Ellen Aspumante stood in front of the mirror hanging over her dresser and thought she looked terrific. Her hair was just like she liked it — the curls bouncing and framing her face perfectly, the little wave at the end of her bangs dancing right above the frames of her glasses. If pressed, she would have said she looked absolutely stunning.
The truth was that she looked like she looked every day. Her hair clung to her head for dear life; her old-fashioned glasses sat on her nose at a slight tilt. She wore the same style of skirt, blouse, and sweater every day, in various shades of black, gray, and brown. The little color she would wear would be on her lips; or on St. Patrick’s Day when she wore a green scarf; at Christmastime when she’d wear her red holly pin, and occasionally at Halloween she’d wear something with a touch of orange.
She winked at herself in the mirror and then turned to get her coat and purse and prepared to leave for work. The apartment was quiet ever since her mother and sister died. She was all alone in the world. She wasn’t sure whether she liked being alone or not, didn’t know if she missed her mother’s loving eyes and warm soft hands or her sister’s constant praise, always giving Ellen attention and special recognition; she couldn’t tell if she was relieved that she was alone or whether the ache of missing them so much had numbed her to her very core. If she felt like this in two years, she would seek professional help.
As she rode the elevator from her third-floor apartment, she went over the things she had to do after work. Get the dry cleaning; pick up something for dinner, and, and, no, there was nothing else. She didn’t have to rush home to find out what her mother wanted or her sister needed; she didn’t have to check with the pharmacy to see if the prescriptions were ready; she didn’t have to leave work early to take one or both of them to their doctor. No, she just had to get the dry cleaning and pick up dinner.
Ellen had three passions in her life. Her mother. Her sister. Her job. The most fulfilling, thank God, was still in her life.
She graduated high school at the age of 17 and then went on to secretarial school, graduating in 1930. She immediately found work as the junior secretary to the head of accounting at a very high-class men’s haberdashery on the corner of 46th Street and Madison Avenue. After a year she was given a promotion with a slight pay increase and became secretary to three vice presidents.
And now, in 1960, at 49 years of age, she was the head secretary to the vice president of advertising and marketing, a position she held since 1950, at this store that catered to the men of high society, movie stars, and business giants.
For the last 30 years, in rain, sleet, snow, blizzards, and heat waves; with colds, and stomachaches and headaches; through life and death of friends and family, she went to work.
Arriving every workday at 6:45 a.m., approximately 15 minutes after the departure of the cleaning crew, Ellen began her ritual: walk the main floor where the smell of the hand-polished cherry wood wall panels and the sparkling glass showcases would drive her wild. She never tired of the way the overhead lights splashed on the shirts, ties, ascots, turtlenecks, and socks — it was almost a religious experience.
She’d have an hour before the salesmen arrived, and could wander the store in total privacy. On the main floor she’d inspect the glass showcases for fingerprints, the walls for traces of dust. Her eyes scrutinized the marble floor for dull spots, the cashier and wrapping department’s area for scraps of paper or out-of-place tape dispensers.
The elegant elevator that carried the clients to the second and third floors was made of cherry wood and hand-cut mirrors. Flipping on the lights on the shoe and hat floor always gave her a thrill, especially at the change of seasons. She loved when winter fur hats turned into straw ones; when boots and heavy shoes were transformed into loafers.
Ellen loved this floor the most. The carpeting was thick and plush, the leather chairs and couches were inviting, the lighting subtle. She made sure the carpeting looked well-vacuumed; that the shoes on the cherry wood racks stood all shiny and in pairs; that the bands on the hats weren’t twisted and the brims were in their proper positions.
The third and final floor was the custom suit shop, where high-priced suits were made to order. Here, too, you could custom-order your ties, shirts, monogrammed socks, and handkerchiefs. Ellen would walk along the wall where these expensive suits hung and gently touch each one, giving them an Ellen-kind of blessing, hoping they were going to good homes.
She made sure all the suits were hanging in the same direction; that the tailor’s tools were lined up correctly. She then took the elevator back to the main floor, with 15 minutes to go before the salesmen arrived. She’d comb her hair, freshen her lipstick, and take her seat on the main floor on one of the leather chairs meant for customers.
The chairs sat looking down the center aisle. After punching the time clock, each salesman would walk to where Ellen was sitting and most, but not all, would dutifully kiss her on the cheek. Someone would hand her a coffee, someone else a roll or doughnut, another the newspaper. After all had arrived, Ellen would leave so she could be at her desk when her boss walked into the office.
The balance of her day was spent in predictable fashion; get coffee and a buttered roll, no seeds, on her boss’s desk by 10:10; take dictation, type letters, make phone calls for him; confirm his lunch dates, walk through the entire store on her way to lunch and do anything her boss requested, no questions asked.
At the end of the day, Ellen would go from floor to floor collecting the daily sales books from each salesman and leaving a new one. All sales would have to be recorded in the ledger books the next day by the clerk. She had no idea how she got to do this job, but she didn’t mind as she would get to see the men one more time before the end of the day. She hated the end of the day.
By the time she finished, it would be 6 p.m. and she and the head of the tailor shop would be the last to leave. They lived two blocks apart and sometimes would walk home and recap their days for each other. His wife was sick and tired of hearing about whom he measured for a suit; Ellen now had no one to tell about her day.
She had never thought of marrying, never thought of leaving her home, of moving on. She never imagined there would be huge changes in her life. Her sister’s sudden illness, her mother’s that followed; her mother died, her sister died, she was unprepared for both. It was never her way to plan things, to look into the future to see what life would be like for her. She never imagined her mother would die, and the thought of being without her sister was unthinkable.
But here she was, having to think about the rest of her life, alone. There was no family to speak of . . . no aunts, uncles, or cousins, except for the distant cousins who lived in Cleveland or Columbus or somewhere with a “C” in Ohio. It had been years since they were in touch; Ellen didn’t even call them when death visited her apartment.
To Be Continued
Adrienne Kitaeff, an East Hampton resident, has previously published work in The Star. “Ellen Aspumante” is part of a series of short stories and memoirs.