Rich Uncle by Terese Svoboda
Manhattan between the wars was not made dull by death or dread: it sang. The pink-lipped living strode past the fresh monuments mounted over the new mica-glitter sidewalks, exclaiming over the stars at their feet and around the park, trolley conductors competed in bellringing as they took and mistook actual stars from far off California. Although liners could be heard moaning clear across town, exiting and entering with abandon, ironshod hooves no longer rang, only the occasional garrulous fruit vendor sang from his horse, making its last rounds, or a carriage-driver cursed at his plumed nag dodging motorcars, the last harnessed for the park pleasures of rubes or Frenchies–so much noise was made on the street that the pink-lipped living shrieked their gossip as they walked in twos and threes over the glittering sidewalks.
An odd couple shrieked down the street in tandem, not quite together, not quite incognito, one of them a deb. New York debs were covered by the press just like Grable, cited in columns and flashbulbed beyond blindness. With assets considerably less physical than fiscal, Dot had been debuted but not suitored. She directed the two of them south along the mica, south to where one could get a seat, more specifically, a seat on the stock market. A woman with a seat would be new. Toothpaste was new, most all of what stacked up beside a pharmacist’s till was new. Father, owner of all the sugar in the world, would know what a stake in clean teeth was worth and that she could handle such a transaction, and handle it best with a seat.
Today a company selling women’s items, Dot said, napkins they called them as if you would have them at table, was about to make a public offering of stock, and Father thought she might handle the delicacies. She had handled them, and then Father. Bid it up, she told him at lunch. Women aren’t having children anymore. A coathanger company could produce piles of profit too.
Father had excused her.
Nobody on the exchange has yet died this year and no one has quit, she told Iris, so that narrows down getting a seat to default as a possibility. I should get Father to insist that someone sell their seat. That would certainly cut down the waiting time. Murder is not advisable.
Iris kept nodding. Seats were not for Iris. Iris came along to do Dot’s shopping and see that Dot didn’t want. What Dot didn’t want was comment.
We have the money of course. But there’s getting agreement from the other members of the committee. You don’t want to be blackballed when it comes up for vote. It’s like running for office, and then you have to be held up to scrutiny every moment you’re in. Stringent. Then there’s the other point that Father makes every third breakfast―the woman problem. We’re considered generally untrustworthy, always nattering away to our friends at parties about what we should keep to ourselves or else hiding the cash in the cupboard. Ha! If men but knew all we keep secret.
Now Dot had to have dates for balls and dos in her siege for a seat that demanded escorts, where young men in suits with buds pinned to their lapels did their best to ditch Dot but not Father. Father often employed them, and others she met that were available for positions. All had fathers themselves, who often held seats. She had helped herself to what men had stumbled forward, that is, she had allowed one childhood Arthur something of a kiss on an area other than her hand but had not treasured it. Arthur had suffered from bad eyesight anyway and not long after, he turned his touring car importunately over a cliff in California. But still she had these dos and needed dresses to do them in.
Iris was here to help her shop, en route to the exchange where Dot’s legal counsel would deliver her letters of support―Dot waved them–extracted from Father’s partners and various other strong-armed eminences for her seat. Dot also needed a new garment to present those letters, to show the lawyers she was serious. Nothing of hers would do, swank was wrong for daytime, lacey said mindless, too-tailored called into question her figure. She could have summoned a seamstress from Paris or purgatory, Dot had her pick, but she preferred the readymade of a recent investment.
Pants that annoyed Father were truly Dot’s preference, but Father said pants suggested a change of class.
He knew better than to say male.
Dot said pants were the latest this year, with a kind of aviator cuff. And if you carried a handbag, who would wonder? It would help me get a seat. The men will overcome their fear of the fairer sex if I looked just like them.
Iris was paid by Father to stroll with Dot, and for many other efforts. This was her first job out of Omaha though she averred Ottawa after she held her letter of introduction too near Cook’s grease where it spattered the folds in the more important areas. Ottawa sounded more accomplished, the capital city of somewhere somewhat foreign. She had fled Omaha following a fraught rendezvous with a coathanger herself in which she nearly lost her life, which made her brave where others might think twice. Dark in the eyes and skin where the Moors disembarked in Dublin, shanty Irish Iris stood extra ruffly next to Dot’s burgher square-riggerness. Although the same height, she was less endowed with what Iris called on Dot “padding,” yet it was she who tried on whatever Dot wanted on trips like this, stripping in dressmaker’s backrooms where she and the seamstress then made estimates to fit Dot, except–on Iris’ part–it was not complete guesswork.
Some slight time before, one late night after the last young man had clicked his heels in farewell to Father, when Dot needed help with all the buttons that the damn seamstress was still sticking her with–Why not a zipper? she yelled–Iris unfastened the two rows of Dot’s web of tiny buttons and tinier hooks while Dot tugged at the pearls tangled around her neck. The clasp is stuck, she said. I’m trussed like an animal to slaughter.
How had it happened, this undressing of them both? Dot had lowered herself into her huge wealthy-sized bath filled to the brim with just-right water, elbow-tested and frothy with salts thanks to Iris who held Dot’s arm to help her into its heat but whose grip slipped and Dot flailed and grabbed until a scallop of suds left Iris’ front wet to the hem. Seeing her breast tips so tight to the thin cotton, Iris retreated behind her and asked if she might scrub her back. After some soap suds slide around front―who knows how that happened?–Dot, in a tone so much more inviting than the one she used on men who wanted to get into her purse and not, oh lord, anything else, said Iris might catch cold so wet while she worked, that she should put the wet clothes here, that’s it, and wouldn’t she like a soak too? She didn’t have to get in, it wasn’t exactly a request but with Iris’ sylph self sopping and her berry-wet nipple hovering to offer new soap, Dot pulled her in like a prize Acapulco marlin.
Iris would not get pregnant.
Dot had not said a word about their tryst in the morning when Iris brought in the ironing. Dot said nothing on two subsequent Saturdays. Dot had not mentioned it walking this noon, just the two of them, across the mica-flecked pavement. Perhaps Dot had forgotten. Iris would not bring it up, never–forgetting was a good girl’s gift, and very much a servant’s. She had, however, asked for a raise this breakfast and received it–after Dot gave the nod to Father―and she did not change clothes quickly in the back of the stores while Dot watched.
Dot paused in front of a pants-clad shop window, pants and a green skirt, two mannequin like the two of them, so young and unformed in reflection.
Green makes you saucy, said Iris, ever-cautious of the raise-paying Father at home.
Am I not already saucy? Dot gave her such a smile.
Iris blushed at what was finally an acknowledgement and, shocked by her blush, turned her face.
Suit yourself, said Dot, and walked on.
Now Dot on parade past these storefronts was about to ask that Iris bring the car around or have her hire one because while walking was good for those with constitutions preparing for expeditions to Everest, those with seats to consider needed them to more speedily dispatch their ambitions, then she passed a vendor of sodas, this latest fizzy business which surely she would trade when she had a seat.
Iris bought Dot a coffee-flavored soda out of the allowance that Father had given her to keep Dot out of money mischief, something Dot liked Father to think she had. Dot tilted not the bottle to her lipsticked lips but a Tiffany cup Iris had on her person for such occasions, but just after Iris decanted the brown fizzy into its Tiffany container and offered it up to those lipsticked lips, Dot was shot in the foot by an arrow.
Terese Svoboda (www.teresesvoboda.com) is the author of 13 books of fiction, memoir and poetry. Of her latest novel, Bohemian Girl, Kurt Andersen says, “She will, of course, compared to Willa Cather — and deservedly so.” A new edition of Tin God is forthcoming in 2013.