for educational filmstrips. From there, she moved on to having her own calligraphy company, a twenty-year quilting and craft business, and teaching
English as a Second Language/Reading. Finally, she tried her hand at fiction writing and it was like an all-consuming drug. She's been happily writing ever
She has had eleven short fiction pieces published in "descant 2008," "Snowy Egret," "Transcendent Visions," "The Storyteller," and "Down In The Dirt".
Several of her stories have appeared in different anthologies through Scars Publications. Before that, she had articles published in "Traditional Quiltworks" by Chitra Publications, and "Quilt World" by House of White Birches when she was a professional quilt artist/quilt teacher.
Click on the image to visit S.R. Mallery's Amazon.com author page or visit her website to read her flash fiction: http://www.srmallery.com/
S.R. Mallery's Books
Sewing Can Be Dangerous
On the train, Susan turned to her companion. “This is us, Mom,” she announced.
Dressed in varying shades of black, the two women rose from their metal seats, quickly exited before the doors could close on them, and gingerly made their way down the rickety platform steps. Yet down at street level, they both froze, mesmerized by the view. Hundreds of tombstones and mausoleums spread out before them on either side, and with the grey stones gradating up into a grey sky, it resembled more of an architectural painting than a backdrop to the oldest Jewish cemetery in New York City.
Mourning relatives huddled around the two newcomers, offering each one silent hugs and wet cheeks. Then, wending her way over to the family plot, Susan tried hard to avoid stepping on any hallowed ground as she passed row after row of Siegelmans, Strausses, Brodskys, Kandelbergs, and Steins.
But it was the incongruous array of headstones that impressed her the most—faded names butted up against trendy 1990 tombstones with faces photo-transferred onto their slick, dark green surfaces. Just imagine, she mused, how a heavy downpour would look, splashing against their faces, beating tears down all those shiny cheeks.
Oh, that’s Great Aunt Ada, she thought, focusing on their family plot’s fanciest headstone. I remember hearing about her. And there’s little David, run over by a trolley car. How awful it must have been for her grandmother as a girl, to be told something so tragic about her own brother.
Closing her eyes, she could still hear her bubby’s voice in her head, imitating all the deep wails emanating from the family parlor the night of the boy’s death. Now, even as her Uncle Jacob eulogized, her mind kept drifting, conjuring up emotions she herself had suppressed for months.
After the service, still taking in the family tombstones, she zeroed in on an unfamiliar name and stepped in closer to get a better look.
“Herein lies Sasha Rosoff
Born in Russia, 1895
Died New York City, 1911
A short life in America--
A large soul in Heaven.”
Susan’s interest was tweaked. Who was this mysterious Sasha Rosoff and more importantly, what had caused her to die so young? She swiveled around to ask one of her older cousins, but thought better of it. Later would be a more appropriate time for questions.
Later turned out to be at Uncle Jacob’s house in Queens, where the laughter, tears, and reminiscences intermingled with tray after tray of Jewish delicacies. By evening, when a secondary wave of people arrived to extend their noisy condolences, the tiny white wood and plaster house with the black roof swelled and vibrated.
Finally, Susan couldn’t contain herself any longer. Approaching a four-foot-tall, four-foot-wide silver-haired woman, she rested her arm around one of her favorite relative’s shoulders. “Cousin Yetta, I am dying to know something—who is Sasha Rosoff?”
The twitch of surprise was palpable. “There are a few things we just don’t talk about around here. But if you have to know, ask your Great Uncle Jacob, he might tell you,” she added as she folded and unfolded her cocktail napkin.
Uncle Jacob’s duty as memorial host was to keep afloat just long enough to see the last guest leave. Sitting on the sofa, the lower section of his shirt half-opened, an unbuckled belt releasing his enormous belly, he was drawing slow, deliberate breaths as Susan sat down beside him. Her fingertips were the lightest of touches on his tired arm. “Uncle Jacob, are you all right?”
He smiled at her concern. “Susan, my sweet one. How are you? I didn’t even ask. How’s the job? Your mom told me you’re so upset.”
“I am, but that’s not what I want to ask you.” She paused, measuring her words carefully. “When we were all at the cemetery, I noticed a tombstone marked Sasha Rosoff. Who was she? Why did she die so young?”
Uncle Jacob’s unexpected tears startled them both. For all his bulk and composure, his vulnerability made Susan instantly regret having brought it up.
“That poor girl never had a chance,” he murmured. “So terrible to die that way…” He ended with his head resting on his right palm.
Susan leaned forward and stroked his shoulder. “Please, Uncle Jacob, tell me what happened, please?”
He sat up, pulled a handkerchief out of his back pocket and first wiping his eyes and blowing his nose, let out a heavy sigh. “What happened? Ah, well…”
Sasha couldn’t believe how miserable the boat trip had been coming across the Atlantic. People shoved up against each other, buffering the elements; howling babies in the arms of frantic mothers trying to pacify them, and always the inevitable nausea that forced everyone to gag or lean over the railings and vomit.
Torrential rain and wind drove the ragged ship, listing it back and forth over the fierce waves and scattering passengers into dark cubbyholes. Throughout, prayers provided the only strong haven, and for Sasha and her family, they prayed every free moment they got that New York’s harbor would appear before their vessel broke into wooden fragments floating in the angry sea. From the lower levels, third-class shawled women, hatless men, and grimy-faced children kept gathering up on deck, straining to catch sight of the Statue of Liberty, the ultimate Lady of Hope.
“Anytime now, it’ll be there,” they were assured by the crew, but all they kept seeing were endless miles of a relentless ocean.
Below deck, gathered around the family’s makeshift table, Sasha’s father Moshe held court. “Ven ve come to New York, ve vill go to our cousins, the Brodskys on Hester Street. Ve will all act vit respect, and ve von’t give dem any trouble, vill ve? Is dis understoot, Sasha?”
Sasha clenched her teeth, her green eyes hard. Being treated like a second-class citizen in Russia because she was Jewish seemed a cruel and mystifying enough punishment, but to be viewed as a third-class citizen by her own father simply because she was female was more than she could bear.
Ignoring her set jaw, Moshe and beamed at his young son. “David, balibt, my beloved one, I know you vill behave vell, and ve vill find you goot job. Dis is land of opportunity, and you can do anythink you vant. No Cossacks to shoot you down, no pogroms here. Dis is America.”
“Papa, vat about me?” Sasha struggled to steady the tremor in her voice.
“Hush, girl! You vill do vat you are told! Ve vill look for somethink dat girls are meant to do. Now, hush! Sasha!”
Sasha’s mother Raisa bowed her head and sighed. Twenty years of living with her husband had taught her not to argue; in the end, the price was always too high. But Sasha was young, herspirit still intact, and as the ship pressed forward, she made a silent vow to herself. She would someday live her life the way God intended her to do.
By the time the boat entered the Upper New York Bay, people had scrambled over to the main deck railing, bobbing and positioning themselves to get their first glimpse of the famous statue. There she was. None of the photos or paintings had done her justice. Up close, the sheer magnitude of her green-bronzed body with the one arm reaching up towards the cloudy sky, grasping a torch while her crowned head held a steady gaze towards America, brought tears to the Rosoff’s eyes. Without speaking, each of them was silently acknowledging her significance. To Moshe, she represented the respect he felt he had always deserved; to Raisa, if her husband received more respect, he might soften towards others; to David, she evoked new, exciting adventures, and to Sasha, just landing on American soil symbolized independence.
As the ship maneuvered into New York Harbor, the sudden horn blast and swollen plumes of smoke bursting from its huge black fennels caused everyone to first jump, then shriek with delight.
Their new lives were just beginning.
But the high-paid jobs for Moshe and David never materialized, and after degrading medical examinations on Ellis Island, consisting of harsh finger probes, sneers, and humiliating positions, they both resigned themselves to sweeping garbage off the floor of a local saloon for a pittance. Interestingly enough, despite Moshe’s predictions, the only family member who managed to get a better paying job was Sasha.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, inside the Asch building was located on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place in the lower east end of Manhattan. The owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, prided themselves on mass-producing new fashioned shirtwaists for American women and in the process, becoming extremely rich men by hiring young Yiddish, German, and Italian seamstresses, desperate for work.
The Rosoffs were thrilled at her steady pay, but Sasha’s heart sank. She found out soon enough what working conditions were really like: sixteen hour days, six days-a-week, hunched over cumbersome black iron industrial sewing machines in dense, almost airtight conditions that had her breaking out in streams of sweat on hot summer days, and teeth chattering shivers in the dead of winter.
Harris and Blanck were true believers of the new industrial age. It never occurred to them to offer decent factory conditions to their hard-working employees when they could just as easily squeeze the same amount of work out of these naïve immigrant girls. So for Sasha, each day was filled with crippling, repetitive motions that left her neck, back, and arms sore for days at a time. The fifteen minute allotment for lunch passed so quickly that some of the slower girls only had time to pull out their lunch boxes and take a couple of bites of food washed down by two or three swigs of liquid before the whistle blew, signaling them back to work. There were no other breaks and no time to socialize.
Lint particles sifted steadily throughout, settling into every conceivable surface. Microscopic fibers clogged mechanisms and filled nostrils with a dust so fine, after two hours it became difficult to breathe. Oil soaked rags, used for greasing the mechanisms, radiated their own heat that could be slightly comforting in winter for those workers near the large bins where they were dumped, but toxic in spring and summer for everyone else.
America, Land of the Free. Such a joke, such a schpas, Sasha grumbled as she hobbled home one evening, later than usual. Entering their cramped, walk-up apartment, she appeared to be alone, and grateful for the stillness, stretched out across their daybed/sofa, relishing a soundless room without the constant clatter of industrial sewing machines. She tried relaxing her throbbing back by closing her eyes and pretending she was far away in distant lands, but within minutes, she could hear Jacob Brodsky trudging up the hallway stairs from his after school job. Eyes still closed, she smiled in spite of her exhaustion and pain.
Her little cousin Jacob had become the one and only shining light in her life. He adored her and she him. Somehow, the two found solace in each other’s company and without him, Sasha knew she might not have the strength to continue. More shuffling on the vestibule steps announced her Uncle Samuel, tired but excited about all the tips he had made that day waiting on tables.
The Brodskys were fortunate. They had all gotten jobs in a local Jewish delicatessen, preparing the food, waiting on tables, and dishwashing. Delighted with their work and its decent pay, they still commiserated with Moshe and his family on their lowly positions and grueling schedules. ‘Remember, this is America,’ they would repeat on cue. ‘Land of opportunity. Just wait and see—have a little patience, have a little geduld.’
But as time went on and still no changes, Moshe’s increasing bitterness garnered a single target: his daughter. “Girl, vere ist your money for veek?” he would lash out. “I told you, you give it to me right vay. Don’t tink to keep it for yourself! You vouldn’t know vat to do with it, anyvay. Except for sewing, you no good! Give it! Gebin!” Most times, he would end by shoving his hand roughly out towards her, palm up, waiting for total compliance.
Tonight, still lying on their couch and watching the Brodskys prepare dinner, Sasha could feel herself drifting off into a much- needed doze. Earlier that day, her shift had been particularly exhausting. Rainy spring days brought foul, rancid smells into the factory, and with little to no air, the combined odors had proved unbearable. At lunch break, she had nearly fainted from the stench, and when she had dared ask for a lunch extension, her answer came in the form of a broom handle, poking her in the ribs.
“Gebn, meidl! Give girl!” Shaken awake, she saw her father looming over her, his heavy breathing hammering her in angry waves. Moshe’s day had been bad as well, culminating in his employers deliberately stomping across the area of floor where he had been carefully mopping, tracking fresh mud in from the street. In an instant, all the months of swallowed pride surfaced. Flinging his mop down, he stormed out, pushing bills and sustenance far from his mind.
Out on the street, however, his anger quickly morphed into silent desperation and by the time he had reached their apartment, he was looking for the only satisfaction he knew he could get—attacking Sasha.
“Can’t I keep a little money, Papa? At least let me do somethink else. I hurt all over. Ich schatn…” Her voice cracked.
That did it. Cursing in Yiddish, he grabbed a wooden ruler and started hitting her shoulders and outstretched hands, ignoring all her feeble attempts at self-protection. Finally, with palms the color of raw meat and raised welts rubbing against the rough fabric of her dress, she cowered on the floor in the corner of their kitchen and sobbed.
Jacob, kneeling down beside her, started stroking her hair.
Just then, her Aunt Deborah entered. Her reserve this past year as she had watched her cousin’s behavior with his only daughter had been based on a laissez-faire philosophy. But enough was enough. Genug is genug. Shoving her cousin up against the wall, she snarled, “Shame on you! How dare you treat your daughter like that! Vitout her money, you vould be notink, do you hear me, Moshe Rosoff? Notink!”
Moshe slowly lowered his arm, dropping the ruler onto the floor beside him. Suddenly the apartment stilled, with only the tick…tick…tick of the wall clock, echoing Sasha’s soft whimpers.
A half hour later, dinner was placed on the cracked oak table as if nothing had happened, and with Raisa home, Moshe talked fervently to everyone about how things would be soon looking up, his pink face flushed with a renewed energy. Seduced by his good mood, Deborah, Raisa, Jacob, and David listened attentively while Sasha ate in silence.
Saturday, March 25, 1911 started out like so many other days. Sasha woke up in the dark, got dressed with cold, numb fingers, splashed water on her face from the porcelain pitcher and bowl set out on the kitchen table, gently kissed a sleeping Jacob, grabbed a piece of bread she had covered with jam, and let herself out the door. Feeling her way down the pitch black hallway by running her fingers over the embossed plaster patterns, she almost stumbled on a nail peeking out of a floorboard just before reaching the front door. The gas light in the vestibule had been out for weeks, and their landlord had refused to fix it. She felt tired and depressed, but as bad as conditions were at Triangle Shirtwaist, nothing could compare with being around Moshe, and so taking a deep breath, she gratefully made her way through lower Manhattan to the sewing factory for a day of overtime and its slightly higher pay.
On the sidewalk outside the factory, she caught up with many of the girls with whom she usually worked—three hundred Italian, German, and Yiddish girls, their thread-worn dresses hanging over muddied petticoats and eyes as dark-circled as hers. Trudging up the path, they were all met at the front entrance by Joe Zitto, one of the elevator operators.
“Okay girls, okay. Let’s get goin’. The rest of the building ain’t opened today, so I’m gonna take ya’s up to the 8th, 9th and 10th floors only. Don’t try to go anywheres else for lunch. The doors to the other floors are locked mostly. I guess Old Man Harris don’t want no burglars comin’ in. So, c’mon girls, let’s go.”
Bending over her assigned sewing machine was excruciating. Her entire body ached from the previous day’s abuse; still, she kept working until lunchtime. She was in no mood to socialize—making idle chit-chat was the last thing she wanted to do, but when she retreated to a corner of the factory floor by herself, two of her closest co-workers, Gladie Moskovitz and Irma Delacina, came over to sit beside her.
“What’sa matter wid you today, Sasha?” Irma peered at her friend as she bit down hard on a piece of Italian bread, some crust flipping out of her mouth and onto the floor.
“Yah, you look different. Is evertink all right at home?” Gladie was more privy to Sasha’s problem with Moshe than Irma was.
“I don’t vant to talk about it—sometink did happen, but I not say…” Sasha feared once she started talking, there would be no stopping. Better to keep mute.
In what seemed like a merefive minutes, the whistle blew, followed by numerous deep sighs and groans. Irma threw an arm around Sasha’s shoulder on the way back to their sewing machines, and handing her a delicate-looking locket from around her own neck, told her, “Here, taka dis to wear. It’s a good luck charm necklace. I got it in Italy. If you wear it, maybe you getta good luck from now on.” She leaned over and gave her friend a little kiss on the cheek.
Touched by Irma’s gesture, Sasha instinctively pulled off a little pinkie ring of her own—a small, silver Jewish star pattern with a pink stone in the center. Uncle Samuel had bought it for her the week before at a local flea market, telling her, “Remember, Sashelah,you’re American now, but always, you are a Jewish girl. Never forget the Torah, my child.”
Irma’s mouth curved into a huge grin as she placed the ring on her pinkie finger. Then the two girls gave each other a quick hug before returning to their stations.
The afternoon dragged on. Sasha found that by concentrating only on the rhythm of the sewing machines, she could block out her misery for a while. Closing her eyes and listening intently, she could almost hear the tapping of a marching band: click, click, slam-slam-slam, whoosh-whoosh, rattle-rattle went the machines. Soon, the entire factory room pulsed.
By 4:45 p.m., the whistle blew as if by magic, signaling the end of the workday and going home to face another round with Moshe. Turning off her machine, Sasha stood up, took a deep breath, and steeling herself, tried to remember the good people in her life, like Irma and Gladie, and of course, little Jacob.
Three steps forward, she smelled smoke.
Girls on the opposite end of the floor next to the windows were beginning to scream in a panicked chorus, and suddenly streaking past her, someone shouted, “Fire! Fire!” Still, she remained paralyzed, her arms and legs like lead, her mouth filled with a bitter, chalky taste. Then the adrenaline hit her and she broke into a dead run.
Dark gray swirls of smoke were seeping in from under the doorway cracks while dozens of girls stampeded past the sewing room, heading towards the elevator shafts or stairwells and ending up crushed together against the in-going only doorways. Hysteria rendered each girl strong. No matter how hard she tried, Sasha couldn’t push her way through the group of flailing arms and legs, so she about-faced to explore other escape routes.
Outside on the street, a man walking by pointed upward and shouted, “Look at the smoke coming out of the Triangle building!”
“Yeah, it looks like it’s comin’ from the top floors! What’s that coming outa the windows? Looks like bolts of fabric! Old Man Blanck must really want to save his precious cloth!” a woman chimed in.
“Yeah. Wait! Wait a minute!” the man continued. “That’s not bolts of fabric—they’re—they’re—oh, God in Heaven!”
The cynical woman let out a blood-curdling shriek.
As a large crowd gathered, all eyes were glued towards the 9th and 10th floors in time to see several blackened girls in smoldering dresses hurling themselves towards the ground to join the six bodies already strewn across the sidewalk, limp, broken.
Engine Company 72 clanged around the corner and ground to a halt, but the mounting piles of corpses made it impossible for the hose wagon to get close enough to be effective. Desperate firemen started handing out bucket after filled water bucket to the foreman, some male tailors, and anyone else available, so they could run back into the building to douse out the flames. When all twenty-seven buckets were emptied, it became all too painfully obvious; the fire was completely out of control.
A few soot-streaked firemen tried to stretch out a safety net to catch one girl’s fall, but before all four corners were taut enough, three more girls had jumped seconds behind her, the weight of all four ripping the net as they landed hard against the pavement. The stunned men grabbed a nearby horse blanket to try to cushion the fall of another girl, but she, too, flew down with such force, her charred body split the blanket in two, hitting the cement with a loud thud.
Up on the tenth floor, more and more girls were desperately trying to scramble down the fire escapes. Gripping the iron ladders, terror made them ignore the steam hissing out between their fingers until suddenly, yelping in pain, they let go, gliding like flying squirrels towards the ground.
Inside the building was pandemonium. Clouds of thick, bulbous smoke blinded Sasha, stinging her eyes and rendering her throat raw until she got down on her hands and knees and managed to crawl towards the elevator shaft, praying both Joe Zitto and Joe Gaspar might still be on duty. Sure enough, the elevator was working, but it kept stopping on the eighth floor below her. She could hear Joe Zitto frantically working the metal levers, shouting up to anyone within earshot, “I can only get to the eighth floor! The ninth and tenth floors are blocked off! Get to the eighth floor and I’ll take ya’s down.”
She managed to get to the eighth floor using one of the few stairwell exit doors not engulfed in flames, but once there, found too many crazed girls jammed together, calling out for the elevator. Joe Gaspar came up next, but could only squeeze in twelve to fifteen girls at a time. Between the two men, they made fifteen to twenty trips each, but with each trip, the girls’ clutches and cries weakened as their coughing from all the smoke inhalation overwhelmed them.
“Come on, Sasha, come wid me to da westa door. We can getta through dere!”She recognized Irma Delacina by voice only. The girl covered in head-to-toe soot and sizzling clothes standing next to her, looked nothing like the kind, smiling girl she had hugged just hours before. She attempted to reach out and grab her, but Irma was already halfway across the hallway, heading toward a door that Sasha knew to be locked. She called out after her friend, but Irma either wasn’t listening or couldn’t hear over the din of howls.
Careening around the corner from Great Jones Street, Engine Company 33 shuddered to a full stop in front of the burning building, drawing hurrahs from a crowd that naturally assumed any back-up would bring miracles. But their cheers soon turned to cries of horror when everyone realized the hoses could only reach the seventh floor, leaving the upper floors of the factory engulfed in flames.
Back on the tenth floor, Sasha viewed her options. She could see three male cutters across the room running towards an open window, and decided to go with them. She didn’t get far. Oxidation from the fire had turned the tenth floor into a time bomb, and as bolts of fabric imploded into popping blazes, she was knocked off her feet and onto the floor.
Dazed, she tried to get up, then fell back, unable to move.
Two minutes later, a roar erupted from the huge crowd as they witnessed three male cutters forming a human chain from the roof of the factory to an adjacent building. Slowly, one at a time, several of the girls carefully inched across the backs of the men to safety, eliciting cheers and applause each time someone made it. But the strain on their hands and fingers were too much for the cutters; someone lost their grip, and all three men plummeted eighty feet to their death.
The sudden stillness overwhelmed the crowd already in mourning. In the thousands, they remained in shock until a man finally found his voice. “Look at the roof!”
All eyes pointed upward. There, over a hundred girls, in their cumbersome dresses and singed petticoats, were wriggling across a ladder held down by New York University law students who had hatched an escape route between the adjacent buildings.
By nightfall the fire had subsided, leaving glowing embers and assuring the firemen of an end in sight. But along with their relief came the dreaded job of scouting for more girls inside the building, and as the searchlights crisscrossed up towards the hollowed floors, an even more gruesome sight was revealed: scores of burned bodies, cradled by ropes, were being slowly lowered by firemen, then gently lined up on the cobblestones to be carted away for family identification.
Nearby, hysterical relatives had descended on the Mercer Street Police station, clamoring with questions in broken English and praying their loved ones had managed to survive. Italian families wedged up tight against German families, who melded into Russian-Yiddish families, all waiting as a unit for any news.
Soon, an official shuffled into the room, his face impassive, mouth straight-lined. With his legs in riot stance, he stared at the families for several seconds before indicating a map on the south wall. “Go to the Bellevue Morgue on 26th Street,” he informed them. “You can either identify your loved ones there, or obtain more information about any missing girl.” Then he about-faced and marched out, as detached as when he had come in.
Moshe, Samuel, and Raisa wasted no time. Before anyone else could leave the room, they had already begun their race over to the designated morgue. Once there, the thought of waiting in another endless line was out of the question for Raisa. She stormed across the waiting room to the main registry, leaned over the green institutional counter and demanded, “Ver ist da girls?” The inexperienced secretary flinched backwards then pointed a shaky finger towards the pier, a few yards away.
Approaching the area, the smell of burned flesh overtook them, and as Raisa started to faint, Moshe quickly stepped up to hold her.
“Be brave, be brave for our little girl,” he muttered repeatedly.
All the years of repressed anger in Raisa suddenly exploded. “You--you--you did dis to her!” she screamed. “She had nottink to say—you made her verk there! I never forgive you, never! Kein mol nit!”
Jerking herself free, she chargedthrough the warehouse to the identification room, ignoring all officials, ready for any confrontation. But in the main room, she did a double-take. On the floor were dozens of bodies, burned beyond recognition. Walking up and down the rows, she scrutinized each cadaver, but it was no use; she couldn’t make out anything. Then suddenly from out of nowhere, she let out an agonized sob and collapsed. Samuelrushed over to support her, cradling her as if she were Sasha herself. After a minute of rocking back and forth, he focused on something himself and cried out sharply.
“Vat, vat is it?” Moshe implored.
Samuel pointed to a charred body, unidentifiable like all the others except for one slight detail. On the right hand was a little pinkie ring, a Jewish star ring with a tiny pink stone in its center.
“It’s the ring I bought for her,” Samuel moaned, his choked voice almost unintelligible.
Later that night, after Moshe and Samuel had put a catatonic Raisa to bed, Moshe turned to his relative. “Samuel, come sit vit me—ve need to talk.”
As soon as they were in the front room, he began. “There was something dat bother me about Sasha’s body tonight. Sasha always haf frizzy hair, but dis girl haf wavy hair. Wha’ kut dat mean?”
“I don’t know, Moshe. But the ring, I know that ring. I’m sure it’s her. It’s our little girl…” He finally broke down, releasing all the pent-up emotions from an exceptionally long day.
“It turned out to be one of the worst disasters in the history of modern industrialization, and because of it, a commission was set up to study more effective labor practices. Dozens of witnesses and family members testified, and when details of what happened came out, it was far more horrific than anyone could have imagined. A turbulent trial ensued, with the owners never receiving convictions. How-ever, we do end this program on a hopeful note. Conditions today in the work environment are far better than they’ve ever been, partly due to the tragedy that happened at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on March 25, 1911. This is Peter Manning, signing off for ‘Investigations On the Air.’”
Susan stared at the TV a few seconds before switching it off. Suddenly, the unlit screen brought reflectionson her own job, the recent memos she had seen, and the disturbing trends she could no longer ignore. Her mother had warned her not to make waves. After all, landing a buyer’s position in a celebrity’s clothing firm was not to be taken for granted. Count your blessings.
But that night, Susan slept fitfully. Fire and smoke-filled dreams starring a faceless girl desperately trying to slap out flames on her long skirt startled her awake every few hours. By morning, although it took three cups of coffee to get there, she came to a major decision. She was going to read the testimonies and try and get inside her cousin’s world at the factory that day.
Letting Uncle Jacob in on her plan one night after dinner, she was surprised to see him disappear into the bedroom and return with Sasha’s diary. “I don’t know if this will be helpful, but I have always kept this. She meant so much to me.” Biting his lip, he sighed, and handed over the thin, worn, leather-bound volume.
Sasha was certainly no Anne Frank, Susan mused as she skimmed through the book, but it was touching, none-the-less. Ambivalent about her own boss, she was drawn to this girl, obviously so trapped by her father and her situation. Throughout it all, Uncle Jacob appeared to be the girl’s one shining star, and that made Susan feel even closer to him. The other two names that kept cropping up were Irma Delacina and Gladie Moskovitz. Obviously she had considered them to be friends, or at the very least, comrades in misery, but other than that, there was nothing too eye-opening about the factory conditions, only that she ached all the time.
The next step was the New York Public Library. Microfiching through a mountain of testimonials, she skimmed through most of the commission’s report until something caught her eye. She clicked pause and started reading.
One of the testimonies given was by a Marco Delacina. He stated that he was quite distraught because they had never truly been able to identify their daughter, Irma; she was presumed to be one of the group of girls who had actually melted against a locked door, yet the family had remained skeptical. Where was her good luck locket that she always wore? It must have melted, the Delacinas had been advised. It was not enough to lose one’s daughter, he further testified, but to have to endure being glossed over by public officials was an outrage. Besides the personal loss, the loss of income was devastating to their family. What were they to do now?
Susan’s dreams turned violent that night. Eerie, ash-coated shapes lumbered after her as she tried to escape through the blocked passageway. Clawing at the door, her fingers and nails, sticky with blood, she kept stroking a little locket around her neck.
At 4:23 a.m., she bolted upright in a sweat. Oh, my God—maybe the girls had switched jewelry!
She kept remembering Moshe’s testimony during the hearings, how everyone assumed it was his Sasha, but then why was the hair different? And what about the Delacinas never truly believing they had found their girl. Maybe Sasha had never been found, not Irma!
Back to the library. She poured through dozens of articles, searching for anything that had to do with young teenage girls in New York. Nothing on Sasha, but there was an interesting article about the Delacina family doing very well financially several years after the tragedy. According to a certain interview, they kept receiving an anonymous donation each month, undoubtedly through the Sons of Italy, and it had changed their lives. Because of that, they had been able to move to Queens and were living the American middle-class dream.
Watching her night after night, the librarian couldn’t contain her curiosity any longer and finally approached. After hearing the story, she suggested, “Why does it have to be New York? After all, if the girl didn’t want to return to her family, why would she want to stay in New York all these years?”
Susan smiled. Of course. So she plunged in again, expanding her geographical area of interest, and focusing on a 1922 article written from the Pennsylvania News Terminal, about a homeless, Russian Jewish girl making good, setting up her own bridal sewing shop, and people raving about her work, her moxy, etc., etc. Her name: Sarah Mijss. What an odd name. A faded, vintage photo of the seamstress displayed a rather plain girl with frizzy hair.
After the name was jotted down, Susan took some notes on the article, and hugged the librarian before going home for the night. Frazzled, all she wanted to do was to pour herself a large glass of Cabernet Sauvignon and tube out. She channel-surfed for a minute or two before deciding on Rosemary’s Baby, playing on one of the movie networks. She had seen it numerous times before, but for some reason that night, was in the mood for the bizarre. Snuggling up against her overstuffed Saks Fifth Avenue pillows, she settled down. Two-thirds of the way into the movie, she started glancing at her pad of paper on the coffee table, unable to stop her ruminations. Casually picking up the pad, she studied the notes, including the odd name. Mijss. Weird…
Just then, one of the most crucial scenes in the movie appeared, when the leading character, Rosemary, was told by the companion of a recently deceased friend that the answer to the problem lay in an anagram. Getting out her scrabble letters, the heroine moved the pieces around and came up with the name of the satanic leader of a cult who happened to be living next door to her. With the music swelling ominously, it was one of the high points of the film.
Susan stared down at her pad again. Mijss. Mijss. M-I-J-S-S. Oh my God!
J stands for Jacob, I is for? S is for Sasha, M is for Moshe, and S is for Samuel! I—I—I is for Irma? Yes, it would work! It definitely could be her! Maybe she’s still alive and living in Pennsylvania!
The next Saturday, she purchased a railroad ticket to the little town in Pennsylvania and after booking herself into a hotel for the weekend, spent the rest of the afternoon asking around about Sarah Mijss. It seemed everyone knew of her. “Sure, Sarah, she’s the town character, ninety-five and still going strong.” Susan fell asleep easily that night, looking forward to the next day.
On Sunday, Susan paused just outside Sasha’s door. Oh, dear, I hope this isn’t too much for her, she thought. I mean, what if it is her and she has a heart attack and dies? She took a deep breath before pushing down the tarnished brass knocker twice. Nothing. She tried again. Soon, she could hear shuffling on the other side of the door and a “Coming, coming,” echoed by an old, yet surprisingly firm voice.
The door opened. “Hello, dear. May I help you?” the elderly woman stood waiting.
Susan was afraid to proceed. “Ah—you don’t know me, Ms. Mijss, but I’m here to talk to you about something that happened a very long time ago.” There was a lull while she checked for a reaction. There wasn’t any.
“May I come in?” she continued. “I don’t really want to say what I have to say out here.”
The woman locked her knees and drew herself up. “My dear, whatever you have to say to me, you can say it in the doorway.”
Here goes, Susan thought. “Have you ever heard of a little boy by the name of Jacob Brodsky?”
It was as if the woman had been slapped. Her eyes watered instantly and stumbling back, she caught herself on the doorknob before lowering her head and sinking to the ground.
Susan knelt down beside her. “I’m so sorry to do this to you. Are you all right?”
Sasha Rosoff turned to her, whispering, “Someone found me at last. I can’t believe it—after all these years...”
Later, over tea and homemade cookies, it all came out. The switched jewelry identities, the escape across the unfortunate cutters’ backs, the despair of losing her friend Irma, and the realization that she could start a whole new life without her dominating father.
“But the Delacinas ended up doing okay. I guess they got an anonymous donation from some Italian organization because they moved to...” Then Susan caught the corner edges of Sasha’s lips curling.
Her elderly cousin nodded slowly. “After all, a life for a life, I always say. She saved mine, so the very least I could do was to save her family’s.”
Rounding the table to hug her new-found relative, Susan could sense beneath the old woman’s frail shoulders, the toughness that had served her well all these years. Yet, as they clung to each other, Sasha started to cry. “I suppose everything has come full circle,” she murmured.
Wiping away her own tears, Susan shook her head. “Not quite. There’s just one more thing I’ve got to do to make things right, and I need you to be with me...”
Cameras flashed as Susan’s boss, the well-known actress-turned-clothing-guru, entered the room. Marching defiantly past Susan with her team of lawyers, she put on her most dazzling smile for the press. The steady flux of voices in the hearing room buzzed like a swarm of locusts as the gavel came down hard on the judge’s podium.
Seconds before Susan got up to testify about unfair, dangerous labor practices in her boss’ overseas factories, she gave her cousin’s hand a nervous squeeze, and even up on the mahogany stand, the blood draining from her tight face, she needed to look over at Sasha one more time for another infusion of courage.
The skin on the ninety-five-year-old was shriveled, her shoulders hunched over like the letter ‘C’, but just watching Susan begin her deposition, the seamstress sat bolt upright for the first time in many years.
Questions for S.R. Mallery from Julia's students
What was writing the middle of the story like? Did you ever find yourself at a loss for ways to develop your plot?
Usually, by the time I am writing the middle of my stories, I have already made some sort of general outline to help guide me so I have at least a vague idea the direction in which I want to go. However, little plot twists can come to me at various, unexpected times---the shower works well for me, doing the dishes, walking on the treadmill and watching a movie that may be about a completely different subject, yet sparks an idea for my characters in my story.
As for a loss of ways in developing my plot, if that does happen, I simply walk away and do something entirely different, to clear my brain—perhaps a physical activity, going outside to get some negative ions, you name it. Yet I do admit, devising plots is not usually my problem. I can watch an ant crawl across my bathroom floor and come up with a story about that (and actually did once). Just seems to happen for me. Working out the details and subplots comes later and that can take a lot more time and garner frustration!
How long does brainstorming a plot take you? Or do you just go with it as the story goes on?
I can’t really estimate the actual amount of time brainstorming a plot takes for me. It might flow nonstop, or it might filter into my mind in bits and pieces; it all depends on the subject matter and whatever state of mind I am in.
I have learned about myself that when an idea for a story triggers, I don’t necessarily know where it is going to end up, but that’s all right. I just allow myself to get lost in that particular historical event, either by reading material, or watching a documentary/YouTube and that morphs into primary plots, secondary plots, and an ending, which is very important for me. Whenever I come up with an ending, I inwardly go, “Ahhhhh! Now I can relax!”
What is your writing process like?
I have a slightly different writing process than a lot of writers. Probably because I was a professional quilt designer for over twenty years, my brain works well with little, fragmented pieces. For example, let’s say I already know what I am basically going to write about. I then dive into the researching of it, either by Internet, books, documentaries, YouTube, etc. I scribble little notes everywhere--page numbers and sources where I found various interesting facts, ambiance, plot ideas, characters, etc. and then store those little slips of paper in a big envelope. When I get to actually writing down a more detailed outline, I tape those little notes onto a spiral notepad with my outline, so I can remind myself of the details.
Iwill then type up my actual prose on the computer, double-spaced, go until my brain has stalled (I have learned to recognize that quite well now!), print it out, edit it with pencil and then retype that before continuing on with my story. Obviously, I personally need the tactile process of handling paper—either the holding of it, or the physical writing on it, as well as typing on a computer screen. All three elements are important to me.
Do you have personal ties to the Triangle Factory Fire?
Many years ago, my father told me about this fire and how important it was, not only to New Yorkers, but to the entire world as well. It was so shocking to see and hear about those poor girls falling to their death. Perhaps because I had made my living as a sewer as well as being an ex-New Yorker, this story drew me in. There is a little plaque on the outside of one of New York University’s buildings, commemorating the brave NYU law students who helped some of the girls escape. The first time I saw it, I burst into tears....
THANK YOU, Sarah, for answering our questions!!!
Now that you know about S.R. Mallery and her writing process, enjoy the book trailer for S.R. Mallery's novel Unexpected Gifts (see below).