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Promises

New York & Vermont
1936


ONE
It was like a ladder, she thought. They'd started very close to the top and then had slowly descended one rung at a time, with a little less to carry on each level. Until Father died. After that, there was nothing at all left, except a few bits of clothing, hers and Tillie's.

This morning, still numbed with grief a month after her father's death, Jess traveled between the kitchen and the bedroom looking for something, anything of value she might have missed in her previous searches. But there was nothing.

Tillie, relatively unaffected once past her brief-lived burst of sorrow, sat on the edge of the bed they shared and watched Jess go back and forth, waiting expectantly, positive Jess would think of something. She always did. She knew Jess would take care of her, and it never occurred to her to think of who might take care of Jess.

"You're going to be late for school," Jess said suddenly, stopping. "Hurry up, Till! Have you got your lunch? Good. All right. Hurry now! You'll be late!"

Tillie went off, casting doubtful backward glances as she started down the five flights of stairs, skirting the garbage piled on the landings. Jess stood at the top, looking down into the stairwell, waving reassuringly as Tillie paused at every landing and looked up to make sure Jess was still there. The front door closed finally, and Jess went back into the empty flat and shut the door to stand staring at the emptiness, a panicky thumping inside.

The last of their food had gone into Tillie's lunch bag, and unless she did something there wouldn't be an evening meal. She closed her eyes for a moment, thinking back to family dinners, meals taken at the polished mahogany table that had occupied most of the space in the dining room. There'd been just enough room for the eight chairs and sideboard. Only six years ago. Gladys carrying in the tureen, the heady aroma of sherry spooned into the consomm√© at the last moment. The Limoges china, Mother's wedding-present china—sold, one of the first things to go. And the solid silver Sheffield carving set—sold, too. All of it gone. The table, the chairs, the sideboard. Each room of the apartment was emptied one after the other, until the apartment too was gone and they had moved to that place on Fifty-third Street. Then to West Eighty-fifth. After that, to West Sixty-seventh. And then to cold-water flats, where they could only stay a week or two until the money ran out. Then, in the night she and Father and Tillie carried their bags tiptoe down the stairs, out into the street, with Father smiling, making a game of it for Tillie's benefit, saying, "Try to guess where we're going this time, Till! Try to guess!" Of course, she couldn't, but she went along eagerly, caught up in Father's games. He and Jess made light of their clandestine moves in order to shelter Tillie from the knowledge that everything they'd had was gone.

Now, Jess was deeply frightened. Surprisingly, more for Tillie's sake than her own. She was eighteen, capable of surviving somehow. But Tillie was not yet twelve; she had to depend upon her older sister to provide food and shelter. And Jess had promised her father she'd look after Tillie. She wouldn't let them take Tillie away and put her in an orphanage. No one was going to separate them! The idea of it filled her with horror.

I've got to do something, she decided.

But what?

She'd tried everywhere to get a job. There was simply no work to be had. Former executives in once-good suits were standing in bread lines. People panhandled on every corner, and on every other corner, once-respectable women solicited strangers, selling themselves. Selling themselves.

The idea came to her slowly. And it wasn't as horrible as it might have been, say, last year, or the year before. Because Father was no longer with them to see or know. The only one who'd have to know was Jess herself. She actually came close to smiling as the novelty of the thought occurred to her: She did have one last thing of value to sell—herself.

She'd never given very much consideration to herself. She'd been far too concerned with her father's failing health, his dreadful, crippling depressions, and their constant moves here and there, running to stay ahead of that pack of invisible creditors close on their heels.

It really wasn't too terrible to contemplate.

She placed her hands over her breasts, trying to imagine some strange man's hands laying claim to her, to all the parts of her. She couldn't imagine it and went to look at herself in the small mirror near the empty icebox, wondering how she might appear to others.

It was the sight of her own face in the mirror that brought fear crowding into her. Some man, perhaps old or ugly, would buy his way into her, buy the right to touch her in any way he chose. She turned away from the mirror, hoping to see something she might have missed in her earlier inspections of the two rooms. But there was nothing. Deeply distressed, she looked again at the mirror and the reflection there of the stark, vacant room behind her, faded wallpaper bending away from the walls and cracked, filthy linoleum on the floor. Cockroaches were lurking there, and water bugs; silverfish, too. Stained, torn curtains covered the window that looked out on the airshaft, and a large section of plaster was missing from the wall in the other room, revealing the brick underneath. Realizing that there were no choices left, Jess was full of fear. She was going to have to do this thing. And quickly, before Tillie returned home from school.

She stepped out through the front door feeling as if everyone who saw her knew her squalid destination, could see the aura of her imminent debasement clinging shadowlike to the hem of her skirt. She was clad in her last few decent items of clothing; her dress was almost four years old, very much out of fashion, and too tight under the arms.

She went down the front steps of the brownstone, a six-story building on East Nineteenth Street near Second Avenue, a block from the El, one of a long row of ugly, scarred buildings on what she thought of as the dark side of the street. The sun never seemed to shine here, the noise of the trains never ceased.

Her shoes pinched. They'd been her mother's. It would have been wasteful to throw away practically new, scarcely worn shoes, even though they pinched. The too-small black pumps reminded her with each step that she was on her way ... to what? She hadn't any real idea of where to go or how to set about doing this thing. She supposed she'd simply have to find some street corner or doorway and approach men, or allow them to approach her, until one (or more—she'd have to do this many more times than once, she realized, attempting to swallow the sudden obstruction in her throat) accepted the offer of her body in return for money. But how much? She didn't know what to ask.

As she crossed Second Avenue, heading toward Third and her vague destination, she wondered how she might appear to strangers. They'd see an eighteen-year-old girl, somewhat taller than most, with thick, unruly black hair. Well-defined, arching eyebrows over deep-set brown eyes. Her nose was unspecial, her mouth too wide, her skin too white, and her chin too assertive to complete the oval of her face. She thought her neck was too long, and her body far too thin, really, for the weight of her breasts; especially in view of her almost complete lack of hips. Her legs were thin and straight, with ankles she thought looked as if they might be easily broken. A misstep taken in these fancy high-heeled shoes and her ankles might snap like pencils in the fist of an angry man.

She crossed Third Avenue, under the El, and came to a stop, at last, in a doorway. What do I do now? she wondered, scanning the street, watching as a car went past, heading downtown. So little traffic, so few people. The pulse of the city was very slow. An old woman was carefully sorting through the trash in a nearby garbage can, examining the contents, refolding a newspaper before placing it in a paper sack on the ground by her feet. Then, as if feeling Jess's eyes, the woman raised her head. Embarrassed, distraught, Jess quickly looked away, edging back into the doorway.

I don't want to be here, she thought. I want it to be the way it was, the way it used to be. I don't want anyone to touch me, give me money for touching me. I'm so scared! What if someone comes ... if some man ... what'll I do?

He might have walked past, but the composition was so perfect, the play of light and shadow so arresting, that he had to stop and take the photograph. He couldn't resist the street scenes these days. They were like some narcotic he had to have, these images of the people, the times.

He didn't like the small, new cameras. But the photographs he took with them often served as references, visual notes for later works with the appropriate equipment. Even so, on several occasions in the near-recent past, the prints from this small camera he was using today had been excellent, really excellent.

He did three exposures and started to move on, then stopped again, realizing that the woman had turned and was looking at him with large, eloquent eyes.

He'd assumed she was older than he now saw she was. Her posture and the downtilt of her head had suggested a hopeless passivity he'd usually witnessed in far older people. And he'd taken the posture to be representative of the woman. But this female wasn't in the least passive. Rather, she was like a magnificent, wearied animal that had paused to rest and, in resting, had given the false impression of defenselessness.

She was scarcely a woman, he thought, judging by the lineless fluidity of her face. Her body, though, was the essence of womanliness and he had an instant desire to capture that childwoman's face so incongruously atop that very mature body. What an extraordinary mix of qualities she seemed to possess.

Looking again at her face, he saw that her eyes had tracked every movement of his. And her eyes, he noted, were very alive and filled with a strong intelligence that was now quietly, alertly waiting, studying him.

What does this old man want? she wondered, prepared to fight if necessary. She could feel, suddenly, the danger hidden in every doorway, along every street of the city she'd known and loved all her life. This new awareness caused her muscles to tense, turned the palms of her hands damp.

He approached her. "Would you like to earn five dollars?" He was upset by the way the question emerged, its crudity, but he was always at a loss dealing with strangers and, especially, women.

Here it is! she thought, feeling as if she'd placed her hands on a live wire. What she'd come out into the streets for. She nodded, noticing his very blue eyes; unable to decide if he was old or young. The mustache and beard made it difficult to tell. But his clothes were good and his hands were clean, the fingernails starkly white against the black of his suit. Looking at his hands, she thought, I don't like you, and wondered how it was possible to dislike someone she didn't even know. She didn't want this man to touch her.

He indicated she should accompany him, and he moved along the sidewalk. "It isn't far," he said, "just a few blocks."

He was tall, well over six feet. Despite the paunch swelling out the front of his trousers and jacket, he appeared rather thin.

She decided he must be rich. Very few people had custom-made suits anymore. If he was rich and willing to pay her five dollars, she must successfully pretend to like him, because he might want to see her again, another time.

She stole a sidelong glance at him. His hair was a whitish gray aureole wildly framing his head. What if he was crazy? No. Crazy people didn't go around offering women on the streets five dollars. Did they? But if they were crazy, then perhaps they did. He walked rapidly, and she had to take small, quick steps to keep up with him. Her feet hurt inside the stiff shoes.

"Why did you take my picture back there?" she asked, out of breath.

They were moving quickly, past deserted buildings and areas that had been abandoned in mid-construction; past sullen, gray people, shadows shifting in doorways. Weeds grew up through cracks in the sidewalk, creeping upward over piles of rubble. She saw it all, her eyes briefly connecting with those of people they passed, wondering if they knew, if they could tell why she was with this man. Small, dirty-faced children sat on the curb with their feet in the gutters, staring dully into space.

He didn't answer. He was too busy deciding on just how he'd photograph her; anxious to see if his instinct was right this time. It usually was. A feeling, a sensation of yes invariably overcame him when the subject and the light and the texture were all perfectly attuned. He hoped to God she was right because he could feel the images he wanted, could see them clearly in his mind. And the yes was all but shouting at him as he— nearly forgetting her presence in his absorption with photographing her—strode rapidly toward the house on Twenty-fourth Street that contained his studio, the darkroom, and his living quarters.

Following him through the door, she experienced a moment of terror. Suppose he really was crazy and intended to murder her. The house was dark and seemed menacing as she looked down the hallway toward the rear of the ground floor.

He climbed the stairs and she went up behind him, thinking both the house and the man were strange. But perhaps, she told herself, it was her fear that made everything appear sinister. She couldn't seem to put her thoughts into any reasonable order.

They arrived at the top of the house and entered a large, startlingly sunny room. She stood just inside the door waiting to be told where to go, what to do. He threw off his jacket and began fussing with a camera on legs. Obviously, this stark room, with curtainless windows and scrubbed, bare floorboards was a studio. Light flooded down through a skylight cut into the roof. Her eyes came to rest on an ornately scrolled, velvet-upholstered chaise longue that seemed out of place in this austere room. She had a terrible impulse to laugh, and held it down as she looked over at the far wall. Unlike the others, which were white-painted plaster, this wall was brick.

He ducked under the black curtain-like cover at the rear of the camera and she watched, wondering if he somehow intended to photograph the two of them while he did it to her. Again, she had that impulse to laugh. Because if that was his intention, then maybe he really was crazy. It was certainly peculiar that he wasn't telling her what to do, not even talking to her. Maybe he expected her to know, to get undressed and get on with it. She moistened her lips, asking, "Is there somewhere ... I mean ... Could I ...?"

Misunderstanding, thinking she wished to use the bathroom, he waved indefinitely toward the far end of the studio." Through there," he said. "Just please hurry. I don't want to lose this light."

She went through the door and found herself in a bedroom, a very Spartan one furnished only with a bed, a chest of drawers, a table, and a chair. The far wall was completely covered from floor to ceiling with photographs that at once captured her interest and attention. The man might be crazy, but if he'd done these he was crazy in a very special way. They were like fine paintings, works by Old Masters she'd seen years ago when Father had had the time and money to take her to art galleries and museums. Moving closer, she saw how the grain of the paper enhanced each image. The faces and figures were lit dramatically, yet naturally, to highlight them compellingly.

He called to her to hurry. She began nervously removing her clothes, forcing herself to study the photographs in a failing effort to take her mind off what was going to happen; she wished she could just remain in here, taking the time to examine all these images.

She looked down at her naked arms, breasts, and felt her mouth going dry. Oh, God, I don't think I can do this. I really don't ...

"Please!" He tapped at the door.

She jumped, turning to stare at the closed door between them. "I'll be right there." She again wet her lips as she stepped, without her underclothes, back into her dress, holding it closed with one hand as she opened the door.

He hurried over and took her by the arm. The touch of his hand on the bare flesh of her arm shocked her. Despite her nervousness and fear, his hand touching her caused an expectation to begin taking form inside her. He directed her over to the window and left her there while he almost ran back to the camera.

He watched her—upside down in his lens—as she lowered the dress slightly to free one arm, then the other, keeping the dress clutched like armor to her breasts. What was she doing?

The voice in her head told her, You've got to take off the dress! You've got to! Wishing she could die or disappear, ashamed and frightened, she forced her hands to lower the dress, uncovering her breasts. She blinked back tears, refusing to cry.

It wasn't right, not what he'd wanted. Yet the yes was there and he said, "Don't move! Just raise your eyes! Look here, here!" He squeezed the bulb, withdrew the plate, warned her, "Don't move! Not at all!" and quickly reached for another plate, slipped it in, and counted off the seconds required to expose it. She stood unmoving except for the lift and fall of her breasts as she breathed.

"Turn a bit!" She turned. He could see she was right. She knew instinctively how to stand, how to maintain an attitude. Nevertheless, he wanted to tell her to put her clothes back on, tell her that having her half-naked there, reversed to his eyes, was excruciatingly arousing, upsetting. He didn't do nudes, didn't buy women, which was what, he suddenly realized, she'd assumed he was doing. He forced himself to continue working, but the idea, once in his brain, of making love to her was almost overpoweringly attractive. He was addled, unable to understand the perversity of that insistent yes mixed with his lust for her.

He made sixteen exposures, then covered over the camera, straightened up, and looked down the room at her for a long moment. Then he slowly walked the length of the studio. His eyes were like the unreadable open camera lens. His every step sounded loudly in her ears, causing her breathing to quicken in renewed fear and expectation. He placed his hands over her breasts and she was again shocked by her body's reaction to his touch. This man—with his rather prissy way of speaking, this man with perspiration glistening on his face and with eyes that might be signposts to the fanatic inside—put his hands on her. She was made dizzy, made soft by the contact; she couldn't understand her reactions. It seemed as if her body had all at once assumed a separate identity, complete with responses and desires that were entirely strange.

He moved his hands on her breasts. "To know the feeling," he explained enigmatically. His voice and manner of expressing himself made her want to scream at him to remain silent. He was shaping her flesh with his hands, each slight movement sending light shimmers across her vision. He was no longer speaking. Good. If she didn't have to listen, didn't have to hear the carefully enunciated words or see the shape of his mouth forming them, she could withdraw altogether from the necessity of having to think and could instead revel solely in the surprising sensations he was generating inside her.

He pulled away from her abruptly and pressed the promised five dollars into her hand. "Come again Wednesday morning at ten-thirty."

She was stung by his curt dismissal of her as if she had no importance as a human being, and strangely disappointed, too. She'd been dismissed. But intact. And in possession of a subtle but powerful feeling in her body she'd never felt before.

. . .
"I've got a job," she told Tillie, serving up the dinner. "Everything's going to be fine now."

Tillie did wonder where the food had come from, and if regular jobs gave you money after just one day's work. But something told her not to ask questions. She might get answers she didn't want to hear. If she didn't ask, wasn't told, then she didn't know and couldn't be blamed. Except that something was definitely different about Jess and she did want to ask about that. But if she asked about one thing, she was bound to ask about another. So it was best simply to nod and say, "This is really good, Jess," and smile at her older sister.

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