Excerpt from Charity Girl by Michael Lowenthal, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Charity Girl

By Michael Lowenthal

Charity Girl

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Excerpt
Charity Girl

Someone has come for her — someone is here! — and gossip speeds so readily through Ladies’ Undergarments that Frieda, in a twinkling, is forewarned. (The elevator boy tells the stock girl, who tells her.) She grins, but as the newest- hired wrapper at Jordan Marsh she’s still minded awfully closely by Mr. Crowley, so she struggles against the glee and keeps to work. She snaps a box open and handily tucks its ends, crimps tissue around the latest stranger’s buys: a nainsook chemise, a crêpe de Chine camisole. But her fingers, as she’s knotting up the package, snarl the string.

She’s been waiting for him to come again, conjuring. Every day this week, she’s woken half an hour early to wash her hair and put herself together. On the modest black shirtwaist required by Jordan’s dress code gleams her only brooch: Papa’s gold seashell. She’s nibbled at tablets of arsenic to pale her face, rubbed lemon zest on her wrists and her throat: the pinpoints where her flurried pulse beats. A girl who can’t afford to buy perfume finds other lures.

Now, at last, Felix has come, as he promised. She fills her mouth with the hum of his name: Feel-ix. The feel of his thumbs on her hipbones, hooked hard. The taste of his taut, brazen lips.

He’s come for her at work again, for where else could he search? Their first — their only — time, they didn’t use her room (the landlady would have kicked her out, and quick). Instead they went where he wanted, and afterward, in her fluster (her brain swirly with passion, with a fib she’d caught him telling), she neglected to give him her address. Her rooming house has no telephone.

Lou, who was with Frieda when Felix swept her off, predicted he would soon enough be back. Lou didn’t speak to him but says she didn’t have to; she knows from boys, knows all she needs. Frieda scans the department for her surefire companion, hoping to score a last bit of advice. But Lou is nowhere to be seen. She must be in the fitting room with a customer.

It hits Frieda that Minnie, the stock girl, said someone. Why not say a man? Or speak in code? The shopgirls have their secret tricks of talk. “Oh, Henrietta!” one will call, although no clerk goes by that name, meaning: That customer’s a hen, not worth the bother. And if a cash girl whispers, “Could you hand me some of that?” she means, Don’t look yet, but is he handsome!

Minnie didn’t ask to be handed anything; all she said was “Someone’s here for you.” For an instant Frieda fears that the visitor is Mama; Mama’s tracked her down and come to fume. Frieda is still six months shy of eighteen, so Mama retains parental rights. She could have Frieda booked on a charge of stubbornness. She could force her to go live with awful Hirsch.

Silly, no, the explanation’s simpler: Minnie’s just too new to know the code. She’s worked at Jordan’s less than two full weeks.

Frieda had her own missed-signal mishap, her very first Friday at the store. She was struggling after lunch to keep pace at the wrapping counter when Lou, her new pal, hastened by, tapping her wrist twice for the time. Strange — that very wrist was adorned with an Elgin watch — but Frieda’s mind was cottony with fatigue; she said, “Ten past two,” and went back to her bundles.

Seconds later, she heard, “Excuse me,” and looked up. The man was gray-templed, enticingly tall, a crisp-rimmed homburg in his hands.

“Yes,” he said. “Hello. What I need are undergarments. Corsets, brassieres, camisoles.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” said Frieda. “I’m just a bundle wrapper. You’d have to find a salesclerk for that. Try Miss Garneau” — that was Lou — “or Miss Fitzroy.”

Copyright © 2007 by Michael Lowenthal. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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