It was an ordinary sewing machine, pale blue, electric, that her sister Ruchel gave her when she bought herself a fancy new one. Rivkeh’s husband Morris had just died, and Rivkeh decided that if she took in some sewing it would help.
Rivkeh had worked as a seamstress for years, but never before had she had a machine of her own. Morris had wanted to buy her one for years, but she always said to him that when she got home at night the last thing she wanted to do was sew. Still, the work was familiar and Rivkeh decided it would be better to be sewing again than to be sitting all day in front of a television set like Shirley and Yetta and the rest of her widowed friends.
In her years of sewing Rivkeh had worked on many different machines, old ones with foot pedals and new ones, electric. But in all that time she had never worked on a machine like the one that Ruchel gave her. Fabric slid through it like water beneath her fingers, and there was something comforting about the way it hummed at her, like a cat. Her first customers all came back to her saying that everything she sewed on it stayed sewed, that her seams never came apart, ripped apart, or even unraveled. It seemed odd to her, very odd. That there was no way except with a scissors that you could separate two pieces of cloth that she had sewn together. Not even the Abramowitz boy downstairs, who worked out in an Italian gymnasium and had muscles on his arms that were larger than his head, could rip apart the shirt that Rivkeh made for him.
Naturally, by word of mouth, money started to come in, as neighbors began to tell others about Rivkeh and her marvelous work. Day and night the phone kept ringing, with people wanting her to sew for them. A ball gown for a very rich woman with a hunchback. Matching bar mitzvah suits for a set of identical triplets. And then fifteen costumes for a lesbian traveling circus. Her customers raved about her work. They said she used some kind of special thread that came all the way from Paris. But Rivkeh knew better. It was ordinary thread she bought, from Woolworth’s, around the corner.
The people she sewed for sent her flowers, chocolates, tickets to concerts. They swore by her work. A year after she started sewing the mayor himself came to have her make a suit for him. But Rivkeh was troubled by her work. She’d sewn on much better machines than Ruchel’s old one, she knew the things that Ruchel had sewed on it, and none of them were as good as the work that she’d been doing. On top of that, Ruchel was angry. Her fancy new computerized machine kept breaking down. She wished she’d never given her old one to Rivkeh, especially when she saw the work that Rivkeh was doing on it and saw how much money she was taking in. But Ruchel didn’t say anything about it to her widowed sister, and she made her husband Sam promise that he wouldn’t say anything either.
Then one night, Rivkeh had a dream. It started out an ordinary dream. In the dream, Rivkeh saw herself coming back from Ruchel’s house in a taxi, the day she gave her the sewing machine. Everything was exactly the way it had been that day. But then, the dream shifted. Rivkeh felt as if another eye had opened in the middle of her forehead, an eye that could peer through layers of darkness and see what she hadn’t been able to see before. Looking out the window of the cab, which was stopped at a red light, Rivkeh noticed a little apartment across the street, and somehow, she could see right into it. Lying alone and in pain on his deathbed was a old a rabbi, cold-hearted, mean-spirited, a widower with two daughters he’d alienated, without even noticing. But when he died, his soul was so heavy with bitterness that it tried but could not rise up to heaven. Instead it spun, sputtered, and fell back down to earth, where it landed with a shudder in Rivkeh’s sewing machine, as she sat with it in her lap, in the taxi.
In the dream Rivkeh knew that because the rabbi had ripped so many people’s lives in his shul apart with his bitterness, cutting them off from their hearts just as he had been torn off from his own – that as penance he would have to sew a million perfect seams on her sewing machine. And only when he had completed that task would his soul finally be released from the machine so that he could at last rise up to heaven.
Rivkeh remembered the dream when she woke up. She remembered the strange shudder she’d felt in the machine, the day that she brought it home. At the time she thought the cab had hit a pothole. “But a rabbi’s penance? A million perfect seams?” she muttered to herself as she reached for her bathrobe at the foot of the bed, as she sat up and put on her house slippers. The sun was just coming up as she walked down the hall to the living room. There she picked up the sewing machine, although Dr. Feldman had warned her because of her back not to lift anything. She picked it up from the little table where it sat beneath a window, and carried it back down the hall to the linen closet, where she put it on the bottom shelf between two old brown suitcases. Then, she closed the door, walked back to the kitchen, and made herself a strong cup of coffee.
The extra money had been nice, and her customers called her for years, begging her to do another job for them. One offered to send her to Florida for the winter, if only she would sew her daughter’s wedding gown. Another offered to set her up in a little shop of her own, if only she would make each year a different suit for him. But nothing and no one could ever persuade Rivkeh to sew another garment on that machine. After all, she and Morris had been Communists.