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The Other Sister


Margit walked down Cherry Street one Wednesday morning too preoccupied with her shopping list to notice the petals that drifted like pink snowflakes onto her shoulders. Monsignor Andrassy was coming to dinner and she wanted to make her chicken paprikas for him. Margit knew pride was a sin but she could not help being proud of her cooking. Not many women in this town, she thought, spent as much time as they should on their own cooking. Margit was fortunate that she and Emil were unlike most of the immigrants arriving from Hungary by the boatload. With the money they had from the sale of his mother’s house they had been able to make a down payment on a three-flat building in a modest part of town, equally far from the Van Dyke mansion and the tenements near the railroad station. The rent from the two upper apartments paid the monthly mortgage, and the small salary Emil paid himself took care of the rest. So far, thank St. Elizabeth, Margit had not been reduced to working in the dress factory like most Hungarian women her age.

She turned the corner at Hardenbergh Avenue and stopped at the butcher for a chunk of szalonna bacon, then continued on to the produce market where she chose fresh bunches of curly spinach and tender new peas. The milkman had left fresh sour cream that morning, so her only other stop was to get the chicken itself. Margit paused before the door of the poultry shop and took one last deep breath of fresh air before stepping inside. A small bell rang over her head as she opened the door, where she stood for a moment to let her eyes adjust to the dimness. Before her, on either side of a central aisle and as high as the top of her hat, were stacked rows of wooden cages. Each cage held three or four fowl: white spring chickens and brown ones, fat capons, a few ducks, and in one corner a solitary tom turkey who by himself filled one large cage. Feathers swirled around her feet as Margit walked slowly past the cages, peering in to find the birds with the brightest eyes and the cleanest feathers. Chickens clucked and squawked as she passed, holding her skirts so they wouldn’t brush against the grubby cages.

At the end of the aisle was the store’s counter, and beyond that the back room where the birds were decapitated, dipped in boiling water, and plucked. Jacob Weiss, the proprietor, stood behind the counter with a leather apron over his work clothes, wrapping a freshly killed bird for the only other customer in the store, Ilona Lukacs. The two women murmured “hello” politely, but without warmth, since Hungarian Protestants like Mrs. Lukacs and Catholics like Margit rarely communicated socially.

Holding Mrs. Lukacs’ hand was a small boy wearing knee pants and a white shirt with a floppy bow tie.

“Say hello to Mrs. Molnar, Istvan,” said Mrs. Lukacs.

“Hello,” he said, then buried his face in his mother’s skirt.
Margit turned her head. It was apparent that Mrs. Lukacs was expecting another child, and Margit experienced a brief pang of envy. Having even one child conferred a certain status on a woman. Imagine how fulfilled she would be if she had been able to have Laci’s children! Yet, after nearly seven years of marriage, she received her period each month with a sense of relief, tinged with shame, and endured the smug look of matrons like Ilona Lukacs.

“Good morning, Mrs. Molnar,” said Mr. Weiss as he rang up Mrs. Lukacs’s purchase. “What can I do for you today?”