A ray of sun strikes the copper’s badge and bounces off, lighting up the voting box inside H. L. Drugstore in me South Bronx neighborhood.
Now washed and mended, I wear the same once-blood-splattered and mud-stained dress, patched at the cuff, tattered ‘round the collar. It shows the scars from when we marched down Broadway, I holding a sign, The Vote For Equal Pay For Equal Work.
It had started a glorious spring day, fresh from a night of rain, splendid with the radiance of blooming cherry blossoms. Little sister Annie pestered to come along. I told her, “Stay home with the youngins. You’re too small and there might be trouble.” She says, “I’m big enough and I’m a comin. So there.” And so she did, running along the sidewalk, keeping step with the march. Annie inherited the stubbornness that we McPhersons shared.
Hundreds marched. Me arms feeling the ache from holding the poster high above me head. Women clutched banners that stretched the avenue. Coppers on horseback, coppers on foot, looking for agitation—someone stirrin’ the pot.
It did me heart good to protest among me own, knowing our numbers was a force to reckon with. Still an’ all, we had to keep going, every day, every spare moment spent on the vote.
A man outside Woolworth’s shouted, “Only vote I give you is a kick in the knickers.” Someone threw a rock. Glass shattered. Horses reared. Men broke through the lines. Big oaf of a bloke grabbed me sign, slammed it hard on me head, he did. I fell to the ground. “Lucy!” Annie’s voice had the shock in it. I sprawled in the street until I forced meself up. I looked ‘round for me hat. I got to me feet and when I did something hit the back of me neck, and I tumbled. Slumped on Broadway, staring at the buildings, the raging men, determined women, the world and all its unfairness swirling then dimmed.
Sirens, distant on the rim of me twilight, wailed, coming as a call to get meself up. On hands and knees, I was, when a copper kicked me in the chest. With great pain, I grabbed his ankle and raked short broken nails into his flesh. He shrieked. I rolled a ways over. Stood. For the sake of me sisters, I held up me fists like Jack Dempsey, but before I could sock ‘em in the kisser two other coppers pulled at me shoulders, squeezed meaty hands around me breasts. I kicked. Sunk me teeth into their fingers. Their red Irish faces flushed with the memory of booze, their breath foul as the steerage our family sailed in across the sea.
They threw me into the paddy.
Father brought us here after mum died, for a new start, a better life. Working in a factory twelve hours a day, no windows, low pay, bosses forcing themselves on me. If I’d a had no father or brothers, I might a hated all men. But I and me family could eat. Back home, how can you march with an empty belly? So I wrap hopes and dreams and those of me family in the red, white, and blue.
From inside the paddy, I looked over me shoulder for Annie. The riot swallowed her whole. “Lucy!” But I heard her voice shrill as a whistlin’ tea kettle.
Across the aisle from where I was sittin’ a woman with a gash on her cheek bled something fierce. I ripped off me sleeve, dropped to me knees, and pressed it against the stunned woman’s cheek. Through her tears, I saw eyes that kindled rebellion. The woman beside her began to sing, “Let Us All Speak Our Minds.” The others, meself included, joined in the anthem. A copper in the front of the paddy banged his billy club on the grill and yelled, “Shut-up!” With no mind to the brute, we continued to sing. Louder. On the floor, a poster encouraged us with the words, Never Give Up. Our voices united, overpowered our fears, until he unlocked the gate and struck the nearest woman with his wooden stick.
Annie appeared, her thin arms waving as she ran alongside the wagon. I yelled through the bars, “Go home.” I, the eldest of six to me parents’ brood, demanded a say in their raising and sending me brothers off to war.
Head aching, chest hurting, hair falling ‘round me shoulders, me hat trampled somewhere in the fight. To jail I’d go. A criminal. A dangerous woman. I smiled at the notion and the girl who held me cuff to her head nodded as if reading me mind.
The wagon’s siren split traffic with a blaring fright as we drove down Broadway and turned a corner. The Harlem River glimpsed between outdoor markets, shops, and eateries. Fear starting to get the best ‘o me.
The jail full of suffragettes, it had nowhere to lock us up. So they let us go.
A year passed since the brawl as I wait to vote. I look into the face of the women around me. Pride. A quiet jubilance. The change in our lives happening in this tiny drab storefront.
I think of the women who fought before us not having the chance to live this day. Do they know? I reckon they do.
I want to believe in something bigger now. That brotherhood will find the compassion to form a union for all of mankind.
A copper stands beside the ballot box, protecting the case with a scowl and a gun on his hip.
He motions me forward.
I keep me head high as I stride to the glass box. I write me vote in big letters and slip the paper into the slat as if planting something that one day will bloom.
I thank the good Lord for this day. Knowing that so shall life get better for me, it will get better for all.
I first saw Teresa out my kitchen window back in 1928. Her father, a widower, had moved into our neighborhood. I was kneading dough when I looked up and watched the child glide her sled down a snowbank and slam into a tree. I ran across the street. “Are you hurt?”
She scowled. “Mind your own beeswax.”
I ignored her sass and asked if she would like a nice piece of hot homemade bread. She rubbed her bump with a snow-crusted mitten and shook her head. Teresa repeated the stunt and sailed free all the way to the sidewalk. I clapped my doughy hands. The little one smiled. “Can my pop have one too?”
The next year the stock market crashed, and we plunged into the Depression.
I’d see Teresa walk home from school, alone, shoulders slumped, eyes downcast. We all wore threadbare clothes, but her charity hand-me-downs never fit her growing body.
One day, I invited her to see Shirley Temple in Bright Eyes. Coming out of the theatre, she reached for my hand, such sweetness in her grasp. From then on I became her cheerleader, my pompoms the crocheted scarves and sweaters I made for her.
From the end of the Depression to another War, changes occurred every minute—and right here, in Farmingdale, New York.
In the winter of ‘42, Teresa got a job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I’d be at my window at six o’clock making dinner as she arrived home in a car full of girls. She ran with newfound joy up the steps to the front door, turn, wave to her friends and then to me. Her smile brought riches not even Rockefeller could buy.
Teresa had every other Sunday off and we’d have lunch on my back porch. “Oh Aunt Lena, I never knew working with my hands could be so much fun. There’s a lot of us gals, cutting and soldering, doing everything the men did. But our paychecks are nothing compared to what they earned.”
“Well, of course not. Men have families to care for.” My comment hung in the air like a barrage balloon.
Why, I never questioned my pay working in the factory during the First World War. It would’ve been unpatriotic—but this, I kept to myself. Now we could vote. Women smoked. Teresa wore overalls at work—so much had changed.
On a spring day in ‘43, she told me about her promotion. “I work on submarines, welding.” She put down her fork.
“What’s wrong, dear?”
“They’re cramped quarters. My boss rubs up against me. When I told him to stop, he put me out in the rain to weld, knowing I’d get electrical shocks.”
“Can’t you go to his boss?”
She shook her head. “It’s always the girls’ fault.”
I worried that after the war, young women like Teresa, who built our ships, tanks and planes would question traditions. Men wouldn’t stand for it. If I went to work, Roy would raise Cain, though he did let me sell war bonds.
In ‘44, Teresa made management, and our lovely Sunday lunchtimes came to an end. Her new boss, a decent man, depended on her. She worked twelve-hour days, seven days a week and took care of her ailing father.
I helped out by sitting with Pop. One night when she returned late I expressed concern for her coming home alone in the dark.
She laughed. “With the boys gone, we girls can walk anywhere day or night and feel safe. Even Central Park.”
Her breezy comment gave me chills. I saw thunderclouds on the horizon. “You respect our boys who are fighting for our freedom, don’t you?”
“Oh Aunt Lena.” She put her arm around my shoulder. “Of course, I do. But women are fighting for freedom too. Just not on battlefields.”
The war in Europe ended May 8, 1945, but it dragged on in the Pacific.
Teresa’s final promotion came in early June. She oversaw seventy-five women in the construction department. I couldn’t have been prouder of her.
On August 15, the radio blared, “Official! Truman announces Japanese surrender.”
“Aunt Lena, Uncle Roy!”
We all had tears in our eyes as I opened the door.
“I’m going to Times Square, then on to the shipyard. Can you look in on Pop?”
“Of course, dear.” A car waited for her. The girls waved flags. I held up two fingers making a V for Victory. “Do tell me everything that happens.”
Roy and I went back to the radio. We heard about the thousands of people who turned out in cities across America. I imagined the red, white and blue rippling and waving, confetti and ribbons, wet eyes and cheering—if only our beloved FDR had lived to see it.
That night we grew anxious as the hours passed and no word from Teresa.
The next morning I recall burning myself on the skillet. My mind filled with worry about our girl. Then from my kitchen window I saw her come out the front door. She wore slacks and a blouse and marched down the walkway to the car. Rigid—with dark smudges beneath her eyes.
I ran across the street. “What’s the matter?”
“We wouldn’t quit, so they fired us.”
A girl in the car said, “With the boys coming home, we got canned.”
“Of course. They’ll need their jobs back.”
Teresa glared at me. “My boss told me to get married and have babies.”
“What did you expect?”
Teresa opened the car door. “I expected more from my country.”
Back then I didn’t understand the full impact of the war and what its aftermath meant to our daughters.
Now with Roy gone and Teresa out west, I think about those days and the car full of girls who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I know now as I watched them drive off to gather and speak up for their rights that what I saw was the future.
DC Diamondopolous is an award-winning novelette, short story, and flash fiction writer with over 250 stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, and anthologies. DC’s stories have appeared in: 34th Parallel, So It Goes: The Literary Journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library, Lunch Ticket, Raven Chronicles, Silver Pen, Blue Lake Review, and others. Nominated twice for the 2020 Pushcart Award, DC was also nominated in 2017 and in 2020 for Best of the Net Anthology. DC’s short story collection, Stepping Up will be published in 2021. She lives on the California central coast with her wife and animals.