you say, I have tickets.”

“Maybe, maybe,” said Berman musing.

Ida knew that they would go to the theatre together.

“I’ll pick a play. I think you’ll like it. Also you never see anybody you know.”

“I’ll know you,” he said.

“I’ll know you,” she said.

The next Friday Ida, waiting for Berman in front of the Garrick Theatre on Randolph Street, saw him first. She was surprised that she recognized him at all. He wore a gray fedora with a little shaving brush sprouting from the black ribbon on one side, concealing his bald head, his essential identification. Amazing what a difference a covering on the head made. Was that why pious Jews wore hats indoors?

She waved through the stream of people sauntering amiably through the open doors of the lobby. But Berman, seeing nothing, blundered on. Suddenly he was there, smiling a formal smile.

“Waiting long?” he said and took off his hat. His bald head and rimless glasses caught wildly at the lights coming in from the lobby. “I’m on time, just on time.” He pulled his watch out and looked.

“Berman, Berman, it doesn’t make any difference. We have plenty of time. I’m glad you’re here. It doesn’t start for fifteen minutes yet.”

He took Ida by the arm as though he’d already taken out a deed on her and escorted her across the lobby.

“It’s all right. Not so fast,” she said. “Let me give you the tickets.” They stopped and Ida opened her purse hanging by a strap from her arm to look for the tickets as slow-moving theatre goers clotted around them. “Here,” she took two orange tickets out of the little envelope and handed them to Berman. He flushed. What was he thinking?

“Let me give you money right now.” He reached into his inside jacket pocket.

“No, no, not here,” said Ida. “Let’s go in and get our seats.” They unblocked the flow of people to the ticket taker and entered.

Going up the deep-red, carpeted stairs to the balcony, Ida said, “It’s all right. Shindler gave them to me. He couldn’t go and he didn’t want them to go to waste.”

Berman came to a stop at the head of the stairs, faced her and said, “Is that so? I wouldn’t expect a boss to be such a gentleman. You’re sure?” He put his hand in his inside pocket again.

“Of course I’m sure. You think I would lie to you?”

“Don’t talk like that. If you say so, what can I do?”

Now seated in the first row of the balcony, Ida said, “Here you can see everything. The best seats.”

“Careful.” Berman reached out to keep Ida from leaning too far over the thick brass rail. The theatre was filling and in the auditorium hung an air of expectation and the buzz of small talk.

“I won’t fall.”

She saw Berman turn pale as though seriously considering that she might fall. He caught his breath and said, “For a minute I thought it would happen.” He put his hand on hers where it grasped the brass rail. “It would be terrible.”

When the play ended, the actors came to stand in front of the closed curtain as the audience applauded, looked for lost gloves, picked up their coats and slowly moved out, leaving programs behind.

“I have an idea,” said Berman.

“An idea?”

“We’Il go to Kranz’s.”

In Kranz’s on State Street they sipped sodas through straws sitting at a round marble-topped table.

“Good, no?” said Berman.

“I feel like a little girl, like one of Bessie’s little girls.”

“You’re just a girl anyway,” said Berman with the air of somebody paying a compliment.

Ida didn’t know how to ask what he meant.

The middle-aged waitress in black with a white apron like a maid in the movies laid the check at Berman’s elbow.

“Allow me,” he said.

Ida hadn’t noticed. All she knew to do was to smile. “Sometimes it’s nice to be a girl,” she said not knowing if she even believed what she was saying.

Berman had finished with the subject. “Allow me,” he said again. “A treat for a treat. My thanks to Shindler.”

“You don’t believe me?” said Ida.

Berman smiled helplessly as though he didn’t know what more to say.

Afterward as they reached the stop on the streetcar, Berman got off first to assist Ida to alight with a flourish. Nor did he let go of her arm until they came to the sidewalk.

At the entrance to her apartment hotel, Ida said, “You liked it? It’s better than eating by yourself in a restaurant, right?”

“As a matter of fact,” said Berman speaking at last as he had at Eena’s the week before, “Mrs. Resnick gave me a call this afternoon. She said, ‘Come to supper. I’m making a big pot roast.’ And what else, I wanted to say. Your sister-in-law? Or who? But, no, all I said was, ‘Excuse me, I have tickets.’ ‘Is that so,’ she answered me, ‘you have tickets? OK, have a good time.’ Then she hung up.”

They laughed in the late quiet of Jackson Boulevard. Then Berman reached out to shake her hand, but didn’t let go. “Ida, I enjoyed every minute.”

“Fine. Now you have to walk home. It’s far?”

“Yes and no. Six blocks. But it’s late for me. I open the shop at nine o’clock. But I always get there early.”

“It’s late for me too.” She paused. “But Berman, we forgot. It’s Saturday.”

“Saturday the same. A big day.”

“For me a half day. But you know, you shouldn’t have to go six blocks now by yourself,” she said.

“Not the first time,” said Berman.

In the half light of the hotel entrance Ida saw he could be wishing to bite his tongue. She imagined him walking long lonely blocks home late at night after other evenings. She pretended not to have heard.

“Now,” she said jokingly, “if you had a room here, we would go in, and you would go to your room, I would go to my room.”

“Mm,” said Berman. He scanned the front of the hotel, row upon row of windows soaring to the top floor, then looked at the little frame house on one side, the trees, mysterious and black, along the street and the roadway of the boulevard behind them like a river on which a single automobile speeded by.

He said no more. In a quick move he stooped to kiss her hand.

“What are you doing?” said Ida.

“I’m saying good night,” said Berman. “Good night.” He tipped his hat and retreated.

Ida blew him a kiss. She couldn’t see his face any more under his hat as he moved into the darkness. She saw him cross Jackson Boulevard quickly with his hands in his pockets.

The next Friday they went to Strulevitz’s on Roosevelt Road and on the Friday after that, Ida cooked a special dinner, veal with spaetzels. They ate late because first Ida had to cook everything when she got home from work.

Six weeks later Berman did rent a room in the same hotel in which Ida lived.

“You heard?” said Eena to Bessie.

“Of course I heard. A disgrace,” said Bessie.

“It’s not what we had in mind, right?”

A few weeks after that, Ida moved to another room, a bigger one and Berman moved in.

“For this we spent all that money on food, invited the Gordons, other people, for this?” said Bessie. “Not only that, I don’t hear from Ida from one week to the next.”

Finally she called. “You’re sick? You want me to come over and take care of you?” she said to Ida on the telephone.

“Not necessary,” said Ida. “I’m fine.”

The next afternoon, a Saturday, Eena met Ida in the big grocery store on Roosevelt Road. “You’re married? What’s this I hear?”

“Me, married? Never,” said Ida.

Then Eena noticed Berman at her elbow. How could she have missed him? “I thought I heard you were,” said Eena.

“Never,” said Ida. “I’m a free thinker. We’re free thinkers.”

Eena thought Berman looked as though he’d filled in a little, that, in short, he was in good health. As usual he said nothing.  

Layle Silbert is the author of several dozen short stories that have been published in a variety of literary magazines, among them Salmagundi and Confrontation. A photographer best known for her portraits of writers, her work has appeared in previous issues of Lilith.