sepia image of a man's sweater, an old Lake Winnipesaukee postcard, and a wooden jewlry box

The Sweater, A Steampunk Story 

©Brenda Eckels, 2014

She had this grace about her, Sophie did, that made you think; “This woman should be heading the church ladies society, not here.” Even though arthritis had slowed her down, she walked with a smooth glide that one could almost imagine the book, motionless on top of her head at Mrs. Farthingdale’s Charm School. Her hands were always so neatly placed in her lap, and her legs were always bent at the knee, slightly to one side, never, ever crossed. Her dark ebony skin looked like the softest suede and her hair, although long since turned gray, was always brushed back, pinned down, and gathered into a small bun.

“Sophie, can you tell me how many of the size large band aids we have left?” I called to her from my desk. As the Medication Officer it was part of my job to maintain the assorted first aid kits scattered like little tiny MASH units around the ancient building. The Commonwealth, in their infinite inability to correlate exactly how much manpower it would take to run the Medication Room and all it’s assorted sub functions, had not only decreed that my position would also double as a shift supervisor, but have no actual staff. Well, when the commonwealth hands you lemons, you can either sit there and complain or make lemonade. Early on, I had noticed Sophie watched me like a hawk when it was her turn to come down for her medications, and I didn’t believe for one minute the entry in her annual assessment that said “client can mimic medication planner fills, but cannot perform task on her own.”

“Yes, Ma’am Miss Brenda.” Her soft southern lilt undiminished by almost 25 years of Boston living. There are one hundred and twenty six large band aides in the first aide kits as of last Thursday, and there are ….27, 28, 29….Two boxes of 100 and one box of 29 here in the medication room. That’s a total of 355, Ma’am.”

It took a while to get her to trust me, almost 3 months actually. At first all she would say is the name of each medication. Eventually however, she turned one fine spring day toward the closed Medication Room door, turned back, and softly whispered to me that yes, she certainly knew how to fill her planner. In fact, she not only knew which pill went where, but the name, the dose, the purpose, the top three side effects, and all of the other side effects that had a reported rate over 10% to boot. She knew the chemical makeup of each medication, and the mechanism by which it treated this or that symptom. She also knew the manufacturer, and after about six months admitted that one of her expenses was sending Harold out to the big city library to look up and copy the stock reports for those manufacturers.

No matter how graceful her walk, or soft and dripping honey sweet her voice, she faced constant criticism from the direct care staff.

“Sophie! Come on now! Let’s get this off you and get you into that shower!” Elsa’s sharp voice rang out. “Come here! Come back here!” The turbaned head poked through the medication room door one winter day, soon after I started. “Augh! This one, Brenda she is going to drive me to have to live here myself! What on earth is it that I can not get her to take that horrid thing off?”

“Nien! No you do not wear it again! Sophie! Put on a different one! That one – it smells!” complained Wilhelm.

Most of the other residents were kind, but those who by virtue of the diseases they suffered from could be so hurtful, so bullying. One younger fellow in particular had been an early subject in the studies back in the early 2000’s by the disgraced psychologist Izzy Kamen, and had turned the junk pop psychology of Izzy’s friendsforbullies.com web site and school materials and twisted it as only an angry, psychotic, treatment resistant bipolar patient could. The younger residents had called him Mad Max, and often shared stories of how they had been terrorized after their schools had been “Izzied” and urged not to tell if a bully insulted them, they had endured years of emotional and verbal abuse.

It was Mad Max who had spent virtually every hour of every day, for weeks on end verbally torturing the residents the moment all three staff on shift were occupied. Sophie had helped me often to bandage the cuts and burns that Marquis has self inflicted in his inability to express the anger and hurt that came from being abused by his mother to the edge of madness, only to survive and end up with Mad Max terrorizing him. He reminded me too much of the stepson – the same age – I had lost in the war against ISIS, and my hands were shaking the day Sophie and I could do little more than watch the tourniquet and hold the pressure bandage until the EMT’s arrived.

Mad Max was the one who had stuck Sophie with the nickname that despite our best efforts, had become how the residents referred to her. “Sophie in the Sweater! Sophie in the sweater! Smelling like dead leather! Sophie in the Sweater!” He would go on for hours, swearing that somehow Sophie had actually grown to encompass the sweater took up, and that – like the veterans with the “mods” of gears and latches to replace amputated or damaged limbs, she was likewise connected to it.

Sometimes, we even caught the staff calling her “Sophie of the Sweater”, despite out best efforts to stop them. But, other than the threat to sue the agency for allowing Sophie and her allegedly disease carrying sweater, over the years there had been less. After he was moved to a high intensity home, I watched her carefully,

One worker, who had only been in the US for 3 months, tried her hardest to explain to me that in Nigeria, these problems were well understood. “She is possessed by the demon. It lives in that thing. That is why she will not take it off.” That time, I had Anaka, my Nigerian coworker, sit the terrified woman down and explain that no demons were involved, just your garden variety fixation caused by mental illness.

Roxbury Crossing was the largest mental health group home in the state. Originally, when I was first hired, it had 32 beds, and each of the residents had a separate room. That was before the crash of course, and almost 3 years before the earthquake that had turned Seabrook, NH, Salisbury and most of the surrounding towns into underwater toxic waste dumps, and broke NH and Vermont into two by a large canyon going East and West.

Back then, before the disasters, the war against ISIS, Sophie had enjoyed the large sunny windows in her room, and proudly would show off how immaculately clean and neat the room was when her case manager came for inspection. It had been filled with inexpensive yet beautiful china dolls, lace doilies, and throw pillows, and part of it set aside in a beautiful sitting room layout.

Even now, although half the room was taken up by her immobile, frozen and silent roommate Janet, her side still radiated a sense of Southern charm, of a life far different than that led with nothing but a $700 a month check and a section 8 voucher. It was in fact, after the crash and the earthquake, when we all had to learn to rely on the huge steam powered turbines along the Charles River for our electricity, that she first decided to bring her “dowry chest” to my office one day.

“Sophie” I had said, as I turned toward her. “Hello! It is good to see you! But, Sophie, it is 80 today. Is there any chance I might convince you to take that sweater off and cool down just a little?”

“No, Ma’am, I don’t need to cool off.” she said in her soft lilt. I noticed that her eyes seemed to once again look past me, far away. “I’m Southern, Miss Brenda. This isn’t hot at all for folks like us.”

The sweater, back then, was threadbare in parts, and you could see the splotches where at some point bleach had been spilled on it. It was too big for her, a men’s pullover V neck sweater in a shade of brown that wasn’t quite caramel. No one knew exactly what shade it had originally been, as the only time it came close to being washed was the occasional summertime shower when Sophie would relent, and allow the staff to help her into the shower, dressed in nothing but the sweater. Back then however, it still was showing it’s age, with stray bits of yarn making pulls here and there.

“OK, Sophie.” I nodded. “But the offer stands…anytime you decide you would like to, you can take it off, and I promise it will stay right in your lap, nice and safe. Say, what do you have there?”

“This is my dowry. Us Negros” she began, slowly saying the word, like it was something frightful yet awesome – a black version of Y-H-W, the ineffable name of the Jewish God, “Us Negros, we didn’t have the kind of money to have a big chest like I saw in that museum y’all went to.” I remembered how Sophie, who hardly ever left the building, had poured for hours over the book I had bought to bring back from Strawberry Banke.

“But that don’t mean we don’t still save things for a bride…” she continued. “And so this is mine. This is my dowry box. It wasn’t always. Harold found it down at Goodwill.” She put the wooden jewelry box, the kind that my mother had gotten in the 1950’s as a girl listening to Pat Boone, onto my desk.

“Back then, y’all could still read the letters here” she drawled, as she traced her fingertip gracefully across the front center. “But I ran my finger over them so many times…I thought maybe someday I would go see that place.”

She paused and you could almost sense the storm clouds gather in her mind. Sophie was profoundly agoraphobic, among other things, and the hardest chore for the direct care staff was every three months when they had to force her, crying and pulling against them, out to the van for the 60 minute round trip to the psychiatrist who wrote her medication scripts. It had gotten somewhat easier the day Paul and I figured out that she was convinced the parking lot was really an ocean of sharks. We tried everything to get her to step off the step and get into the van. At one point, Paul even took off his coat, and laid it down to make a path…she had burst into even bigger tears, terrified that Paul’s “fine coat” would be ruined by saltwater. Our solution came in the form of Warren, our resident Jesus. It was an inside joke back then, among the people who worked in such places, that the Commonwealth had to have at least one group home for every Elvis and every Jesus, because the moment you put two clients who both believed they were Jesus in the same house – well, all kinds of chaos ensued.

No, our solution wasn’t properly ours at all. Warren came out to smoke a cigarette, and found us all there blocking the stairs. “What’s this?” he complained, grumpy and nicotine starved. I turned to him and said, very plainly “Warren, Miss Sophie is trying very hard to get in the van, and is fearful because she sees water and sharks. Please, just wait a moment.” Warren looked at me, then Paul, and laughed “Is that all? That’s the problem?” I shot him one of my best “don’t you be mean” looks, and he said back to me “Miss Brenda. Of course she is scared. I am Christ. I can walk upon the water. But, let’s see if perhaps she would like what I did for Moses.” He stepped down next to Sophie, put his hand on her shoulder, and said “Have faith sister. I am here.” and then took his hands, slapped them together, and then slowly drew them apart. “Go on Sister. I hold the waters just as I did for Moses.”

Sophie had glanced at him, and walked, as calm and graceful as she walked the halls, to the van and got in. From that point on, Warren “held the waters” whenever Miss Sophie called to go in the van, and she had actually gone for rides, just staring out the window looking around at the Boston sights.

“My father, he was the son of a slave, and he and my mother was sharecroppers. But, every time they had even a penny, they saved it, and every time they had even a dollar, he would take the train on down to the city and go to the broker and buy a share of a company he read in the paper. We were lucky that old Dr. Morgan was our landowner. He was a nice man, for a white man, and his mother had been a Quaker. When he found out that my father had learned to read, he let us have the leftover papers.”

“When I got to be…well you know Miss Brenda, when that day comes, and blood tells you that you aren’t a girl no more, well my mother told my father, and he took all his stock papers out the jelly jar and left. I was pretty confused..”she drawled the word so it sounded like ‘puurrrr-deee’ “but My mother said it was ust him goin’ to get my dowry and things so I could get married.”

She told me that day about how her father had come home very late with boxes and bags. How her mother had taken her into the only other room in the house – the kitchen – and told her “how them men do things to make you get a baby.” She told me about how her father taught her to dance, and how her mother told her how to “hook the brassiere so them men couldn’t take it off you right quick.”

As she talked, she helped me count out the rolled gauze, then the 2 x 2 pads, then the 4 x 4 pads, and soon I knew exactly how precious the yellow dress and black shoes, the matching hat, and proper white gloves had been to the young 13 year old.

“Then, the last thing he takes out is this tiny box” she said, as she opened the lid of the wooden jewelry box. “The name of the place…” she stopped, looking up, anxious, like she must rush to get it out, “Miss Brenda, the place on the box it was Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire. Harold got me a picture of it, and it is a beautiful place…what was I …oh, so my father took this box out…”

She withdrew a small black velvet jewelers box, and opened it up. Inside was a set of pearls, each one perfectly nestled in scrunched black velvet, and in the center, two single pearl earrings.

“Oh, Sophie, they are beautiful! Oh your father must have worked so hard…” I started then to tell her about my Aunt Patricia, and how even though she didn’t have much money, she thought that it would be a shame for me to get married without at least one set of pearls, and had gone to her Avon lady for my set, that even then sat nestled in the gray flocked case they came in.

That was it. From that moment, we trusted each other, and once in a while, on very hot days, she would sit, very primly and properly at the spare desk in the Medication Room, and slowly take off the sweater, fold it more reverently than any priest ever folded an altar cloth, lay it across her lap, and watch me work.

She never told me the story of the sweater until after the earthquake. By then, I had put Sophie to work. A staff of 3 for 32 beds was a funny joke that had occurred when the place had been labeled “low intensity” – meaning that those living there were just one tiny step or two away from a step down home where they would be on their own every day from 5pmm until 9am the next morning. I was part of the group that helped plan the graduation celebrations back in the beginning, when a resident had finally beaten the odds, stayed stable, learned to cook, clean, manage the medications and the appointments, how to use the “T” subway and buses. We did it as big as ingenuity and the budget would allow. The last day, at lunch, there would be, quite often, me in my tie dye apron, banging a metal spoon against a pot. The speech by the person’s case manager, the program director, and once in a while even the Senior Program Director would be followed by the rendition of some song like “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”, and the cake would be rolled out for the graduate to cut while one of us took pictures.

In those days, oh, the Zyprexa, the Depakote, the Zoloft days when the drug companies, the Pharmas as we called them, were still churning out new and “better” ways to manage symptoms at only $150 a pill, hiding behind the junk studies the fact that the drugs may have reduced depression and psychosis, but at the awful price of sugar cravings and diabetes.

Cake. It was enough to send some into rapturous shouts of joy, and I am to this day not completely convinced that he wasn’t lying when Shelby swore that just the single first bite of my cake was enough to make him orgasm. It didn’t matter that I had told them all, during a presentation on healthy cooking, that the sweetness they loved was actually Splenda mixed with just enough sugar to make the icing hold it’s shape. To them, it was divine.

Sophie, by the forth month I was there, had trusted me enough to tell me that the reason she watched like a hawk was because so many of the direct care staff, when I wasn’t around, made mistakes. “That’s why Jacques died you know…they said it was a heart attack, but I know. That one from Maple Street, Julianne, came here to cover a shift. When she did my pills, she put two Zyprexas in my cup instead of one. I made sure to cheek the extra one and spit it out.” Sophie softly whispered, drawing designs with the tip of her finger on the desk. “She thinks she is saving us.”

I had been shocked when I started at the lax controls, the inventory shortages, and the poor training of the mostly immigrant staff, and had done quite a bit by that fourth month to ensure that everyone wore gloves, that thermometers did not get reused, and that at least once every month a count of every single bottle of pills was done. Back then we were still along way from the day we had passed the prestigious Better Facilities Program with the Medication Room having zero deficiencies. However, by the fourth month, with no one sick from viruses run amok, no new cases of strep throat, and the worst offender – a slug of a man who was stealing and selling the medications he was supposedly administering to the clients- was fired.

So after the third day of a heat wave that I had spent under Sophie’s watchful eye, I decided that since she was there, she could help. Some days she would count out and separate the condoms from AIDS Action, and donning her sweater, take them to each bathroom. Other days, I had her fill in reports, and eventually discovered that she could type almost as well as I could. While she never mastered the computer, and the agency never allowed her to use the one I used, I eventually had her entering data on the inventory control spreadsheets.

Sophie bloomed as a volunteer in the Medication Room. Soon, she was handling the incoming calls, taking messages, and making sure that the 5 times a day lineup for medicines went smoothly. Everyone loved the pretty work dresses that she wore, only visible when she took off her sweater as she sat behind what had become her desk.

What I never did however, was tell her secret. Every month, I would watch her, slightly amused, as she would purposely make mistakes trying to fill her planner for her case manager. Gail, the one she had the longest, often used to blame me for not practicing it more with her. “You know Brenda, “Gail snapped at me one day while pointing a fat light chocolate finger at me, “You are no better then them whiteys that turned us into share croppers. You don’t practice enough with her because if she graduates, you lose your nigger.”

Gail’s harangue was interrupted by sobs, as Sophie tore out of her office chair, tugging her sweater on, and ran from the room. I never did get Gail to understand that Sophie was failing the tests on purpose. In the end, her antagonistic attitude toward me had not been her only personality conflict, and one day she pushed the Russian Senior Program Director just a little too far, and that was it. Since Gail’s departure, Sophie had changed case managers every few years, and often would sigh while sitting at her desk when a new one was introduced and say “Well Miss Brenda, I guess I will have to see how this one is.”

The day finally came when, my belly fat with my firstborn, the in house steam generators hissing away, that I sat with Sophie one last time.

“Miss Brenda, do you love that man you have that Brian?” she said softly.

“Oh yes, Sophie, I love him very much.” I said back, pouring us each a new cup of tea.

“He the type don’t want his woman working?” She asked as she stirred the sugar cubed counter clockwise exactly ten times.

“Oh no, Sophie” I said looking up from my cup, “No, he isn’t like that at all. It is just that he is captain of an airship, and has the most marvelous mechanical horse called Black Cherry, and…” my voice trailed off.

“And you want to travel with him?” Sophie said with a sad little smile.

“Yes, Sophie. To travel on the airship, to live on it with him and the baby.” I sighed “I am going to miss working with you. I am going to miss all of you, but I promise, I will write postcards, and send them so you and everyone can see the places we go.”

“Like Lake Winnipesaukee? Do you think?”

I smiled, and said “I know the airship can fly over the Route 202 canyon. I am sure of it Sophie. She is a fine vessel. I promise, if we ever make it there, I will send you as many postcards of it as I can.”

She smiled at that, and said, “I never told anyone up here Miss Brenda. But, I want you to know why I want you to go there. I did like Mother said, and I went each week to the church dance and to the dance hall for the young men being drafted for the war. I always wore my dress and my dowry pearls. I danced with all the young men,” she blushed, “but I never let them do more than a kiss on my hand. I spoke proper and right and minded my manners just like I read in the books Mother had me read from the Doctor’s library.

“Then one day, this new young man came, and oh the other girls flocked to him so fast I barely even saw him!” her eyes lit up as she spoke. “He was not like us, you could tell the way he didn’t bow his head at all. And he was so tall, and so strong…” She sipped her tea, and smiled. “He said later he saw my bright yellow dress, and my fine pearls and thought I must be a right proper lady, so he decided to dance with me. He ended up dancing with me three times that night, and the next week too.”

She looked around, making sure the door was closed. “We fell very hard for each other Miss Brenda, I am not gonna lie, and I did let him kiss me. But that was all, until the day we were wed. He had already been to basic training and rifle training, and oh! He looked so handsome that day! He had saved every penny of his pay except what he had sent home for me to buy my dress materials for Mother to make my dress.

“He wasn’t a negro like us Miss Brenda. He had been born up here in Boston, right down in that neighborhood down the hill, in that red brick house. His Mama, she was an upstairs maid, and his father worked the gardens. They had even had a proper wedding, not just a jump the broom like my parents. We were married at the little church my parents went to, a good proper Baptist church, and that first night…he found us a hotel with running water that was so nice…”her eyes misted over a bit.

“The next day, we got on the train to Boston, and I met his parents. They had been fair upset that he was marrying a sharecropper’s child, but once they met me, well they said I was the best educated sharecropper they had ever met!” She looked triumphant. “They were the ones who helped pay for me to go to school once we got settled back in Georgia. The whole time he was gone to Vietnam, I worked and studied, and worked…”

She sat still for a moment. “He wrote me you know, when I sent him my graduation picture. He told me that he was the proudest man in the unit, because not only did he have a wife that could write good, she was a nurse!”

I almost fell off the chair, and inside me the 7lb-week-39 Maria Angela protested and kicked my ribs. I sputtered “No wonder you…”

She nodded. “Now don’t you be telling any tales on your last day. I will take away your cake!” she even threatened in a soft voice, but then she laughed a small laugh. “Yes. I worked at the Hospital For Negros outside the city, mostly in the operating room. One day, I came off my shift, and I was so tired, and my feet hurt, and I started to walk toward the bus stop, and suddenly …well, suddenly there he was, right there in front of me.”

“We were so happy. The army decided that he was going to get trained for this other type of gun or something…” her eyes started to cloud…”and we were so close to the base they said he could live with me at home. Every day, we ate dinner together, and listened to the radio together, and it started getting on winter. I didn’t ever have a proper winter coat, and that year he worried awful about me taking sick. He gave me this sweater to wear back and forth, to help me stay warm.”

I could see the clouds gathering around her, and suddenly I knew…

“I remember the day they sent him back over there. He told me to keep warm, and that he would bring me to Boston when he got home, and then we would go to New Hampshire and see the big lake, and ride on the boat there. He never said the name of it, but Harold says that Lake Winnipesaukee is the biggest lake they had up there before the earthquake. He said it was full of coves and ports, and that there were lots of little towns all around it, and that once every year the city nearby, Laconia, would have thousands and thousands of motorcycles and they would just ride around and around that lake.”

A shudder went through her, visible under her neat blouse, as she knotted her hands in the sweater still laying on her lap. “I did just like I did before. I worked, and worked, and worked…I went to church every Sunday, and I listened to the radio each night. I wrote him letter after letter, and I went each day on the way home from work to see if the post office had any for me.”

She started to shake…concerned I said “Sophie, if it is too much, you don’t have…”

“No,” she interrupted, “No, you are the only person in this world I have ever met who might someday go across that canyon the earthquake made. If you see it…I want to tell you…I got offered to be the Head Nurse at the hospital, and I was rushing home that day to write to him. It was a big promotion, and more money…I was so excited, I didn’t even care that yet again the post office had no letters. I had been worried because there hadn’t been any for a bit, but I just rushed on home, put my coat down on the hook, and ran to my paper and pen….I never even took off my sweater….”

“Oh Sophie…” I started…

“Then I heard the knock on the door. All us wives, we knew no salesman was gonna come that time of day. They always came after the dinner hour. I knew. I knew there could only be one reason for a knock like that. I don’t know exactly how I got to the door, or even how it opened…I just remember the soldiers, the uniforms….the tall one saying something about service to his country…”

“When I came too, I was naked, tied into a jacket. The room was all white and the sun was shining so hard in my eyes I couldn’t see nothing. It was on an island somewhere, and the guards warned us there were sharks that would eat us up if we tried to leave.”

Another shudder passed through her.

“I didn’t ever see them, but his parents, they got me out of that place and up here to Shattuck. I liked Shattuck better because they let me have things. The first thing they let me have was this sweater. Everyone here thinks my dowry is what I care about. I got it when his Mother passed away. She had kept it all those years. I don’t care anywhere near as much about them pearls as I do this.” She held it up, looking at it as if she could imagine it filled out with a man’s body. “This is all I want…they can take anything else they want, even my dowry box. In Georgia, they took everything away from me, and put it, Mama said, in a big box. They gave it to his parents after the funeral, when they came to move me here to Boston. ”

“And now…” I said slowly, “after you were homeless in the 1980’s….it’s all you have left, isn’t it?”

“Yes Ma’am. Now you understand Miss Brenda, why I can’t lose it. Why I keep it on me. Well, one reason anyway. There is still the other.”

“The other?” I asked, genuinely perplexed.

She smiled again, but still a sad smile. “Yes, Miss Brenda. You know they don’t really write a new assessment each year. They just take the old one, and add to it at the bottom. Well, back about 9 years before you came, that case manager wrote that until I learned to let go this sweater and put it away, I wasn’t fit to go living in a step down. So, even though here and in my room I take it off sometimes, I don’t let it off very long. That is the other way I can stay here if they ever figure out like you did about how I know medicine.”

“And as much of a mess this place is…having to share a room with Janet” I started as it all came together, “this is home. You just don’t want to ever graduate, because this is home to you.”

She got up, and put her sweater back on. “Not for all the cake in the world Miss Brenda. My windows look right out on that park he and I walked that weekend of our honeymoon. The house he was born in is right down that hill. It is more than home. It is my man here.

Gracefully, she leaned over and hugged me. “Miss Brenda…you and your man, you take that airship, and try for me? Try to get across that canyon and see that Lake Winnipesaukee? And do something I can’t?”

I hugged her back, so hard that I knew she got kicked by my unborn child, and promised that somehow, someway…Brian and I would pilot that airship over the canyon, and I would stand there on the shore of the lake…

…and drop a single pearl earring into it on behalf of Sophie with the Sweater.

The End.

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