Elsie by Jane Bernstein
First there was darkness and it seemed to last forever. Packed into an airless crate, sent on a long journey by railroad from Syracuse, New York, to Rice’s Landing, Pennsylvania. In the dark car, she had only the rhythmic clatter of wheels and the shriek of the train whistle for company.
Then air and light, and what a fuss they made as she was lifted from her confinement, carefully placed on the hard oak surface of a roll-top desk.
Three men gazed at her. The cigar smoker said: She’s a heavy one. His friend, who wore spectacles, drew a rag from his back pocket and dusted off her keys. Oh, she’s cunning, all right.
It was April 5, 1916.
She was basking in their flattery, when the secretary, a small, stout man named Fitzroy, approached. He was aghast to see her perched on his desk. What is this abomination! That’s what he called her: an abomination. He’d worked for W. C. Young for fifteen years, took care of all the correspondence, business as well as social, using pen and ink, vain about his beautiful hand. One does not correspond by machine, he said. It is rude, the worst of bad manners.
Fitzroy put his fat little hands on either side of her and moved her from the desk, and so after a brief spurt of hope, she was left alone in a dim office, in this most terrible place, far from the factory in Syracuse.
Deafening noise arose from the machine shop in the adjoining building - grinding, squealing, pounding – and in the third of the attached buildings built on the banks of the Monongahela River, was the foundry, with its blazing heat that came through the walls. The river was putrid, worse when the windows were opened.
Alone, she thought: I wish I’d never been made.
Mr. Fitzroy was the first to disappear. Did he give notice or was he fired? Did he go insane, take a train to Tuscaloosa, drown himself in the river? Was that his ghost moaning on windy nights? She heard the rumors, but hardly cared. His fate did not pierce her loneliness, which once again felt eternal.
And then, one summer day, a tall man with dark hair and stellar carriage
arrived from the employment department of the L. C. Smith Headquarters in Syracuse. His business card declared him a qualified stenographer, bookkeeper and typewriter operator. His name was Mr. Stanton. Frederick. Fred.
Indeed, he was an expert in those arts and others. That first day, he sat perfectly straight in his barrel chair. Faint scent of hair oil and shaving soap. Scrape of his wooden chair legs against the floor. His long fingers on her keys.
The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy sleeping dog.
His gentle touch brought her to life. Oh my, she thought.
So this is why I was made.
Oh. And the world receded. My.
The long, dark nights without him were brutal, and the weekends, when all she could do was wait. Then Monday, she would hear his footsteps on the gravel outside. At the door. As he crossed the room. His hushed voice when he sat before her. Hello, Elsie. This is what he called her.
He began to cover her each night before leaving with a cloth his mother had embroidered. She loved the bouquets of posies and violets stitched into the fabric.
Not as much as she loved Frederick. Fred. My Fred.
Her Fred was a diligent worker and arrived as early as the men in the machine shop. First thing, lighting the gas lamps. Then drawing back her cover, sitting, adjusting his chair. When she took in his clean scent and felt his hands, with their long fingers, the world outside receded, all of it: the riverboats docking out front, the machinists hammering and grinding, the roaring furnaces in the foundry. The stench of cigars, the foul river.
My dearest sir.
Gentlemen, it has come to my attention.
Payment due upon delivery.
For Services Rendered.
She knew that far away men were drowning in mustard gas, dying in trenches. She heard them say that the war was good for business.
She cared nothing about dying men or booming profits.
There was only Fred.
And sometimes, in a playful mood: hello qwerty.
My qwerty pie.
Scent of soap, of hair oil.
Sometimes, when Fred left, other men sat in his chair, clumsy men who ran their fingers ran over her keys and pounded her. He knew as soon as he lifted the cloth cover. Once her ribbon was tangled. Another time, evidence had been left in the trash.
My darling Helen,
I have borrowed his machine in hopes I can write you a letter that will not strain your eyes as I fear the last ones did. I know it is not my hand and thus
He smoothed the paper and showed it with shaking hands to Mr. Young
as proof she was improperly used.
My darling! Mr. Young laughed when he read the opening to the letter. He’ll blush to know that he’s left this behind.
Fred returned to his barrel chair. Sighed, changed her ribbons, cleaned her keys. Said: that’s better, isn’t it, Elsie?
And those hands, which soothed her and helped her forget.
So it went, this pleasant rhythm: His footsteps, the lamp ignited, his soapy smell and long fingers. The war ended. Men died or came home. Women mourned them, tended to them, bore their babies.
Elsie did not think her happiness would ever end.
And then one Monday morning, the gas lamps were lit and the room illuminated. Outside riverboats were tied to the pier and the men in the shop were busy repairing their broken parts. The barrel chair remained empty.
The next day it was the same. And the day that followed.
When at last someone sat at the desk, it was not Frederick with his murmured tenderness and gentle touch, but a stranger, poking her keys with two fingers.
We regert to infirm you.
The paper ripped brutally from her carriage.
We Regret to informyou.
Until at last:
We regret to inform you that our esteemed friend and colleague, Mr. Frederick Stanton died of influenza at his home on Carmichael’s Street in Rice’s Landing, Pennsylvania on Tuesday morning. He was the son of Asa and Mary (Bishop) Stanton of Syracuse, New York. The deceased, a resident of Rice’s Landing had been employed by W. C. Young Foundry and Machine Shop for four years.
She did not believe it, not fully. In the darkness, she listened to the sounds of footsteps and motor cars, the distant clip-clop of horse’s hooves, and waited for him to return, and when it was day, she braced herself against the clumsy pounding of a stranger’s fingers, waiting to reassure her Fred that he’d been the only one who ever pleased her. She hadn’t let him know, and now, as the decades passed, she went over and over how she would reveal this to him, listening for the moment when at last he approached.
She waited. What else was there to do? Even so, it seemed as if she would have to wait forever.
JANE BERNSTEIN is the author of five books, among them the memoirs Bereft - A Sister's Story, and Rachel in the World. She is a lapsed screenwriter and an essayist, whose recent story, “Still Running” was chosen for Best American Sports Writing 2018. Other upcoming publications include Gina from Siberia, a picture book she cowrote with her daughter, and The Face Tells the Secret, a novel to be published this spring. Her grants and awards include two National Endowment Fellowships in Creative Writing and a Fulbright Fellowship. She is a professor of English and a member of the Creative Writing Program at Carnegie Mellon University." Visit www.janebernstein.net to read some of her shorter work.