Both men plodded down the hallway, ignoring the clean linen they knocked off service carts. They found her in a freshly bleached room, just before the barricaded emergency exit. She was working coins from the bedside table into her apron.
Perdita thought these men could’ve been pulled off a bulletin. One of those blood-colored leaflets that more and more littered the streets outside the Teatre Principal and forced themselves around your ankles as you walked. They looked like wartime propaganda and behaved in line.
They simply said her name and waited. This meant what, exactly? That these men were familiar with her habits and movements? All the bland intricacies of her life? In this land, the expectation was that these men knew everything. That they were dreary and shadowed and serious for particular reasons you’d never fully know and were forever shielded from — as if it were a small mercy.
“English?” Only one made eye contact with her. The other leaned against the armoire.
She remained silent, but he exhaled sharply anyway. “Pleasant surprise. Most don’t bother, you know. Stay old world, let their kids learn and translate.”
The velvet box they handed her contained lambskin gloves. Perdita couldn’t bring herself to touch them. Go on, they motioned. She didn’t trust their permission. The soft insides were mink, dark like soot, and Perdita knew then they had been watching her for longer than she would’ve guessed. The pale faces she’d seen smeared across the storefront glass belonged to these men. Indistinct faces that lasted just for a moment before her vision pushed through the display window to the mannequin beyond.
“Same mink as the full-length,” the man said, running a finger along the silk band inside his hat. “New York isn’t much like Catalonia come winter. But you know that, of course. Otherwise you wouldn’t be admiring the same winter fur every day.”
If her silence was meant as an act of defiance, these men, these professionally tired men, did not let on. They seemed happy to float through the meager quiet afforded them. She hovered her veined hand above the gloves, approximating a fit, even though she already knew they would mold onto her, as if expectantly. This gift was not simply an item wrestled away from some starlet up on the movie screen and handed over to her. The gloves were a down payment.
In exchange, they wanted La Antorcha. They repeated it again and again.
Why, Perdita wondered then, why not use her birth name, as they did for her? Or simply, the woman staying in Room 119? They were prodding her knowledge and allegiances, she figured, making her aware of her own foreignness.
“I’m not familiar,” Perdita lied.
“It’s, how-you-say, a nom de guerre.”
“That’s French, Sam,” his partner said. He hovered by the window, surveying the city like a bored deity. “What do you make here at the Eleanore Hotel? Thirty?”
“And you live in Riverside Park?” Perdita didn’t react to the insult. The man knew better, but he opened up the blinds anyway and motioned down towards the distant squalor. Showed off the filth like a waiting gallows.
“I spent four days in the shanties when I first arrived. Only four days. I couldn’t find my uncle at first. The city is—”
“So where do you live now?”
“Calle Catorce,” Perdita replied.
He nodded. “Of course, Little Spain.”
It was a one-block barrio holding the imported imperfections — sounds, smells, flesh — of a past that otherwise felt like a forgotten story to Perdita. The agent scratched his chin, pretending he didn’t already know every whispered rumor that escaped the neighborhood. Everyone knew runners existed, Spanish natives just like Perdita, who kept these sort of men fat on a diet of information — subversives and scammers, threats to the American mind and soul. Whether they became informants because of newfound patriotism or money didn’t matter. Everyone in Calle Catorce knew who was who. It was tolerable poison. An escape route for those willing to bend on pride. Perdita cursed these runners, just like everyone else publicly. But what could one truly do? No one ever left Spain to live forever in a rotten one-block replica an ocean away.
“Lot of fur coats down in Little Spain?”
Everyone attempted a thin, polite smile.
She wore the gloves days later, when she found both men in the penny restaurant dressed like ragged twins. They rubbed hands over their unshaven faces and poked at their salted potatoes with an intense hopelessness, as if they belonged. They were visibly appalled by how straight and upright she held herself.
Those in queue completed the same bitter arc over Perdita’s body — coronet hat to starched apron to gloves. She did not dress down for their undercover rendezvous. Her appearance was a liability, even in simple work attire, sending a perverse jolt of energy throughout this slop house. She left before she could be motioned outside.
What she brought wasn’t good enough. Book titles on the bed stand, a summary of La Antorcha’s washroom items, the times she took her meals. The men said so themselves, again and again. What were they supposed to do with any of this information?”
“Why would you wear this here?”
“It’s my uniform,” Perdita said.
“These people will gladly chop off your hands, just to pawn those gloves.”
She looked at both of them standing there in the alleyway. She was having trouble telling them apart.
“What do you want exactly?” Her tone surprised her. The insults were tiring, yes, but some part of her also knew they were trapped; those moth-eaten coats crusted with pea soup, their poverty play-acting had become a strange reality. Not a soul on the street would stand by if she raised her voice or launched an accusation or smashed her mink-wrapped hand across their dirty faces.
“We need to know from who she’s recruiting funding. That means her contact list. Little Spain must be buzzing, no?”
“I’m not a red,” Perdita said truthfully.
“Not my pay grade to guess what you were back home. You’ve arrived here from a land of chaos. My job isn’t to order chaos. It’s to prevent it. That’s a simpler job than you’d figure.”
She knew there was a war. She hadn’t forgotten and did not want to be reminded. In her own home city, she knew a dozen different factions were right now promising a dozen foggy paradises, waving manifestos and booklets that were more plentifully had than bread and bullets. Coming here, she left behind those wriggles of violent thought eating away at every starving Spaniard. Left behind the children who were being enlisted to whichever side promised ten pesetas a day and wine. Fascists, communists, anarchists, monarchists — those words no longer meant anything to her. That was supposed to be the joy of moving here. America existed as her own finest vision, reflecting back the private dreams you wished at her. Worry about yourself. A beautiful mantra. A simple mantra. A freeing mantra. They were the first words spoken to her in this country by an immigration official. Perdita had asked where a small quarantine boat containing coughing and infected children was being sent.
That night, La Antorcha listened to her recount this conversation, as if she were her mother.
“War isn’t what these men are preventing,” she shared in their native tongue. She was a frail woman who used the shadows of her hotel room like a winter shawl. “That isn’t the chaos that threatens them”
Perdita stood before the woman, already bundled for her walk home, pacing small circles like a nervous child. She had failed in her task almost immediately. Yesterday morning, she’d been caught with her bare hands buried in the woman’s luggage. Perdita had begged for her job. La Antorcha spoke to her in Spanish. Sigue, sigue, nina, brushing away Perdita’s hair from her eyes. The old woman closed the door behind her and opened the trunk and lifted her clothes, the way one carelessly fluffs a pillow, and waited for Perdita’s face to stop twitching in shame. Perdita unraveled, confessing without pressure and muttering God’s name.
“Do they know about your brother?” La Antorcha asked.
“How could they know about one boy so far away?”
“Is he fighting with the P.O.U.M.?”
Perdita didn’t know. “He was in Tarragona. I have not written him.”
The woman glanced at Perdita’s kneading hands, which were damp in their cocoon of mink. “Is that because you are not a communist or because it seems very far away from here?”
La Antorcha used words as a prodding stick between the ribs.
“What is the use of writing to a dead child?” Perdita asked coldly.
“Your brother is not dead, as far as you know.”
“Then he’s impossible to locate. Somewhere in a trench with other identical foolish children.”
“Is that how you view the revolution?”
“I miss the correfocs, the sardana,” Perdita said instead. “Will they come back after the fascists are purged? Have you promised that in your pamphlets?”
“So you do know who I am.” The woman exhibited less pride in this notoriety than Perdita would’ve guessed.
“How could I not know La Antorcha?” The old woman finally smiled. “Your words swept through my own home. Revolution, revolution…”
“You like it here, I see,” La Antorcha said after a long silence, gazing down onto the same streets the agents sneered at last week.
“All I see is an animal kingdom.”
“A food chain just like the jungle. A great undignified many struggling inside the jaws of the privileged few.”
Un pecado capitale, Perdita thought, to live eighty years and be so ignorant.
Perdita held her anger as the woman moved about the room, stacking empty bowls. Soup was the only thing she could hold down. She was too old to understand this land. Perdita almost pitied her. Every conviction she’d die for was meaningless here, in this country that signified the future of the world. For one, struggle tied itself to hope here. Everyone suffered and scraped for dreams far bigger than La Antorcha sold back in Spain. She was wrong about the privileged few. In America, the rich did not smash those below them like Franco and Mussolini. They existed as guides, as examples of righteous living, not so different, Perdita thought, than the heavenly saints adorning the cathedral stained glass back home. That was the promise in America. Even the filthy and low-down in hoovervilles knew that their time would come. They would dine in evening wear soon enough. Why settle for the promise of bread and rags, Perdita wondered, when this country offered meat and mink?
The next evening, the fat English-born hotel manager informed Perdita of her promotion. He stood in the lobby, smiling in a way that he didn’t smile at guests. He cradled her gloved hand after putting the keys to the top-floor suites in her palm. There’d been a firing, he said, swatting away a jealous cleaner, a sputtering Cuban woman who rattled on about broken promises. Others gathered around silently, hunched and grim women who never bothered to learn Perdita’s name. She enjoyed the sudden eyes on her. Top-floor opportunities were rare; guests who could afford suites were rarely filthy and left behind better tips.
“Our priority is maintaining our dignified appearance,” the manager said, looking past Perdita’s swing-coat with the cheap clap-on fur collar, directly into her eyes. He rubbed his thumb along the backside of her hand.
Now upstairs, Perdita was not around to see the hotel manager unlock La Antorcha’s room for the two weary men who made a terrible mess for a new girl to clean up. Nor was she around to find a salesman from Detroit occupying the room by that evening. Only in the lobby reservation book, days later, did Perdita notice that the false name used by La Antorcha was crossed out.
While her daily walks past the shop window continued, Perdita no longer stood like a child in front of the display glass, praying silently for herself. She was no longer envious of the milk-eyed mannequin inside. They were compatriots suddenly. Two women of a certain shared elegance, both simply waiting.
When the men found her admiring the mink, still wearing her gloves despite the warming weather, she told them to scram. Never in public again, and not without the coat she was promised. They laughed, as if it were a joke.
A salesman clambered outside to ask if she needed assistance. No, she told him. Of course, he said, of course. He smiled and eyed the men distrustfully and called her missus.
These agents appeared unkempt and identical to her. They kept asking: did she know where La Antorcha was?
“Why would I know?” Perdita asked, accepting their phone number, just in case. “Do I look like someone who would associate with subversives?”
Spring passed before Perdita saw her again. She sat alone behind the streaked glass of a lunch counter, slowly working soup-soaked bread towards her molars with her fingers. Inside, men stood in a serpentine queue, pennies clutched in their fists, and Perdita absorbed their gazes as a plant does sunlight.
“Child,” La Antorcha said in their native tongue, as Perdita sat beside her. The old woman’s cheeks had hollowed into deep recesses.
Perdita spoke to her in English.
“Where? Oh, the medical clinic,” La Antorcha started in English before giving up. “My stomach is broken.”
Perdita removed a dollar from her purse and slid it across the table. The old woman didn’t look up; she kept mopping up soup and pushing bread towards her remaining good teeth with an intense concentration.
“I have been isolated here.”
“Impossible,” Perdita laughed, despite understanding perfectly. “In a city this big, it is impossible to even breathe alone.”
“My hosts have closed their doors. They’ve received threatening visits. Of course, they feel fascists and secret police are problems best left in the old country.”
Perdita found it improbable that a single soul in Calle Catorce wouldn’t open the door for this woman. She asked, “And your money?”
La Antorcha shook her head. “Along with my luggage and clothes and passport. Perhaps your agents still have them?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Perdita said. “Do you currently have anything?”
“The promise of money.”
“Only when I return to Spain.” Both women stared through the dirty window at the outside foot traffic. “I’ve been promised support on the condition that I leave. A wire transfer in the middle of the night. Some tobacco sent to Tarragona as an anonymous humanitarian donation. Not a cent more than necessary to save their conscience. ”
“Tarragona?” Perdita asked.
She hummed. “I am bitter, yes, but I have succeeded in my purpose here. Think of your brother, child.” Her skeletal hand wrapped around Perdita’s gloved wrist. “I must return home. What will clean clothes and a new rifle mean to your brother?”
Perdita left La Antorcha in her apartment. With barely the energy to stand upright, the old woman had clung onto Perdita’s arm on the subway. She begged in the most awful way — the sullen and reserved pleading of a person already inside a noose. She did not want to die here, of course. Her pleas came in the same dramatic slogans that once transformed this woman from a destitute peasant into La Antorcha. Would Perdita shun her now as so many former comrades had recently in America? Shouldn’t she be entitled to die in the soil of a new society she helped birth? Would Perdita’s young brother help carry her modest casket? On and on and on until she muttered in her sleep. Perdita left her curled in her bed.
That night, the phone rang and rang, and the operator became frazzled by Perdita’s insistent tone.
Perdita stared at a silver tray holding the picked-clean bones of a chicken. Grease stains marked the bed sheets. She pushed herself against the cold window. There was nothing to make out below on the dark streets. A strange silence. Purgatorio, this word from childhood catechism emerged from nothing and she pushed it away, pacing circles beneath the chandelier.
Like all purgatories, her brother was enduring his alone. A rotten moonlit trench. Perhaps that eternal nowhere awaiting His grace. Escape — how does one escape any holding cell? Questions spidered into a thousand avenues that Perdita pursued to blunt dead ends. She cursed the old woman.
Heavy breathing began in her ear. Perdita spoke without interruption.
When she arrived home, the small apartment she shared with her uncle was empty. The dollar she had given La Antorcha earlier had been left on the kitchen table. The rucksack of money was left by her bed. There was no note, no message, no ‘thank you, good citizen.’ Not that it mattered. The bag’s weight on her lap flushed every tormenting thought from her head. She cried, but where was the overwhelming force behind her outburst? She didn’t know. Only a month ago, she wanted nothing more than a mink coat. Provincial, foolish girl.
The next time the salesman limped outside to greet Perdita, he asked about the parked automobile against the curb.
“A Zephyr?” he answered for himself. “A beauty. Real class — let me tell you, ma’am, beats any darn car coming out of Europe these days.”
Perdita nodded in agreement. “From the lot just this morning.”
Once inside, she pointed towards the blank mannequin. Women on the sidewalk watched the salesman struggle to climb into the display and remove the mink. They cupped their hands and peered through the glass and found Perdita watching back. She waved a gloved hand at them.
“Would you like to try it on?” the salesman asked, still breathless.
He began diligently thumbing through the bills she laid down on the countertop, chattering absently on about northern minks and good husbands until his widening smile pulled the rest of his face into scrunched confusion. He licked a finger and rubbed it along a bill, then lifted it and held it towards the sunlit window.
“What bank gave you these bills, ma’am?”
“I’m sorry?” Peridta asked.
He held a second bill to the light and snorted. “No big issue, but let’s just phone your bank right away.”
“The issue is that you got passed off some counterfeits.”
“Which bill is fake?”
The salesman chuckled, wiped his mouth, gave Perdita a reassuring pat on the wrist. “You’re bank’s got rightful hell coming their way because it seems like all of them.”
He placed a phone on the countertop between them. He was still smiling pleasantly, although most of his face was erased by the sunlight pouring through the windows. In fact, Perdita was suddenly aware of how shiny and sharp everything was in the store. She squinted towards the exit door, made a soft motion towards where it should have been, but found the door frame melted away into the midday glare.
She removed her gloves to dial. It rang — a shrill monotone that didn’t give way to labored breathing this time. She stood there staring at nothing. She protested as the receiver was finally wrested from her hand. This ringing wouldn’t stop, she knew, and unable to find an exit, she backpedaled away from the groping salesman into the mannequin’s yawning silhouette.
Chris Marchesano is an investigative attorney for an agency which combats organized crime in the ports of New York and New Jersey. He has been previously published in October Hill Magazine and Adelaide Literary Magazine.