Tak­en at Sal­lie Shear­er’s broth­el, Read­ing, PA, between 1892 and 1900, William I. Goldman

There were rules. Accord­ing to the cadets, dis­ci­pline kept their girls in line and was key to run­ning a prof­itable house for the New York syn­di­cate. The girls obeyed, and not only from fear of pun­ish­ment. Nafkas, filthy whores, couldn’t gaze in fan­cy store win­dows, watch a the­ater show or a children’s clown. They didn’t go to the den­tist. Best to fol­low instruc­tions, dis­tract them­selves from point­less desires. Mother’s lasagna…goulash…schnitzel…baklava.

A hus­band.

Breast­feed­ing a newborn.

These long­ings swelled, too painful to touch. Best to for­get, to focus on the mun­dane to help push away unwant­ed thoughts.

Here in the ten­e­ment, their house, the girls could fight over the lone hair­brush, mock the one with the lisp, jos­tle for a seat at the kitchen table to eat their por­tion of clear broth.

Come on, now. You have to get up,” Sophia said to the new girl slumped in the crook of her elbow. They sat on the floor in the upstairs hall­way. The teen had col­lapsed into hys­ter­ics just as Sophia was get­ting ready for her month­ly evening with Boris.

You’ll get reg­u­lars. Most of the men are quick. It gets bet­ter, I promise.” In ear­li­er days, she’d believed her words and spo­ken them with ten­der­ness and courage. Though by now Sophia heard her own pat­ter as that of the sales­woman she’d become, the girl stopped hyper­ven­ti­lat­ing and sat up.

Hur­ry, Sophia,” Boris called from the land­ing below. We leave in ten.” Ten min­utes alone with the new girl gave him enough time to get her set up.

Sophia went to her room to pre­pare for the night ahead. In the van­i­ty mir­ror she brushed pow­der across her nose and dabbed rouge on cheeks no longer round and girl­ish. She ran her comb through her black hair and then pulled it straight back over the crown, the way her Mamme used to do before Shab­bos. Her two younger broth­ers got in trou­ble if they wres­tled on Sat­ur­day. She tried to sum­mon the echoes of their play but all she heard were nois­es from the next room.

Shack­les drag­ging across the wood floor made a decep­tive­ly dain­ty sopra­no ring. Sophia knew what was hap­pen­ing on the oth­er side of the wall.

The new girl would wait on the edge of a bed, hug­ging her knees to her body so her torn blouse tent­ed to hide her chest. Boris would main­tain eye con­tact with her, as if she were a rabid dog, and then he’d take hold of her wrists. She’d let him because she had lit­tle fight left. Thin folds of skin always caught when he locked the cuffs. Sophia heard her cry out. To keep you from harm­ing your­self, Boris would whis­per with a father­ly nod. Then he’d push her shoul­ders back to make her lie down. Veins in her neck bulged when she resist­ed, but Boris was strong and steady. Stay down. Good girl. She’d bare­ly feel the nee­dle go into her flesh but then heat would spread through her limbs as he strapped each ankle to the bed rail. The air would fill with pink dots that glid­ed with her thoughts. Under­stand? She’d nod even though she didn’t. Then look­ing down from over the bed, he’d reach under her skirt, caress her leg up to the thigh, and give a good squeeze before he left.

How long for her?” Sophia whis­pered to her own reflection.

When she was new, just thir­teen, Sophia went in and out of cuffs for months. Halb-vit. Stub­born and stu­pid is the worst com­bi­na­tion,” her room­mate said as she applied salve to Sophia’s swollen wrists and then to the throb­bing con­tu­sion on her fore­head, a sou­venir from being thrust face-first against a steel wash­bowl. Even for a vil­lage girl who spoke no Eng­lish and thought she’d live hap­pi­ly in Amer­i­ca with her respectable new hus­band, the raw ter­ror of hav­ing her head held under­wa­ter gave Sophia clar­i­ty: She could nev­er fight her way out.

Sophia put on the dress she wore for her work with Boris. Repeat­ed press­ing over ten years couldn’t smooth the pilled satin or twist­ed lace, and few mod­ern girls wore bal­loon sleeves. At least the dress still fit, though not the way it did when she first put it on at fif­teen. Fif­teen. Had she ever been that young? Before she passed, Tabitha had worn the dress and accom­pa­nied Boris.

It was qui­et as she walked past the new girl’s room. She was like­ly asleep now. The only escape.

Boris wait­ed by the front door. Put this on,” he said, toss­ing her an embroi­dered wool shawl. When she set it over her shoul­ders, he said, Bet­ter. But wasn’t that dress blue? Might be its last turn.”

She nod­ded. It might be her last, too. Sweat damp­ened the sweep of her low­er back, vis­cer­al proof of desire, an emo­tion she thought she’d chopped off long ago, like a gan­grenous leg. She want­ed some­thing for her­self, which wasn’t allowed, which was dan­ger­ous and unde­served. God might for­give the sin of cir­cum­stance, but what of the sin­ful acts of sur­vival? There was some­thing low­er than house pros­ti­tu­tion. The oth­er girls had no idea. She envied them their purity.

They head­ed south toward the piers, past a cart push­er sell­ing the last of his mack­er­el. In the ear­ly days, Boris’s grip on her fore­arm left bruis­es in the shape of his thick thumb. Now they moved like a weary mar­ried couple.


When he heard his name shout­ed from down the street, Boris shoved Sophia into the hol­low behind a stoop just in time. He suf­fered Can­tor Weiss’s pleas­antries and toothy smile to keep his mem­ber­ship to the Low­er East Side Syn­a­gogue and the cov­et­ed third-row seats where he could show off his new cuf­flinks and his wife’s flower-cov­ered hat. Along with month­ly dues, annu­al con­tri­bu­tions to the build­ing fund and a dona­tion for the new Torah scroll would be strong­ly sug­gest­ed once his old­est boy start­ed Hebrew school. Sure, Boris already bought his aliyah every Rosh Hashanah and had a set of keys to the build­ing. But big play­ers in the syn­di­cate, like dis­trict direc­tors and the boss him­self, attend­ed the uptown Bryant Park Syn­a­gogue, and that required either spon­sor­ship or a lot more money.

I’m sor­ry, Boris. I tried,” Can­tor Weiss said. The Bryant board said your appli­ca­tion didn’t have enough merit.”

What does that mean? That’s why you went there.”

Of course. But you have to under­stand, I’m not one of their mem­bers. They let me speak as a cour­tesy. Not for long, but I did get to see the sol­id sil­ver yad.” He flashed his grin and then glanced around at the dark­en­ing streets. What are you doing out so late, my friend?”

Bas­tard,” Boris mut­tered to Sophia when the can­tor turned the cor­ner. What’s he doing out so late? I can donate enough yahrzeit can­dles to light up all of Canal Street, but I still don’t have enough mer­it. Bunch of hypocrites.”

She ran her comb through her black hair and then pulled it straight back over the crown, the way her Mamme used to do before Shabbos.

Near­ing twelve years as a cadet, Boris need­ed to get out of the house and into man­age­ment or he’d get tossed for being too old and end up muck­ing out the Cen­tral Park sta­bles like his father, a book­keep­er until his wife cheat­ed so he threw her out and found a taste for gin. Even the fresh-boaters sneered at his father’s dung-stained over­alls. A mem­ber­ship at Bryant Park meant a chance to move uptown, away from the paint­ed trash, and eat steak at Delmonico’s with the syn­di­cate heads like a real mach­er.

Sophia, who’s cov­er­ing for you tonight?” He wouldn’t let Sophia short the night’s take just because they had a fun jaunt.


In the deep­en­ing night, the win­ter wind came off the East Riv­er in short bursts that stung Sophia’s chapped lips.

We got­ta make this a quick one. I got plans with my wife in the morn­ing,” Boris said.

Accord­ing to his pay stubs, Boris worked for J. C. New­man Cig­ar Com­pa­ny, the rea­son he smelled of cig­ar smoke and worked odd hours. Even the wife believed sto­gie sales were lucra­tive. Sophia fig­ured his wife didn’t care too much. Why should she? She had a qui­et life with Sun­day out­ings and a door that locked from the inside.

After nor­mal busi­ness hours, large meet­ing rooms and com­mu­ni­ty lodges turned into dance halls for the Low­er East Siders who put in four­teen-hour days for less than five dol­lars a week. When it was too cold for parks and tour­ing car­ni­vals, Lib­er­ty Hall packed in as many as five hun­dred work­ers eager to shed their bore­dom. With their coats checked, Boris moved them to a good van­tage point, straight­ened his lapels, and smoothed down his hair. To any­one watch­ing, Sophia knew, he could have been any young fel­low look­ing for a dance partner.

Sophia, did you hear me? Damn, you’re not pay­ing atten­tion again. Lis­ten.” He repeat­ed what they need­ed and Sophia nod­ded. A sim­ple transaction.

When she’d first arrived in New York, Sophia had mar­veled at so many strangers pressed togeth­er and the inti­mate way they min­gled; men and women nev­er touched in pub­lic or danced togeth­er in her shtetl. The orches­tra sound­ed flat. The room smelled of spilled liquor, smoke, sweat, and lemon cologne. But ban­ners and mir­rors on the walls added a fes­tive feel. Gath­ered were men with cal­loused hands and fac­to­ry girls in home­made skirts that bunched at the knees when they leaned over to whis­per or twist around for attention.


Boris pre­ferred a girl nes­tled with friends so that pry­ing her loose took skills not unlike the car­ni­val game of lift­ing the bot­tle with a ring attached to a length of a rope. Occa­sion­al­ly, he had to put in extra effort, arrange a few dates and show up at the dance hall with flow­ers. Tonight, how­ev­er, he didn’t have time to play. Mak­ing a loop around the perime­ter, he spot­ted what the boss­es in Chica­go want­ed: a red­head in exchange for the new girl they’d sent to New York. Boris checked his watch, con­fi­dent he could get home on time. He went back to where he’d left Sophia.

He gave her a firm shake and she fol­lowed him. Time to get to work.


The tar­get was no more than sev­en­teen, skin as del­i­cate as clouds. Her eye­brows were the col­or of pump­kins, her hair a shade dark­er. Some of the men demand­ed that the fair ones cov­er their veins with make­up. Tabitha had said they didn’t like the thought of arter­ies and blood, proof of the girls as liv­ing creatures.

One day after Tabitha died, Sophia had asked for her job.

I can do bet­ter,” she’d said ear­ly that morn­ing, the oth­ers upstairs unable to close their eyes, too drunk to dream, or lying pros­trate on the floor with rosaries in their palms and the imprints of wood slats on their cheeks. You see how we look alike. Remem­ber when that butch­er thought I was your skin­ny lit­tle sis­ter and gave you a dis­count? I can bring in twice what Tabitha did and take just a fourth. If you save my mon­ey for me to use lat­er. To leave. Just think how I can make things eas­i­er for you.”

Boris laughed. You want to buy your­self out? Is that what you’re say­ing to me? How are you still such a stu­pid girl? They’ll nev­er allow it.”

They. The syn­di­cate. Boris’s obses­sion. Who says we tell any­one about our deal? I’ll bring in twice. And you’ll make a lit­tle extra cash. No one has to know.”


From his wait­ing spot, Boris watched Sophia move toward the group of four girls.

Get it done. Boris shout­ed the phrase to his crew of har­lots and cadets-in-train­ing, and yet it sound­ed for­eign when his boss screamed it back at him. If Boris got the red­head tonight, then he’d be giv­en the pro­mo­tion. His boss had promised.

The gin­ger turned in his direc­tion, so he low­ered his gaze and toed at the floor. Boris hat­ed red hair. It remind­ed him of his moth­er. She’d worn her auburn hair in ringlets the night she’d left home, a week before his bar mitz­vah. The rab­bi had offered to post­pone the cer­e­mo­ny so Boris could recov­er, but his father wouldn’t allow his son to act like a cow­ard. The oth­er boys had laughed when he cried dur­ing his Haftorah. Those boys now worked for pen­nies at the iron mill. Some­times Boris went by the mill as they got off work just to pass by in his finest suit.

Once he worked at head­quar­ters, he’d put one of his pret­ty young girls in a real nice dress and walk her by the mill. The most respect­ed men had uptown mistresses.


Excuse me. I’m so sor­ry to both­er you. But my broth­er over there…” Sophia turned and point­ed to where Boris wait­ed, is very shy. I mean, my moth­er wor­ries he’ll nev­er meet a nice girl to car­ry on his name and share his life. Any­way, we love get­ting out of our stuffy house to hear music and chew the fat. And he thinks you’re all so beau­ti­ful. Oh, my good­ness. My name’s Har­ri­et. My broth­er is Nathan.”

The girls intro­duced them­selves. Sophia only cared about the redhead.

Dar­lene, would you like to dance with my broth­er? I know it’s sil­ly, but he real­ly is shy. But oh so sweet. Tru­ly. And he’s a won­der­ful dancer. I promise.”

Their gig­gles trig­gered her own. How long had it been since she’d laughed in earnest? Her voice sound­ed too high-pitched, import­ed, and she felt a pin­prick of fear. Before Boris beat out her accent and mis­used pro­nouns, Sophia couldn’t have pulled off such a ruse. When she’d first arrived, she sound­ed for­eign, mis­placed. Amer­i­can men wouldn’t pay top dol­lar for rela­tions with unclean immi­grants, and immi­grant men craved every­thing Amer­i­can. Even the men who couldn’t speak Eng­lish didn’t want Yid­dish chat­ter to bring back mem­o­ries. In Amer­i­ca, their new life could be any­thing they desired, forged by the sweat of their brows and hitched to the flight of dreams. Sophia held her breath and lis­tened as the friends car­ried on with their ban­ter and then encour­aged Dar­lene to fol­low Sophia. Boris wait­ed with a schoolboy’s blush.

Her thoughts drift­ed back to the late after­noon when the stranger had approached her lit­tle house as she took her family’s under­things off the line. Unlike Boris, he had a wide grin and a gentleman’s beard. That’s what Mamme called thick whiskers worn by men in the shtetl. The breeze had smelled of Mamme’s rose­mary plant, and the old women who sat by their front doors to shuck wheat berries sang folk tunes until the sound a grainy alto unison.

Darlene’s friends were beck­on­ing Sophia back to them. They hand­ed her a glass of some­thing clear, then pat­ted her shoul­der and turned away to talk among them­selves. She swal­lowed the cheap vod­ka then watched the cou­ple danc­ing. She hadn’t lied. Boris was a good dancer, and he had a pleas­ant singing voice. On slow days, like when the cir­cus was in town and the fam­i­ly men were busy, he hummed Sousa march­es while the girls lined up along the wall for a turn around the par­lor. Required.

The hap­py cou­ple returned heat­ed from the two-step so Boris offered to fetch drinks. Before he left, he tilt­ed his head toward Sophia. It was her turn.

Sophia knew well how to put strangers at ease. With just a few ques­tions, Dar­lene bab­bled about the fac­to­ry job she hat­ed and the over­bear­ing par­ents she couldn’t wait to escape. Though Sophia asked, Boris wouldn’t say how he knew which girl to choose.

Enough about me. I’m so com­mon,” Dar­lene said. But you don’t look like a fac­to­ry girl. Your hands aren’t crusty from the chem­i­cals. A shop?”

Yes, I work at our family’s — ”

Har­ri­et, no need to bore Dar­lene with that.” Boris hand­ed them each a cup.

Nathan, don’t be sil­ly. Our fam­i­ly owns a store. We both work there,” Sophia said.

It’s my father’s.” Boris turned his atten­tion away to give Sophia a moment.

Sophia leaned toward Dar­lene and whis­pered. Have you ever heard of Hen­ri Bendel’s?”

The girl nod­ded. Of course she had. They ran week­ly adver­tise­ments in The New York Sun. Sophia put her index fin­ger to her lips. Their lit­tle secret. Darlene’s eyes widened. She drained the rest of her glass and pep­pered Boris with ques­tions about his work and suc­cess. Then, after he’d trot­ted out his opin­ions about dime nov­els and pop­u­lar music, she intro­duced Boris to her friends. He charmed them with lawyer jokes and a sto­ry about once tak­ing a famous vaude­vil­lian to din­ner. Sophia didn’t men­tion how the great actor paid a vis­it to her room when Boris brought him back to the house afterward.

As the loud music con­tin­ued, Boris slipped extra whiskey into their drinks. Sophia could tell the girls were begin­ning to con­fuse real­i­ty with pos­si­bil­i­ty. Even so, a good girl would refuse an improp­er offer with­out Sophia and her crit­i­cal role.

Nathan, we should prob­a­bly get home. Moth­er” — Sophia paused to let the pro­tec­tive weight of the word sink in — will notice if we’re not back soon.”

Yes, you’re right,” Boris agreed. May Har­ri­et and I walk you home?” he asked Darlene.

Oh, I don’t know if I should. Besides, my friends…”

Sophia knew what Boris want­ed her to say next. The room was warm and she wiped her fore­head with the back of her hand.

I’ll be there as your chap­er­one,” Sophia said. And your friends can come, too.”

As the girls con­ferred, Boris whis­pered to Sophia. That’s not how we — ”

Sophia jerked away. His hot breath was like a devil’s pitch­fork lung­ing for her brain.

We lost at least three because of friends who talked them out of it,” Sophia said. And what about that sliv­er of a thing who shout­ed for the police when you tried to take her out­side. I have an idea. Trust me. This will work. Just take Dar­lene to get her coat.”

When Boris obeyed, Sophia felt lightheaded.

With Dar­lene and Boris ahead, Sophia explained her idea to the friends. They hud­dled, gid­dy to be con­spir­a­tors in their friend’s romance. Once they all met out­side on the street, the dark-haired leader hugged Sophia as Boris dis­tract­ed Dar­lene away.

Your friends decid­ed they want­ed to get home on their own. They think you two make a love­ly cou­ple,” Sophia said when she caught up to them.

Darlene’s lips quiv­ered into a faint smile.

Her voice sound­ed too high-pitched, import­ed, and she felt a pin­prick of fear. Before Boris beat out her accent and mis­used pro­nouns, Sophia couldn’t have pulled off such a ruse.


Boris couldn’t remem­ber her name, but just the same he com­pli­ment­ed her eyes, nose, cheeks, dress, fig­ure, and then mouth. When he asked for a kiss, she agreed more quick­ly than some, which he appre­ci­at­ed and would reward with gen­tle­ness. They were stand­ing just a few steps from an alley when he began the lines from a tired script. He’d fall­en in love at first sight and now had wild thoughts of mar­riage and chil­dren. They all want­ed to be res­cued. Most believed life else­where would be bet­ter, eas­i­er. A few fled vio­lent hus­bands or starv­ing chil­dren, but the details didn’t mat­ter and he wasn’t one to judge. The knack, his boss called the way Boris per­ceived the needy girls. Boris sim­ply under­stood. Away, they want­ed. Away, she had want­ed. That’s what his moth­er said the night she returned in a blus­ter of tears and apolo­gies for the affair. Boris had lis­tened from the kitchen until his father tossed her out with­out let­ting Boris say good­bye. Paint­ed trash, his father called her.


Sophia guard­ed the mouth of the alley. Alone in dark shad­ows, she recalled how her tat­te had held the strange man’s shoul­der as they shook hands. A shtetl boy him­self, the man had found for­tune in the land of milk and hon­ey and returned to his home­land to find a good wife. Amer­i­can girls were too mod­ern. He want­ed a whole­some girl, one who knew Pol­ish lul­la­bies and made cholent. He wasn’t real­ly a stranger, her moth­er said while she packed the family’s only trunk. Amer­i­can homes had wood floors, and peo­ple were nev­er cold or hun­gry, she con­tin­ued. They didn’t share plates with the neigh­bors or sleep beside the chick­ens when the tem­per­a­ture dropped. No tears, my beau­ti­ful Sophi­la. The good man says he will send for us all. You’ll see. And in Amer­i­ca, they have many jobs. Your Mamme can work in a shop, wear a hat. Tat­te maybe deliv­ers the milk. Think of it, Sophi­la. Like a sham­mash. A bless­ing from above. You will see us again soon.

Dar­lene emerged from the alley first, her skirt askew and the belt from her coat miss­ing. Sophia tucked her­self into the shad­ows and hoped that some­how this one wouldn’t fath­om her role in the fable. But the girl looked at her and pinched her lips into the unlucky turn of a horse­shoe. The rebound of betray­al wrapped around Sophia’s neck.


Boris found this part bor­ing, and yet he knew the situation’s del­i­ca­cy. Of course you can go back to your fam­i­ly. But what if your father finds out you’re not, well, pure any­more. You could even be with child. No, I hate to think your father would turn you out…darling. Because, I love you. I want to take care of you. Be a father. I don’t want you to work your fin­gers to the bone. We can get mar­ried right away in New Jer­sey. We’ll catch the last train if you come with me now. Mar­ried. Just think of it. Come.”


Sophi­la, the good man will take care of you. 


The train was run­ning five min­utes late. At least he only had to take the red­head as far as Hobo­ken. In the sec­ond-class rail car, he’d help her com­pose a let­ter to her fam­i­ly to share news of a dreamy elope­ment. That would keep her calm. Then when they met the hand­off man on the plat­form, he’d get this one to smile big. Good teeth were a bonus, and he nev­er knew who was watch­ing. Work­ing at head­quar­ters came with lots of perks and his wife want­ed a mod­ern enam­el sink.


Back in her room, Sophia tal­lied the night’s earn­ings in her note­book, the ear­li­est num­bers had fad­ed to a pale grey. With this final entry, she’d reached the agreed upon sum. Get­ting out meant she not only saved her­self. She could help the oth­ers, or at least try, she told her­self. Her head pulsed, mak­ing her skin feel too tight. In all her plan­ning, she hadn’t con­sid­ered the real­i­ty of free­dom, its shape for a castoff woman, with few skills, lit­tle mon­ey, and nowhere to go. Even if she’d saved enough for a steam­er tick­er, she couldn’t go home. She could nev­er explain the truth of her life in Amer­i­ca and why she’d left her hus­band. And fac­to­ries paid such a pit­tance that many work­ers chose the life Sophia want­ed so des­per­ate­ly to leave. Sophia yearned to believe in for­tune and in faith. Just as Tat­te had believed when he offered up his only daugh­ter. She dropped her notebook.

On the nights when Mamme por­tioned out one pota­to for each of them, Tat­te claimed he was already full on Torah sto­ries. While the rest of the fam­i­ly ate, he closed his eyes and began to speak. The sun-weath­ered crease across his fore­head became the split in the Red Sea, and David’s staff and sling moved to the rhythm of Tatte’s index fin­ger. He favored tales of the weak who were vic­to­ri­ous over those who jus­ti­fied their mis­deeds with more equa­nim­i­ty than Sophia could ever muster. As she dwelled on her deal­ings with Boris, the cor­ner of her eye began to sting. She’d made a gentlemen’s agree­ment with­out any gentlemen.


Boris knew the boss would arrive any minute to review the quar­ter­ly num­bers and, if he kept his word, give him a pro­mo­tion out of the house. Boris had to get Sophia to leave the par­lor. He ordered her back upstairs. She didn’t go.

You’re lucky I don’t have time for the belt. What do you want? Quickly.”

She want­ed her mon­ey and pre­sent­ed a small ledger. He was in no mood to talk about their bar­gain, and cer­tain­ly the boss couldn’t over­hear any­thing about it. Besides, he didn’t owe Sophia any­thing more than the roof he pro­vid­ed and the meals she ate, includ­ing meat on Fri­days. None of the oth­er cadets scrounged for brisket to keep their girls ener­getic. Anoth­er rea­son he deserved a pro­mo­tion – and if he wasn’t pro­mot­ed, Sophia would nev­er be able to leave anyway.

He sneered at her, but even that didn’t get rid of her smile. No one knew about their deal. He glanced toward the hallway.

Now’s not the time, Sophia. You need to leave.”

I know. That’s why I’m here,” she said, thank­ful her voice didn’t quiver, her hands in the pock­ets of her dress so he wouldn’t see them shake. Anger felt like a rod down her back, though she couldn’t tell if she was mad­der at Boris or her­self. He didn’t want to let her go, give away the mon­ey he con­sid­ered his own, or explain to his boss how a prof­itable girl got away. How could she have been so stupid?

The bus­tle of street noise sud­den­ly filled the room. Some­one had opened the door to the build­ing. Boris stood and again told Sophia to leave as heavy foot­steps from the stair­well missed the down­beat. Every­one knew that the syn­di­cate boss had a limp. Boris couldn’t wait for his pro­mo­tion, if only to tell the can­tor he was mov­ing his fam­i­ly uptown and tak­ing his dues with him.

Look, Sophia, we both know your lit­tle list of num­bers doesn’t prove any­thing, and no way the boss lis­tens to you. Leave and I’ll put in a good word so you can go out to the dance halls with the next cadet. You know, keep mak­ing a bit extra for yourself.”

The door­knob twisted.

Miri­am,” Sophia said.


I said, Miriam.”

He looked at her. How did she know his wife’s name? How long had she known it?

They were alike, he and Sophia. Too alike. Boris remem­bered the way his par­ents screamed that last night. He’d nev­er before wit­nessed the kind of rage that filled the apart­ment with an osti­na­to pulse and the smell of burnt gar­lic for­got­ten on the stove. She fell to her knees and plead­ed to stay, wept through vows of repen­tance and offered her­self as a lamb for slaugh­ter. Moth­er would do any­thing but Father want­ed noth­ing and seized her by the hair. She land­ed beside a pud­dle of dirt and soot and Boris saw the edges of her light blue skirt turn black as Father slammed the door shut.

His father nev­er admit­ted how much he’d need­ed his wife, except to the booze that took his life. And yet in try­ing to avoid becom­ing his father, hadn’t he been lured into his mother’s plight of lies and secrets? Beneath the swag­ger, Boris obeyed the syn­di­cate so his own wife wouldn’t toss him to the street to live among his own kind. He couldn’t ever let that hap­pen. Sophia watched as Boris quick­ly cal­cu­lat­ed the weight of her intent. She let her eyes dead­en and focused on a ques­tion Boris wouldn’t ever under­stand. Would she ruin yet anoth­er woman’s life to save her own?

The door opened and both looked. Then they turned back to face one anoth­er. Each knew what they had to do. Nei­ther knew for sure.

Gina Pfef­fer-Mul­li­gan is the author of two his­tor­i­cal fic­tions (writ­ing as Gina L. Mul­li­gan) and the founder of the nation­al char­i­ty Girls Love Mail. She’s cur­rent­ly work­ing on a nov­el inspired by Land of Milk and Hon­ey.” Gina is an MA can­di­date in Cre­ative Writ­ing Prose Fic­tion at the Uni­ver­si­ty of East Anglia.