A girl is sewing herself a dress for the first time. She bought three meters of cheap fabric (just over a ruble a meter), but the fabric turns out to be surprisingly pretty, black with bright bursts of dots, like a nighttime carnival.
The girl is in college and has no money—that’s first of all. Second, she’s just broken out of her schoolgirl shell. Literally—she tried to turn the ruins of her school uniform into a kind of skirt, and it came out hopelessly crooked and skewed. At least the uniform is gone.
But the skirt won’t do for this weather. It’s May, it’s the year nineteen hundred and something, a hot spring and there’s nothing to wear.
Working with the “Sew-It-Yourself” page from some women’s magazine spread out before her (measure your chest, take half of the front panel, etc.), the girl tried to sew the dress herself and utterly failed.
The dress is lost, three rubles and then some spent on fabric, lost, and her stipend at the college is just twenty-three rubles a month.
Now her mother intervenes with gusto. Mom has spent her whole life using an expensive seamstress, but then she fell on difficult times, her girl turned eighteen and Mom stopped receiving child support.
So the seamstress is out, and Mom must save the situation somehow, except here’s the thing: there’s no money.
There’s no money, the girl is eighteen, it’s a hot May outside, the kind you see every hundred years or so, it’s exam period at the college but her daughter can’t go outside, she’s lying behind the wardrobe—literally, that’s where her cot is in their room—and whining pitifully.
Mom calls her wise old friend Regina, a Polish Jewess from the clan of the Moscow wives (that is to say, the new wives) of the Third International.* In the Thirties the world’s communists all left the countries where they’d been working underground, fled via mountains and seas to the USSR, married among themselves in Moscow—and then off they all went to die in the camps. Except Regina. She served her time in the steppes of Kazakhstan but returned with the postwar amnesty to recover her old apartment on Gorky Street, and the girl’s mother, who’d also seen some things in her time, latched onto wise Regina, a good friend of the girl’s grandmother, who is also expected to come back, as it happens, from the camps this spring. Regina has always dressed with Warsaw chic, she is sixty and still has suitors, and she hears out the flustered mother with total understanding.
So Regina has a housekeeper named Riva Milgrom. Regina is a European lady, after all, she has soft white hands like an empress, her house is always in perfect order, and that’s where Milgrom comes in.
She’s called Milgrom, by her last name, as per the old Party habit. So, then, Milgrom has a Singer sewing machine, and the girl walks to Milgrom’s place with her bundle of mutilated fabric through the May heat in her once brown wool skirt. We know where the skirt came from, of course—the mother had a dress that she wore until its underarms bore sweat stains in the form of half-moons, at which point the dress was bequeathed to the girl, who wore it to school but could never raise her hand in class because of the stains, her elbows clinging to her sides like a soldier’s. Finally the top with the sweat stains was removed and thrown out—though the mother protested, it could still become a nice vest!—the girl raced from the apartment and threw it down the garbage chute. Still the crooked skirt remained, and that’s the skirt she’s wearing as she toddles clumsy and off-kilter through the heat of May.
Over the skirt, to cover the waistline, which was hemmed badly, the threads were wrong—and the hands sewing them were the wrong hands—the girl wears her mother’s blouse, which also has dark sweat stains at the pits, so, again, she goes marching with elbows at her sides like a soldier.
The girl walks in fact like a new draftee, head down, watching her green winter shoes with their thick soles, her elbows by her sides. She is surrounded by the Patriarch Ponds, or, rather, the buildings around the ponds, there’s a gentle May smell in the air, the boys scurry by, as do the proud young girls in their new summer dresses.
Milgrom meets her customer in a tiny room, high up, just beneath the merciless Moscow sun, it’s practically the attic, and here is soft-spoken Milgrom with her big moist eyes, her very white skin and the total absence of any teeth, with a long drooping nose, although her chin is thrust out, like a hoof—Milgrom is already an old woman.
She opens up her sewing machine, produces a tape measure, and then quietly launches into an endless monologue (even as she records the size of the girl’s chest) about her darling son, the gorgeous Sasha.
Sasha was as beautiful as a little angel, it turns out, so that people on the street would stop and stare, and his picture was even used once on a box of chocolates.
The girl looks at the photograph on the wall that Milgrom points to—nothing special, a little boy in a sailor’s outfit, big black eyes, a thin elegant nose. The upper lip protrudes like a visor over the lower one. A cute curly-haired kid, but nothing more. The lips are too thin for an angel’s, and he has the Milgrom mouth.
At this point the girl not only has no thoughts of children herself, but she doesn’t even have a boy, a suitor, an admirer, despite all her eighteen years.
For her it’s all exams, exams, library, cafeteria, heavy green shoes and a brown wool dress with her mother’s pit stains—that’s all.
The girl looks indifferently at the wall and now sees another photo, it’s enlarged, from, it appears, a passport photo, a scrawny young officer in an enormous cap.
That’s the same Sasha, now he’s all grown up, while they were measuring her waist and while they were noting it all down and examining the cheap material that’s been cut up and sewn all crooked, Sasha got married and produced a granddaughter, Asya Milgrom.
At this point old Milgrom consoles the girl, tells her she’s not the only one who’s so clumsy, she herself—Milgrom—had no hands to speak of when she was young, couldn’t fry an egg, couldn’t hem a diaper, and then she learned. Life taught her.
At some point during the long and boastful tale of Sasha it’s time to go, but the dress stays, it will be finished tomorrow.
Three days later the girl—who’s afraid to leave the house in her awful outfit, and doesn’t know how to wash clothes properly, or iron them, or sew anything, just lies about, crying all day reading books on her cot—finally gets herself together to go to Milgrom’s and says to her mother: I’m going to Milgrom’s.
“That poor thing,” she hears back. “What a terrible life she’s had. Her husband abandoned her when she was just a girl, took away her child, a little boy, and wouldn’t let them meet. That is, here’s what he did: he took Milgrom out of her Lithuanian village, she was a rare beauty, sixteen years old, but she didn’t speak any Russian, just Yiddish and Polish, and then he divorced her, you could do that then, total freedom, he went and divorced her. And he brought another woman to live with him, and told Milgrom to leave. So she left. She was eighteen years old. Milgrom nearly went crazy, she spent all her days and nights on the street across from her old building so that she could see her child through the window, and Regina found her half dead, just lying on the street. Regina, of course, friend of the oppressed as she is, put Milgrom in a hospital and then took her in as her maid; Milgrom slept on the floor in the hall. When Regina was arrested, Milgrom went to work at the textile factory, learned to be a seamstress, earned a little money for her pension, and then they gave her that attic.”
The girl barely listens to this, already half outside, then walks over to Milgrom’s and sees the same little room just under the roof, where the smell of old wool rags literally chokes you in the heat.
Everything melts in the light of the setting sun as Milgrom produces some cups and the teakettle from the kitchen, and they drink tea with black salted crackers, the luxury of the poor.
Once again Milgrom boasts about her son, Sasha, her face shining as she turns to the photographs on the wall, although the girl thinks, if her mother is telling the truth, where did she get those photographs?
Grown-up Sasha stares back from the wall with a cold, closed-off stare, it’s his officer’s identification card after all, his cap towering like a saddle over his big black eyes. Now he really looks like his mother.
With what tears, with what pleas did Milgrom get those photos from him?
Milgrom sighs contentedly underneath her wailing wall and then announces that little Asya has just lost her first tooth. All the things that everyone else has, Milgrom has them too.
The girl puts on her dress, looks in the mirror, gets out and away from that sweet-musty smell, out into the street, the sunset, and walks by countless doors and windows; behind each of them, she thinks, live only Milgroms, Milgroms, Milgroms. She walks in her cool new black dress, and she is seized with happiness. Joy fills her, as joy for her Sasha fills Milgrom.
The girl is at the very beginning of her journey, she’s walking in a new dress, she’s already attracting stares, and so on, and in five years a boy will appear at her door with a rosebush, he dug it up somewhere during the night—and Milgrom is obviously at the end of her journey, but there might come a time when the girl will flash by at the end of Malaya Bronnaya Street, looking very different, carrying in her purse the photograph of her grown-up son, and bragging about him while sitting on a bench near the Patriarch Ponds—but she doesn’t dare call him an extra time, and as for the son, he’s always busy.
The black dress shimmies down Malaya Bronnaya, wide and still filled with light, underneath the setting sun, and that’s it now, the day is burning its last, and Milgrom, eternal Milgrom, sits in her little pensioner’s room among her old wool things like a guard at the museum of her life, where there is nothing at all but a timid and tender love.
.* The Third International, or Comintern, was the international Communist organization set up by the triumphant Bolsheviks in 1919 to spread the revolution abroad.
Translation of “Milgrom.” Copyright Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. By arrangement with the Andrew Wylie Agency. Translation copyright 2007 by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers. All rights reserved.