Mrs. Anna Schaap sank to the scarlet whorled rug on her living room floor. She did not cry.
The creature in the mirror before her was not human. Eyes, hair, and an ostentatious nose, all sat in the places those features ought to be. The eyes blinked. The nose drew in air. But the face did not live. It was a face, a little pale face, unremarkable against any other olive-cheeked, paste-eyed face.
Her hand clenched the threadbare carpeting. A little came away on her palm, crumbling like a receding hairline.
That morning, she had shuffled out of bed, a little stiffly, in the little tan bedroom she shared with Tom. The apartment hung in near silence. In the hour before dawn, the electric city smiled, and waited respectfully for someone else to begin the day’s conversation.
Anna liked mornings. Once she set the water for Tom’s coffee, and eggs on to boil, she coiled by the window to watch the sun rise, blinking and film-eyed like a dreamy lizard. Once last year, she took pictures of the fresh light through plum tree blossoms, and hung them by clothespins in a line behind the curtains.
Tom snored sometimes, harsh and heavy as a station wagon rumble, but that was all right.
Later, dress on and ends tucked gingerly in, she marshalled wee blueberry scones and two glasses of orange juice in neat lines on the table. Tom stalked in, boots undone, undershirt tucked in, expensive suspenders well-mended, and sat down. He reached for the paper.
“Don’t like these boots. They’re half too long in the heel, feet are sliding around in them like fish in a paper basket. Going to stop by the Jeffery’s tonight.”
“Are you sure?” asked Anna, quietly, as Tom disappeared behind the paper. The boots were new.
“Think I know my own shoe size. Besides, you know they run big.”
Anna passed him the butter, quietly. Tom went on. “These are just like Jim’s down at the yard. You know Jim? He’s a big fellow, arms like a tank. But he’s so dumb, God, he’s just like an ox.”
Tom paused to paw for the jelly. Anna slid it closer to his hand.
“Or like that one movie star, what’s her name? Garbo? The vacant stare, like she’s looking into a camera that goes on forever.”
He lowered the paper enough for her to see his face, mouth open, eyes wide.
“Like that, see? He’s like that. Like, oh, look at me, I’m a fat whore and I bathe in money so you can take my picture.”
Anna nodded, smiling like the lip of a tin can. Tom laughed at his own joke, and retreated again behind the paper.
“You know, I don’t like this Wagner fellow. He’s going to do bad business for the city. As if there aren’t enough communists in this godforsaken country…”
Tom went on, informing the room at large about the current political scene. The immigrants were coming for us, he said. They were coming to get us all.
Anna ate her egg and did not listen.
Tom had been a nice enough fellow when they met. A country boy by birth, his time in New York added a charming street-corner smoothness to his rural speech and bearing. During their first courting, he’d taken her into the city to see movies, to skate, and drive on the long dark roads at night, the city spread for them like a carnival game. The car, she learned later, had not been his.
Conversation came easy with Tom, he didn’t leave much room for cat-eyed silence at all. He talked easily and smiled often, pleasant to walk with or ride beside. He made her laugh, sometimes—and what more could you ask for in a man, really?
When Tom came to visit their pleasant home on Long Island, Anna’s father had liked him too. Anxious to appear American and progressive, when his daughter’s beau came knocking, Mr. Sasaki took Tom out for drinks at once. When they came back, it was settled. Anna Sasaki would become Mrs. Tom Schapp, and go to live with Mr. Schapp, the businessman, in his apartment in downtown Manhattan.
Anna had crushed her sketchbook into her lap and laughed out loud. The city! To a woman who ticked out her life in luscious checkerboard gardens and peeled orange living rooms, only allowed alone to the drugstore or the grocer’s stand, the city seemed unreachable. Manhattan, in all its foreign glory, had dwindled to a side-show observed on the arms of men whose attention was her office.
And now she was to live there.
Anna’s mother smiled and hugged her daughter. The wedding would be very soon, she said. Mr. Tom would make a fine husband, and have many fine children with her.
Tom had smiled at that. “I hope so, Mrs. Sassqi.”
A month later, they were married on the golden June grass of Mr. Sasaki’s lawn. Anna’s little sisters threw flowers from the garden, giggling and blushing when anyone glanced too long in their direction. Anna brushed the petals off her husband’s chartreuse jacket, and clung to his arm as he waved. Many of his bandy-hat friends from work had come, and lined up by the refreshments table, whisky tended in their hands and obligation in their grins.
Anna waved at them, but their applause was not for her, she thought. She turned to her mother, instead, with a toss of her petal skirt. Her mother smiled back, and threw her an eighteen-circled rose.
After the wedding, Tom drove her back to his apartment, streamers flying out behind the car. His friend’s car. Anna held her purse in her lap and waited. He needed both hands to drive.
She did not see her mother again.
Years passed in the quiet apartment. Tom came and went to work. Sometimes he brought the groceries, sometimes Anna would go down to the grocer’s herself. She learned to pick the good meat from the cuts that had sat out all day. No more movies, no more rides around the city. But a plum tree grew by the window, and one day it might give fruit.
Anna wondered if they had children, if this would change. Tom had wanted children, she knew. He told her this the first night in her new home, when she drifted off too soon for a wedding night, he said. She had to do her share, he said, and Anna had tried, night after night. Tom had not given up easily.
But no children came.
After the first year, Tom did not speak to her about babies again. He joked often about rescuing his friends from the pressures and perils of fatherhood, and providing a haven for men from their wife’s shopping lists and nagging.
Anna smiled, dumped the ashtrays, and went to bed early.
He brought friends over often, and they drank in the front room facing the sky, feet up on the coffee table, cigars smoldering in their fingers. Every man of them had a wife and children at home.
Hours after she had fallen asleep, Tom would droop into bed, stinking and paunchy.
“No good, no good. Got a dud. ‘s not fair,” he’d say, pawing her awake. “Wha’s wrong with you, woman?”
He slapped her, hard.
The first time, she had screamed, thinking someone had broken in. Tom beat her then, leaving red-gold bruises blooming over her shoulders and waist for weeks.
She did not scream again, but it made no difference.
Anna fastened her chemise a little tighter, old-fashioned, and wore another sweater, just in case. It would be canning season soon, and the trees in the apartment garden carried green fruit.
Tom never apologized in the mornings, but that was all right.
Tom came in that evening, grey suit jacket slung over his shoulder, followed by a blonde woman on the arm of a much younger man.
“Anna, this is my supervisor, Mr. McLellan.”
The younger man laughed, hair pasted flat to his scalp, and waved the title away, as if it meant very little to a man at the head of a company. He shook her hand, and Anna thought he couldn’t be a day over twenty. Jim, he said, his name was Jim.
“Jim, Mrs. Schapp. I think we’ve met before.”
The slight woman behind him shook hands too, and gave her a perfunctory little smile. Her dress hung on her like a little yellow mushroom, loose and comfortable. Her rounded belly preceded her, small and ostentatious and brimming with life.
“Mary, pleased to meet you,” she said, and sighed.
Anna took them all into the living room, and served fake-orange cheese. Jim splayed himself on the couch at once, a glass in one hand, banter ready in the other. His hair stuck to his head like a child’s pasteboard concoction. Mary perched on the other end of the sofa, studying the carpet with a connoisseur’s fixation. Tom looked at her, swallowed, and looked away.
Anna offered him the cheese plate. It took a moment for him to acknowledge her, to tear his eyes off Mary’s obedient form. He blinked at Anna, scale-eyed, and his mouth sank into disgust. He waved the plate away.
Mary did not want cheese either, but when she shook her head, her collar shifted a little. The unmarked girlish skin dissolved into purple just below the collarbone.
The women met each other’s eyes for the first time.
Mary flinched, and pulled her collar closer.
“No thanks, no dairy for me. The baby doesn’t like it.”
Jim had glared at Anna then, and she returned the plate to the kitchen, hands shaking. A row of glass jars waited in prim lines on the counter.
Tom followed her, bristling. His breath ghosted harsh and damp across her cheek.
“Leave that poor woman alone,” he said, grabbing her wrist. “Can’t you see she’s delicate?”
Anna tried to pull away from him. “Yes. I know.”
Tom shoved her wrist behind her back.
“Then let her alone.” He pulled her closer, grip tightening until she could not feel her hand.
Jim’s laugh rang out from the living room, high and raucous.
“You are jealous,” she said.
Tom hit her, close-fisted, across the cheekbone.
“Shut up, woman. You don’t know, you don’t know anything.”
Anna cupped her cheek with her free hand, curled in over herself, looking fixed at the cloth on the kitchen table.
“You don’t understand,” he said, pulling her in close. His sweaty lips brushed her ear. “I will get a son, you know. I will.”
Red checks on a gold field. A small stain where the lamp had spilled. Anna struggled against his arms to look up, eyes blank and wide.
“What, did you think you were the only one?” He laughed. “She’s mine. Jim has no idea.”
It was funny, wasn’t it?
Tom let her go. “Let’s get the good stuff out now, shall we?”
Anna turned away quietly, opened the cabinet, and handed him a full bottle of gin.
A bowl of blue plums waited on the table.
That night, after Jim and Mary had gone, after Tom had long since wandered out, singing an old Italian ballad far off-key, Anna settled to her cooking.
The peeled fruit, diced, all set off to one side, the mushy ones separated. Sugar measured out in white bowls on the table, little dunes spread out on a cambric sea. The water boiled.
A third bowl, off to the side, blue. Another pale dune, smaller than the other two.
Anna emptied the fruit and the two white bowls into the boiling water, beating her wooden spoon against the edges periodically, testing the jell, sticky with the sweetness of it.
The slight curve of her belly under her apron, nearly hidden.
The blue bowl, the off-white powder, emptied into the boiling fruit.
The next morning came like many other Tuesday mornings. Anna set the table quietly, and had breakfast ready when Tom came downstairs.
She wondered if it would be a boy or a girl.
“You know, I don’t like this Wagner fellow,” said Tom, buttering a scone. “He’s going to do bad business for the city.”
“Oh, really?” said Anna, cutting an egg white with her fork and not listening.
The glass bowl of sugared fruit glittered in the middle of the table, gold against the red tablecloth. Tom spooned several heavy scoops onto his plate.
She watched, lifting her fork to her mouth punctually, as Tom ate three scones with plum jelly
“Excuse me, dear,” she said, standing.
Tom coughed, scratching at his throat absently, and did not look up from his paper.
Mrs. Anna Schapp sank to the floor in the living room, fingers threading through the carpet.
The kitchen had been quiet for some time now.
The choking had long since stilled.
And that was all right.