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"Shoulders" by Beth Kanter

Anna exhaled her ten-hour day and reached for the doorknob. The wobbly chair she expected to encounter, the one Papa Sol insisted Ettie prop up against the inside of the door when he worked late, was not there. Instead, the slat-backed barrier between his only child and the evil eye was tucked under the table at the other end of the tiny tenement apartment.

Without warning, Anna’s easy step over the threshold turned into a clumsy leap forward. Anna used her arms and the protruding black belly of the stove in front of her to break the fall.

Anna jerked her arms back and braced herself for another blow. Her fingertips tingled. She searched her hands for what she was sure would be a new crop of blisters and burns. Nothing. Only the old blisters and burns. Anna tapped her index finger against the lip of the rusting stove. It was cold with hunger, same as everyone else she knew. The sting of ice and the burn of heat must know each other.

“I’m home,” Anna called out. Home. She swirled the word around in her mouth. It still tasted funny.

“Anna,” Ettie responded from behind the clothes that dangled from the rope strung above the sink. Ettie’s almost translucent complexion framed by her red hair glowed behind the threadbare fabric on the line. It reminded Anna of the vast nighttime skies she stood below a long time ago. She thought about crisp air and falling stars.

“Door,” Anna gestured behind Ettie.

“Door, er, rrrr,” Ettie repeated like the babushkas in Anna’s English classes at the Union Hall. The long drawn-out emphasis on the R sound did to Anna’s ears what the cold metal did to her sallow, sun-starved hands. Anna wondered if her friend placed the accent on the wrong syllable on purpose but pushed away the thought. Anna promised herself that she would not argue about the importance of learning English with the kind people who took her in. She understood Papa Sol’s desire to keep his daughter away from the grief that roamed the streets of the Lower East Side. If only Papa Sol could also see that life behind a closed door, especially one protected by decaying furniture, was hardly a life at all. But it didn’t matter anymore. Ettie’s time inside the apartment was coming to an end. Anna and Papa Sol’s wages were not enough to maintain the trio’s barely fed and sometimes warm status. Next week Ettie becomes a factory girl. Back pain, propositions, unpaid overtime, foremen, and English would become part of her life whether her father wanted it to or not.

“Door,” Anna again declared, this time with a deliberate monosyllabic thump.

With their shoulders pressed up against the door, the pair pushed until it clicked into place, or at least a more secure place.

“Chair, er,” Ettie declared with the same hideous pronunciation. Anna’s clenched jaw throbbed as she dragged the old chair from the table and placed it in front of the door. She knew Ettie hated the screech of the legs against the floorboards. But ten straight hours at the pressing machine meant lifting the chair was as much a fantasy as getting paid for the 12 extra hours she worked this week or, for that matter, having tea and poppy seed rolls with the man on the moon.

The noise also was part protest against the fact that her 15-year-old sister-like friend and roommate had turned door and chair into a three-syllable word before Anna even had the chance to sit down. If Anna held her tongue she surely didn’t need to hold the chair.

“Annala, fix my shoulders?” Ettie asked before Anna even sat down.

The young widow shook her head at the request and at the fact that Ettie had switched back to Yiddish. Ettie and Sol clung to the foolish language like a ragdoll they should have outgrown a long time ago.

Anna untied the scarf from under her chin and glared at the cold stove. Yes, a cup of tea on the moon sounded appealing. Two sugar cubes, please. Alas, with no money in her pocket and no streetcar to ride to the heavens, Anna turned her attention to a destination she could reach: the cot wedged between the stove and wall.

Anna rolled toward the wall to avoid her friend’s green eyes. The glint was too much for her to absorb at this hour of the day. She took her pinky and traced the cracks in the wall the way she did at night when sleep taunted her. Every touch morphed into a thread. Blue, black, brown, white, and rose red filled the plaster wrinkles. And with each thread she felt her heartbeat steady, her fists unfurl. When one line ended she knotted the thread and began a new one, putting down perfectly spaced invisible stitches one after another. Lines, half-circles, swirls, shapes, and sharp angles appeared through the simple action of her touch. The motion of her finger calmed her eyes and her brain. It stopped her tears. It stopped the loop in her head. It stopped the pain. This was the only kind of sewing she did not hate.

“Get up,” Ettie hovered above the cot where she slept head-to-toe with Anna. Anna ignored the request and continued to patch the wall back together. Paint particles rained on her face with each loop. Anna wondered what it would be like to live a life without cracks to fill.

“Please, fix my shoulders,” Ettie pleaded.

Before Anna finished the seam with her fingertip, Ettie swooped down on top of her like a feral cat. The weight of her hands and knees landing on the thin mattress collapsed the rusted back legs to the ground. Anna’s head lurched back offering a new view of the water stains on the ceiling.

Anna wanted to say something stern but before any phrases, Yiddish, English, or otherwise came to her, the rest of the frame gave out.

Anna sneezed twice as she hit the ground. Ettie was tickling the bottom of her nose with the braid. Then she felt her shove the ends of her braid into Anna’s nostrils. Anna had no choice this time. She laughed. Hard. She laughed and laughed and laughed some more. From the broken cot on the floor, Anna listened to the happy noise she offered up. She was relieved she still could produce such sounds.

“Please, do my shoulders, Annala,” Anna looked up at Ettie still on all fours above her. Her hair still in her nose. “If you fix my shoulders now, I promise I’ll fix the cot in time for bed. Come on, I want to wear it next week.”

“You and your shoulders,” Anna kept giggling as she used her bent knees to move Ettie off and away. “Get me your father’s shears, you crazy bird cat of a girl.”

Anna wouldn’t dare handle Papa Sol’s tailor shears with giggles in her mouth. She savored a final guffaw and sat down at the table with her factory face on. Eyes down, mouth closed, thoughts gone. Then, and only then, could the velvet-lined leather box be opened. The weight of the metal tool made her want to crawl back to the cot. It felt heavier than the chair and holier than the press iron. She squinted and searched for the first stitch she knew an anonymous seamstress hid below the collar and above the neckline.

“There you are,” Anna smiled and snipped the prize with the sharp point of the tailor’s tool. After that, it was just a matter of using her pinky finger to pull out the stitches before she folded fabric and sewed it closed. A simple trick that gave Ettie the illusion of being even when in reality it made the garment uneven.

“All done,” Anna lifted her head and tossed Ettie the remade garment.

Ettie immediately tried on the blouse. Anna heard the single pane of glass in the window rattle as her friend leapt up and down with joy. Ettie’s dead mother’s candlesticks clinked together every time the daughter whose birth killed her landed on the ground.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Ettie sang.

“Keep jumping in here and you’ll drop clear through the floor into horrible Mr. Rubinstein’s apartment,” Anna stood up and grabbed the candlesticks before they tumbled to the ground. “Then he’ll make you pick the crumbs out of his beard and sleep next to him every night.”

Ettie’s eyes, the color of the sea the morning after a violent storm, zeroed in on Anna. Anna stared back making her mouth as straight as a yardstick. Ettie smiled mischievously as she held her end of Anna’s gaze. The corners of her mouth climbed up toward her eyes and her smile widened until it hit the perimeter of her round face.

“Oh, Mr. Rubinstein,” Anna bent down and knocked on the floor. “My friend Ettie wants to pickle your herring and have your babies.”

Ettie stopped jumping. She walked over to Anna and pushed her to the ground. “Not without you,” Ettie cackled. “Oh, Smelly Mr. Rubinstein I have a present for you. Come get my friend Anna. She wants to be your wife.”

Ettie froze before her words reached her friend.

“I’m sorry, Anna, didn’t mean…” Her voice trailed off. Anna wanted to go back to drawing on the wall with her finger, she wanted to go back to the night her husband stopped breathing on the boat, she wanted to go back to being a child. But there was no going back. Her passage was always one way.

Anna looked her friend right in her eyes and started stomping her feet. She grabbed Ettie’s hand and soon the two were jumping up and down. The ground vibrated with such intensity that Anna thought the two of them might actually fall through the floor into Mr. Rubinstein’s apartment. And, Anna didn’t care.

The two young women giggled like safe little girls. Anna felt something different yet familiar. Had she laughed like this before? She was almost certain she had. Perhaps it was when she was fifteen.

Anna wasn’t ready to give up the moment, the feeling, but Ettie stilled her body.

“Oh, Annala, I love you,” Ettie took her circle of a face and brought her lips to Anna’s forehead. Anna then watched as Ettie stood up, dusted off her newly fixed shoulders, and walked past Anna who still was sitting on the ground. Anna watched as she once more became a silhouette behind the clothes hanging from the line above the sink. Then on the perpetually dirty but regularly scrubbed floor, Anna thought about shoulders and seams and Ettie. She wondered what it would be like to be an uneven 15-year-old with rooster-colored hair and not a 22-year-old garment worker with dulled eyes. For the first time in her life, Anna wondered what other things around her could be fixed. And, she wondered if she might be the one to fix them. Then she put her head on the ground, stretched her tired body out on the floor, and laughed.


Beth Kanter’s fiction and creative non-fiction have appeared in a variety of publications including McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Bright Flash Literary Review, Idle Ink, The Writer, the Chicago Tribune, and This Is What America Looks Like: The Washington Writers Publishing House Anthology. Beth won a James Kirkwood Literary Prize for her novel-in-progress, Paved With Gold, and was the winner of the 2020 Lilith magazine fiction contest. You can read more of her work at


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