Mr. Burstein the elder stands close to Lillian and makes an announcement. His voice is such a pleasure to listen to that the girls stand there like fools, some of them with tears in their eyes at its gathering, thunderous quality, even as he is merely telling them that Miss Morris (the Litvak) will pass around a clipboard and they are to write down their names and their skills, or have someone write this down for them, and then Miss Morris will interview them all and indicate who should return tomorrow evening for more interviewing. There is a murmur at this; it was not so easy to get away for even one night, and Lillian thinks that the bad-luck mothers and the women who look as if theyve walked from Brooklyn will not be back.
Miss Morris approaches Lillian. Judith and Lillian have rehearsed for this moment. Very well, thank you, if the question seems to be about her health; I am a seamstressmy father was a tailor, if the question contains the words sew, costume, or work; I attend night classes, said with a dazzling smile in response to any question she doesnt understand. Judith will get the job. Things being what they are, Lillian knows that a girl who can sew and speak English is a better choice than a girl who just got here and can barely do either.
Lillian studies the profile of Reuben Burstein; the impresario looks like a man from home. She heard his big, burnished voice, and like a small mark on a cheek, like a tilt in the little finger of a hand injured a long time ago, the tilt and the injury both forgotten, underneath she heard Yiddish.
Lillian moves. She presses close to Reuben Burstein and says, My name is Lillian Leyb. I speak Yiddish very well, as you can hear, and I also speak Russian very well. She digs her nails into her palms and switches into Russian. If you prefer it. My English is coming along. She adds in Yiddish, Az me muz, ken men, which is When one must, one can. When Reuben Burstein smiles, she adds, And I am fluent in sewing of every kind.
The Bursteins look at her. Miss Morris, who did have a Lithuanian mother but was born right here on the Lower East Side and graduated from the eighth grade and speaks standard Brooklyn English, also looks at Lillian, without enthusiasm. The crowd of women look at her as if she has just hoisted up her skirt to her waist and shown her bare bottom to the world; it is just that vulgar, that embarrassing, that effective.
The elder Mr. Burstein moves closer to Lillian. Bold, he says and he holds her chin in his hand like he will kiss her on the mouth. Bold. Bold is good. He waves his other hand toward Miss Morris, who tells all the women to form groups of four, to make it easier for her to speak to them. There are immediately fifteen groups of four. Lillian loses sight of Judith. She feels like a dog leaping over the garden wall. She smiles up at Reuben Burstein; she smiles at Meyer Burstein; she smiles, for good measure, at Miss Morris. Lillian has endured the murder of her family, the loss of her daughter, Sophie, an ocean crossing like a death march, intimate life with strangers in her cousin Friedas two rooms, smelling of men and urine and fried food and uncertainty and need. Just so, she thinks, and she smiles at these three people, the new king and queen and prince of her life, as if she has just risen from a soft, high feather bed to enjoy an especially pretty morning.
Reuben Burstein says in Yiddish, Come back tomorrow morning, clever pussycat. Meyer Burstein says, Really, miss, how is your English? And Lillian says, very carefully, I attend night classes. She pauses and adds, And they go very well, thank you.
It had taken eight hours for Lillian to get from Ellis Island to the Battery Park of Manhattan and another four to find Cousin Friedas apartment building. She had read Cousin Friedas letter and the directions to Great Jones Street while she stood on three different lines in the Registry Room, while the doctor watched them all climb the stairs, looking for signs of lameness or bad hearts or feeblemindedness. (You step lively, a man had said to her on the crossing. They dont want no idiots in America. Also, and he showed Lillian a card with writing on it, if you see something that looks like this, scratch your right ear. Lillian tried to memorize the shape of the letters. What does it say? What do you think? It says, Scratch your right ear. You do that, they think you can read English. My brother sent me this, the man said and he put the card back in his pocket, like a man with money.)
Excerpted from Away by Amy Bloom Copyright © 2007 by Amy Bloom. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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