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Tomorrow or Ashes

A few cars passed by on Front Street, a narrow twisting road between old buildings with little sign of life, inside or out. Few people lived in the upper stories of the dingy buildings of the commercial district where trading was done in the daytime and the goods locked away at night. The street was dark and gloomy. There was grit underfoot. The passing cars were passing through, going elsewhere. Occasionally a car slowed, but no one whistled or called out. They rarely did. Not for Millie. The incident in the alley had been freakish, like a sudden, violent squall in a clear blue sky. Most men knew better. No one lived here unless they had to. Hard cases like the daughter of alcoholic parents, Pa dead and Ma getting there, the daughter chained to her mother’s helplessness and ostracized from normal society by the tainted odor of honest work.

It had never been clearer to her than at noon a few days before when she had unwillingly gone uptown to eat with two of the girls, fish cutters like her. She had been happy to be working again after a long period of idleness and didn’t anticipate the consequences, or realize how quickly the smell of whiting had permeated her clothing and skin. She didn’t look well in her old dress, so had argued against the idea, but was practically pulled on the way by the laughing, husky girls, one of whom offered to pay for the meal, both of whom were tougher and thicker-skinned. As they approached the restaurant, a clean place with good food, Millie wondered if her decision to go was somehow part of her morbid, self-pitying idea to hang dead on the spike for people to witness and try to understand. The girls were doing it to tease, she thought, to defy and annoy the uptown businessmen. Millie wanted them to pity her, to see and smell the fate of the less fortunate.

The outing had been a terrible mistake. Inside the restaurant, the waitresses reacted with obvious disgust as the fish cutters walked toward an empty booth with Millie’s friends turning their heads side-to-side to out-stare the people staring at them. Though expected, the haughty attitude of the servers and patrons annoyed Millie who wanted to ask where they thought their damned fish came from, all fresh and clean and ready to eat. Did they ever stop to think about the people who couldn’t work without stinking and didn’t get paid if they didn’t work? Well, if they hadn’t, they would now.

That had been the extent of her defiance. Across from her in the booth, Millie’s friends had sat amid the overpowering smell like two lusty soldiers enjoying the discomfort of a tortured enemy, leaning against each other and giggling at the hushed complaints of the patrons to the waitresses. Millie had no appetite for it or her lunch. As each minute passed, she had felt smaller and more afraid, and sorry for her part in it. She wanted to get up and run out, but felt sick and was afraid she wouldn’t be able to walk. The customers were complaining to the manager, the cashier, each other, her friends had said with a great nudging of plump, bare elbows. One fanned the bodice of her dress, “spreadin’ the goodies around better”, she’d said with a hoarse giggle and loud burp. They had eaten like dogs, smacking their lips and licking their fingers, inhaling the food and noisily chewing it open-mouthed. The waitress slapped the check on the table as soon as the two plates were clean.

Millie had walked out between them, escaping meekly, showing her shame and regrets to all, wanting to run ahead crying, but terrified of stepping into the open alone. She had been ashamed, frightened, exposed, an unwitting accomplice to her friends’ contemptuous actions. She saw no sign of sympathy in the faces, only anger…blame for lost appetites, and a silent, glaring plea by the owner to leave and never come back. The eyes said: “This is a clean, respectable restaurant...You ought to know better than to come in here...How do you expect my good customers to eat with you stinking up the place?”

Millie’s big strong girl friends had laughed and congratulated each other on the walk back to the plant. Their indifference had dulled her pain. Still, it became part of her being.

She thought of it now as she paused before the old frame building where she lived with her mother and thought of the girls and women at the plant. Most between her age and forty were divorced, abandoned by, or separated from worthless husbands who’d left them dirty children to care for or neglect, and little choice but to invite more trouble with another man, some deadbeat willing to ignore the smell for decent sex and free room and board.

Millie pulled open the old door, walked in and quietly closed it. At the head of the long steep flight of stairs was a dim light. Halfway up, she stumbled on a broken board, went down on one knee and swore in a whisper, and again when she heard a burst of drunken laughter from above. She sat and rubbed her knee and felt for splinters, smelled her awful scent and the rank odor of the hall and was discouraged to hopelessness by the wino’s presence in the room. Unless she could do it behind her screen of sheeting pinned to a line across her corner…perched like a frightened bird at the head of her sagging cot…there would be no getting clean tonight with Burt there. She did need to eat though, if she could, even bread and peanut butter again, but she couldn’t go on and into the room, not yet. The ever-present stink of it had joined her on the stairway, a nauseous, sour aroma of fish, coal oil, trash, dirt, body odor, vomit, and urine.

Everything in the room smelled like it was rotting…Ma most of all. She had sunk fast, like an overloaded ship with a gaping hole sucking in gallons of seawater, happily drowning at her daughter’s expense. She was a complete wino, fat, toothless, broken, an old bag at thirty-six. Zombie-like, she shuffled, but never left the building. Her friends were only too glad to walk to the state liquor store on Marginal Street to purchase jugs of cheap wine and share them with her. Constantly bloated with wine, she cared nothing about eating. There was no reason to change her clothes or wash, and no hot water except from a pan on the black iron stove, and only when Millie filled the pan and lit the oil burner. Her mother was rarely conscious in the morning, but Millie occasionally persuaded her eat a small breakfast of coffee and toast. Then, in the awful room, she often forced herself to do the same and to somehow keep it down.

She touched and felt no blood on her badly skinned knee, another painful reminder of her misery. The sound again of Burt’s raucous laughter and Ma’s hoarse, cackling screech added to it. Millie stiffened and blamed herself for having nowhere to go. She swore she would find one as soon as she was paid.

She stood up and clung to the stair rail fastened to the wall to calm a sudden wave of dizziness before climbing the remaining stairs. She froze as Burt walked from the room into the hall and, without seeing her, staggered toward the filthy toilet at the end of the corridor. Millie shuddered at the sight of his soiled T-shirt and dungarees, uncut black hair, partly-bearded, red face, and tattooed, bare arms, more knotted than muscled. She tried not to think about where he was headed and the stained, yellowed toilet bowl left without flushing, full of his foamy, strong-smelling piss. Her flesh always crawled at the thought of sitting on the seat. She would hang on to the long chain attached to the leaky wooden tank and squat, straddling the bowl, looking up at the ceiling, pissing like a man and trying to convince herself she was still feminine. It was degrading, but better than picking up syph or the clap or ugly sores that would surely drive her straight off the wharf. She had seen them once when a high school friend lifted her dress and told her the sores were crabs. It sounded harmless enough, though uncomfortable, until she asked a boyfriend about it. He got his hand out from under her skirt in a hurry and the date ended early. She didn’t hear from him again.