Helen Forbes

The Hunky Woman

Published: The Masses, May, 1916.
Transcribed: Sally Ryan for marxists.org in 2000.

The kitchen clock struck five. Down in the cement-floored laundry the tired washerwoman straightened her bent shoulders while she counted the slow strokes, then she went on with her work of sprinkling the freshly dried linen. When the last damp roll was placed in the clothes-basket she covered the whole with a wide Turkish towel, shoved it under the table and went upstairs.

Mrs. Atwood was waiting to give her the day's wages; this perfect housekeeper made it her duty to pay personally every worker she employed, using that point of contact as an opening wedge to an intimate knowledge of their conditions and needs.

"You'll be here early tomorrow for the ironing, won't you, Annie!" She spoke in a tone that invited confidence.

"Yes." And the stubby fingers snatched the money from Mrs. Atwood's outstretched hand.

The woman did not lift her eyes high enough to see the smile, her ears did not catch the friendly tone, and she turned away with a movement that seemed sullenly abrupt. She threw her shawl over her shoulders, twitched it close at her throat, and without a word of farewell opened the back door and went out into the foggy night.

Mrs. Atwood stood at the window and watched the squat ugly figure as it stumped down the narrow path to the alley. There was something stolid, something typical of the woman's race in the very way her dingy skirt drabbled over the rain-soaked grass.

This creature baffled all Mrs. Atwood's attempts at establishing a bond of sympathy. Many a Bridget and Maggie had profited by their mistress's advice and by the very tangible assistance that never failed to accompany it. But Annie Szorza, this woman from Central Europe, was beyond anything in Mrs. Atwood's previous experience. It seemed impossible to touch the inner consciousness of this stolid lump, this self-regulating machine that arrived at the kitchen door promptly on Monday and Tuesday mornings, coming from no known place and working all day long without complaint, without any sign of enjoyment.

Peasant-fashion, Annie Szorza walked home from her work. The lighted cars dashed by as she plodded along the wet pavement, yet it did not occur to her that she might stop one of them and ride. Shaking with the chill of the penetrating fog and drizzle, she shuffled through the mud and wet, her eyes fixed on the ground, just as a tired horse hangs his head as he draws the empty wagon back to the barns at the end of the day.

Her home was the upper floor of a two-storied shack that occupied a corner of a great tract of waste land lying on the main thoroughfare between the business section of the city and the fashionable residences. Behind the unpainted shanty the hill rose steeply, as barren as a hillside in Thibet; in front of it, but partly hidden beneath the bluff, ran the river. And crowning the desolation, the house was propped on either side by gigantic billboards, hideous, with glaring advertisements. Yet the shanty owed its existence to these monstrosities; without their help it would have tumbled into ruins, it was so old and ramshackle.

When Annie reached the house she stopped downstairs at Mrs. Tapolsky's to get her children. The babies were glad to see her, but she did not lean over to kiss them; she was too tired. Carrying the smaller child and pushing little Annie ahead of her she stumbled up the unlighted stairs to her own tenement.

Then the last section of her day began. She put the baby in the center of the great bed that filled half the room and proceeded to get supper. Experience had taught little Annie what to do. She seated herself on a box under the table where she was out of the way of her mother's blundering haste, and found consolation in her thumb.

At last everything was ready.

It was the baby's turn first. From his post on the bed he watched the warm milk being poured into his cup and set up an cager howl. He was hungry.

A sharp rap sounded on the door and the knob rattled. Annie put the milk back on the stove and hurried to see who was outside.

Pressing her back with the opening door, a policeman pushed his way into the room.

"You're here, are you," and the man strode heavily across the room and flung open the cupboard door. "Where's your man?"

At all times English speech came slowly to Annie and now she could not frame an articulate reply. The muttered syllables might have been Ancient Egyptian for all the policeman understood.

"Where's your man! Answer!"

"My man he ain't here. I dunno."

"Well, I got you anyway. Put on your bonnet and come along."

"What you want!" asked Annie. Then she acted, "I don't work no more to-night."

The man burst into a roar. "She thinks I've got her a job!"

"What you want?" she repeated anxiously.

"You can guess all right. Your carryings-on with your old man has been found out. His brother-in-law's come over from the old country and caught him, see? Next time you'd better make yourself safe with a real husband."

The woman caught the meaning of the words. "He is my husband!" she cried indignantly. "The priest--"

"That'll do! Come along!" and he seized her by the arm.

Annie tried to pull herself loose. "My babies! I ain't fed my babies yet. By and by I go."

The man's voice changed to a roar. "When I say come I mean it! I can't be waiting here all night. You'll have to leave the kids."

Although the baby had been screaming all this time, little Annie had kept quiet, watching with frightened eyes. She knew that crying would do her no good; she could have nothing to eat until her brother had his milk. But when she saw her mother pushed toward the stairs she realized there was no immediate prospect of supper for either of them and she burst into a yell that drowned the baby's cry.

"Oh, my babies, my babies!" sobbed the mother over and over again. "My babies ain't had nothing to eat!"

As the patrol-wagon jolted over the cobbles she entreated incessantly, "I go back one little minute, please! Just one little minute!"

It was not until she reached the station-house that she accepted the inevitable, but all night long she sat on the edge of her cot swaying back and forth in her misery. "Oh, my babies, my babies!"

Her husband was routed out from some hiding place and after a few days the case came up for trial. The indignant brother-in-law proved that Szorza had left a wife and family in Europe, but since Annie was not responsible in any way she was dismissed with kindly warnings and advice.

But Annie was absorbed in the hope of seeing the children. Once or twice she had tried to tell the matron of her trouble, but she began so stupidly and used such broken English that she failed to make herself understood.

"Of course you left your babies. You'd not be bringing them to jail would you?"

After that Annie could do nothing but wait. Probably Mrs. Tapolsky was taking care of them; she would come up to see why they were crying so long. But Mrs. Tapolsky was an old woman and it tired her to be with the children even a few hours. What had she done with them?

In that city of coal-dust and fog, night often prolongs itself far into the morning hours and at eleven o'clock Annie walked home beneath lighted streetlamps. With the accumulated energy of her days in prison, she pushed forward in a straight line, men and women standing aside as she pushed on, regardless of the rules of the road. Teamsters drew in their horses directly over her head, boys with heavy pushcarts dug their heels between the cobbles and threw their weight backwards until they resembled acrobats, automobiles swerved and she escaped by a hair's breadth.

Panting, she stopped outside Mrs. Tapolsky's door to listen and catch her breath; then she rushed into the room without knocking.

Mrs. Tapolsky rose, pressing her hand to her heart, while her spool and scissors clattered to the floor. "What do you mean, scaring me so? Where have you been, you wicked woman?"

"My babies! Where are they?"

"Eh! What do you care? You do not deserve to know. They are not here."

"Upstairs then." And she was trampling overhead before Mrs. Tapolsky guessed what she meant.

The upper floor was as empty as the room below. Back she came to Mrs. Tapolsky. "Where are they?" Her round dark eyes looked out of a face green with weariness and fear and anxiety.

"Why did you leave them?" And not until Annie's story was done would the stolid old woman tell a word of what had happened. She began at last, speaking slowly and severely, as though she still held Annie responsible for what had happened.

Mrs. Tapolsky had gone around the corner to buy her supper when the patrol-wagon came and the street had calmed down before she returned, and though she heard the children crying, she was too busy to care to learn what was the matter with them. At supper her husband complained of the noise, but she reminded him of how often their own babies had cried themselves to sleep. By and by the house was still.

In the middle of the night she was awakened by the children's screaming; it seemed strange that she did not hear the thud of their mother's feet. As she sat up in bed, leaning on her elbow to listen and wonder, the boy stopped crying. He broke short off, with a curious sob. And little Annie's cry became fainter and fainter until she too was quiet again.

Early next morning Mrs. Tapolsky went upstairs; she felt sure that Annie was ill and in need of help. Finding the door unlocked, she entered.

Little Annie was lying on the floor, and on the bed, thrown back among the pillows, was the baby, dead. The neighbors looked down upon Hunkies, so nobody gossiped with the Tapolskys, and they remained in ignorance of what had happened to Mrs. Szorza. As the hours passed by, and then the days, their fears changed to righteous anger; surely nothing but deliberate desertion was keeping her away. On the third day Tapolsky notified the city and they carried off the baby; he said it was his own grandchild, to avoid explanations. Mrs. Tapolsky wrapped the little girl in a corner of her shawl and took her to the Associated Charities.

That was all. Mrs. Tapolsky made no attempt to soften the ugly story, and she stopped speaking without a word of sympathy, waiting to see what the mother would do, and looking at her curiously.

That evening Mrs. Atwood told her perplexity to her husband. "There," she said, "I might as well try to be nice to the ironingboard. I'd get exactly the same response."

"Then what's the use of bothering! You can't understand her because there's nothing to understand. These Hunkies are all alike; as much emotion in a Hunky as there is in a bump on a log."

"But she's such a good laundress."

"No doubt. That's what she's meant for. Hunkies are brought over here to work; they're only half human."

While she listened Annie sat perfectly quiet. It seemed as if she did not understand. But when she saw that Mrs. Tapolsky had no more to tell, she rose and went out. Mrs. Tapolsky took her shawl from the hook and followed, instantly realizing what her neighbor had in mind. The two were alike in that action took the place of speech. Together they climbed the rickety flight of stairs that led over Grimes Hill to Dover Street and the Temporary Home.

When little Annie was given back to her, the mother held her close, as if she could never bear to put her down again, but when they were out of sight of the institution she gave the child to Mrs. Tapolsky.

"Take her," she said, "I go find work by Mrs. Atwood." And half-running, she hurried down the street.

Without really understanding how kind Mrs. Atwood meant to be, Annie did know that of all her employers she was the fairest and most considerate, and now the woman turned to her in this great trouble.

"Have you been sick!" asked Mrs. Atwood.

"Naw. I been to jail."

"To jail!" echoed the horrified woman. "Mercy!"

But Annie interrupted. She had no notion of the best way to tell what had happened; it seemed to her that the result of her imprisonment was the only important thing now. In her mind the tragedy completely outweighed the injustice. "My baby die." Her face was hard and set in her respectful effort not to break down in Mrs. Atwood's presence.

This statement, following on the heels of the previous announcement, suggested but one thing to Mrs. Atwood. "You killed your baby?" Her voice was terrible.

"Yes!" Annie shrank back against the wall and covered her face. And then her courage and anger came back together. "No! That policeman!"

As she listened to the broken explanation, mere scraps and hints of unintelligible horrors, Mrs. Atwood felt annoyed at what was plainly a badly made up lie; such terrible things could not happen. At last she said, "There is no need of telling me any more. You are not speaking the truth."

The heavy lines in Annie's dull face moved strangely; square and stupid, with short nose and wide nostrils, it resembled the face of an ape. The sight of her was repulsive.

Mrs. Atwood continued, turning away her eyes. "How could I ever trust you, after the way you failed me last week? You left the clothes all damp. They might have been ruined."

"I don't do that once more."

"How could I tell that? I'm sorry for you if you need work and can't get it, but I can't think of trying you again." Then Mrs. Atwood's voice grew colder still. "And I will not have anyone in my house who has been in jail."

"That's what my man did, not me!"

It was a cry of despair, but Mrs. Atwood did not recognize it.

"I'm not so certain that it was altogether your husband's fault. Things like that don't happen in this country. Besides, there is nothing more to be said about it; I have engaged someone else." The back door closed and Annie found herself on the steps outside.

"I told you," said Mr. Atwood that evening, "those Hunkies are just animals."

"I guess you're right," sighed Mrs. Atwood.