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  • Heaven is Full of Windows
  • Steve Stern (bio)

Had Gussie Panken looked up from her machine, a movement that could get her salary docked a dollar, she would have seen what the lazy Sadie Kupla saw in the window overlooking Washington Place. The late March breeze was causing the orange curtains to billow, the serrated orange curtains, though the open windows along Washington Place had never had any curtains. Then the wisps of orange turned into waves, a rumbling swell that poured over the sills into the shop, engulfing the bins of scraps, torching the bales of unfinished waists heaped atop the oil-soaked tables. By the time Gussie had turned to see what Sadie was screeching about—her shrieks echoed in a chorus all up and down the long rows of work tables—the fire was advancing like a mob of ragged hooligans. Gussie's first impulse was to do nothing; she was tired and this wasn't the first time she'd been the victim of hooligans—hadn't they driven her family out of their home back in Dlugacsz, forced them to cross an ocean to a rat-hole flat on Broome Street, where she lived with a crippled father and her bed-wetting little brother who must nevertheless be honored as a prince? She felt her charging heart secrete a poison that paralyzed her limbs, but only momentarily, until she too was swept up in the hysteria that harried her fellow seamstresses from one end of the shop to the other, like sticks in a box tilted this way and that.

At the door to the Greene Street stairwell, which opened inwardly, the knot of workers rushing to escape was stalled, and unable to squeeze through the narrow gap, they began in the thickening smoke to claw and flail at one another. Then the crowd had reversed itself, stampeding through eddies of flame past wicker baskets combusting in horse-fart poofs, and Gussie found herself carried along in the tide. At the door on the Washington Place side of the shop, which was always kept locked by management for reasons known only to them, a burly fellow with a handlebar mustache hurled his weight against the metal plating, leaving it concave though the door never budged from its jamb. Others pounded the door with their fists, a shuddering that reverberated in Gussie's gut until she retched, sinking to her knees. From the floor, her eyes smarting, lungs beginning to wheeze in pain, she groped among the remnants on the table above her for a swatch of lawn to cover her face. [End Page 154] Showers of sparks seemed to blend with the curses and cries for help like flights of hornets making an eerie drone. Windowpanes above a nearby airshaft splintered in popgun bursts, a party of workers swarming through their ruined frames out onto the fire escape. Then in seconds the whole rusted structure had pulled away from the wall, and the people, releasing a noise like a sepulchral moan, dropped out of sight as on a raft sinking below waves.

"Mama," said Gussie, unable to hear the sound of her own voice, not beckoning her mother so much as scolding her for having died of diphtheria three years ago back in Dlugacsz.

Somehow she was on her feet again, blundering blindly alongside the tables on top of which the more athletic girls hopped and jigged in an effort to elude the saw-toothed conflagration. Arriving at the Greene Street vestibule just in time to see the freight elevator descending, she blinked through stinging tears at what was at once real and not real: A clutch of employees who hadn't made it on board the elevator thrust aside the accordion grate and, licked from behind by tongues of flame, plunged after the departed car into the yawning shaft. She saw a pretty girl spinning like a top to try and unravel the fiery helix of fabric she'd wound about her for protection, and another with a torch in place of her hair. One shouted something in broken English about having to meet Gaspar behind Bottle Alley; another crooned idiotically in Yiddish: "Ev...


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pp. 154-156
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