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Before there can be a murderous heart, or, for that matter, before there can be a whorehouse, an orphanage, a dank trunk with rusted hinges, there must first be a hosiery mill. And a woman within it — Alma. You must imagine her as a young mother, thin, cheerless, her hair frizzing around her head. She stands in front of a smoothed pedestal, curved like a flexed foot, fitting each toe seam to it, pulling stockings on and then, quickly, off again. It is like dressing and undressing a thousand women's bare legs. Sometimes she thinks of their legs, the future bodies that will stretch and wear thin the cloth, their fine, soft hairs and broad calves. Sometimes she sees thousands of legs — pale, dark, thin, fat — the endless churn of days swaggering toward her as anklebone and soft knee. She doesn't want to be here, righting stockings all her life, the wet air, shivering from the livid machinery, spiked with the acrid pinch of dye vats catching in her nose each time she breathes. She has no interest in moving up to mending, looping, to stir yarn at the dye vat, to sit like the old pallid men in the corner with their magnifying glasses counting threads. Who would? she hisses to herself. Who would ever desire this? And it seems to her that a person should desire something.
It's spring, the sun only musing about heat, and it should be cool enough, but the factory is kept hot, intentionally humid, so the threads won't snap, wad, gum up the machines, or simply spin out to whir blankly. The factory is one giant roaring room, the winding machine's high-pitched whine, the great clacking cams, the unending ruckus of the beating machines, and thewomen bow to them, their fingers fidgeting and smoothing around insistent needles. Despite the oil, the gears grind corrosively, a damp rustiness that smells of blood. When Alma looks up from the hose and the upturned wooden foot, her eyes tear from the dust and the whole wide factory before her tilts and quivers. The room seems fragile, like it could shatter, but then the tears plop to her dress front and the factory is as it should be, churning, thunderous, massive, an immovable train with a million pumping engines. The noise is so loud it seems that it should send the workers rattling into their machines. But it doesn't. Some scuttle up and down the alleys, coughing, coughing, their lungs nicked by barbed cotton dust. Others bend to their fast hands. The dust and humidity are so thick, Alma feels like she can't breathe. She's heard of the bigger mills where clouds billow in prep rooms as workers beat and claw out the raw cotton, the lint flying up from openers, pickers, cards. But in this factory, too, when she walks by to go to the bathroom — a foul room with its slimy floor and thin partition — and looks back to her station at the end of the long room, she sees nothing but stirring bodies caught in a white haze, the workers moving like ghosts.
Here the air is choked by whiteness. It's the opposite of the world outside where the steep mountains empty into the valley, its city shuffling in black dust from the coke oven fires and coal mines up in the mountains, a thin mist that grays the streets, the buses, dimming everything from her paint-chipped porch rails to the university's white pillars. The dark dust swirls in the Monongahela, teeming with catfish that rake up slow silty clouds. It's worse in winter when each house heats up from its coal-burning stove, each chimney pouring smoke and ash. Perhaps you can see her days, the blur as she moves from white cloud to dark, from lint to ash to lint.
But Alma can feel things shifting. She knows nothing of atoms. She can't. She's a woman in a hosiery factory in Marrowtown, West Virginia. It's 1924, nearly summer. Atoms are still the matter of physicists' dreams, dim stars with the skies just beginning to ink. But if she did know of atoms, she would say she could feel the restlessness of them, like schoolchildren at the end of a long spring day. She's aware of the vibration of everything — not just the factory's thrumming hive, but in some minute invisibility all around her, inside of herself, a small electric charge.
She's always felt that she's known a bit of the future, nothing specific — more a feeling, an inclination. And she can tell — does she hiss this to herself as well? — that the future holds a change, an abrupt one, like the two wide factory doors that swing out just before the end of the shift — as is happening now, Mrs. Bass lifting the heavy latch — and suddenly the dark factory of hunkered sweat-stained backs is swimming in sun. Mrs. Bass walks up the stairs, her knotty backbones poking out of the thin cloth of her work dress. She sounds the whistle, a hollow rise of air. The machines wind down, but not all the way — a kept purr, and it's as if the purr is in Alma's chest, locked in her ribs.
The night shift stands in the open doorway, men and women spitting their tobacco juice, their orangy ambeer, in bright sluices. Mr. Bass sits at his little table because it is the end of the week. He looks mannerable in his pressed white shirt with a starched collar that seems to catch the sharp knob of his Adam's apple each time he clears his throat, a habit that draws attention to him, his tally sheet, his shiny hair parted straight down the middle. Alma stretches her back.
"How many gross you got there?" Mrs. Bass has snuck up on her. Mrs. Bass is a cankered woman, slightly older than Mr. Bass, it seems, bent, with big thievish eyes behind small glasses, ferretlike with snapping buck teeth. Like Mr. Bass, she shouts, because she is nearly deaf, having lived her life amid the drumming. She doesn't seem to trust anyone and asks even this simple question as if expecting a lie.
"Eleven, ma'am," Alma tells her.
"You sure there? You count it twice?"
"Yes," she says, although she only counted once. It is eleven sacks, though, stuffed tight. That's the truth.
The old woman writes it down, the last on her list, and scurries to the little table and Mr. Bass with his tray of money, his pencil stub.
There are two lines now, one to get in, one to get out. The night shift jaws in the doorway. Some are coal miners' wives; Alma can tell by that ashen, obdurate look of having breathed so much dust your skin grays, and yet being willing to breathe more. Threadbare, worn by the burden of toughness. She recognizes one of the women from her school days. Tall now and angular, the woman holds onto the boniness of her childhood. Alma remembers her as one of the girls with the sticks, who'd run after her until she fell, and then lashed her arms and legs, red, tender. The sticks were sharp, some pulled from trees, still green, pliable, snapping whips. It happened twice, and then she stopped going to school. It was her mother's fault, and her mother said there was no need for Alma to suffer for her mother's passions. The woman nearly catches her eye, but Alma looks down quickly and then away, across the factory, as if she might have left something behind at her station.
Alma feels herself slipping away into her childhood skin, the nigger lover's daughter — for that's what she had been called for years. She had felt like an ugly, ruderal child. On her mother's farm, its sweet peas shriveled on their curled stems, suffering from the atrophy of her mother's dismissal of love, all of the crops, corn, tomatoes, yellowed and sun-bleached, she was a cast-out child, an oddling who learned on her own how to trap and skin and boil wild rabbit and squirrel. She recalls that those squirrels, wiry and quick with their sharp teeth — like Mrs. Bass — gave her bad dreams. She preferred the rabbits. Even here in the factory she can still have moments like these, of bone-deep memory when she sinks into her girlhood and feels forever fastened to that delicate skeleton. She tries to remind herself that she is a wife, a mother. She will go home to Henry's back, pained from switching rails all day, hooking and unhooking heavy metal clasps, and the pressing needs of her three children: Irving, outgrowing his shoes; Willard, with his oversize head and fat hands, talking about God, sweet, slow-witted Willard; and her girl, Lettie, who has started with the bad dreams, calling out in her sleep about water and a hand. Sometimes Alma is afraid of her children. She was raised in a sullen house, her parents silent. Her mother's kind of silence was stern, proud; her father's, ashamed, even before there was a humiliation. Alma was never loved lavishly. Even Henry's courtship, although lusty, was reserved. She remembers only once in a guttural whisper that he told her she was beautiful. And that was enough for her. In fact, it might have been all she could have endured.
But the children, as infants, clung to her while crying, and then they fell asleep, creating a patina of sweat that she dared not break for fear of waking them. And even now, older knobby-kneed kids, they rush her with wild attention. Willard, nearly the size of a man, will sometimes race to find her seated in the kitchen — when she least expects him — and he'll bury his face in her lap, kiss her hands. Lettie, now ten, is a river of emotion, winding, quick, a dipping whirl, a surge strong enough to carry Alma away. Irving has grown distant, and yet he can throw a hungry glance and her knees give, her stomach clots. Often she senses a need in them so deep it seems they want to swallow her. She imagines them, hands joined, circling, and it's not her children but a giant mouth. She fears disappearing into it, into herself, into the house, its rooms rented to noisy boarders — show people — a troupe working for the Tremont Theater, a variety act. The sign reads: DANCING BEAR! SINGING PARROT! ACROBATICS, CHORUS GIRLS, AND COMEDICS! THE GREATEST PERFORMERS OF THE WORLD! 10 CENTS, PLEASE. But they're a lousy bunch. The bear is even a shuffler, small and old with an arthritic hip. And who can afford a show these days?
This is her life. Better than her childhood, sacred by comparison, but still she is desirous of the change she feels. She is here to turn stockings, but it can't last too long, not with her heart charged as it is, not with this buzz of change around her.
Her shift waits for its money, says, "Evenin', Mr. Bass," each one, as he tallies up and hands out bills and change. The woman in front of her is antsy, a blonde who's already taken off her apron. She's looking around, her soft neck craning. She spots Mrs. Bass, who's now sweeping up between the rows. Alma doesn't know the blonde's name. She doesn't want to.
The blonde leans down, says, "Evenin', Willy," in a breathy whisper.
Mr. Bass looks up, and then his eyes cut to his wife, sweeping now in a dark corner, a small puff of dust collecting at her manly shoes. "Evenin'," he says, shy all of a sudden, soft around the edges of his face. He takes his nub pencil and changes her eleven into a fourteen in one quick, mincy stroke, and counts the money out in her hand.
She glances at Alma, smiles, almost apologetically, but too, with a sense of deep exhaustion. Alma looks at her own shoes, square-toed and uncomfortable. Each pregnancy widened her feet, but she's never admitted it, a certain vanity, and so her toes are forever pinched. She wants to tell the woman to look somewhere else if she wants an accomplice. Don't apologize to me. But really, she's got nothing against the blonde. She hates Mr. Bass — even now, before she knows so much about men — in his clean, starched shirt, his sharp Adam's apple, the pale razor-nicked skin of his neck. What about Mrs. Bass, his ferretlike wife? She's taken care of, of course, better than most, but she's not twenty feet away, and sweeping her heart out, short angry stabs at the dust and knit-scraps that she'll pick out of the heap while he flirts, cheats. No wonder Mrs. Bass doesn't believe anybody when they tell her how many gross at the end of each day.
Mr. Bass watches the blonde walk out the door. Coughs. Straightens. Turns back to Alma, all business again. Six dollars and sixty cents for the week. It's always disgraceful. This small amount, never enough. She isn't angry, exactly, but there's a tightness of oiled parts, as if her heart is a motor, its gears tensing in the air. She stuffs the money in her apron pocket.
The heat of the day is dropping off. The other women talk and laugh, jostling together, all hips and elbows from where Alma has stopped behind them. The blonde's with them, too, no longer breathy, loud now, her voice clanging. Alma also sees the coal miners' wives, a somber clot trudging up the mountain to their company housing. She can hear the dulled clamor of her mother's voice: You aren't a coal miner's wife, her mother would say, and you should be glad of that. I got you out, meaning she married an epileptic who wasn't allowed in the mines, a sacrifice for her daughter. Miners are her mother's lesson. She always pointed them out to her as a child, knowing many by name (although she'd never talk to them) and others by the way their skin, sometimes too pink from scrubbing, held onto the coal around their wide fingernails, the switchers with their missing fingers, and the ones who'd been in an explosion mottled with blue scars, what the doctor couldn't dig up still trapped beneath their skin. The women she claimed to know by their worn look, weakened by worry of the alarm whistle, and babies, babies, clinging all over them. Alma was supposed to have learned to feel a gush of relief, a contentment, even more than that, a steam of pride — for what? Her mother marrying a man she found pathetic so her daughter could know a different kind of poverty? Alma never felt pride, and her mother didn't either, although she tried. But no. And Alma doesn't feel it now. The road ahead rolls downhill, and the slipping golden light is collecting in the soft dip like it's a basket the women are walking into.
She looks into the tall grass of the field beside the road, the mountains' blue outline filling up the sky. The grass, noisome with crickets, frogs, cicadas, has a pitching scream to it, a screeching chorus, but her ears still ring, the factory's din filling her head. The world is muffled as if everything were trying to sound out under a wrap of cotton and coal dross. She can just barely make out the rinky-dink plinking of the gypsy carnival. She knows she should march on to her own road, her hedgerow, step into her house next to the neighbor's field of cows — beautiful bow-bellied cows with udders so full she sometimes can see the droplets of milk pearling on the teats — to be the woman inside of her work dress, her skin, the one with fingers worn from righting hose, a mother, a wife. But she cannot take another step, although the women ahead of her look lovely, dusted still in some coal-choked sun, everything touched by the filigree of ash. Bouncing bet bob in the field — pinkish white clusters, and, too, the new ones, their green tongues just beginning to twist into a bloom.
She turns, walks into the tall grass, to take the long way home through the carnival, even though she knows that Henry will walk into the noisy house before she does and not find a thing cooking. Maybe because of it. Wouldn't it be nice if he needed her as much as she needed him? And, too, perhaps most of all because she's dreamed up the cows, their wide girths pitching as they balance on their hooves, their bodies' rock and sway, their twitching tails. She's spent too much time gazing out the kitchen window at them, their pinbones shifting hips, barrel, unlocking hock and knee, their delicate dew claws, the constant chew and chew, the way her own mind works at something, like a memory — her run-off father, for example, his clipped tongue. Sometimes, even in winter with the windows shut tight, she can hear the cows low in the field, their sweet cries, the hollow tink of neck bells each time one shifts her weight or lifts her heavy head. It is too much like her own life, fenced, servile, the shuffle from barn to sky and back again.
But she is outside now, alone. She feels the clatter of machinery in her chest begin to whir, the ground is so lit with its tamped singing, and the plinking music grows louder until she can see the carnival's strung lanterns, until she's walked through the small clutch of trees, stepped over a sagging fence, and she is there, in the shuffling crowd. It's a small relief, a valve's steam tipping up its metal cap.
She takes it in: the striped tents, the painted signs — MULE-FACED WOMAN, RUBBER MAN — a charred pig turning on its spit. A faded painting on a wooden door of a half-man, half-woman, one side with its thin moustache and suit, the other with its lavish eyelashes and glittery dress. The entire whirling spectacle puckers, fades, puckers again, a clatter-roll, cawing, as if the earth here were plowed, revealing furrows of gaudy light that climbed right out, as if from a grave, and shook loose the dirt. She feels something close to jealousy, a surge of need. She feels the way she did as a child, wanting, and her mother, her father, their large bodies and voices, the importance of their lives teetering above her; the carnival is like this, its bright colors, its hawkers in bow ties, its giant clicking wheel.
The paths around the run-down exhibits are worn, muddy, pocked with small puddles and cart ruts. But the rain is good. It washes away the soot. It pulls the ash from the air and pins it, wet, to the earth. She would like to see the Mule-Faced Woman. She always wants to, but there's never enough time or money. She's only ever been to the carnival this way, over the fence walking home the long way from work. It's almost as if she's discovered a new world here. It smells foreign, too. Not any one smell by itself, but all of the smells mixed together — the charred pig, the sweet candy, the metal, liquor, bodies, dung, hay, even the smell of her own body, the cling of oil, dye, cotton and coal ash, yes, always that. Mixed like this, it smells like no place she's ever been before. It makes her think of China or Persia, or some such place you only ever hear stories about. Byzantium, the word forms in her mouth; it seems dizzy with glitter. She's told Henry about the carnival many times. She's said, "We should go someday. Take the whole family. It's got lights and music and all kinds of people the like you've never seen before." She imagines the kids running through the crowd, the strung lanterns turning their faces red then blue then red again.
But Henry never wants to go. It costs money to go anywhere. "Not to mention," he says, "this here house is a damn carnival. We got a bear. What else do you want?"
Henry doesn't like the bear. He acts jolly enough around it, rubs its ears as he walks past, but he takes offense to it living in the house, she suspects, powerful and kingly with its brushed fur, the way it sometimes lords around downstairs, a yawn showing its large white teeth, imposing, as if it's the man of the house. He's jealous of it, she can tell, and afraid of it, too. He is actually a fearful man. Sometimes he's afraid of Alma — she can sense it — and then he hates her for making him afraid, and the hate makes him strong again. She catches herself worrying over Henry. She knows only her mother's failed attempts at domesticity and love. Her marriage to Henry is subtle, complicated, like paper that's been balled up again and again, and now when she tries to figure it out, to smooth it open, it's impossibly wrinkled, and whatever may have once been written on it is now illegible, lost.
She walks up to the eight-legged calf steeping in a jar of formaldehyde. She always pauses here, staring into its whiskered face, bulging eyes, its egregious body, calcified in a shocked expression of horror. It makes her recall her baby born early, dead, a hateful association, but there nonetheless, each time she sees it. The doctor said the baby must have had something wrong with it, and she wonders what it looked like. The doctor wrapped it in a bloodstained sheet, the small clot of its bones, and she imagines a soft rubberiness of arms and legs, the cord at its navel snipped and bloody. He told Henry to take it away so as not to give her a shock. Henry was scared of her then, too, scared of her growling with pain, scared of the blood. She wonders if the baby would have been a shock, if it had too many arms, too many legs, like the calf. She looks at the calf's proud owner, his lumpy cheeks shiny with pride, tapping the glass with a little stick, saying, "Lookee here. Lookee here. Marvel of marvels!" It's been so many years since the dead baby. It had been her first, and now Irving is twelve. Could it be fourteen years? She was just a girl, herself, then, just seventeen.
Today she's got the money to see the Mule-Faced Woman, but there's a line — a soldier missing a leg, a boy sitting curled around his crutch, and there are two fat sisters, twins maybe. But then the tent flap opens, and a tartish girl with a primped mouth says, "Next show starting. Come on in." The line files into the dark tent, and Alma follows along. The girl holds out her grimy hand, and each person puts a nickel in it, which she, quick, shoves in an apron pocket.
At first it's so dark inside that Alma can't see a thing. Slowly her eyes adjust and there's a row of ten chairs, a tiny curtained stage.
The girl walks like a woman, and Alma wonders if she is a woman, only tiny. She hobbles, one leg longer than the other — in evidence by one shoe's built-up heel. Now Alma can make out her high breasts and compact hips.
The girl-woman speaks in a voice so tinlike it seems as if she's talking into a can: "This here is a woman of a grotesque nature. Her mother a woman. Her father a mule. A cruel fate. This show is not for the weak of heart nor the weak of stomach. I beg of you: Leave now if you are frail by nature." She pauses.
Alma imagines the sex in a horrid flash, a woman and a mule locked together, the mule's penis, large and heavy as a club. She pauses, trying to think if it's possible. Mules can't usually mate, isn't that right? Does she mean a donkey? Shouldn't it be the Donkey-Faced Woman? Alma blushes, wonders if the other people there have imagined the sexual act, too. The audience fidgets, but no one gets up to leave. Alma tries to direct her attention away from the dark theater. She hears a barking dog, its clinking chain, a woman's peal of laughter, a heavy woman by the deep sound of it, and the repetitive punctuation of a sharp ring, perhaps a shovel striking rock.
The girl-woman sighs, heavily, shakes her head, like she's an executioner doomed to this sorrowful task. "Well, then, I suppose I will have to show the horrible truth of the Mule-Faced Woman." Nickels clicking, she pulls back one side of the curtain, revealing a woman's long legs in a knee-length skirt and high heels. It's the normalcy that makes Alma tighten with fear. The girl-woman takes time tying the curtain back before she moves to the other side. She pulls the second length of hanging cloth slowly, staring out into the audience. A sharp gasp rises up. The small crowd begins to stir and whisper. The Mule-Faced Woman has an immense jaw with large squared teeth, wide nostrils, oversize eyes. She is reading a book. She looks up at the audience, takes a handful of peeled nuts from an oily sack on her lap and eats them. Her skull is sloped, misshapen. She is grotesque, Alma agrees, but what is most shocking is her refinement. She is dainty, almost, reading her book, a leather-bound edition now tattered. Alma never reads books. One of the boarders is a reader: Wall-Eye, the parrot trainer. Once she snuck into his bedroom, while he was performing at the Tremont Theater, to run her hands over the books on his shelf. She thought of stealing one but didn't. She is aware of the university in town. She has imagined its cool corridors, walls packed to the ceiling with books, and the men who sit in wingback chairs reading them. Women, maybe, too. She is sure there are women who've read more books than she would know how to count. She has always wondered what they contained, all those pages, each lined with words. She imagines they hold secrets about the entire world and how it works. How plants unfold, and seed. How people should think and talk. She supposes they know why some babies are born dead, some born like Willard, a little slow to focus and bat, some born looking like mules, and some born healthy, pink, kicking. Alma doesn't have time to read, although she is proud to know how. She doesn't have time to eat nuts from a paper sack. She decides that the Mule-Faced Woman doesn't have such a bad life. She gets to idle in the hurly-burly of the carnival, only has to recline in front of strangers. There are worse things by far. In fact, Alma looks up and down the two rows of five chairs each: the fat twin sisters harumphing to each other madly; the man with the missing leg, his boy now clinging to him, arms wrapped around his neck; a bloated old man, his wife praying now, head bowed — whether for the Mule-Faced Woman or her own soul, it's impossible to tell. And Alma, herself, in her factory work dress and apron, her hands worn from righting hose, her hearing still dulled from the factory's rigorous chorus, rapid eternal detonations, the awful dust, a wife who doesn't understand love, a mother afraid of her own children. She wonders what the Mule-Faced Woman sees each night from her little stage and lights, the world and all its calamities paraded before her, a lurching sideshow act. Alma imagines herself on stage, maybe under a banner that reads THE NIGGER-LOVER'S DAUGHTER, for that is the way she still thinks of herself, unshakable. She and her mother, living alone in the old farmhouse, had been a lesson to learn by. This is what it'll get you, skinny as a bone, the daughter in a shambling, feed-sack dress, the mother's skittering, nervous hand raised to cover her riddled teeth — indigent, hungry, alone. Alma would sit there on stage in her blue factory dress and stare out at the horrified crowd. Her hands begin to shake. She is alarmed, stands up too quickly; her chair tips and clatters to the ground. She hurries out the door. She's late, after all. Henry's probably making his way up to the house by now. She picks up her step.
Two gypsies, white women draped in gauzy scarves, are smoking cigarettes outside a tent. One reaches out and grabs her arm. "You need your fortune read, honey. You look all but lost in the world." The other bobs her head, a chin dimpled like a crab apple.
She says, "I'm sorry, but I don't have time. I've got to get home to my family."
The women shake their heads in grim unison. And Alma isn't sure what the sighs and the wagging heads mean, whether they're saying, "A family to get home to, that's what I wish I had," or something else, as if that is just what is wrong with the world, a family to get home to. The woman releases her arm, and Alma springs forward, stumbles over a dip in the path, but catches herself. She jogs now past the strong man, all fat bulk and jeering, the line of lanky boys, the heavy hammer and its high bell. She climbs back over the sagging fence, the grass, and now she can hear it all. Her ears have opened up, and the earth is still screaming, still igniting the charge of her heart as she walks swiftly back to the road, a blue-tinged bowl, now empty.
Copyright © 2003 by Julianna Baggott
Posted June 6, 2004
Everything I've loved in Baggott's other novels, Girl Talk and The Miss America Family--is here, but with a sense of place and time that draws you in from page one. There's the wild, off-kilter characters, desperation brimming just under deliberately tough exteriors, the family flung apart by circumstance and reconstituted into something altogether new, unexpected and yet exactly as it should be. The language is lush and evocative--as another reviewer said, you can tell a poet is at work here (Baggott's This Country of Mothers is an award-winning book of poetry and a must-read), but it's completely to serve the story, which culminates in a tense and powerful scene of a family saving itself. Baggott has taken on new territory here and made it her own.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 30, 2003
This is a wonderful story and very well told but sometimes a little long on the details. At times, I could skip a page and not lose a bit of the story. Other times, I wouldn't even know what was going on because it was shrouded in details and figures of speech. good story if you are patient and like to hear about EVERYTHING going on.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 23, 2012
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Posted March 17, 2012
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