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The Wedding Dress
by Harry Buschman
It was a thirty-five dollar room, the best in the Hotel Half moon in the depression year of 1930. From the open window of the 12th floor facing the sea, the sergeant looked down on the body still lying on the concrete sidewalk of Surf Avenue. He shook his head and turned back to the room. He walked over to the unused bed where she had carefully left her folded clothes and read the note again.
My name is Clara Hentzel and I am 34 years old. I shall be dead when you read this, and I will not leave this world by my own hand without a word of explanation.
I am not a fugitive. I do not have a husband or children, and I am not physically ill. I have no living relatives, and no one will mourn my passing. There is money on the bed for my burial.
I am simply tired of living. I can no longer look back to my past nor forward to my future with happiness.
I am sorry if I have caused the City of New York any trouble.
The case, if there ever was a case, was never solved. The police checked to see if she was wanted, and she was not wanted -- and maybe that was the whole point; they should have stopped there. Clara Hentzel was not wanted, was never wanted. That was why she lay in a bloody heap on the concrete sidewalk of Surf Avenue.
As she stood on the sill of the open casement window, she gathered the billowing skirt of her silk wedding dress in the crook of her arm as a bride might do leaving a church at the end of the ceremony. She looked back at the note lying on the unused bed. It didn't tell the whole story. How could it?
Thirty-four years! Could the story of her life be told in those few lines?
She had labored over them, even counted them just as a good German woman would, back in her empty flat on Bushwick Avenue before taking the trolley car to Coney Island. She paused for a final moment and looked to the east before leaping. There were two sides to the sea, weren't there? On this side .... her side, were the streets of golden opportunity, where anyone can be a king.
On the "other side," lay the dark side her mother and father came from. A lifetime can be relived in a very short time. Time makes it's own rules and we must follow them.
Hermann Hentzel, from Freiburg, and Henrietta Junger, from Dusseldorf, met on the "Ariel" that sailed from Hamburg in 1894. Their families were poor, and they were sent to America to a "warte" uncle. Waiting uncles pledged for immigrants entering Ellis Island, housed them in unspeakably primitive living quarters, and rented them out as indentured chattel. Hermann and Henrietta fell in love on the "Ariel," and the captain, a strict Lutheran, married them. Clara was already pregnant as the newlyweds stared in open-mouthed wonder at the Lady in the Harbor as she held her torch aloft on the foggy morning of December 24th, 1894.
They were hard working young people with a baby on the way. Mama applied lace in a blouse factory, and Papa was a steam fitter in the Navy Yard. By the eighth month of Mama's pregnancy they were earning enough to rent their own apartment on Bushwick Avenue. To do this they had to pay off the "warte" uncle. It was worth it, for now they were their own people and what they owned was theirs. They would never apply for citizenship. They would never call America home, and the lifelong dream of going back to the old country, so tempting in the beginning, would fade and finally die. Other than the earth they were finally buried in, there would be no land they could call home.
Mama had a hard time with the baby, and the mid-wife told her to forget about having any more children. Papa named the baby Clara, after his mother.
He lost interest in the child quickly, it was a girl after all. He lost interest in Mama as well -- he drank more than he should and came home drunk and abusive at times. On pay day he gambled. There were times without much money, when the pay envelop was drunk away. Mama rented a used sewing machine with the option to buy, and she was able to sew lace appliqué at home. As a child, Clara would often fall asleep at night to the clicking of the sewing machine.
A stitcher-maschinen, Mama called it. Mama never mastered English, could never buy food in an Englischerstube. She would walk miles with Clara on her back to the German pork store for pigs feet, or the Deutsche Delicatessen for blood sausage.
Mama was determined that Clara graduate from elementary school. "Study hard, Clara, be a goot studenten you must get the diploma," she would say.
She would look at Clara anxiously during those early years as she studied under the light above the dining room table and question her, "It goes goot, Clara, Nein?" With few friends, and her father gone most of the time, she was rarely distracted, and it did go goot.
She hated her father for the way he treated Mama and her. He would come home dirty and disheveled at best, smelling of sweat and lubricating oil. At worst, he would stumble in smelling of liquor and cheap perfume. Those were the terrible times, for in the middle of the night, after the fighting was done, Clara could hear them making love through the paper thin walls in the bedroom next to hers. How could Mama let him? So long as she lived, Clara swore she would never let a man treat her so.
Clara was not a pretty girl. She had pale skin and pale brown hair. She wore dresses her mother made from patterns she brought with her from Germany.
They made her look older than her thirteen years. Clara was square of stature, with stocky legs, and she walked with a heavy gait. She was the tallest girl in her elementary school graduating class. Clara was finished with school after graduation. Some boys went to High School, but most girls stopped at the eighth grade. To go farther a girl must have a special talent or be blessed with wealth. Clara had neither.
F. W. Woolworth didn't ask for much. A good strong German girl with an elementary school education could be depended on for honesty and accuracy.
Mr. Mankowski, the manager, installed her at the cosmetic counter.
"So, what I mean is, it's no good to haff a beauty in the cosmetics. Scares off the customers. You gotta have plain -- and tell me, Bella, where you gonna have more plain than this Clara Hentzel?"
"What's she gonna wear, Bernie .... them Heidi kleiders?
"A white coat Bella, like a druggist wears. Makes her look like a doctor. She tells 'em "Lilac Cream" or "light Egyptian," it's like a prescription."
Clara could have worked there forever, but she had loftier goals. She could read and write. It was an accomplishment rarely achieved by children of immigrants at the turn of the century. The "office" was the place to be.
Mrs. Mankowski had a role in the future of F. W. Woolworth. Why? The schreib-maschinen. Mrs. Mankowski could operate a typewriter. It printed beautiful words on the whitest of paper from the childish thoughts of Mr. Mankowski. Yes, if Clara could operate a typewriter it would be a magic carpet. Mama and Clara, free at last from Papa.
She worked hard at F. W. Woolworth. She was accurate with the change and helpful with advice to ladies who could not decide between "Lilac Cream" and "light Egyptian."
"Madam would do well to buy both while they are on sale."
"Mrs. Mankowski, if you ever decide to buy a new typewriter, I'd love to buy the old one." The seed festered in Mrs. Mankowski's mind a month or two, then she consented. It was easy. She told Bernie the old one was broken. It was an L. C. Smith and weighed 57 pounds; one evening Clara carried it home under her arm. Mama looked up from her stitcher-maschinen.
"Vas is dass, Clara?"
"A schreib-maschinen, Mama. It is for making words."
"Ach, vott a country, no? Can it make Deutsche?"
Mama placed both hands to her cheeks in wonder.
Clara mastered the typewriter quickly, she also taught herself to oil and repair it. Both talents would be her ticket to a career as an office worker.
She was 30 years old now, no longer a fraulein; she had attained the colorless status of an unmarried woman.
Papa's death was only one of many during prohibition. It was not a surprise to either Clara or Mama. He had been poisoned by raw alcohol at the Shipyard Saloon. Mama called it Weltgeist, which is the spirit of the time. First it was his stomach, then his bladder, and then he went blind just before the end.
Though Mama was devastated and lost all interest in life from that day forward, it was a renaissance for Clara. Things seemed to look up. The American Book Company hired her as a personal secretary for Harvey Siegel, the Personnel Manager, who had been sharing a secretary with nine other men.
Harvey would have preferred someone more attractive than Clara, a stocky, blank faced woman dressed in black. But she was capable and had typed a model resume on her very own typewriter. Now, with his own personal secretary, he was in a position to exchange her for a prettier one. He did so in the most callous way possible. A blond from the bindery with only a rudimentary knowledge of English and no experience on the typewriter machine caught his eye. When Clara had to stay home for two weeks and nurse her dying mother, he replaced her. Clara would work in the bindery of The American Book Company for the rest of her life.
"I go see Papa now." Mama said to no one in particular when she died. The words, for all their ambiguity, were her last. Clara heard them and understood. Mama was not the kind of person who could stop loving anyone, regardless of their faults. For better or worse she would spend her final moment hoping to see Papa again. As she held the two death certificates in her hands, Clara thought, "How strange it is, I never knew their names until the end. They were always Mama and Papa, they were even Mama and Papa to each other."
Mama's final act of love on the stitcher-maschinen was to make a wedding dress for Clara. A dress of silk and Irish linen with lace appliqué. Mama never had a wedding dress of her own. She kept Clara's a secret from her through the years, and it only turned up after her death. In the final seven years of her life, Clara would look at it often.
Strange how the mind can compress time. The highs and lows of her life flashed before her, floor by floor, with crystal clarity. How long it takes, she thought. At one point she caught the startled eye of a fellow guest in a room below hers. She wished she'd brought a bouquet.
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