Fair Trade by Marian Allen

Fair Trade

by Marian Allen

 I didn’t believe Brigid when she told me I could escape into a better life than the one we knew in 1911. She was jealous of my position in the factory, jealous of the (to me) unwelcome attentions of the foreman, even jealous of the clothes in my meager wardrobe, made by my own industrious and calloused hands. She admitted it.

“When you vanish, I’ll step into your place. You don’t appreciate what you have. I will.”

She was certainly right about the first part: I wanted more than toiling in this filthy town, sewing clothes for other people.

I was certain she had put poison into my cup, and I was wicked enough to let her pretend I believed her fairy tale. I raised the cup and pretended to sip, savoring the warmth, the dark richness of the aroma without the bitter aftertaste of the reality.

“Don’t drink it, you foolish girl! Lose yourself in it. Imagine yourself elsewhere.”

She told me the rules, which she said were passed to her over a hundred years earlier in Cairo. Egypt, not Illinois.

Think of the kind of place you want to be, stare into a cup of coffee, and you’ll be there, with a history that you remember even though you know it’s false. Other people will remember you, too.

I’d like to go to the country, perhaps. Somewhere outside of Manhattan. Some place and time that a woman is valued as much as a man.

I gazed into the mahogany depths, focusing so deeply that the grounds in the bottom of the cup became the silhouettes of mountains.


…Lucas’ voice dragged me away from contemplating the foothills of the Pennsylvania Alleghenys.

“Lift up thine eyes unto the hills after we get these peaches picked, woman.”

It was 1931, twenty years in the future! Back in old New York, people had been putting money in paper stock, not livestock, and just about the whole country was poor. Lucas and I farmed enough to live on and not much left over.

“Anybody’d think you was one of those fancy New York gals that just want to sit around sewing all day. Let’s put our backs into it.”

Ah, the country, where a woman was equal to a man. Oh, dear.

Stay as long as forty-nine years and nobody will think it odd that you don’t age; leave whenever you want to, and nobody will remember your disappearing; they’ll remember that you died or they won’t remember you at all.

There wasn’t much coffee to be had in 1931, but I saved up, a penny at a time, until I could buy a cup at the diner on one of our monthly trips to town. Coffee never looked so good.

It tantalized me with its steamy fullness. I couldn’t help taking a big hot gulp of it, savoring the bite and the faint hint of chicory Nettie cut it with. I hoped the chicory wouldn’t hurt the spell. I blocked out everything around me and lost myself in the magical liquid.


…Six of us shared a bungalow. Gloria had a rattletrap and we chipped in on gas to the studio.

1941, Hollywood! We were pretty far down the wardrobe pecking order, but one day, I got to sew on a button for Ingrid Bergman!

The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. We were scared they might invade, but soldiers and sailors came West from all over, heading for the Pacific theater of war, so we felt safe.

We spent a lot of time at the Hollywood Canteen, and some of boys shipped out promising to make us beneficiaries of their GI insurance. We hoped all of them came back safe and sound, of course, but just in case, and if it made them feel better, we weren’t going to say no.

Then I got notice that one of my boys hadn’t made it. Money or no money, the war wasn’t fun anymore. Neither was rationing.

Be nice in your life, or the next one will be awful; if you’re especially wicked, the next one won’t have coffee, and you’ll be trapped.

I got as much coffee as my ration book would allow and tied the beans up in a handkerchief except enough to brew a good, strong cup.

Maybe I shouldn’t use straight coffee. It would be just like Brigid to steer me wrong. I stirred a precious teaspoon of sugar and a splash of cream into my cup. Maybe the cream would make my next life rich and the sugar would make it sweet. I watched iridescent bubbles trail a swirl of white through the beige brew.


…He kissed me on the shoulder, his beard tickling my bare skin. I opened my eyes to a blank wall. A motel wall, a safe distance from the university. I wasn’t a professor but, possibly better in 1957, I was having an affair with one.

I scrambled out of bed and checked for my handkerchief full of coffee beans.

My professor said, “You’re so funny about your coffee! Almost as bad as one of those crackpot beatniks – but, of course, much cleaner.”

I laughed. I laughed at all his jokes. He knew someone in New York who could use a girl of my talent and imagination in his fashion house.

Time passes and things change, and you can’t jump back in time. You can go back to a place you’ve already been and memories will change to include you again, but the time you’ve been gone will have passed.

So here I am, full circle, in New York, sewing clothes for other people, but what a difference! I wonder what Brigid would say, if she knew. Knowing Brigid, she wouldn’t be happy for me. I certainly wasn’t happy for her, poor bitch. So smug, taking my place doing piecework in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, just a month before the fire that killed 146 including, my new memory told me, Brigid.

Coffee and dramatic irony: good to the last drop!

4 Responses to “Fair Trade by Marian Allen”

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