Had Gussie Panken looked up from her machine, a movement that could get her salary docked a dollar, she would have seen what the lazy Sadie Kupla saw in the window overlooking Washington Place. The late-March breeze was causing the orange curtains to billow, the serrated orange curtains, though the open windows along Washington Place had never had any curtains. Then the wisps of orange turned into waves, a rumbling swell that poured over the sills into the shop, engulfing the bins of scraps, torching the bales of unfinished waists heaped atop the oil-soaked tables. By the time Gussie had turned to see what Sadie was screeching about—her shrieks echoed in a chorus all up and down the long rows of worktables—the fire was advancing like a mob of ragged hooligans. Gussie’s first impulse was to do nothing; she was tired and this wasn’t the first time she’d been the victim of hooligans. Hadn’t they driven her family out of their home back in Dlugacsz, forced them to cross an ocean to a rat-hole flat on Broome Street, where she lived with a crippled father and her bed-wetting little brother who must nevertheless be honored as a prince? She felt her charging heart secrete a poison that paralyzed her limbs, but only momentarily, until she too was swept up in the hysteria that harried her fellow seamstresses from one end of the shop to the other, like sticks in a box tilted this way and that.
At the door to the Greene Street stairwell, which opened inwardly, the knot of workers rushing to escape was stalled, and unable to squeeze through the narrow gap they began in the thickening smoke to claw and flail at one another. Then the crowd had reversed itself, stampeding through eddies of flame past wicker baskets combusting in horse-fart poofs, and Gussie found herself carried along in the tide. At the door on the Washington Place side of the shop, which was always kept locked by management for reasons known only to them, a burly fellow with a handlebar mustache hurled his weight against the metal plating, leaving it concave though the door never budged from its jamb. Others pounded the door with their fists, a shuddering that reverberated in Gussie’s gut until she retched, sinking to her knees. From the floor, her eyes smarting, lungs beginning to wheeze in pain, she groped among the remnants on the table above her for a swatch of lawn to cover her face. Showers of sparks seemed to blend with the curses and cries for help like flights of hornets making an eerie drone. Windowpanes above a nearby air shaft splintered in popgun bursts, and a party of workers swarmed through their ruined frames out onto the fire escape. Then in seconds the whole rusted structure had pulled away from the wall, and the people, releasing a noise like a sepulchral moan, dropped out of sight as on a raft sinking below waves.
“Mama,” said Gussie, unable to hear the sound of her own voice, not beckoning her mother so much as scolding her for having died of diphtheria three years ago back in Dlugacsz.
Somehow she was on her feet again, blundering blindly alongside the tables on top of which the more athletic girls hopped and jigged in an effort to elude the saw-toothed conflagration. Rearrived at the Greene Street vestibule just in time to see the freight elevator descending, she blinked through stinging tears at what was at once real and not real: a clutch of employees who hadn’t made it on board the elevator thrust aside the accordion grate and, licked from behind by tongues of flame, plunged after the departed car into the yawning shaft. She saw a pretty girl spinning like a top to try and unravel the fiery helix of fabric she’d wound about her for protection, and another with a torch in place of her hair. One shouted something in broken English about having to meet Gaspar behind Bottle Alley; another crooned idiotically in Yiddish: “Ev’ry little movement has a meaning all its own.” Unaware that her own skirt had started to smolder, Gussie now wanted only to breathe. A wall of fire flapped like sheets on a line, then blew apart in a dragon’s exhalation that chased the seamstress back toward the windows along Washington Place. In each of them were figures silhouetted against the failing afternoon light, who disappeared only to be replaced by others who also instantly disappeared. Jostled and caromed against from all sides in the choking atmosphere, Gussie half-stumbled, half-fell in the direction of the tall windows. Unconscious of having made a decision, she avoided the casement in which the girls tussled as if vying with one another to board a packed trolley; the window from which a tangle of girls tumbled like a flickering pinwheel over the ledge. Instead she elected to mount the sill upon which a young man in a waistcoat stood helping the girls to step one by one into space. With sleeves rolled he bussed them tenderly on the cheek, then lifted them under their arms, as in a dance, before letting them drop.
Now it was Gussie’s turn and with the aid of the gallant young man she had mounted the sill, stepped onto the ledge, and stood vaguely aware of the sirens, the roar of the multitude below, their howls of alarm indistinguishable from cheers. She saw the ladders extending several stories shy of the ninth floor, the plumes of water spraying so far from their marks. Letting go of the lawn hankie, which the wind carried over the sooty skylights and water tanks etched against a cobalt sky, Gussie imbibed the cool evening air of her oblivion, and felt her fear abruptly dispelled. In its place was pure rage.
Plain Gussie Panken, born to be a spinster, dried up and unshtupped at twenty-three: “What did I have? Mama’s carbuncle brooch when it wasn’t in hock, and her dog-eared copy of The Duties of the Heart. Freda Fine has a beau plus a book signed by the theater idols Tomashefsky and Kalish, and my pious papa tells her, ‘Our Gussie will get in paradise her Duties from the Heart autographed by God.’”
Over her shoulder the shop was a garden of flame, every flywheel, driveshaft, and burning maiden limned in undulant gold. “Ptui on God,” spat Gussie, feeding the blaze.
It came then, the gingerly peck on the cheek from the young man, a fresh-faced boy really despite his tarnished brow, with downcast eyes and a shock of sable hair; he kissed her and endeavored to lift her under her sweat-soaked arms. “That’s it?” she asked, still immovable. Then wiping the drool from her lips, she clapped her hands over his cheeks and kissed him full on the mouth: a scandal! She grinned at his astonishment, impish Gussie, who also blushed, then heaved a sigh over the ineffectual husband he would make—a pisher who stole kisses from ladies in extremity. She sighed as well at the dingy hall they would rent for their wedding, the tallis shop they would open on Orchard Street and later set fire to for the insurance, the hungry baby mauling her breast and the dim one lolling underfoot on the greasy floorboards, the extra weight she’d put on fore and aft that added to her burden, the shoes she had to cut slits in to relieve the pressure on her bunions, the silver hairs that would come to signify this frustration and that disappointment and the joys (surely there would be a little joy) that she’d survived. Then Gussie, decked out now in an incandescent gown, wrapped her fingers—perforated by a thousand needles but still very strong—about the hand of the chivalrous boy and leapt from the ledge without the help of anyone on earth.
A cop covering the broken bodies with a tarpaulin noted the half-incinerated girl with her goggle eyes and crooked mouth holding hands with a dark-haired lad, and observed ironically to his mate, “A match made in heaven.”
“Heaven is Full of Windows,” from The Book of Mischief. Copyright © 2012 by Steve Stern. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota,www.graywolfpress.org.