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The Last Day of the War: A Novel

The Split Skirt

On the morning of her eighteenth birthday, Yael Weiss stole a suit from a St. Louis dry-goods store. She'd never stolen anything before, hadn't planned on stealing anything that morning. Still, she made an elegant job of it. That is, she didn't stuff the suit into a bag or try to conceal it beneath a voluminous skirt. She didn't simply grab it and run. All she did was put the suit on and walk out the door. Left behind in a changing room were the clothes she'd come in with: her white cotton waist, her long floral skirt, her full crinoline. She abandoned even her ribboned straw boater.

Now, back out on Locust Street, she doesn't feel guilty about any of it. That's because it's not an ordinary suit she's taken off in. It's a suffragette suit. And what, after all, do the city fathers, the politicians, the angry preachers, and the enflamed Carrie Nations all have to say about the suffragette suit? They say it's immoral. They say it's corrupting. It's the work of the devil, they say. Well, come to find out-they're right. The suffragette suit does lead to a decline in morality. It is a corrupting influence. And apparently it works even faster than liquor. Slip one on, and the next thing you know, you're trotting down a staircase, you're whirling out a revolving door, you're hurrying along a hot August sidewalk, happy and unashamed.

Who would have guessed that a woman's suit could generate such bad behavior? At first glance, it appears so respectable. The one Yael's got on is dark green, a typically muted shade in these days of world war and privation and rationing. The jacket is unremarkable too, stopping just beyond the hips, gently nipped at the waist.

But peer at the skirt for a few minutes longer, as Yael did when she first hopped off a streetcar and saw the outfit in the store's display window, and you'll eventually spot the reason for all the controversy and prattle. It's not the short length (the hem a full two inches above the faceless mannequin's salmon pink ankles) that's the problem. It's that the skirt is split down the middle. Divided in two. Not a skirt at all, then. A pair of very wide-legged trousers.

To stand on a street corner and fall frankly in love with this suit is as much a political act as singing the Internationale in public. Which, Yael has confided to no one, she actually did last February when Emma Goldman was being transferred from the Manhattan Tombs to the Jefferson City Penitentiary. Learning that Goldman was scheduled to switch trains at Union Station, Yael had skipped geometry class and gone to the terminal, not because she was a Red (she wasn't; she isn't), but because she was dying to know what a woman like Goldman looked like in person. She wanted to see not only the radical who was about to serve two years for protesting the war, but the feminist who had actually painted her name alongside her lover's on their mailbox In Greenwich Village.

At first Yael was disappointed. Away from her podium, Red Emma seemed neither defiant nor dangerous. She was a doughy-faced Russian, middle-aged, with thick legs. As the attorney general's man marched her across the platform and onto the train bound for the pen, Yael found it hard to believe that such a dowdy character even had a lover. But after the train pulled out and the genuine Reds who'd come to support Goldman began belting out their illegal anthem, Yael was glad she'd come. The song was so stirring, so heartfelt, and so catchy she had no choice. She had to hum along.

Yael had been hiding behind a post that day, unseen and unheard. This morning, her politics are far more visible. When she got off the streetcar, a small crowd was gathered in front of the store window. "Disgraceful," a woman was saying, and there were nods and murmured agreement. Joining them, Yael looked at the object of their disapproval and smiled. "No daughter of mine," another woman said, and Yael went inside.

Sauntering up the main aisle, glancing at trinkets in display cases electrically lit, Yael reminded herself she was there just to look, to cast a vote of confidence, as it were, for the maligned suit. No matter how much she liked it, no matter how flattering the suit might turn out to be, she knew she couldn't have it because she couldn't afford it. Her father was David Weiss, owner of Mamzelle, Inc., the largest manufacturer of ladies' corsets in the Midwest, and a year ago price would not have been a concern. But the war had hurt the corset business. Every week, the government commandeered more of the steel Mamzelle needed for her gussets and bones. Every week, more American women donated their corsets to the metal drives, concealing their figures' flaws beneath the new waistless chemises and barrel coats. Meanwhile, Mamzelle's employees were taking jobs at munitions plants, where they got to make parachute silks instead of pink brocade tummy panels. Over dinner, Yael's mother fretted. "They're leaving in droves," she said of the employees, and Yael's father, who coped with this sort of thing by making jokes, said, "Also in streetcars and Fords."

So Yael knew she could not buy the suit. But she trotted upstairs to the Ladies' Ready-made department and tried it on anyway. Back out on the floor, she examined herself in a triptych of mirrors, where she saw that, indeed, she looked well in it. She posed for herself, a little smile, lips slightly apart. She moved her legs slightly apart too. She held up her long dark hair and tried to guess how it would look bobbed. Sleek and sable, she thought. And what if she were to cut thick bangs? Would they distract the eye from the unfortunate curve of her nose?

Sighing, she turned her back on her reflection. She meant to return to the dressing room then, take the suit off, kick it aside, get on with her day. She was already late for her shift at the Red Cross. But each retreating step made it harder for her to do what she intended. It felt too good, giant-stepping in that suit. Her own skirt would now feel like a Victorian hobble.

Avoiding the dressing room, she paced instead from one end of Ready-made to the other. As she did, a plan came to her. She would find a clerk, tell the clerk who her father was, invoke the name of Mamzelle. The clerk, unaware of the family's failing fortunes, would let her take the suit on credit. Then, when she got home, she would wheedle and whine. No need to portray herself as a freethinker who has just found her perfect uniform. She would play the simple girl who craves the latest from Seventh Avenue. Yael kept up with folks like Emma Goldman, it was true, but she also read the women's magazines. She knew how to justify the purchase of new clothes during wartime. "Fashion!" Good Housekeeping had exclaimed only recently. "To some the word seems trivial when hearts turn to Flanders Field. Still, what a sorry world it would be if women were not charming."

The only flaw in her plan was this: she did not seem to be stopping to implement it. Rather than turning around and finding a clerk, she was continuing forward, striding out of Ready-made into Custom-made, loping out of Custom-made into Children's. Out of Children's into Toddlers'. Out of Toddlers' into Infants'.

And now down the staircase, hurrying through talking machines and radios. Now dashing through sheet music and player pianos, spinning out the door, rushing back onto Locust, jubilant and giddy, and why wouldn't she be? It was her eighteenth birthday, and in the midst of endless war, dateless nights, meatless Mondays, and wheatless Wednesdays, wasn't she entitled to one self-indulgence, one small pleasure? Wasn't she entitled, just for today, her day, to whatever it was she desired?

Chapter Two


When Yael and the century were both four years old, her parents took her to the St. Louis World's Fair. After hours inside makeshift pavilions and temporary palaces, after improvised meals of ice-cream cones, iced tea, and hot dogs-treats invented just for the Exposition-the sun set and the family walked to the Pike, a wide boulevard illuminated by rows of electric lights, those mechanical moons buzzing like bees. Sitting on her father's shoulders, Yael watched seventy-seventy!-motorcars parade by; in the rumble seat of the very last one, Will Rogers, so chisel-faced, so young, performed his intricate rope tricks. Then, as soon as he was gone, all the lights hissed off and darkness fell. Thousands gasped. And then-more gasps-fireworks exploded, actual words glowing against the black sky: Good-bye. Farewell.

On this birthday, she'd woken to a sky that was pale yellow from heat and contained no messages, not even a cloud. Over a breakfast of sugar omelets and twice-boiled coffee, she opened her parents' presents. In an oblong box that might have held a pearl necklace, she found a fountain pen. In a square box that ought to have contained a ring or a cameo, she discovered a bottle of violet ink. "To bring to the Red Cross," her mother said. "For writing to the boys." Then, in honor of the occasion, her mother recalled Yael's birth in an overcrowded lying-in hospital. "A basement delivery room," Esther Weiss said. "That's where they put me. Down in the dungeon with all the other shrieking women. No windows, no fans, not a drop of fresh air."

Nothing but the sodden heat of a midwestern summer. Yael had heard the story countless times, for years had blamed that stifling basement for her troublesome first name, so different, so foreign, so hard to pronounce. Yael meant alpine goat; it came from a Hebrew verb meaning to climb, to ascend, and as a child she had assumed that, after nearly two days of blazing hot underground labor, her mother had chosen a name that spoke of snow-capped peaks, icy streams, gamboling kids. But when, at seven or eight, Yael had given voice to that theory, her mother had hooted. "Jews name for the dead," Esther said. "Not for goats."

The Weisses never were practicing Jews. Still, they adhered to certain traditions. David Weiss refused to eat pork. Bacon and ham, yes, but no pork chops, no pork roast. Nothing called pork. Esther Weiss named for the dead. "Once upon a time," she said, "you had an ancestor named Yael, and when she died, the next girl to be born was named Yael in her place, and this continued, generation after generation, until the name was given to my dear departed great-grandmother, and then to my dear departed mother, and then to you." Now, instead of imagining goats when she considered her name, Yael pictured a flitting housefly landing on girl after girl after girl.

She finished breakfast, thanked her parents again for the pen, and caught the streetcar for the Red Cross Center. She already regretted signing up for a shift. It was too hot to knit woolen sweaters or write jaunty letters. As the streetcar jogged through her Benton Park neighborhood, she stared through the open sides at the large brick houses, the gleaming black automobiles, the few remaining milk cows tethered to trees, and thought about how boring the summer had been and would continue to be. Every boy who was worth anything was overseas. For the girls left behind, days were tedious and nights even worse, Yael and her friends sitting through insipid Billie Burke romances or the latest Chaplin (yet another scoop of ice cream dropped down the back décolletage of a rich woman's dress). Already Yael had begun making excuses so she could stay home by herself. She preferred to loll alone in her room, doing absolutely nothing as the light faded and the sky turned that nameless shade of blue she found both lovely and eerie and which, she suspected, was the same color as blood as it traveled the arteries, her blood before it was exposed to oxygen.

While she daydreamed about her ruined summer, the streetcar stopped, and a boy she'd known all her life climbed on. Yael turned her head, trying to become invisible, but he waved and sat by her side. As a boy, Chaim Mandel had been a copper-eyed redhead, and her little girlfriends, already marriage-minded at five or six, assumed the two would someday wed. Weren't they the only Jews in the whole Froebel Method school? Weren't they both bookish and short? A perfect pair, and the little girls chanted rhymes linking the two, mangling their impossible names, changing Chaim to Hyram, pronouncing Yael so it rhymed with jail. Everyone in St. Louis pronounced her name that way. Even she pronounced it that way unless she was being especially deliberate.

After she exchanged pleasantries with him-at seventeen, Chaim Mandel was a long drink of water with so many freckles he appeared to be rusting and hair so thick it grew upward like a mound of red yarn, and her girlfriends had long ago stopped wishing him on her-Yael resumed staring at the houses and then, as the streetcar grumbled on, at the small shops, the wider streets, the ever-increasing number of cars, but he wouldn't leave her alone. "So, yes, I'm off to work," he said, as if she'd inquired. She had to face him then, adopt an expression of interest. "Yes," he said. "So I'm working in my uncle's offices until I leave St. Louis."

Though he clearly longed for her to press him, she didn't ask why he was leaving or where he was going, and for a moment he appeared hurt. But he had a good nature, could slough off an insult, and so he went on, chatting about his job and then about Cleopatra, which was playing in town now. Had she heard about Theda Bara's negligible costumes? he wondered. He made a tiresome joke. "I'm telling you, you'll never see Theda barer," he said, and turned crimson at his own remark.

A redhead's violent blush. Yael couldn't stand it. She fanned herself with her hand as if she'd just noticed the weather. "It's hot," she said. "I'm going to ride the board."

They were downtown by then, where the buildings stood shoulder to shoulder, blocking the sun's rays, though not its heat. Now there was the added discomfort of pickaxes and jackhammers, the racket of new construction. And amid the darkness and racket was Chaim Mandel, who had followed her back to the chain. "So perhaps we could go," he shouted over the din. "To the picture show sometime, I mean. Maybe this week. I'm leaving next week or maybe the week after. You can't know for sure. They won't tell you a thing. But it's definitely soon that I'm leaving."

Excerpted from The Last Day of the War © Copyright 2005 by Judith Claire Mitchell. Reprinted with permission by Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Last Day of the War: A Novel
by by Judith Claire Mitchell

  • paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor
  • ISBN-10: 038572201X
  • ISBN-13: 9780385722018