The Enumerator

by DRM

Some months later, after going on with the Census Bureau full-time, Adelaide will be sitting in a vast room in Manhattan with a hundred other women, working through the census sheets from other districts in New York City, calculating the sums of each page and placing the sheets in great binders that are organized by broader geographic areas, she’ll remember her visit that Saturday morning to 752 Johnson Avenue. The interview left her discomforted and unsettled.  When she remembers, it is just a sensation, and maybe the faint image of the small sitting room.

This is what she was doesn’t recall.

The room was hot and cramped, even though it was orderly, like the woman who answered the door. The sitting area was arranged within the borders of a faded rug that once had deep red hues: two settees and the one high-backed chair. Beyond the sitting area a long table was pushed up against the wall and covered with sewing tools. Stacks of fabric, spindles of thread, a battered black sewing machine, small piles of scrap fabric, pressed sheets of rice paper. A stool. A dressmaker’s dummy.

Light came in through one window at the back of the room and fell across the worktable. The window jambs were stuffed with pieces of fabric. The rest of the room was in shadow.

The scent of smoldering coal was strong. The heat was suffocating in contrast to the chill in the hallway and the sharp cold of the street below.

The husband was not home; he was at his place of business, a saloon near the great plaza by the bank building. Yes, even though it was the Sabbath. A delivery was scheduled for the morning, and not all merchants observe the Sabbath, the woman said.

A hissing sigh broke the stillness in the room.

BrooklyndayparadeTwo young women sat in the settees. The mother, Rebecca, stood by the end of one settee while she answered the questions. The girls — they were girls, at least that’s how Adelaide thought of them, because she thought of herself as a girl, and she and these young women looked about the same age — were surrounded by scraps of paper on their settees.

One of the girls wore a dress from the same cut as her mother’s, but without the lace at the neck, so that the collar exposed her skin to the faint depression at the bottom of her throat. She looked up during the conversation between Rebecca and Adelaide, following each word, appearing ready to help. Respectful, Adelaide might have called her attitude, if someone were to ask her later to describe the scene. Appropriate.

The other girl lay back on the settee, her legs slung along the cushions and her feet dangling off the edge at her ankles. She wore a loose dress that appeared draped along her body. Her arms were bare and her stockinged feet and calves shimmered in the heat.

She appeared intent on the paper that lay in her lap. She struck at it in fits and starts with a pencil. Her face was turned down, and in a momentary glimpse, because Adelaide felt wary of looking at this young woman…or girl, although her energy didn’t feel girlish at all, nor womanly at all, but something else that was like a woman’s energy, but a momentary glimpse, Adelaide noted the tangle of curls that fell forward past the woman’s brow, and the fleshy set of her jawline, the uneven twist of the edges of her nose.

Stylish, Adelaide would have said, if asked to describe the girl.

An other, tangible thing was alive in the room: a volatile, atmospheric essence that Adelaide could not recognize, but that enfolded her with penetrating pressure. She was exposed to it when she first settled in the high-backed chair and arranged the papers to begin the enumeration of the family. The three women were paused in their activities. A current coursed between them, its balance sustained by the increasing speed of its cycles. Rebecca moved cautiously beside the settee; her younger daughter — Adelaide would learn — adjusted the folds of her skirts as she waited. The eldest daughter’s body was absolutely still.

“I’ll start with your husband, then. His name and age, please?”

Rebecca answered evenly. A recording of the conversation would have captured a difference in the timbre of Adelaide’s and Rebecca’s voices, even though that difference was imperceptible to Adelaide.  Adelaide’s voice hung in the air: on an oscilloscope, the frequency would be tracked by one thin green line. Rebecca’s voice, despite its evenness, emerged from the atmosphere of the room like a woman walking out from the ocean, shedding water with each step closer to shore. Her frequency would be tracked by a wide spread of faint green jagged edges, touching only minor peaks and valleys because of the steadiness of her pitch.

“His birthplace?”

The essence of the atmosphere changed sharply. Adelaide started as if she had felt the percussion of a sharp impact. The room was unchanged. “Pryluki,” Rebecca said, the second syllable blurred by a high-pitched hiss that got louder with the third syllable and then lingered.

“Not there,” the eldest daughter said.

Her voice was thick, sinewy.

“He was born in Russia,” the daughter said.

Another instant that Adelaide would not be able to recall later: the girl’s voice was unexpected in the silence following the loud hiss, and Adelaide had looked around, her eyes moving from dark to dim as she cast her eyes about, and in the moment of her retina adjusting to the shift in light, she had locked gazes with the girl, could see in the periphery her lips move, could associate the meaning of the words with the movement of her lips, but the eyes were dissociated from the event. The eyes were wide and direct. They were deep and brown. They seemed to emanate heat.

From the older girl’s gaze, Adelaide looked to the younger daughter. Her eyes were soft, pleading, warm. The mother’s eyes were still, sad.

Adelaide struck out the word she had written: Pryluki.

“They don’t need to know where we are from,” the older girl said.

This memory was drowned in the thousands of lines Adelaide filled out during the enumeration period. When she was working on the calculations and assessments, assigned another section of Brooklyn that was not too far from where she had done her field work, she came across another family that listed their place of birth as Pryluki. The Nuchmann’s: two parents and one child. Adelaide did not recall the episode on Johnson Ave., and found herself wondering idly where Pryluki might be and what the trip from there to the streets of Brooklyn was like.

Coming to Brooklyn from upstate New York was an unspeakable change. But the distance was not so far that it ripped your memory asunder. Her imagination could go to the railway station and take the train back up the Hudson, and ride the carriage west into the hills, and be back in the quiet winter chill of her childhood home. How could your imagination voyage back over the ocean, in the crowded staterooms of the ship, and then travel many miles into the land, maybe without rail lines even to make the trip easier? The imagination would stop at the dock to leave. It couldn’t be strong enough to make a trip all that way; the energy of the present moment would keep pulling it back.

Her rumination about Pryluki was uncharacteristically long.  Still, she wasn’t reminded of the episode on Johnson Avenue.

The atmosphere had shifted when she locked gaze with the older girl. While Rebecca answered the remaining questions about her husband Nathan, and then herself, the girl began to read from a scrap of paper on her lap. Her voice grew in volume, independent of the existing conversation, as if it were coming from another room, or at least another place, even though the young woman was present right in front of them. The moment held an ineffable sadness that stilled the air.

She read one poem, then another.

A smile makes the longest day
A memory fit for a lengthy stay,
Sorrow breaks the happy spell
And marks the length of life as well.

Yet, when Adelaide said to Rebecca, “And the name of your oldest child?” the girl interjected smoothly. A broad smile creased her face.