Ye Olde “Locked Room” Story.
Well, the room isn’t really locked. Characters could leave the room, but the story couldn’t.
The judges said they liked it, but I think they wanted more backstory. They said they wanted details as to precisely when it was happening. Evidently, “thirty years after the Austro-Prussian War” and “The Bavarian (Chlodwig Carl Viktor) is chancellor of Germany” weren’t big enough hints. Are they saying not every reader that will ever view my writing isn’t an expert in late nineteenth century German politics?
They also wanted more backstory with the father. But the contest runners had said backstory shouldn’t be outside of the room, so I tried to toe the line a little.
Here ya go:
The room is sparse. The only real furniture is a small writing desk in the corner and a twin-sized bed along the opposite wall. The bed and its frame are locked in a competition to be the most lackluster. The latter is a collection of four steel legs with a few black splotches to indicate that, somewhere in its distant past, it might have attempt to provide some hospitality. The former is a stripped-down, flat piece of cloth with a permanent indentation down the middle, representing those countless prior inhabitants who might have seen the frame in its former glory.
Grey, clinical walls. Or perhaps not clinical, but regulation. Everything about this room is uniform and regulation. Nothing extravagant. Nothing inviting. No indication that the visitor is welcome.
Which is a shame, Margaret thinks she will spend a fair amount of time here. How long, she is not quite sure. The strange, alien language being thrown around in her presence conveys little information Margaret can use. But the clipboard and the inspections and the pointings tell her this is her new home.
Not much to look at inside the room. But the view outside the room is simultaneously majestic and infuriating. Visible through a thick, warbled window, both a bit too thick to give a true sense of its view, but opaque enough that the sight cannot be ignored. The most inviting sight in all the world, mocking her by denying entry.
“Ha famiglia in l’America?”
Margaret looks up at the new entrant, confused. She doesn’t understand, but she is closer to understanding than before. This language is not quite as foreign as the one that everyone else is speaking.
The speaker of the new language looks back at Margaret in equal confusion. Her dark eyes, curtained by two, even darker, locks of hair that have broken free from the tight bun atop her head. It has been a long day for her, yet her white smock is as pristine as the moment she got off the boat this morning, a short boat ride by comparison. The only evidence of the day’s stress is those two strands of hair out of place.
Still, the worker can’t worry about her hair right now. Her days are always long, and this day will be longer if she can’t communicate with the residents. That is precisely her job, her profession. And her experience tells her that the last question should have produced a response. She looks down at the clipboard in her hand, looks back up at Margaret.
“Mi hai capito, Senora Maguerita?”
French? Margaret doesn’t think so. It sounds close, similarly sonorous. But the French don’t enunciate the way this olive-skinned girl does. Which probably means one of the other Latin languages.
“Keine Franzosisch,” Margaret says.
They are the first words Margaret has spoken since arriving. Words don’t have much meaning when nobody understands. Everything about this place is designed to avoid verbal communication. Solid yellow lines, signs with pictures, drawings with numbers attached, clipboards.
Pointing, pointing, and more pointing.
Margaret followed the yellow lines and the signs and the pointing. She nodded when the workers, in their white smocks or their grey shirts or their black jackets, said things to her in their alien tongue. She was starting to wonder if this new land was nothing but silent compliance.
Except this woman addressed her differently. No pointing, but a pen poised above the clipboard. She was waiting for a response. Expecting a response. So Margaret responded.
The social worker with the two strands of loose hair turns to the other official in the room. This one, a gaunt man wearing a grey coat over a crisp white shirt and regulation-red tie, looks back at the woman in the smock, then to Margaret. There is no understanding between any of them. Here they are, three people in the same room, speaking three different languages.
“Scusi,” White Smock says. “I meant German. I think she is German.”
Finally, a word Margaret knows. She is German. Not that she calls herself that. None of her people think of themselves as German. Her language is Deutsch. And, increasingly since the unification, people are calling Deutsch their nationality, too. But it is slow going. Margaret still thinks of herself as Bavarian most often, even if that particular state ceased to exist when she was three years old.
But German, she knows, is the word that the English called the Deutsch. And Americas is just a mini-England. Typical of English arrogance to not call a people what they prefer to be called. Bismarck had been wrong about a number of things, for which the Kaiser had rightly fired him and finally, after one more misfire, replaced him with a proper Bavarian. But one thing Bismarck had been correct about was how the rest of the world saw the upstart Deutsch. Like little kids, only capable of breaking things.
“Ja.” Margaret seizes upon the word she knows, even if it is insulting and diminutive. “Ja, ich bin deutsch. Um, German.”
The man with the regulation tie and regulation shirt and regulation coat raised his bushy eyebrows above his bushy mustache. The mustache was not regulation, and had been out of the norm since the Chester Arthur administration, but government officials are not always known for being up on fashion.
“You’re German?” He asked. When Margaret doesn’t immediately respond, he points to her. Always with the pointing. “German?”
“Ja. Yes.” Margaret follows suit, pointing at herself. “German.”
Mustache Man and White Smock both lean in to look at the woman’s clipboard. The man scratches his head.
“Well then I guess you should go get a German translator.”
The man pats the social worker on the rump in an act of dismissal. The woman takes the gesture for what it is and turns to leave. Margaret now assumes she must have been Italian. She used the word Tadesco for German. That is not a reference Margaret knows, but she is at least cognizant enough to know that the French refer to her people as Allemand. One cannot grow up in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War without knowing some of the words used on each side.
Tadesco. Allemand. German. Every country has their own word for her people. Just as long as nobody respects them enough to call them by their own name. Here she is, barely considering herself German, but now fiercely defensive of the idea. Immigrants are always much more unified in America than they were back home, she has heard. You may not be Deutsch now but you will be when you’re off the boat. And here she is, off the boat and separated into a room from which she may never escape, and she finds herself more Deutsch, more German, than ever before.
Nationalism at its finest.
Margaret feels awkward being alone in the room with the man. She wonders if he is going to pat her on the rump like he did the Italian woman. What would she do? There isn’t anywhere to go. And this man holds her future in his hand.
But the man doesn’t move. Perhaps he only touches those he works with. Those he is superior to in an official sense, as a superior and a worker, and not just superior in a generic sense, as a native to an immigrant.
Or perhaps Margaret’s current state is working as an agent in dissuasion. It has been months since a man has looked at her with any sort of lust. Not when she is so clearly lusted out.
The man merely stands near the doorway in something akin to attention, albeit with his hands clasped in front of his stomach instead of rigid at his side. His eyes stare straight forward from between the two forests warring on his face, his gaze encompassing all of the room and none of it at the same time. He will stop her from trying to dart past him, but short of that, he will let her have the run of the room. And in Margaret’s current state, she won’t be darting past any guards or doors.
Feeling secure, if not safe, Margaret puts her hand on her lower back and turns away from the government worker and all of his facial hair. She once again looks around the room, her new home for the foreseeable future. It remains sparse. The desk has a chair, which looks much more inviting than comfortable, but there will be plenty of time to sit there later. And to lie on the bed.
For now, the only thing worth seeing is through the window. Margaret walks closer, hoping to get a better view of the azure heaven lying beyond. Warbled as it is through the window, it still sends a clear message of potential. Painted above a deeper indigo sea beneath, the two blues meet together at a not-too-distant horizon, where another island, a larger island with buildings and people and commerce, lay.
And between Margaret and this land stands the guardian. This Statue, Lady Liberty, shows her profile to Margaret and all of the previous and future residents of her well-worn room. She looks out to sea, to all of the incoming immigrants, her hand raised in the international sign for “Stop!” The torch in her hand might be a firearm, preparing to shoot any trespassers who deign to sneak behind her billowing bronze skirt into the land beyond. The book in her hand, so similar to the clipboard in the hands of the various smocked and suited and coated officials in the officialdom Margaret finds herself in. Like the Italian lady who had left Margaret alone in the room with the mustachioed statue behind her, guarding the exit from the room as surely as Liberty on her pedestal in the ocean guarded the exit from the island.
The new voice pries Margaret’s gaze away from the locked gates of Heaven. Another woman in another white smock with another clipboard stands next to the government official now. This woman has blonde hair and blue eyes, but other than that she might be the same person. Same age, experienced enough to be fluent in two languages, but young enough for a mustachioed man to pat on the rump. The smock fits her the same way, hanging loosely to avoid any personality being exhibited from bodily proportions, the same way Liberty’s dress falls around her own steel frame.
“Heisen sie Frau Marguerita?” The new arrival asks in German. “Is your name Mrs. Marguerita?”
Finally, something Margaret can respond to.
“No, I am Mrs. Shengel.” ,” Margaret answers, also in her native tongue.
“So sorry.” The woman writes something down on her clipboard. “Someone copied your last name down as Marguerita, so they assumed you were Italian.”
“My first name is Margaret. Margaret Shengel.”
The woman nods without looking up from the clipboard. “Good thing you responded in the negative or else your name would have officially been listed as Stephania Marguerita and you would have been delivered to Brooklyn.”
“They can do that? Just change somebody’s name?”
“We try not to. But it happens.”
The translator shows her clipboard to Herr Mustache, points at what is written there, and then hands the clipboard to him. He takes the top paper from the clipboard, returns the clipboard to his co-worker, and leaves the room. Margaret notes that the German-speaking woman doesn’t touch any part of the man on his way out of the room.
“I am Anna,” the translator says when the two of them are alone in the room. “Please have a seat.”
She points Margaret toward the desk chair. Margaret hobbles the three steps away from the window and tries to ease herself down but instead plops into a seated position. The chair squeaks.
Anna sits on the edge of the bed, crossing her legs in a friendly, on-your-level stance. The mattress does not shift at all under her weight, and Margaret is impressed she doesn’t sink toward the central indentation.
“Was Anna your original name or the name they gave you here?” Margaret says with a smile.
“Both,” Anna responds with a smile of her own. “We honestly don’t change too many names here. We try to avoid it.”
We. Margret notes the word choice. Anna is part of a “we.” Margaret is still part of a “you” or a “they.” Until she can leave this room, she will always be a “they.”
“You say you are going to Milwaukee,” Anna says, looking down at the piece of paper left on the clipboard in her lap. “Do you have family there?”
“My brother,” Margaret lies. Her brother has been to Milwaukee before, but he is back in Bavaria, back in Germany, now. But there are many Germans in Milwaukee. A community to take care of her and her child. A chance for her to be part of a “we” again.
“Mmm, hmmm.” Anna writes something down. “And that is the Hans you wrote?”
“Yes. Hans Stengel.” Margaret responds, immediately knowing she should not have said it. Would they already know the whereabouts of Hans Stengel? Certainly the name must be common enough. Or perhaps the real danger lie in her and her brother having the same last name.
“And the father?”
Margaret acts confused. She knows where this line of questioning is going, but she hopes to avoid the subject. She decides to be intentionally obtuse, in the hopes of steering the conversation.
“My father died in the war.”
Now Anna is confused. “Is there a war I’m unaware of?”
“The Seven Weeks’ War.” Maybe Anna is too young to have heard of it.
“That was thirty years ago.” One does not work in an immigration station without being up on all of the push and pull factors.
“Yes. My mother was carrying me at the-,”
“No, I’m sorry,” Anna interrupts Margaret’s narrative. “I mean the father of…”
The interpreter points toward Margaret’s enlarged womb. Margaret nods.
“Is the father of your child in Milwaukee?”
“Yes,” Margaret lies again. What else can she say? For all she knows, the father of her child might actually be in Milwaukee. She hasn’t seen him in eight months. If there’s anyone in need of a fresh start, it’s Margaret.
“And his name?”
This time Margaret need not lie. That snake is assuredly the baby’s father.
“And you are Stengel? Are you to be married?”
Margaret nods and resumes the lie. “That is why I have come. To be married before the baby.”
“How far along are you?”
One last lie. Margaret doesn’t want to go back on the boat. There is only one direction she can leave this room in, and it is toward the Statue.
Anna raises her eyebrow at the claim. But fortunately, Anna is young. As was the Italian woman. Margaret’s hope rests on the propensity of mustachioed gentlemen to hire damsels of the younger ilk. If Anna had given birth herself, she’d take one look at Margaret and, in order to preserve the” we,” push her right back on to the next boat back to the Old World.
Margaret wants her child to be born in America. If the child is born here, he will be an American, and so, by extension, will she. She knows the stories, and she knows the customs. If they think she is close, they will put her back on the boat. If they think they have time, they will investigate her claims. Look all over Wisconsin for a Hans and a Mikkel. And by then…
“Okay, six months.”
Anna writes something down on her clipboard, and now it is official.
“You are being quarantined,” Anna speaks aloud the German translation of the official statement she has recounted numerous times, “pending official investigation of your claims. At that point, so long is there an American resident to claim you, you will be allowed onto the harbor boat for entrance into the United States.”
Margaret pats her stomach. There will be an American resident in a few weeks, she knows. In fact, an American citizen.
“In the meantime, please make yourself at home. This room is yours. The latrine, complete with flushing toilets,” Anna pauses for effect, as many immigrants gasp at this mention, “is across the hall. You may go to the cafeteria at meal time. Or, in your current state, you can request food to be brought to you.”
“Thank you. Thank you very much.”
“You also might want to go see the doctors. To check on the health of your…”
Anna again gestures toward Margaret’s stomach. Margaret silently thanks God for giving her a girl so squeamish about nature as to not even be able to reference the very evidence of said nature right in front of her.
“I know that my child is very healthy,” Margaret says, placing her hand on her stomach again.
Anna stands up. “Welcome to Ellis Island.”
“Thank you.” Margaret strains herself out of her seat and shakes the translator’s hand, a custom she hears is the normal form of greeting in her new home.
“Yes. I am off to file your paperwork. You should have an answer in four to six weeks.”
Margaret turns back to look out the window. Six to eight weeks? She won’t even need half of that. Within a month, the Statue of Liberty will be admitting her and her child to the land beyond.
“And don’t forget,” Ann says from the doorway behind her. “You can see the doctors at any time.”
“I most certainly will,” Margaret responds.
Anna leaves the room and shuts the door behind her.
“At the right time,” Margaret says to her womb.
For now, though, she might as well get used to her new room. Her new life. Her new world.