Dr. Spencer looked up from his misery to the long, winding lines— dark eyes, brown clothes, the occasional red and yellow native costume—and each day before this and after seemed a wretched sameness to him, as if Ellis Island were a prison rather than a reception point, and he was the one locked inside. It made him wonder for the first time if these people were worth all the trouble.
Dr. Hauss, down the line, was new, so his inspection—just clubfeet and goiters—still took twice as long as it should. Waiting for him to finish, Spencer slumped against the metal railing and pressed his palms over his ears, gently rubbing his temples with his extended pinkie fingers, aware that he looked haggard, but not caring. These people’s murmurings—a dozen disparate languages ricocheting like a symphony of ignorance off the tile walls—made his head throb more than last night’s bottle of brandy. Who were they to judge him? Human flotsam. Desperate castoffs. They had no right. They did not know him.
The next person was a woman in her forties, then a man in his twenties, followed by a family of four who all had conjunctivitis. He passed them on, then stopped and glanced at their backs. Really? Had he run his finger under every eyelid? Of course. It was so automatic he did it without thinking.
Spencer reached for his face, then jerked his hand back. Damn her!
He’d almost touched his eye without disinfecting. Spencer dunked his hands up to the wrists, splashing solution onto his instrument stand. It took only a moment to risk his sight, his whole life.
Just like it took Laura only a moment to excise him from hers. Six words—I don’t want to marry you—had reduced thirty years of confidence, work, friends, and good looks to the simple, ridiculous fear of not being good enough to love. It felt as though she’d stamped his forehead “undesirable” and he would walk around trying to hide under his hat the rest of his life, tripping over obstacles with his brim pulled down too far. Spencer wasn’t sure whether or not to believe what she had said—that there was no one else—but what did it matter? Was it better or worse than what his sister had said—that Laura came from a different class of people. “I’m surprised she ever went out with you.”
While Hauss muddled through the next large family, Spencer absently arranged the things on his stand—a row of blue chalk, a flat piece of metal like a buttonhook for inverting eyelids, a notebook for interesting observations and a gold-plated, new ballpoint-style pen Laura had given him. Spencer opened his notebook and looked at his name, written with the pen in the top left-hand corner of the inside cover. The crisp lines of his signature, the perfectly round dots between his M and his D, suddenly seemed a mockery. He decided to throw the pen out as soon as he could get a different one.
Spencer had gotten a job on Ellis Island right after he finished his training and last year he’d been promoted to the eye and brain man, responsible for diagnosing trachoma, a highly contagious infection that caused blindness, and mental deficiencies. Like all the physicians, he used blue chalk to mark his diagnosis on the person’s shoulder, in his case CT for trachoma and a circled X for the deranged and retarded. Inspectors further down the line separated people based on their marks. People marked with CT were sent to the infirmary for a second check. If confirmed for trachoma, they joined those with a circled X back on the boat, bound for wherever they started. Which is why Spencer’s position was left to the most experienced.
Finally Hauss sent up a group of eight and Spencer worked through, starting youngest to oldest—the best way since younger kids got scared off if they saw him use the buttonhook.
Done, he leaned on his podium, head in his hands. God, Hauss was so damn slow! Perhaps he could go to the administrator’s office and tell them he was ill. Who would question a doctor’s diagnosis of himself? But with Hauss’s speed, if he went home sick, they might have to shut the whole line down for the day. People whose relatives were waiting for them to disembark would get stuck on the boats. Maybe he could at least get a damn chair to sit on. Wasn’t he entitled to that much? A chair? He was a doctor after all.
Spencer pushed his glasses up on his tall nose and rubbed his eyes, then glanced quickly at his hands. What the hell was wrong with him? He never touched his eyes at work. Had he remembered to disinfect? Of course, he hadn’t seen a case of trachoma all day. Still.
He dipped his hands in the bowl of disinfectant on the stand’s lower shelf. Some of the doctors on the Island didn’t bother with this precaution—as if they had no common sense at all. Sometimes, seeing this, Spencer wondered if he should feel proud of his job. Was it true what Laura had implied, that only the desperate take a job on the Island? Spencer’s father owned a grocery. He had no medical connections. So what of it?
A man approached with red, watery eyes. Spencer swirled his instrument in the disinfectant, flipped up the man’s eyelid and ran his finger along the underside. It took only a second to feel the white granules. The man forced his eye shut, face wrinkled in outrage, and muttered something in Yiddish. Trachoma and the Jews. They had it the worst, especially of late.
Spencer marked him on the shoulder with a CT, then smiled kindly, eager not to alarm him—he looked as though he could be trouble—and motioned for him to go on ahead.
Waiting for the next group, he scanned the lines, focusing on the women, wondering what they thought of him. Were they ashamed to have a strange man touch them? Or did they admire him, a doctor, an American? Did they resent him for judging them or seek his approval gladly, like a child seeks a parent’s?
Spencer washed his hands again, straightened his tie, then glanced up. Laura stood in front of Hauss. Laura? The same crackly red hair, like fall leaves. The same white neck. The mole? Was it there? Hauss had his hand on the woman’s neck, checking for goiters. She looked afraid and angry. Spencer’s stomach felt bound like a tourniquet on a wound. He knew now: that’s what Laura went to last night. Someone else’s touch.
He passed the next two people without the mental exam—they seemed good enough, just go—and picked up a fresh piece of chalk, rolling it slowly between his hands, the dust leaving blue trails in his fingerprints.
Fredek held his book high so that he could appear to be reading while actually watching the pretty girl from their ship. Her name was Macia, but he thought of her as Goldene because she’d told him that’s what the Jews called America, Goldene Medene.
She approached the first man along the pipe and he took her throat in his hands. He seemed to be massaging it, which Fredek thought a strange way to greet someone.
Fredek began to scratch his head, but the Old Loaf slapped his hand away before he could get any satisfaction. “How many times do I have to tell you? You want them to think you have lice? Hm?”
Fredek smiled and stuck his hand in his pocket. At least she was moving again. For weeks his grandmother had sat on her bunk aboard ship as if she were a baker’s sample, long gone stale in the window. Fredek couldn’t even remember seeing her get up to use the toilet. Now that they were on land, her body had begun to expand to its normal shape, which he thought of as a paczki, sweet and thick and soft.
If he had asked her, Wicktoria would have said she was more like a dinner roll—hard crust, good slash across the top for bursting. She’d have explained to him there was nothing to worry about, though. It was only natural after weeks of sitting in rail offices, waiting in ticket lines, riding on strange buggies, walking on unfamiliar roads and sleeping in common beds that she’d become flattened, like unleavened bread. Which was fine. Such bread lasted longer.
And last she would have to. The journey had taken an extra week due to rough waters, and then they’d been forced to sit on board, just off the coast, for three days waiting for the Island to clear. On day two the rumor started that they were not going to be let off at all, that the whole ship would be turned around and sent back. In the wavering darkness of steerage Wicktoria had listened to the mumblings in Magyar and Russian, Yiddish and German, and tried to remain flat. No hope. No fear. These were the opposite ends of useless.
She knew her grandson was only pretending to read. She followed his eyes to the redheaded Jewess in front of them in line. On the ship the girl had a berth just across from them and Wicktoria had warned Fredek to stay away from her. Everyone knew the Jews were infected with a disease of the eye which kept you from getting into America.
“She looks fine to me,” Fredek had said a hundred times over the past few weeks, but Wicktoria wasn’t taking any chances.
While the man examining the girl made notes, she dabbed at her eyes and Wicktoria nudged Fredek. “See, I told you.”
“She’s crying, Babcia, because of the bags.” When they’d come in on the first floor the men in blue made them leave their suitcases in a pile before they were allowed in line. It kept the lines moving more smoothly, with less congestion. The Old Loaf had heard rumors of this policy on the boat and had taken the precaution of concealing their valuables—cash money, her late-husband’s pocket watch, some dried biscuits, her Bible and her mother’s rosary—under her knitting in a small bag she could easily carry. While they waited in line, the knitting would also keep her occupied.
Goldene had argued with one of the men in blue and Fredek had tried to help, translating for her, until the Old Loaf had pulled him away. “You want us to go back on the ship? You want to go to prison for talking like your father?” It was the first time since they’d left home he had heard real fear in her voice.
Goldene dropped her handkerchief. Fredek grabbed it and handed it to her before the Old Loaf had time to interfere. “Cheer up,” he told her. “It’s just stuff.”
She grinned and reached to pat his cheek. Wicktoria slapped away her hand. “No touching!” She’d already told the girl why they preferred not to associate.
“It’s nice,” Goldene whispered in Polish, “to have a young man think of me.” She turned back to the man at the pipe, who pantomimed removing his shoes. She leaned down to unlace her own boots and Fredek enjoyed the view of her wide hips and her hair, like fired clay, falling across her face.
The Old Loaf whispered, “Mind your manners.”
Embarrassed—did she miss nothing?—Fredek turned his attention to his book, a small volume covered in blue, wrinkled leather. Gilded letters rubbed brown read, “An Emigrant’s Guide to the United States of America.” He read the book slowly, puzzling out each word from context and the English his father had taught him. He marked the passages that seemed most important with a light pencil dot.
Here he can do everything which is right, and no man can with impunity do anything to him that is wrong. If he is not in debt, an event necessary only from sickness or decrepitude, he is absolutely his own master, and the master of all his possessions.
Fredek didn’t know what “impunity” or “decrepitude” meant, but he knew what “his own master” meant—he would be free, just as his father had promised.
It is only the sober, the honest, and the industrious who succeed. Fredek marked the word “industrious” to look up when he bought an English/ Polish dictionary.
Despite her admonishment, Wicktoria did not judge the boy harshly for enjoying the pretty girl’s backside. She was proud of him, in fact, that amid all the loss he’d suffered—both parents gone, his home, his friends, everything left behind—he could still find joy in what God had made. Nonetheless, there were matters of respect to consider.
The last night on the ship, Fredek asleep and the lights all extinguished, Wicktoria had decided to put on her good dress. She knew she’d get better treatment on the Island if she looked more presentable. It still plagued her, whether she’d made the right decision to save the money on second class and take steerage. After she’d bought the tickets she’d heard second-class passengers were given a more cursory inspection.
When Wicktoria slipped her dress over her head and turned her head to free her long hair, she saw him—the man across and one bunk down from her. She’d thought he was asleep, but no—that was clearly a glint off his wet eyeball, open, staring at her. She paused, holding her dress in front of her. What interest could he have in an old woman like her?
She looked at him questioningly, then slipped her top off, letting her pendulous breasts sway out nearly bare, covered only in the thin fabric of her undergarment. He smiled and nodded in appreciation. She’d proceeded to pull off her old stockings—thick, black wool with tiny, random moth holes—then slid her fresh stockings—white with red poppies embroidered along the outer calf—up her dimpled, fine-veined thighs, and fastened them to her garter.
The man smiled at her, then closed his eye, the glint gone.
Finally, on the third morning, the doors opened and the darkness began to move, the long, wide skirts, leather bags tied shut with rope, pillowcases full of nothing worth having, only worth not losing.
On the ferry Wicktoria sat at the window, cheek against the cold glass, eyes closed while Fredek strained over her, looking out. She tried to imagine a moment of complete rest, complete aloneness, a moment when she could let go all her bags, take off her coat and dress, shed the papers with her fake name and pretend husband, crumple the damn tag they’d pinned to her collar, and return to a world in which she could lay down without another pair of eyes to see her drift away.
Now Wicktoria watched the second man further down the line at the elbow in the pipe. He handled each person like a mother who’d had enough—grabbing their faces and peering in their eyes as if they were peepholes, asking questions, writing directly on their clothes. Would this be the end of it? She doubted that. At least it was warm in here.
Wicktoria breathed in a great quantity of air. Her whole chest rose, the papers with her false name, her pretend husband waiting in America, pressing against her breasts. She turned her face toward the high windows above and felt an intense desire to fly, to be able to rise up far away, just her, not even Fredek, into the enormous open space above her, the towering arch of the ceiling, where she could touch the cool tiles on the upper wall, curl up in the immense chandeliers under the gentle warmth of their electric light.
The man waved Goldene down to the next station at the elbow in the pipe and consulted his clipboard again. Fredek glanced at the Old Loaf to ask if he should go on up, but she was staring at the ceiling, her gray head twisting in circles. Fredek followed her eyes to the arched windows, where a faint snow fell against the gray light. He, too, thought of flying— out the windows, out into the new world of rules, laws, languages, and the only thing he feared was leaving behind the Old Loaf. His parents were dead, but she had saved him. He looked at her wrinkled, spotted hand. The knuckles were especially wide and flat, like a man’s. She wore a gold band that had grown too tight some time ago and now sat in a permanent depression which made it seem that removing it would require amputation. Fredek took the hand in his and squeezed it.
Hauss, so miserably slow, seemed to have been manhandling the poor girl for hours. Finally he’d waved her down to Spencer.
“Your name?” Spencer asked, his voice almost a whisper. Her high-necked blouse made it impossible for him to see if she had a mole like Laura’s, a soft-brown spot, perfectly round, just above the clavicle.
She didn’t reply, so he asked loudly if she knew English. “No,” she shouted in Yiddish.
Another Jew. Spencer wondered if she was trying to escape the Pale of Settlement the Russians had set up.
He asked in his limited Yiddish where she was from. The girl looked at him with that expression, the way they all stared, defiant and vacant, resentful, assuming you had something against them, which you didn’t.
“Oh, for God’s sake, I don’t have time for this.” He snapped some papers out of her hands. Macia. He was fairly sure that was Miriam in English. “Miriam, where’s your husband?” It wasn’t his job to ask these questions, but really, what was a woman her age doing coming to America alone?
She said something he didn’t understand, this time in Polish. Why was she switching to that awful language? Did she think he was a bohunk? That he might understand it any better than Yiddish?
The old woman behind Miriam took several steps forward, then stopped under his glare and spoke in Polish to the girl.
“I’m not ready for you yet,” Spencer said sternly, hoping his tone, if not his words, would convey the message.
A boy took the old woman’s hand and pulled her away, mumbling “sorry” in English. Spencer frowned a warning, and went back to Miriam. He was going to just wave the girl through—she was clearly not insane—when he noticed her eyes. Red, puffy. He wiped his hands slowly, rubbing his chalk-laden fingers white again. Then he cupped her jaw. She looked frightened. “It’s all right,” he whispered. “I just have to check your eyes.” Instead of using the buttonhook, he took her fragile, blue-veined lid between his thumb and forefinger. The girl muttered something in Yiddish. He caught the word “don’t.”
“It’s okay,” he muttered, but she pulled away from him, shaking her head and blinking.
“Healthy!” she said in English.
And so she was. No granules, no weeping. At most, she had viral conjunctivitis. More likely, she’d just been crying. “I thought you didn’t speak English,” Spencer said flatly.
“A little,” the girl replied.
If he marked her with a CT and they held her over for examination, Spencer would have a chance to speak to her. He glanced behind him out the window—the gray swirling day, the Statue of Liberty in the distance. If it were sunny they could sit in the wooden folding chairs on the dock and watch ships come in. He would teach her English, then explain America, where to live, how to get a job, warn her against the charlatans on the trains and in the bus stations. She would grow to depend on him. At the board of inquiry he would defend her, explain that his diagnosis had been overly cautious. She’d be indebted.
Spencer waved the boy behind Miriam in line up to him. The old woman followed.
“Do you speak English?” “Some words,” the boy said. “Your name?”
Spencer nodded. “Frederick,” he immediately amended the name by adding a syllable, “you tell her what I say, all right? You can do that?”
“Ask her how old she is.”
“Twenty-three,” Frederick translated.
A year younger than Laura. Dr. Spencer smiled. “Ask her if she is alone.”
“Yes,” Frederick said. “So she’s not married?” “No, sir.”
“How is she going to make a living?” Frederick shook his head.
“Money,” Spencer said, “how will she make money, live, pay rent, buy food.”
Frederick nodded and asked Miriam. She said she was a seamstress and she was meeting her brother, who’d come over last year.
Spencer reached out slowly and touched her hair, winding a lock around his finger. It was just like Laura’s. Even dirty, it felt like hers, crackly autumn leaves in huge piles. Miriam pulled away, looking to Frederick for an explanation. Frederick shrugged. The old woman addressed the boy. He answered her in a word.
Spencer spoke sharply, “You are not up yet. Tell your mother to be quiet.” Hauss had gone through two more people. They waited respectfully several feet away.
The boy said something to the old woman. She replied and Frederick began to translate, but Spencer waved him off, nodding toward Miriam. “Tell her to unbutton her blouse.” He felt sure she had the mole, and he wanted to see it.
Frederick translated, but Miriam pulled her gray shawl more tightly around her shoulders and glanced at the old woman, who stepped forward and spoke. Frederick translated. “Sir, it is a problem, uh, young woman,” he nodded at Miriam, “she is…” He stumbled. “Not want to open blouse, not with men.”
“It’s a medical exam. You have to submit,” Spencer said. Frederick didn’t translate. Spencer slapped him on the arm. “Boy, tell her what I said. People are waiting!”
Frederick told the two women something. Spencer was beginning to doubt he could speak English all that well.
“I need to check her out,” he said. “I’ll take her down to the nurses.
Tell her to come with me.”
Frederick explained this to Miriam, who took a step back, next to the old woman. The woman put her arm around the girl and told the boy something. Frederick hesitated, whispering to the old woman.
Spencer reached out for Miriam’s arm. “Come with me.” She pulled away from him. “No,” she said in English.
The boy said, “She is my sister. Where are you taking her? She is with us.”
“You said she was alone. What do you mean she’s your sister?”
“I…” Frederick stumbled again, then listened for a moment to the old woman. It was clear to Spencer there was something fishy going on.
“She is my sister,” the boy repeated.
Spencer demanded their identification papers. “You don’t have the same last name. Now leave us be, step aside.” He shoved Frederick, who stumbled into the old woman. She spoke sharply to Spencer, clearly reprimanding him for pushing the boy.
Spencer tried to talk above her. “I need to get this girl to the infirmary. She needs to be examined.” He grabbed Miriam’s arm. She yanked it away. He grabbed again and tried to pull her down the line.
The girl’s face had gone blotchy. The old woman and the boy rushed forward. Spencer tried to dodge, but she hit him with her canvas bag while the boy grabbed the girl’s free arm and knitting needles clicked out onto the tile floor. The old woman was shouting. He thought it sounded like the universal language of profanities. Miriam’s shawl fell on the floor. People were staring. The boy hollered, “You hurt her!”
Spencer realized he could feel Miriam’s humerus. He let go. Hauss was staring. The bedraggled faces of those in line were staring. The damn old woman and her boy refused to look away.
Spencer walked back to his station and snatched a piece of chalk. He wrote CT on Miriam’s pleated blouse, then motioned for the old woman to step forward. On her right shoulder he drew a large blue X with a circle around it.
An inspector had come up to see what the ruckus was. “Mental defective?” he asked, watching the old woman move down the line with Miriam and the boy.
“Yes,” Spencer said. “I could see it in her eyes. She’s not all there.” He hadn’t bothered with the boy. He would go back with her automatically, and later, Spencer would find Miriam in the infirmary and comfort her.
The inspector walked off. Spencer rearranged his chalk into neat, clean lines. Hauss had returned to work, but seemed distracted, checking and rechecking his damn clipboard. God, they’d be here all night! Spencer smoothed his shirt and tie. Everything was fine. The old woman and her boy would be gone soon. He motioned with his finger for the next person. A man stepped forward, Spencer looked him over quick—catch up now or never, he figured—and waved him through. Then a woman and her daughter, a young couple.
Spencer waved them through quickly, then scanned the line for Miriam. She, the boy, and the old woman were still several people short of the next station, where inspectors checked for chalk marks and put the ones for return in one wired area, the ones for treatment in another. The three of them were deep in conversation. Then Miriam smiled and turned away, stepping forward in line as he knew she would. She had nothing to do with that annoying kid and his mother. Spencer was about to look away when he saw Frederick motion to the old woman’s shoulder. She slipped off her coat and looked at the mark, then said something to the boy.
“Put the damn coat on and get going,” Spencer muttered. He glanced down the line. Hauss was still flustered. He could see it in his hands, the way they fluttered the pages on the clipboard.
He looked back. The old woman and the boy were hunched together, talking. Then she began to roll up her coat. She removed a pile of yarn from her little bag, stuffed the coat in the bottom, then replaced the yarn on top.
Spencer began to step out from the iron pipes, the words almost in the air—“What do you think you’re doing?”—then stopped. The boy was tapping Miriam on the shoulder, saying something. After a moment, she rubbed at the mark on her blouse vigorously, then covered the smudged blue with her shawl.
In three years not one person had thought to do anything about the marks he chalked on them. Of all those he had diagnosed—which must add up to thousands—the old woman and her boy were the first to understand: it is not good when they mark you apart.
Spencer watched the three of them proceed past the wire compartments, down into the main inspection lines, where they would be asked for their papers, which he’d already seen were in good order. Afterward they’d retrieve whatever remained of their luggage, then step out into the cold and the strangeness of a land they had never seen, didn’t know, couldn’t speak to. For those who left here there was no language, only sound. There was no knowledge, only hope. Once you stepped off the Island the marks you carried could not be stuffed in a bag or washed off a garment. Spencer wanted to call after them, to tell them he was sorry. To holler out “Good luck!” but someone had walked up, another old woman, this one with two boys and an old man. Spencer laid down his chalk and slowly reached for their eyes.
*This story was taken from: You Should Pity Us Instead © 2016 by Amy Gustine, Sarabande Books.