Short Story: San Francisco, January 1934 by Jill Caugherty

San Francisco, January 1934

Decades later, Emma would think of that day as an irreversible portal between two worlds. As soon as she had slipped through it, the portal had slammed shut. Though she had pressed her eye to the keyhole and pounded against the door in rising desperation, the old world had retreated and hurtled away, while she remained, crouched and panting. Later still, as the sharp contours of the new world became as familiar as the threat of the next big earthquake, she wondered whether everything before had been a fleeting, shimmering mirage. Maybe this new, hard world was the true one.

Nothing about the start of the day hinted it would be different from any other. The gas hissed as Mother lit the stove in the kitchen down the hall. Shivering, Emma hoisted herself from the bed she shared with Audrey and tiptoed to the bureau to dress. The floorboards sent chills up her spine as she creaked into the kitchen, but at least here, it was warmer.

In her pink housecoat, Mother bent over the stove, frying eggs and leftover potatoes.

“I can help,” Emma said.

Mother swiveled around and gave her an appraising stare. “Go ahead and boil water for coffee. First let me fix that dress.”

With a couple of expert twists, she buttoned the high collar of Emma’s blue gingham, to hide the eczema pocks on her throat that her long hair couldn’t conceal. Emma had rashes on her elbows and knees, too, which she covered with long sleeves and skirts, but she could do nothing about the scarlet stains on her cheeks. She hated them, fearing they branded her like a cow. To boot, she was small: just over five feet and full grown at fifteen.

Per Mother’s instructions, Emma heated up rolls from last night’s supper and set water to boil. Because Dad’s and James’ work down at the docks was unpredictable and dangerous, Mother prepared for the worst by folding left-overs into breakfast, soups, or stews, re-using tea bags, coffee, and strings, saving cans and newspapers, and doing without sugar and butter.

Still, although many folks had suffered the effects of the crash, Emma’s family was not destitute, not like some, because Dad had work as a regular longshoreman; and James, who had graduated from high school last spring, had joined him as a newbie-in-training. All the same, according to her brother, every day was a crap shoot, whether they’d get work.

Well before eight, they lined up with the other maritime workers at the Ferry Building to wait for the blue book union’s hiring boss to climb onto a platform of crates, gaze at them with a contemptuous grin, and jab his finger at his choices for the day’s hires. The regulars, like Dad, had a slightly better chance than transients and newbies of earning a job for the day: loading and unloading enormous cargo sacks of sugar, copper, and coffee from the ships; operating a crude pulley or winch; driving a jitney; or running back and forth between the ships and the donkeys. In one of his black moods, Dad referred to the system as a medieval slave market, and the company foreman as the chief fink.

“Go wake your brother, will you,” Mother said, pouring the kettle of boiling water into a butler of yesterday’s coffee grounds. “And Audrey, too.”

Emma stepped into the front parlor that doubled as James’ bedroom at night. The centerpiece of the room was its turn-of-the-century fireplace with intricate wainscoting.

Her brother sprawled beneath a pile of blankets on the fold-out sofa – long limbs and knobby joints.

“James, time to get up. Food’s about ready.”

When he didn’t move, she shook his shoulder, gently, until he mumbled and rose to a sitting position.

Emma flicked on the lamp on the bureau in the room she shared with nine-year-old Audrey and drew back the covers. Audrey’s curly brown locks spilled onto the pillow. She was thin and small, and the stark outline of her ribs jutted through her nightgown. Shielding her eyes, she twisted away from the light.

As part of their morning routine, a kind of game, Emma tickled her sister’s under arms, while Audrey sputtered and giggled.

“Are you awake, truly? Sure you won’t go back to sleep? Because I’ll tickle you again.” She swooped a hand into the covers.

“No!” Audrey shrieked, laughing, and scrambled onto the floorboards. “You’re the meanest sister on Rainbow Lane!”

Audrey had nicknamed their little neighborhood, just off the Embarcadero, for the dwellings’ colors: blue, yellow, green, white, lavender, cotton-candy pink. The Victorian house in which they rented a two-bedroom flat flaunted the bright blue of a robin’s egg. Most of the houses on the street had been built shortly after the terrible earthquake and fire of 1906, and Emma thought perhaps the city’s residents had chanced optimism by choosing bold, unconventional colors, reconstructing homes from charred ruin. She liked that San Francisco’s citizens cherished offbeat people and places.

Later, the five of them gathered around the oak table at the edge of the kitchen, tucking into the eggs, potatoes, and toast. A tall window overlooked the street, where outside, it was still dark as twilight.

Dad sloshed down his coffee. “I might be home later than usual, even if things don’t go well at the shape-up.”

He exchanged a look with James, who said, “Me, too.”

Emma waited for them to explain, but they were silent.

Mother frowned. “Albion Hall?”

This was the code name of a secret group of longshoremen who met to talk over grievances, organized by a man with the surname Bridges, whom they called Australian Harry.

Dad nodded. “We’re putting out a new issue of The Waterfront Worker. First it needs to be typeset.”

“Aren’t you afraid of rubbing shoulders with those reds? There’s bound to be trouble if the company finds out.”

“They won’t find out. We publish under pseudonyms. I’m Vern Bush.” He laughed, though Mother stared at him, aghast.

“Somebody’s got to tell it like it is,” James said, “We’re no better than chain gangs run by wardens who take bribes. Every day there’s an accident.”

“I don’t want to hear this,” Mother said, pursing her lips, “I want you to find something else.”

“There’s nothing else to be had, Ma.”

Emma had heard Mother and James repeat variations of this job argument so often it had become a forgettable chorus in a once-spirited song.

She spooned a clump of eggs onto her toast. Dad and James bowed their heads, chewing noisily, slurping down coffee, pausing only to swipe their fists against their mouths.

James raised his head and faced Mother. When he spoke, it was something new. His voice thundered through the room – edgy, defiant.

“You should know we’re trying to change things. We’re going to hit the bricks for a pay raise and shorter hours and an end to the fink hall. For starters.”

Surprised, Emma stopped chewing.

The window glittered their reflections back at them: a cozy-looking family in communion. It was too dark to see anything beyond, though a streetlamp flickered at the corner.

A wary expression crossed Mother’s face. She shook her head. “If the shipowners get wind of anyone who’s involved in this, you can be sure you’ll never work in this city again. They might even send you to jail as commies.” A thin brown trail spilled from her coffee mug as she lifted it. She pretended not to notice and lifted her chin toward Dad, her mouth hard.

Dad gazed back at her, then shrugged and crumpled his napkin onto the table. “The bigger risk is to sit around like stooges and let the company squeeze us out of every last dime. They can afford to pay more. Hell, they’re making money hand over fist. Next month, at the ILA District Convention, we’re going to overhaul the whole crooked lot. Now’s a good time. We’ve got clout up and down the coast, and they know it. They can’t let the ports shut down for long. It’s one of the few things keeping the economy afloat.”

James leaned forward, eyes shining, and Emma sensed in him a wild, churning river, about to gush over its banks, unrestrained.

Mother must have seen this, too. A deep crease appeared in her brow. “There’s no need for you to get involved in this, too. I want you to stay out of it.”

“Don’t worry, Ma. I’m an adult now. I can take care of myself.”

“I won’t let him get into trouble. It’s good for him to stand up for something that concerns his future. Fact is, we can’t tip the scales without help from the younger fellows.”

Mother narrowed her eyes. “Be careful,” she said; and Emma would remember this warning later.

Dad scraped back his chair and gathered his jacket and white cap from its peg by the door, slung a docker’s hook onto his hip pocket. James clapped an old felt hat of Dad’s onto his head, and wriggled into his coat.

Mother rose, too, looking annoyed, and motioned to Emma and Audrey to help clear the table. With sullen mouth and hooded eyes, Mother turned on the faucet and rolled up her sleeves. She remained silent when Dad kissed her cheek in parting, but she leaned across the counter and thrust two paper sacks into his hands, which Emma knew contained ham sandwiches and sliced apples.

The door opened and closed, and Dad and James disappeared into the chilly dark for their trek to the waterfront. A fog siren howled, and a steamer horn blasted. Along the Peninsula’s edge, from Fisherman’s Wharf to China Basin, steamer ships would dock in the piers, and the waterfront foremen would supervise the unloading of goods into the warehouses.

At eight o’clock, as the Ferry Building siren wailed, Emma and Audrey caught a streetcar to the primary and high schools south of Van Ness and Market Streets. Sometimes they walked, but today Emma wanted to do some last minute cramming before her history exam in third period. A chill wind blew through their coats, pinched their cheeks. From the wharf wafted the odor of decaying fish washed onto the shore, along with the stinging salt air. Chickens crowed and cackled from the poultry houses, and jitney trucks sped past on their way to the docks.

Bouncing on the seat beside Emma, Audrey chattered about the game she had invented for her school friends. She often buzzed with activity, reminding Emma of a hummingbird.

When Emma made no comment, she demanded to know what her sister was studying. Emma cast her an impatient glance. “The Civil War. But be quiet, will you, I’ve got an exam in three hours.”

When they climbed off the streetcar, Emma guided Audrey to the double doors of the primary school, and hurried into the high school next door as the first bell rang.

It was during third period, in the middle of her history exam, when the school secretary appeared at the door of the classroom, and conferred in hushed voices with her teacher. At first Emma paid little attention, but when her teacher paused beside her desk and touched her shoulder, telling her in a whisper to report to the office, she felt a slithery frisson of alarm.

“What about my exam?” she whispered back, but her teacher only responded, “Don’t worry about that. This is more important.”

In the musty office at the front of the school, the secretary would tell her nothing, except she was to collect her little sister and return home immediately.

“What is it?” she pleaded. “What’s happened?”

When the secretary repeated her mother’s order to fetch Audrey and go home at once, she felt numb, rigid with fear. Something disastrous, surely. Something unspeakable, unnamable.

It felt like hours passed as she scrambled to the primary school and asked the office to notify Audrey’s teacher that she was to be sent home, without delay.

Waiting on a stiff bench in the school office, she clicked her heels together, chafed her hands, sifting through the horror of possibilities. Had Mother taken ill? Had something happened to Dad or James at the dock? Had a loan shark come after them, evicted them onto the street with all their belongings?

At last Audrey poked her head into the door, grinning, apparently delighted at the prospect of an unexpected turn to her day, complete with a school absence. “Here I am! What’s happening, Ems? Where are we going?”

“Home,” Emma answered sharply.

“Why?” Audrey trotted after her as she exited the building without a backward glance, not even bothering to say goodbye to the woman in the office who had summoned her sister.

“First, it’s not a holiday, Audrey. So get that out of your mind.”

“Slow down,” Audrey begged. “Why are you going so fast?”

“It’s an emergency, I don’t know what. But we’re needed at home, and it can’t be good.”

After that, Audrey said nothing, but trailed Emma wordlessly into the streetcar, and stole worried glances at her as they circled back up toward the Embarcadero.

As the streetcar clanged its bell near Bay Street, Emma rose and yanked Audrey up with her. “We’ll get out here and walk. It will be faster.”

“Are you frightened?” Audrey asked.

“Yes. The sooner we get home, the better.” The sooner we’ll know, she thought, whatever terrible fate lies ahead.

As they rounded the three blocks and their street came into view, the jelly bean colors of the houses suddenly seemed frivolous, foolhardy anomalies – waving for attention like childish hands that would surely be beaten down.

An imposing, black two-door roadster that Emma had never seen sat in front of their house. Without waiting for Audrey, Emma ran the rest of the way, her heart pounding in blind animal terror, her ribs aching. She bounded up the stairs, two at a time, to the door of their apartment. Panting, Audrey struggled after her, and hollered, “Wait for me! Ems, wait!”

Emma flung open the door and stormed into the hallway. In the parlor on the left, James sat on the sofa, cradling Mother, whose face was buried against his chest. A strange man with a prominent, beaked nose and dark, dusty trousers sat in the stiff-backed chair opposite them, holding his hat against his knees.

Audrey tripped breathlessly into the entrance way, and hovered behind Emma, clutching her sister’s arm. Neither of them thought to shut the door. They stood in stunned silence, as though gripped by a chill, staring at the wavering shapes of their mother and brother and the stranger.

“Come here,” James murmured at last, raising his head, and they approached reluctantly, like children called to the front of the class to be punished. The thought occurred to Emma that she could simply run out the door, pretending none of this had happened, and then maybe it wouldn’t have. But it was too late, and she knew from Mother’s heaving shoulders and muffled sobs that there was no return.

“Dad had a heart attack down on the docks,” James said, his voice barely above a whisper. “They summoned a doctor, but it was too late by the time he arrived. He’s gone.”

Emma felt a beating in her temples, thick and blinding, blotting out the significance of other sounds in the room. Her brother may have said something else, but she didn’t hear, nor did she make sense of Mother’s strangled wail or the feeble condolences the man on the couch – the company foreman, they later learned – offered.

The novel Dad had been reading, Lost Horizon, lay on the table beside the sofa. Emma closed her fist around it, sank with it onto the floor. Audrey slid beside her, still clutching her arm. She considered shaking her sister loose, but instead she concentrated on Audrey’s weight pressing against her.

“It can’t be true,” she heard herself quail in a thin voice. “He’s fine. We just saw him. He ate breakfast. He was going down to the docks. It must be a mistake.”

“It killed him,” Mother said, struggling to rise from the sofa. “That damn job killed him. Lifting fifty pound sacks of God knows what at his age, like a good-for-nothing bum.”

James wrapped his arms around her. “There now, Ma.”

Mother fought him, then, pummeled him with both fists, railing that she had seen it coming, she had warned the both of them to find something else, this was the last straw. “And goddammit, you wouldn’t listen,” she concluded.

Audrey let loose a howl, which immediately erupted into a stream of tears, but Emma found she could not join her, even though releasing the maelstrom within her chest would likely have brought some relief – at least so she could abandon herself to it, let it drag her away from the frigid tomb in which each motion of her limbs was straitjacketed.

At some point, the stranger left, still cupping his hat in his hands. At the door, he muttered, “On behalf of the company, ma’am, we’re awful sorry for your loss.”

As soon as the door shut behind him, Mother cursed, “Goddamn the company, the whole lot of them. I don’t expect a goddamn penny out of them.”

She clenched a fist, as if to rain blows again on James, but instead she choked out a sob and clung to his arm, burying her head against his shoulder.

An engine roared to life, and tires skidded down the street. Emma pictured the foreman wiping his brow and pressing his foot against the gas pedal, relieved to be rid of them. The novel slipped from her hands. From far away, down at the Front, a fog horn bellowed. It was then, left by themselves in the flat, that she understood. They had entered a new, terrible world, unaccountably bitter and hard, one they weren’t supposed to have known.


Jill Caugherty's debut historical novel, WALTZ IN SWING TIME, will be published by Black Rose Writing in April, and her short stories have been published in 805Lit and Oyster River Pages. Her debut short story, “Real People,” was nominated for the 2019 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers.

Jill holds a B.S. in Computer Science from Stanford University, an M.S. in Computer Science from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and an MBA with honors from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. An award-winning marketing manager, she lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with her husband and daughter.