My Mother at Georg Jensen by John A. McDermott

ornate handle of a silver spoon

 

Manhattan, 1944

The girl steps quickly down the store’s back stairwell, her vision blurry with tears, her skin flushed with shame. The manager coming up to his office accosts her. “Why are you crying? No one cries in my store.” He reaches to touch her arm and pauses. She’s come looking for work, the newspaper want-ads folded neatly in her purse, the purse tucked in the crook of her good arm, her other arm too short for much, half a length long, malformed in utero, but so a part of her she forgets the stares from strangers, routine double-takes from passengers on the subway, from blind dates, until a woman like the one 10 minutes ago scowls and tells her, “We can’t hire you. Our customers don’t want to look at a girl like you. There’s no way you could ever work our floor.”

And the girl remembers her grade school years, running home on rough sidewalks, away from the jeers of children calling her monster and freak on the playgrounds of Superior, throwing sharp stones at recess. And the girl steps quickly down the store’s back stairwell, her vision blurry with tears, her skin flushed with shame.

“No one cries in my store,” the man says again, his Danish accent familiar in her ears, the bouncing cadence of Scandinavian immigrants on the Great Lakes, the farmers from Minnesota. “We’ll find a place for you.”

It wasn’t the floor; it was with two other girls in the upstairs office, catching the paperwork shot through clear pneumatic tubes hoisted above the cashier’s counters. Receipts to file, and no one has to see her botched arm, or her pretty face, or her curly black hair. She needs the work. The manager remains kind, but some afternoons, after her shift, the girl still steps quickly down the store’s back stairwell, her vision blurry with tears, her skin flushed with shame, before she takes the train to Yorkville.

In a month, then two, then three, of filing efficiently, no one upstairs—the two girls or the man—glances at her arm anymore, the arm not entirely useless, her adaptations clever, even impressive. Business bustles. The manager watches and Christmas is coming and they need another girl on the floor. He knows she knows her stuff, her silver settings, her china makers, her wedding gift etiquette, all the patterns available for any well-heeled bride-to-be. Her high school job back in Duluth at a shop that sold similar goods taught her well: She knows how to make a pitch and how to be helpful. Brides are coltish, need soothing, and though she’s never been one, not yet, and is sorely sick of them, she calms them. She sells them silver at the same time.

The manager ignores the bleak warnings of the woman who first told my mother to shoo, and he puts her out there in the public view. New York doesn’t care about her arm—it cares about shining spoons behind the glass cases, the delicate bone china with the blue irises on the border, the dainty demitasse and the sterling settings. She sells young women future heirlooms, sets to pass down to unborn children, children whose mothers will have their own moments of well-aimed rocks arcing toward vulnerable flesh, of weeping in stairwells, of comfort from strangers; children who will never know their mothers in their youth, who can only imagine the stinging griefs and small triumphs, the memories old women hold long after long ago is gone.

john a mcdermottJohn A. McDermott’s fiction, poetry, and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of journals, including Alaska Quarterly Review, Cream City Review, The Pinch, and Southern Humanities Review. His first book of poetry, The Idea of God in Tennessee, came out in 2015. A native of Madison, Wisconsin, he now lives in Nacogdoches, Texas, where he coordinates the BFA program in creative writing at Stephen F. Austin State University.

 

 

 

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/ilovebutter

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