By Kitta MacPherson
Father was talking to Mother about Thomas Edison again.
“Wearing a suit so wrinkled it looked like he slept in it. Going so fast he was almost running,” said Father. “Would you believe the man walks to his own factory?”
I was upstairs, dressing for school, but my room sat near the back stairs leading to the kitchen. Words floated up. Most mornings, patches of conversation, warmed by the kitchen, would soar and hang there. Father was riding the trolley, heading to Dr. Barclay’s, he said. It was just luck. He looked up from his newspaper and out the window for a second and spied “Old Tom,” as he put it – the inventor’s pin straight salt and pepper hair flapping in the wind. Mr. Edison popped out of the lush, forested entrance to Llewellyn Park where he lived in his pink mansion, Glenmont, and jaywalked across Main Street. I could hear the warm murmur of Mother’s acclamation of his story. Mother’s blue tea kettle whistled. Her left hand would be stowed softly on Father’s right shoulder as I imagined her pouring the steaming liquid into one of her treasured Belleek china pieces. As I pulled on my shoes, a cup and saucer rattled loudly.
“Ah!” I heard Father cry out.
“Your trousers,” Mother scolded.
This was the year 1919 and we lived in Orange, New Jersey. With 34 factories devoted solely to the making of hats, Orange had earned its nickname as the “Hat Capital” of the country. There were many other factories here. Our fathers and brothers, and some of our mothers and sisters, made a lot of other goods, like beer and furniture. The father of my friend, Virginia, worked in the Colgate factory and made vats of toothpaste all day. We were about a mile from Mr. Edison’s “idea factory” – that’s what the paper called it – in downtown West Orange where he was trying out inventions like moving pictures and a “phonograph” – a machine that made music by scratching grooves on wax cylinders.
I rounded the stairs and entered the kitchen, just as Mother was spooning oatmeal into my bowl. The kitchen was cozy. I could never decide whether the comfort I felt there was due to Mother’s cooking or the simple presence of my parents. Father sat, still and silent, behind the fortress of his paper.
“Morning, Father,” I said, going ’round and hugging him from behind.
He smelled of shaving cream. Something close to a smile turned up each end of his mouth.
“Hello, Mother,” I said. I pecked her soft cheek. I had already pulled up my hair, red like my father’s. Father, like so many of his friends, was a hatter. He had taken a job at the No Name Brand hat factory on Mitchell Street as soon as he graduated Our Lady of the Valley High School. John and Henry Stetson, brothers who owned the factory, fought so much they could never decide on a name for their company. The factory was massive, taking up three city blocks. Hundreds of people worked there. Tophats, fedoras, bowlers, you name it, Father had cut rabbit pelts treated with chemicals and made them out of the felt that resulted. He shaped the soft material, and sized the pieces from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day.
Hatters made good money, better than almost any other factory job around. Rumors swirled of strange sicknesses afflicting them. You couldn’t speak about it. Our neighbor, Mr. Graham, was fired at Christmas by the L. Birch Hat Manufacturing Company. He had complained that his vision was blurry and that he was having trouble walking. The company said he was a drunk. I heard Mother whisper to Father that she had never seen Mr. Graham touch a drop of liquor. Lately, Father had developed a case of what he called “the shakes.” He missed work yesterday morning to go see Dr. Barclay up on First Mountain. The physician said that Father needed more fresh air.
“Mairead,” Father said, looking at me over his paper.
He was the only one who called me by my full name. To everyone else, I was “Mae,” which suited me fine.
Father continued: “You won’t believe what has happened to Madame Curie.” Sprouts of white were beginning to show amongst the red spikes of his closely cropped hair. Yet, his strong-boned face bore no wrinkles. He was trying. His deep blue eyes bored into mine, inviting me to join in.
“Please tell me, Father,” I said.
“Our Madame Curie,” he said, has discovered another….Oh!!!”
His sentence broke off as his teacup flew from his hand. The cup spun like a little planet traversing the universe of our kitchen. The swift journey ended with a crash against Mother’s white wood butler’s pantry. Shards of white porcelain rained on the oak floor.
“Dennis Dwyer!” Mother said and froze.
Father stared at his right hand as if it belonged to someone else. He had never looked so startled. Mother firmly tapped my shoulder. “I’ll do it,” she said. “Time for school.” I gathered my cloak and books and crossed our creaky wooden porch. I raced to the front sidewalk and headed off.
As I walked I studied houses like mine, with gaslights burning and people moving inside. A weak March sun hidden behind clouds barely glowed, casting a grey sheen over the landscape. From behind, I heard someone calling me. “Mae! Mae! Wait up!” I turned and saw Rose Frantangelo racing toward me. She had hiked up her outercoat and her skirt to quicken her pace, revealing her ankles and black stockings. Rose had always been a bit of a scamp.
“Where are you going?” she said as she caught up, huffing.
“School,” I said. Then I remembered that I hadn’t seen her in a while. “Where are you heading?” I asked.
“Work,” Rose announced.
I stopped walking and looked at her. Rose had attended Catholic elementary school with me, a grade behind me. She switched to public school in eighth grade after her mother died from pneumonia. At Mass last year, Father Greg announced that Rose’s brother, Petey, died from the Spanish flu while serving in the U.S. Army at Fort Dix. Rose was part of a large extended family whose members were from a small village outside Naples, Italy. They had escaped desperate poverty and journeyed to America, settling in Orange. Rose was what my mother would call “a beauty.” She had caramel eyes and thick, dark lashes. When she was in school with me, the boys used to watch her — she had a way of tossing her head so that her wavy golden brown hair would fly out. Now her hair was pinned up like mine. Ashy half moons accented her eyes from below.
“I work at the Radium Luminous Materials Corporation,” she said, proudly enunciating each word of the proper name. “It’s only a few blocks from here. The pay is great. I have friends who work there. You probably know some of the girls. We have so much fun.”
She added, “You ought to come with me some time!”
Rose continued, listing all the girls who worked there.
The decision came fast and out of nowhere.
“Can I go to work with you today?” I said.
Rose screeched and jumped up and down.
“Yes,” she said. She wore a big smile.
The standalone dialpainting studio of the Radium Luminous Materials Corporation in Orange was housed in a large brick building on the north corner of a large property. We entered and encountered a young lady with a thin, pinched face and sallow complexion, seated at a table facing us. Piles of paper were heaped on the desk, obscuring all but her head and neck. She looked at me with a quizzical expression.
“This is my friend, Mae,” Rose told her. Neither smiled. “She is visiting today. She may want to work here.”
“I guess that’s okay,” the young lady said.
We exited a hallway and entered a huge, sunlit room. The studio paralleled the path of Alden Street and was about the length of half a city block. Tall windows took up most of the walls facing the rest of the factory compound and the city street. Rectangular skylights rained sunbeams down on the workers gathering in the room. Long rows of attached desks arranged horizontally dominated the room. Hundreds of young women were in here. Most were dressed just like me with a long skirt and a white cotton blouse. Some wore what looked like plaid housecoats over their street clothes. We hung our belongings on brass hooks attached to planks, like school. Each girl set up at her own desk and settled in on a wooden, straight-backed chair. I followed Rose to her station, at the end of the second row and sat next to her in a vacant seat.
“So you are sure you really want to learn this?” Rose said.
I nodded affirmatively.
“Don’t be upset if you don’t get it right at first,” she said. “Usually, it takes about two weeks of training. But I know how smart you are – so I’m not really worried.”
I’m not sure how much brains had anything to do with this. Wizard-like deftness of the hands and wrist were more like it. Before me was a metal tray shaped like a cookie sheet. In five rows, 20 deep, I studied my starting material: clock dials on nickel- and dime-sized paper circles with tiny minute and second hands. To my left sat a small bottle, stopped with a cork, containing yellowish powder. A tiny scoop with a handle skinny as a toothpick was nestled close to its side. There also was a white metal tube which someone already had begun to squeeze from the bottom, another small bottle containing a clear liquid, and a slender artist’s brush. A white ceramic mortar and pestle, a close cousin to the set in our kitchen, rounded out the tool collection.
Rose was already getting started. I watched her out of the corner of my eye, so as not to stare. She was all grace and simple quick movements, making the operation look like one continuous dance. She scooped the powder into the pestle, squeezed a dot of white paste and dropped it in, and, with a medicine dropper, extracted a drop of the clear liquid – it smelled acrid – and mixed that in, using the pestle, daintily swirling in three times. What she did next shocked me. She picked up the paintbrush with one hand and, opening her lips, brought the tip of the brush inside, closed her mouth over it, and twirled it, as if it were a lollipop. When she pulled the brush slowly out, it spiraled to a perfect point.
I must have made a sound because she spoke then.
“We call that lippointing,” Rose said. “It’s the only way you can do it.”
She looked at me again and stopped. “This stuff is supposed to be good for you,” she said. She seemed upset. “Some people drink it.”
I didn’t want to put a brush in my mouth and I didn’t see why I had to do it that way. As I moved to start, I could see that Rose was already on her third watchface. I mixed the concoction, dipped the brush in, and then wiped it on the sides so it wouldn’t drip and to sharpen the “point” of the brush. I moved the brush and lightly touched the digit 1 on the first watchface. To my consternation, the paint spread beyond the digit and filled in the area around it, forming a moat.
“You can’t waste it,” Rose said, leaning over and expertly dabbing up the paint on my dial with a wad of cotton she pulled from a drawer. “Just use tiny bits. And don’t hurry. You will pick up speed the more you paint.”
I could feel a breeze from an open window. I detected a faint odor of something burning. The young ladies chatted, forming a soft murmur. One girl spoke to the women in her area about preparations for her sister’s wedding.
I muddled along, doing my best. I had to concentrate and couldn’t dream of talking. Rose was already well into her tray by this point. I was far behind.
Later, as we walked home, Rose looked toward me, through me.
“I think you should sleep over and go to work with me again,” Rose said.
I thought about it. I was full of energy – and purpose .I didn’t want to act as if I had been in school when I had not been there. The Principal’s Office would probably mail a notice if I were out for a few days.
“Let’s send my little sister, Alfie, to your house,” she said. “She can pick up whatever you need and tell your Mother that you are helping us with school work. She can say it’s going to take a long while so you should probably spend the night.”
It was an unusual enough plan – I rarely did sleepovers – that Mother might believe Alfie. And she would like the idea of me working, being useful. I imagined Mother opening the door and, recognizing the girl from church, saying, “Good evening, Alfonsina.”
Rose lived with her family in a second-floor apartment in a two-story brick building. Verdi’s newspaper and candy store, a popular place in that neighborhood, was on the first floor. Daylight still reigned but a giant pink neon sign the shape of an ice cream cone loomed, casting its own kind of white-hot radiance on the front sidewalk. The display occupied a full window in the storefront, one that ran from the ground up to what must have been the inside ceiling.
“People come and just stare at it,” Rose said. She walked on, shaking her head. I guessed she had looked at it enough times for it to lose its charm.
We entered through a cracked wooden side door painted green with a dent in one lower corner, as if someone had kicked it.
Off the main hallway, Rose pointed to a closed door.
“That was Agopito’s room,” she said. “You remember my brother, Petey, right?”
How could I forget a boy with black curly hair and Rose’s caramel eyes? A boy who could outplay most others in street and playground games? He had been two years ahead of me in school. In our elementary school’s auditorium before the assembled students, he won the spelling bee, besting a mean girl named Mary Margaret Devlin. He had spelled the word “phosphorescent” properly. Miss Devlin had not. Petey told our principal, Sister Amata, right then, he wanted to be a writer. Yes, I remembered Petey.
“Papa says some of us should move in to his room,” Rose said. “We can’t do it.”
Petey – the only son in a family of six children – had lived in the room behind that door until he had left for basic training at Ft. Dix hours away in the Pinelands of southern New Jersey. Rose’s father, Arturo, occupied a second bedroom. The door was closed. “Mama’s clothes and perfume bottles are still in there,” she whispered. As I started to respond, Rose brought her pointer finger to her lips to shush me. Mr. Frantangelo worked as a night watchman at the Budweiser plant in Newark.
“He’ll be waking soon, maybe in another hour or so,” she said.
We passed a bathroom and Rose halted at the last room at the end of the corridor. Most of the room was taken up with two large beds. Two dressers with mirrors above them had been squeezed against one wall facing the beds. A great wooden wardrobe rose in the far corner of the room.
“We can sleep in the drawing room tonight,” Rose said.
Rose dispatched Alfie on her mission to make the 15-minute walk to collect my belongings from my house and return.
Alfie returned with my clothes – and not much of a story.
“Your mother is very nice,” she said.
Following dinner and dishwashing, I sat with Alfie, working on math problems first, then a geography lesson. Tired, we decided to turn in early. Rose left the room and returned with sheets and blankets. I barely remember what happened next, exhaustion overcame me. I know that we covered the divans with the bedding. I remember Rose was chatting about the day. I must have fallen asleep, then, with my clothing on.
The click of a doorknob awoke me some hours later as Rose’s father left for work. The room was dark, except for the pinkish effervescence of the sign. I rolled over to face Rose.
For a moment, I thought there was something wrong with my eyes. Or that maybe I was dreaming. Rose’s hair, her face and the parts of her body I could see above the blanket – her neck and one arm — glowed a ghastly milk-green, bright as neon. I was shaking. I stood up slowly. My fear made my muscles ache and my body clumsy. I stumbled around the table. I was scared but I wanted to reach her. I patted her head very softly, so I could make sure she was real and hear her breathe. Up close, tiny specks of bright green, like fairy dust, covered her hair and dusted her skin. She looked like a beautiful monster.
I was crying, but I muffled my sobs. I needed to run. I found my shoes and bag of clothing and slipped out the door. I almost tripped on the stairs going down. If I ran fast, I knew I could get home soon. Despite my actions, I hoped Father and Mother were still awake.
Kitta MacPherson is an award-winning science writer who has worked in daily newspapers and at Princeton University. She now teaches journalism, ethics, and writing at Rutgers University in New Jersey. During her career in daily newspaper journalism, most of it at The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., she was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for a series of stories on promising new cancer treatments and an examination of a vitamin-enhanced, genetically engineered strain of “golden rice.” She reported on numerous breakthroughs in science, examined the research behind scientific controversies, and explored revolutionary advances in treatments for AIDS, cancer and addiction. MacPherson has won recognition for her work from the National Association of Science Writers, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and the New Jersey Press Association. She holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Non-Fiction from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her short story, “El Balo,” will appear in the May/June issue of Down in the Dirt magazine.