Photo: Mike Basse
By Jeffrey Wolf
Sears & Roebuck Administration Building, March 1942. Last gracious hours of Friday, and the other switchboard ladies wear party hats and raise champagne flutes, toasting Rebecca as she makes the first cut into a sheet cake with Good Luck! iced in cursive.
They crowd around her in a corner of the room, away from the long walls of plugs and dangling wires, where a side table has been cleared of phone directories to make room for the cake. Hattie Lewis, shift supervisor, takes over the cutting and distributes slices on bright paper plates. Sarah Feinberg gets the looping underside of a “c,” Hannah Gold the rigid ascender of a “d.” Letters are dismantled and scattered across the room. A few girls flash guilty smirks or make obligatory comments about their figure, but none refuse. Cake makes its way to the skeleton crew still at their stations, who set their plates a careful distance from the machine. Each station contains a five-by-five space, just to the right of the plugs, where the ladies are allowed to display personal items. Some have bent family photos to stand up in the narrow crease between two housing plates, while others have hung small tokens from a little-used modulator dial, the occasional hamsa or rabbit’s foot.
Rebecca continues passing slices down the line until they finally pressure her into keeping one. They meet her gaze with gushing smiles. Rebecca, whom they’ve called Human Decoder Ring and Lady of Babel. Irene Heller cries that they’ll have to rewrite the unofficial manual. If you ever pick up a line and hear gibberish, transfer it to Rebecca. For almost ten years, that’s been the wisdom passed to new girls at orientation. Rebecca took calls in Yiddish, Polish, Russian, German, Bohemian, Romanian, Ukrainian. She knows every –anian there is.
How unabashedly happy they are for her. Ten years and finally rid of this place. For most of them it’s a year or two at best. More than five and you should be worried. (Another pearl from the unofficial manual.) Though Rebecca’s story has always been different. An elder stateswoman from the start among the crowd of nineteen and twentysomethings. Only here because of her husband’s bad luck during the Depression. But now Isaac is back on his feet, opening the corner grocery he’s long talked about. He needs her there to mind the store, so starting tomorrow that’s where she’ll be. Punching the cash register, dusting countertops.
How they coo and congratulate. How long she’s worked for the promise of this day, how richly she deserves it.
Hattie thuds her fork against the table, and when the tittering quiets she begins to tell again the story that first sparked the legend of Rebecca. Her finest hour, as Hattie says. The day security at the flagship store found a scared little girl huddled and crying in menswear beneath a rack of coats. The girl didn’t respond to English or Polish, and when security tried to separate her from the rack, she kicked the man so hard she gave him a limp. Finally they called Rebecca over from across campus, and she sat with the scared little girl under the blanket of coats and was able to figure out that the girl spoke Belgian.
“Bulgarian,” Rebecca corrects.
Hattie smiles and continues the story. She recounts how Rebecca called out to the parents in Bulgarian over the store loudspeaker. She dwells on the beautiful reunion between mother and daughter: arms squeezing, faces buried in cheeks and hair, joyous sobbing that rang out across the sales floor.
Across the room, Irene Heller dabs at her eyes with a handkerchief and Pearl Sellman whispers a thankful prayer. Rebecca swirls frosting with her fork. She keeps to herself the knowledge that Hattie wasn’t even on shift that morning.
She still remembers the day. Its inauspicious start when her hair, that black continent of frizz, decided the cheap hairspray wouldn’t be enough. They couldn’t afford Plimpton’s Extra-Strength anymore. She arrived at the Admin Building with her head wrapped under a scarf, in the first ten minutes already explaining that, no, she hadn’t turned Orthodox over the weekend. A month on the job and barely through training. Still using an index card in her sleeve to remember extensions at the catalog house, but already they were throwing her the non-English calls. Someone had heard she spoke Russian. An office full of Ashkenazi Jews and nobody else spoke Russian? I don’t have time, just deal with it please. Lines buzzing over everything like an anxious hive.
She found the little girl near one of the floor registers, fighting the security guard’s hold on her wrist. She looked older than Rebecca had expected, maybe ten or eleven, too old to be lost. Though maybe she’d never been inside a store this big? A plain, flat dress, determined eyes. Rebecca cycled through eight versions of “Hello, my child” until finally, at Romanian, she twitched.
Other questions: “Do you like dolls?” “What’s your favorite dress to wear?” A word or two back, but not in Romanian. The sounds sharper, more Slavic. Bulgarian! Rebecca knew just enough of it. At the sound of her native tongue, the girl’s face softened.
Her name was Vasilka. And when Rebecca asked where she lived, Vasilka said, “Here.”
“Here in Chicago? What’s your address?”
She repeated, “Here,” and Rebecca understood: she was claiming she lived at Sears.
Rebecca thought of her own girlhood, of being young and emotional, wanting to run off whenever her parents had the audacity to enforce the rules. She told little Vasilka that her family loved her no matter what. That they must be missing her terribly. Eventually, she coaxed her to the customer information desk on the first floor.
When the mother arrived, and recognition flashed across her face, Rebecca felt a welling of pride. Then the mother’s eyes narrowed to slits. She screamed at Vasilka, words Rebecca wouldn’t dare repeat, and slapped her across the face. As Vasilka was being yanked away by the collar, her mother still muttering and cursing, she turned once back to Rebecca, a look of betrayal.
“How appropriate that we now send our dear Rebecca back to her own family,” Hattie says. “She will be lost among us no more.”
Around her, the young switchboard ladies smile knowingly. The homily come full circle. It was simply meant to be.
Rebecca considers these girls, how long they’ve looked to her. Plenty of veterans at the switchboard, women wizened beyond their years, swift and skillful, politically savvy – but that’s not what they want. Rebecca’s a wife, a mother. Hattie Lewis, Grand Matron of the Switchboard – to them, just another faded spinster.
Girls atwitter about the latest Sunday night dance, squealing about which boys cut in on them. So thrilled to be passed around like Saturday tzimmes. He cut in on you twice, dearie. I can see you under the canopy already.
The way they cornered her in the lunchroom. Shoulders pinched, eyes glistening, hanging on every word. That focused attention that she still finds terrifying. No longer used to it from her children, who ignore her. But these girls. The unmarried, recently married, inexperienced. How do I please him? How do I anticipate him? She’s only ever been able to tell them what they want to hear. To speak the language of ladies’ magazines, send them off with hope.
What could she tell them about husbands? That her own spends hours upon hours hiding in the pantry, raving about Coolidge and FDR and the so-called socialists at Herzl? She’s long shown a single, decades-old photo of herself with him. (“It’s just like the Torah!” they sing, as if another Isaac and Rebecca hadn’t married in the five thousand years since.) And when she resists bringing others, more recent, she lets them believe it’s for her own vanity, to flaunt the beauty of her youth. Not that any photo taken after 1929 shows him as a deer in headlights. That he avoids flashbulbs now the way a kabbalist avoids mirrors.
Smooth-faced young women. Licks of frosting on their tongues. So much joy – too much. Their fraying nerves laid bare. The war has come. It’s bearing down. Their husbands, boyfriends, boyfriends who hurriedly became husbands – off to basic training, learning to climb ropes and assemble rifles, gone for months, maybe years. For these girls, Rebecca’s departure is a beacon. An affirmation that things will be right again. That up is still up.
In normal times she could say with certainty which would be gone in a month, bellies swollen soon after. But who knows? Maybe this war will change them. Some of their men will never come back. Others will come back empty husks. It will be tragedy when it happens. (She has sons, she’s not heartless.) But nothing has happened yet. And in the meantime the girls are here working. With any luck some will figure it out on their own, truths she doesn’t have the language to tell.
She has lived for the ecstatic milliseconds right after her creased fingers plug the anode. Just before syllables tumble through the headset: her fresh puzzle to decipher. To her it’s like watching a roulette wheel spin, the colors blurring, the attendant’s hand poised to deposit the ball. At home some nights she’ll hear the trill of the switchboard and sit up with a sudden burst of life, only to realize it’s just the ice man in the alley or a tree branch scratching the window. The only way she can bear the drudge of laundry now is to make a game of it. Turn her strokes against the washboard into tunes from the Yiddish theatre.
Rebecca stares at the jagged section of cake still standing on the slab. A pink filigree hugs the edges, reminding her of wallpaper. All the letters are gone.