“Serernella and O’Hare?” suggested Miss Serenella.
“Sounds like a song-and-dance team,” said Miss O’Hare.
“O’Hare and Serenella?”
“They sound like Democratic hopefuls.”
“Hopeful for what?”
“Oh . . . governor and lieutenant gov,” said Miss O’Hare. “Candidates, when I was young. Were you never interested in politics?”
“I always vote.”
“Nowadays they’d be Sanchez and Lu.”
Miss O’Hare opened her mouth, closed it, opened it again. “How about Miss Serenella and Miss O’Hare? No, that won’t fit. The Misses Serenella and O’Hare?”
“Still too long,” said Miss Serenella.
Forty years ago, when O’Hare and Serenella or Ryan and Reno were teaming up at the top of the ticket, Maria Serenella Constanza Rizzuti was entering the practice of dressmaking. She had completed her apprenticeship to the tailor on the other side of the city—a married man, whose eyes were as sad as his needle was supple—and she decided to turn her own living room into a studio. She did this by pushing the loveseat and the two chairs close together; and installing a sewing machine at right angles to the window; and mounting a triple mirror atop a platform in one corner; and unfolding a screen in another corner, so that customers could undress in privacy.
During those early years, works-in-progress shared the bedroom closet with Miss Serenella’s youthful shirtwaists and her mother’s crepe dresses, each with an assigned brooch already pinned to the bosom. But a month after Mrs. Rizzuti’s death, a clothes rack appeared in the dining area. The dining table gradually gave up its surface to heaps of jet and fibrous masses of netting and miniature satin lassos. Bolts of cloth replaced one another: sometimes dense green velvet, sometimes hairy tweed, and once a float of twilight wool from which the dressmaker fashioned a suit for the then governor’s then wife. The suit was sometimes mentioned in the city’s major newspaper; reporters helplessly called it purple.
When she opened the workshop, her mother sent her to the engraver for business cards.
“The wording?” asked the engraver.
“Miss Serenella,” she said promptly, without forethought.
He printed the letters on the order blank. “Telephone?” She recited the number. “Couturere?” he inquired. “Modiste?” When she didn’t respond he allowed himself liberties. “Accoutrements? Trousseaux?” She was still silent. “Duds?”
“Nothing,” she said.
“Nothing. Miss Serenella and the telephone number.”
He shrugged. “You’ll attract the wrong sort of clientele,” he warned.
But she had attracted the right sort from the beginning, and she had done it mainly by word of mouth: referrals first from the tailor and then from customer to customer. Four decades later she had not yet used up her cards.
The dining table, however, was now thoroughly overlaid. There were false feathers; there were hillocks of stretchable silver.
Miss O’Hare, on her first visit to Miss Serenella, kept stealing looks at the table. The building’s exterior had not prepared her for that bit of seraglio furniture. A quarter of an hour earlier she had prowled around the outside of the melancholy house. A double four-decker it was, late 1880s. On the sides and back, metal fire escapes zigzagged downwards through little landings where you could cool yourself on a summer night. A ladder was hooked under each second-floor landing.
Doomed, she’d said to herself, noting that the clapboard was peeling and that no one had shoveled the snow from the walk. What building wasn’t doomed, then? That very morning the arts section had reported that the Parthenon itself was shredding. As for people, if one thing didn’t get you, another would; that fact was her bread and butter.
She climbed the three sagging steps that led into the vestibule and saw Miss Serenella’s business card next to one of the doorbells. There were twenty-five bells—six flats to a floor, and a super in the basement. . . . The buzzer buzzed back.
Inside, railed corridors ran around each floor, projecting over a spacious nothing. Some of the rail posts were gone; Miss O’Hare figured they had shrunk and then dropped away. A wide staircase beckoned, slanting across the generous emptiness to the rear balcony of the second floor. She craned her neck. Another staircase rose from the front of the second floor to the back of the third, another from the third to the fourth.
She climbed. You could stage an opera here. Globes on the balustrades cast a meager light. G O’H, she drew on the dust of one globe. The wood everywhere had a reddish gleam. The apartment doors were newer, faced with dark metal. And here was the one she sought, twenty-three.
She was about to knock—she’d just finished her inspection of another of Miss Serenella’s business cards, tacked to the wall—when the door opened a crack. Then a few inches more. Half of a little woman made herself visible. Black, scraped-back hair; a face the color of damp sand.
“Miss Serenella,” said Miss O’Hare. Her voice had the lightest of lilts.
“Miss O’Hare,” said Miss Serenella, flatly. She had been born here. She opened the door all the way.
Miss O’Hare stepped inside. She put down her briefcase, took off her raincoat, and noted the reassuring jumble of the room. The barnacled dining table made her heart leap. A roll of something slubbed—raw silk?—occupied one end of it. The silk’s grays reminded Miss O’Hare of the walls of her own apartment, and of her carpet, and of most of her furniture. Her place was a model of neatness; her mind, however, was home to pushy ideas, all fighting like siblings to be recognized first.
Size eighteen, thought Miss Serenella. Bust forty-four. Hips forty-six. These bottom-heavy Celts. Sloping shoulders. Their breasts part company, as if nursing twins. Scrubbed face, a veil of veins. Hair dyed orange. Well, it had once been orange.
The table in front of the loveseat was an island of grace: empty except for a small wooden carving of a young woman half submerged in the trunk of a tree. Very fine, thought Miss O’Hare. On top of a low bookcase, along with candlesticks and slanted postcards and a black rotary telephone stood a cardboard holy family outlined in gilt. And she’s got a battalion of nieces and nephews; there they are framed in silver in that bedroom with its nun’s white bedspread. Miss O’Hare sighed, for she had emigrated alone, and her own nieces and nephews might as well have been rocks in the sea for all the comfort they gave.
“May I look at the material?” asked Miss Serenella.
Miss O’Hare slid an oblong of folded cloth from a paper bag.
Brisk as a laundress, Miss Serenella lifted the cloth and shook it out. The stuff was red, as she’d known it would be. What else for the guest of honor. A beloved guest of honor, she’d learned from the customer who made the referral. “Miss O’Hare is fierce about commas and transitions and neologisms and that which,” said the go-between, who had once worked for the newspaper. “And a second-best metaphor will never do, me girl. But, oh, she’s soft as a grape about everything else.”
“Must she retire?”
“That would be illegal. But she knows it’s only fair.”
The heavy fabric was embroidered with gold. Somebody had brought it as a present from the East, no doubt. Miss Serenella recognized her task: to make the big woman look aflame with pleasure and not on fire with rage. “ . . . vibrant,” Miss Serenella selected.
“I would like my dress to be long, with a jacket. A jacket that covers the hips, not a bolero. Boleros are for teenagers with no tits.”
Miss Serenella produced a little giggle. “I’ll draw what I think you want. Meanwhile—would you like a cup of tea?”
Like all who work with words, Miss O’Hare envied those who work with lines. Miss Serenella sat beside her on the love seat, sketching. A few pounds were discarded, but the drawing, as far as it went, predicted the probable outcome—a solid woman in a straight long dress with a discreet slit. Sleeves covered the upper arms to the elbows. The figure was missing its head, and the forearms were only suggested, and the hands had been lost. Miss Serenella’s pencil fluttered over the neckline.
“A decorous plunge,” suggested Miss O’Hare.
A shirred V appeared. Pearls in a triple strand came to rest halfway down the V. A jacket floated beside the headless figure like its executioner. The jacket’s shirring echoed the shirring of the neckline.
“Pocket?” said Miss O’Hare.
“Ruins the silhouette,” said Miss Serenella. Then she relented. “One very flat one coming in from the seam. For the handkerchief. You’re right-handed?”
“Yes. Thank you. Retirees are expected to cry.”
Miss Serenella drew a little arrow in the area of the pocket. She looked up. “I admire your obituaries.”
“Well, I hope you don’t know which ones are mine. We aim for a uniform style. But I’m glad you like the department’s work.”
“Such interesting people die.”
“That they do. We’ve got a world-class architect tomorrow,” Miss O’Hare smiled. “His life, when I looked at it, sprang open like a music box. Sober prairie parents; and then . . . But you must want my measurements.”
“Yes,” said Miss Serenella.
“They’re shameful. I hope you won’t wash your hands of me.”
Again the tiny giggle. “The tape measure is not a moralist.”
The first of the two fittings took place several weeks later, in the early evening. “I hope the time isn’t a nuisance for you,” said Miss O’Hare on the telephone. “But my hours at the newspaper . . .”
“I am accustomed to evening appointments,” said Miss Serenella. Though twenty years ago she had gone to bed early and gotten up with the city birds. She’d accomplished quantities of work by her noontime can of soup. Some afternoons she descended to the subway, and rose again fifteen minutes later for reconnaissance in the designer salons of department stores. The saleswomen recognized her black coat and her shoes, already misshapen though she was still in her forties. Bunions were the curse of artisans, a chiropodist had told her.
A few of the salon ladies became something like friends. Certain ones, if custom was slack, gladly showed her the latest arrivals. Together they would construct the biography of a garment since its appearance on a runway in Paris or Milan—the modifications, the compromises, the transformations from eyestopping to merely stylish. If the adaptations were successful, some exuberance remained. She took note of the size of the fabric-covered buttons, the material of the piping, the height of the shoulders, the undulations of the hem. Then, looking at her watch—an extravagance with two small diamonds that she’d allowed herself on her forty-fifth birthday—she said good-bye and went down into the subway and back to her workshop. Three or four times a year, though, she’d digress into a more moderate department and replenish her own stock of tweed skirts, always in an A shape to permit kneeling, and her drawerful of rayon blouses in shades of maroon, navy, and brown.
But nowadays she arose late—nine o’clock often found her blearily plugging in the coffee maker. The current salon salesladies regarded her with distrust. She relied on fashion magazines and patterns for instruction. They sufficed; customers who had aged along with her had grown unadventurous, and the young cared only for flamboyance. Afternoons were long. She was grateful to clients who came at the hour of darkness, when the building seemed to shift on its foundations, a door slamming here and a voice calling there and the boy on the top floor wheeling his bicycle past her apartment on his way from the first staircase to the second.
Miss O’Hare was half an hour late for the fitting. “Forgive me,” she said, plunking down the briefcase. “We had an editorial shouting match. We’re going to succumb to Ms.”
Miss O’Hare laughed. “Ms. the honorific. We will admit it into our august columns. The death department, though, is holding out. Would you want your headline to read Ms. Serenella dead at ninety-four?”
“That wouldn’t be true.”
“No . . . my name is Maria . . .”
“Oh! Mine’s Gwendolyn.”
“ . . . Rizzuti,” she finished firmly.
“ . . . oh. Miss Serenella is a corporate fiction, then?”
The little woman nodded. “Though my customers do call me by that name. So perhaps my notice should read Miss Serenella.” Contemplating her demise, she blushed like an old-fashioned bride trying on her husband’s name.
“But when you retire, you may want to resume . . .” Miss O’Hare interrupted herself, took off her raincoat, extracted a velvet pump from each pocket. “You will never retire,” she said in a low voice.
“Well, I have no plans.”
Of course not, thought Miss O’Hare. If Miss Serenella retired she would die, would predecease her building, would be carried down that relic of a staircase while neighbors peered from their doorways. “Her work is her only character; it is her only life,” their go-between had remarked. Miss O’Hare saw further: saw the wooden carving on the coffee table and the congregation of silvered photographs in the bedroom; heard the occasional hiccup of laughter. Still, Miss Serenella would never put her needle down. Like an ancient lacemaker of Bruges, Miss O’Hare felt herself composing; like an ancient lacemaker of Bruges, Miss Serenella worked until her fingers stiffened. . . . Miss O’Hare folded the raincoat and placed it on top of the briefcase. “How’s the dress?”
The dress, still only basted, was a little tight on the upper arms, and about an inch too long for the low-heeled pumps. It was nevertheless a triumph-in-progress. Miss Serenella foresaw her customer at the party: a flourishing woman who had lived seven productive decades; who could rummage in a drawer of words and find the one that suited; who could look death in the eye every day.
“My damned bum . . .”
“I’m going to raise the waist, everything will be looser,” said the dressmaker from the floor. “Would you like a glass of sherry?”
“That I would.”
Miss O’Hare took off the basted dress and put on her strict suit. Miss Serenella removed the pincushion strapped to her left wrist. The watch remained on her right one. They sat on the love seat in front of the wooden nymph. Miss Serenella poured.
“A work of art, that,” said Miss O’Hare, her hand hovering over the nymph.
“It was a gift from my employer. He was a tailor.”
“But he did carvings too.”
“Of flowers. Only the one girl. Did anyone interesting die today?”
Miss O’Hare withdrew her hand. “We’ve got an old mezzo, not famous enough for the music department to grab, though no baseball player is ever too broken down for our sports editor. Wonderful voice; wonderful discipline.” She shook her head in admiration. “A scandalous romantic life was just a publicist’s fantasy. I’ve got her seventy-eights, but what can I play them on? And this morning, a London banker jumped out of a window in Paris.”
“Once a bride who met with an accident was buried in her wedding dress—well, it would have been her wedding dress.”
“How tragic. You’d made the gown?”
Miss Serenella nodded. “I had to cut two panels out of the skirt so it would fit into the coffin. Another glass?”
“Oh, I have so much work,” Miss O’Hare said to her briefcase. “Please,” she said to Miss Serenella.
The final fitting was on a Thursday in March. Miss O’Hare turned the corner just as the streetlights went on. A philanthropist had died in his sleep, so old his children were already dead. A geneticist had succumbed to cancer, middle-aged, full of honors and cash; three wrecked marriages were part of his legacy. An actress had stuffed herself with pills. There was still snow on the curb and on the strip of land between the side of the building and the brick structure next door. Lamps glowed in some apartments but not in others. A rug hung out of a third-floor window. Several large packages of newspapers rested on the stoop; the recycler had failed to arrive.
She rang the bell but did not wait for the answering buzz; she had discovered last time that the door between vestibule and interior was not locked. She pushed her way in and stood at the foot of the first stairway. The workmanship of each post was enough to make you cry. Those were the days. She climbed, slowly. A boy carrying a bike overtook her with a polite “Excuse me.”
She knocked. The door opened.
Briefcase down, raincoat off, velvet pumps produced. The workroom was bright but the dining area was unlit. The dress stood in the shadows like a waiting performer. The gold on its fabric glinted.
Miss Serenella glided towards it and grasped the hanger, holding its throat above her head. She moved back into the workroom and then behind the screen. The hanger’s hook appeared over the screen like Punch. Miss Serenella came out and clasped her hands at her waist, bringing the watch close to the pincushion.
Miss O’Hare lurched into the makeshift dressing room.
She emerged five minutes later. She had worn her pearls under her suit; now they were revealed. The red dress was the right length. She had not yet put on the jacket, and both women were pleased to note, though not to mention, that the slight raising of the waist made further concealment of the hips not absolutely necessary.
I am the queen of a prosperous nation, thought Miss O’Hare. Today I rule. My square face has become regal. My shoulders are no longer uncertain. Would life have been different if I had dared to adorn myself, to adore myself? Would Mickey not have walked out, leaving only his damned medal to remember him by? Oh, Lord, beauty, what a thing to want, but prettiness, maybe I could have been pretty, a little bit pretty, once-in-a-blue-moon pretty.
Her right hand found the pocket. “ . . . no handkerchief.”
A tissue was pressed into her hand.
“Dear Miss Serenella,” said Miss O’Hare after a moment. “You have made me into a vision.” Even the reddened nose didn’t disfigure her. “Did you ever practice your magic on yourself?”
“Please try on the jacket,” said Miss Serenella, and she fetched it from behind the screen. “I tended to overdo things in my own wardrobe,” she confessed.
“I went to extremes. Too early for Scotch?”
“Never,” admitted Miss O’Hare, putting on the jacket. “Ah, it’s so . . . What’s that I smell?”
Miss Serenella sniffed. “The coffee maker . . .” She went into the kitchen but no appliance burned. She returned to the workroom.
Miss O’Hare was still sniffing. “Don’t you feel warm?”
They rushed to the door. Miss O’Hare put her hand on it. “Hot.”
Miss Serenella opened the door an inch. The enormous square stairwell was filling with smoke.
A red arm shot out over her head and forced the door closed.
“So quickly,” gasped Miss Serenella.
“They happen that way,” said Miss O’Hare. “The fire escape?”
Miss O’Hare lifted the telephone and dialed Emergency. Miss Serenella raced into the bedroom carrying Miss O’Hare’s briefcase and raincoat.
“What’s the name of the side street?” shouted Miss O’Hare.
“Jefferson,” came the thin voice.
“Jefferson,” said Miss O’Hare to Emergency. She hung up and went into the dining room and grabbed an armful of clothing—pins stabbed her arm, even through the jacket—and ran into the bedroom and dumped them onto the bed. The bed was missing its bedspread. On the landing of the fire escape she saw her own briefcase next to a dead plant. Her raincoat was folded on the briefcase. Miss Serenella, leaning over the railing, was launching the bedspread. Miss O’ Hare poked her head out of the open window and watched the bedspread drift towards the strip of gray snow. Once there it resembled a raft on a frozen river. Miss O’Hare thrust the first group of dresses into Miss Serenella’s arms. Then she went back for a second and then for a final batch.
Miss Serenella let her work float downwards. Each garment landed on the bedspread, though some fell at odd angles. The knees on a pair of pants bent towards the waist as if in pain. A coat flung its arm across the hip of a skirt.
Miss O’Hare climbed through the window onto the fire escape. She handed Miss Serenella a paper bag apparently filled with wadded dishtowels. “The carving.” She hurled the raincoat, which missed the bedspread. Flashing lights from the fire truck seemed to melt the gold on her dress. Miss Serenella dropped Miss O’Hare’s briefcase onto the snow. Then she dropped the paper bag.
“Our turn,” said Miss O’Hare. She knelt on the fire escape and unhooked the ladder from its lifeboat perch underneath. It swung forward into a vertical position, its last rung some ten feet from the ground. Miss O’Hare unlatched a little gate and turned to face Miss Serenella. “This fire won’t get us,” she promised.
“We’re saved for another.”
“Who lives upstairs?” Miss O’Hare thought to ask.
“A couple who work all day. They haven’t come home yet.”
“And above them?”
“A Chinese family, the oldest boy has a bicycle.”
“Oh, dear, he’s home.”
“No, they all got out. I saw them on the sidewalk down there when I was dropping Mrs. Goldstein’s jumpsuit.”
“I’d be better off in a jumpsuit,” muttered Miss O’Hare. She took off her pumps. “I’d be better off if I got my boots.”
But the apartment behind them was already smoky. In stocking feet Miss O’Hare climbed backwards onto the ladder and descended until she reached the last cold rung; then, willing her strong arms to be equal to her strong bottom she lowered herself further, hand below hand, until she hung from the bottom bar like an outsized gymnast. Then she let go. She landed, swayed, fell to hands and knees—there was a ripping sound from the area of the shoulder blades—and got up again.
Miss Serenella was climbing down the ladder, her laced shoes feeling for each rung. But her step was not as sure as Miss O’Hare’s, and when her feet were still one rung short of the last, she skidded; and she hung there, out of reach. Her chignon came loose. A skimpy rope of hair uncoiled down her back.
“Work down . . . hands,” yelled Miss O’Hare.
Miss Serenella slid the pincushion hand sideways and then down the side of the ladder, stopping to clutch it every few inches, until the hand grasped the lower rung. She repeated the process with the wristwatch hand. Finally her little doll’s body depended from the last rung. Her legs under the tweed skirt parted and closed, parted and closed, like a pair of scissors.
“Feet together,” shouted Miss O’Hare. “Drop now.” She flung her head backwards and kept her eyes on her dressmaker.
Miss Serenella dropped onto Miss O’Hare. The shoes scraped past the big bust, savaging the bodice of the dress. Miss O’Hare’s arms in the ruined jacket grabbed Miss Serenella around her thin chest, breaking her fall. Miss Serenella, her feet convulsively working again, involuntarily kicked Miss O’Hare’s shins. Miss O’Hare released her. Miss Serenella, now standing, turned to face Miss O’Hare.
The exhausted red dress parted company with itself. It ripped vertically until it became a kind of robe. A lace slip was revealed, a gift from the Dublin nieces. An approaching fireman modestly paused. He noted, though, that something brass was pinned to the slip—a war medal, he would have sworn.
Miss O’Hare looked down at her disgraced garment. Then she looked at Miss Serenella.
“Can you put me together again?”
“That I can,” said Miss Serenella.
A month later—after the retirement party, which was a blast, and after the day that two of Miss Serenella’s grandnephews managed to cram the paraphernalia of her trade into Miss O’Hare’s den—they were still undecided about the doorbell’s new nameplate.
One evening they sat across from each other at the hearth, discussing the matter with the obsessive patience of artists, even those who don’t sign their works. Miss O’Hare had a book face down on her lap. Miss Serenella had a very short organdy bridesmaid’s dress on her lap. Salmon-pink. She was handfinishing its hem. An identical garment waited on a footstool.
“What a color,” marveled Miss O’Hare.
Miss Serenella nodded. “Noticeable.”
“Anyone who saw one of those dresses would think we were running a kiddy burlesque. She twirls! She strips! Oh, Serenella Hare!”
Miss Serenella snipped the thread and poked the needle into her pincushion. She took a pad from her pocket and wrote on it and passed it across the space that separated them.
“Maria and Gwendolyn,” it read, in calligraphic script.
Miss O’Hare appreciated the brevity. She envied the penmanship. She admired the boldness of announcing an attachment to the entire world, or at least to that portion of it who might ring their bell. She regretted the loss of liberty that two linked first names implied. But what you got always edged out something else you wanted—her calling had taught her that, if it had taught her nothing else.
She looked up. “Ms. Rizzuti. You’re a perfection.”
The seamstress shook her head. “Perfectionist, if you must.”
“I must. Nightcap?” She didn’t wait for an answer, was already up and pouring.