The noon whistle cut through the constant roar of the braiding machines that filled the 3rd floor of Building 6 of Everett Mill. For each row of braiders, there were 2 braider-tenders, replacing empty bobbins of thread with full ones, spotting broken or jammed bobbins and freeing whatever caused the flow of thread-to-central-carrier to be interrupted. Braider Tenders were, predominately, women, their aptitude a result of smaller hands and, by and large, greater manual dexterity. That the machinery was rarely turned-off meant the Braider Tender needed to reach in among the spinning and whirling machines, (the bobbins spun, the carriers whirled). Only the Floor Supervisor and his assistant, (the floor Mechanic), had the ability, (and much more importantly, the authority) to slow down or stop the machinery. Like the shuttles and bobbins of the braiders, Almira and the other women moved up and down their rows, as connected to the machinery as any other part. The length of time it took them to spot and replace a broken or empty bobbin, was closely monitored by the Floor Supervisor.
Routine has the remarkable quality of transforming the unique into the everyday. People, especially strongly-motivated people, are able to get used to anything. When Almira first started working full time at the Mill, (within a month of her 14th birthday and less than 2 months after the death of her mother), she’d return home after her shift, shaking with tension. Being trained to tend the braiding machines required, well, it required tending the braiding machines.
Her first steps down the narrow space that ran between rows of braiders were within a millimeter of dead-center, as she followed Mrs. Ypres, who was assigned to train new Braider Tenders. She showed Almira how to take a bobbin from the cart at the end of the row, release and remove the empty bobbin and tie in the new thread. Almira thought at the time to ask if it wouldn’t be easier and safer to turn the machine off first. The world of the 3rd Floor Braiding Department was a world of deaf-mute workers serving overwhelmingly loud machinery, and so, communication was very efficient, she could nod in agreement or frown in question, whereupon Mrs. Ypres would move to the next section to free a stuck bobbin. The tension Almira felt throughout her first week of training was the unavoidable result of her constant effort to maintain a safe(er) distance between herself and the ravenous machinery. Unfortunately, there was a row of machines behind her and every inch gained on one-side was lost on the other.
Almira Ristani got used to the danger and no longer came home shaking from the stress, except on those days that there was an accident. The first to happen on her shift, came after she’d been working for 6 months, she didn’t see anything. Somehow, it was made worse that she heard it. She heard the scream. What haunted her dreams for weeks, even months after that first accident, was how the scream of the woman changed, as it raced down the parallel rows of machines. It was a scream at once terrified and, surprisingly with little of a message of pain. It quickly transformed itself into a cry of hopeless despair. For one woman on one day, a brief moment of inattention, while performing a task practiced a thousand times, things went terribly wrong. This one time, God, (or the Devil), decided that the fabric of her heavy woolen sweater should catch a passing bobbin and fix itself to the machine. The first tug would be alarming to her by virtue of it’s direction… towards the moving parts of the machine. Years of safe practice made that direction, in towards the machine, so very wrong. The sweater she wore that particular day was knitted, (by her sister and given as a Christmas gift two years prior), and therefore had some give. Over the years this woman (and other women at other times) had felt such tug, quickly met with a counter pull and the world returned to it’s proper course. This time it’s different. Maybe she was especially tired, (working double or even triple shifts or perhaps a sick child awake through the night), maybe God, (or the Devil), were not paying attention (or too much attention) and the ‘tug away from’ was met with a stronger pull towards. Even as she leaned back and away, her sleeve continues moving down her arm into the machinery. The surprise in her scream takes on a tone of horror. Her heavy jacket binds at the shoulders, and she is pulled in towards the madly-whirling carriers. The fabric of her sweater’s sleeve is now a part of the machinery and her scream of alarm becomes terrified despair. Not of pain. There is little in this woman’s arm or any other part of her body that is concerned with anything as trivial as pain. As much the antelope tripping and falling to the ground, the hot breath of a lion at it’s neck, pain is not the issue. The machinery does not notice her struggles, the 3rd floor is a place of deaf mutes working in a land of constant mechanical noise. It is only when the screams of the Braider Tender cuts through the roar of the machinery does anyone notice. Only then is the attempt to bring the machine to a halt begun. And that turning off is nothing more than a slowing down, the roar of the machines decreases and a new, all too human sound fills the 3rd Floor.
On Saturdays, the Everett Mill shut down for maintenance. The three shifts ran but all production ended at midnight on Saturday. The maintenance mechanics would roam throughout the Mill looking for signs of weakness in the equipment and replaced worn parts so that, at the end of Sunday night, the production could begin again.
December of 1911 provided little evidence of the winter yet to come for Lawrence, Massachusetts. November had been mild and the sunshine plentiful. The Merrimack River flowed, free of ice, except along the shores, where sheets of ice, thin, white and tilted up along the embankment.
On this particular Saturday afternoon, the sky was painfully blue and the wind was harshly cold as Almira Ristani stepped out of Building 6, walking alone, at the back of the crowd of grey and brown wool women, as they poured out of the building and headed towards home.
The sudden muffling of the constant noise of machinery, as the metal door banged shut, was like the feeling of being underwater, only in reverse. The pressure of the constant rhythmically-pounding noise of the textile mill wasn’t felt until it was removed. Pulling her grey wool coat closer, one of the hundred workers leaving the Mill, Almira descended the granite stairs, turned left and walked up Lawrence Street.
Amid the sounds of tired women complaining, (about men and families), and comparing (demands of men and families) and, on occasion, laughing, (about families and children), in at least three different and distinct languages, Almira saw a flash of crimson as the figure of a tall woman separated itself from the herd of stooped backs filling the sidewalk.
“Ally! Ally! Up here!!”
Almira, looked up from the sidewalk immediately in front of her, saw her friend, Annie LoPizzo about a half a block ahead. Standing and facing back towards her, seemingly happy to let the river of tired women veer around her, Annie waved her hand. Despite the occasional muttering of ‘O co chodzi z gym komiet!‘ and ‘Elle est celle de feu‘, she remained there, in the middle of the sidewalk and actually began to speak, as if Almira was close enough to understand what she was saying,
“Where are you going? You need to come with me!!”
“I’m sorry, I have to go home and get my little brother from Mrs Swaider’s and then I need to get dinner ready and then…” Almira, the direct sunlight and cold wind on her face, felt relaxed yet tired.
“Today is Saturday and I know for a fact that Mrs. Swaider won’t mind watching little Stefan for a couple of extra hours. That woman never met a dollar that she didn’t think she deserved. And your father’s on the Maintenance crew this weekend and… what? Listen my well-read friend, I know everything about my friends and even more about everyone else!”
Almira watched as her friend twirled and cavorted on the sidewalk… heavy winter coat flapping open, as if they were both on their way to the Town Common on a warm June Saturday.
Since her mother’s death, Almira accepted the mantle of caregiver to her damaged family. She didn’t resent her responsibilities at home and resolved to not encourage her friend, ‘Stay serious, don’t encourage her’, she thought as they walked through the cold December afternoon. Her resolve eroded quickly, despite the stern and un-responsive expression on her face. In the short time she’d known this woman, Almira recognized, as Annie LoPizzo twirled about and ran, seriousness and a stern attitude was every bit a cape of red before the bull. Smiling openly, Almira Ristani thought about her mother and how she would read to her, their small 2 room apartment transformed into distant lands and towering castles. It was in the books that her mother read from, (and soon, she would read from) that kindled a small fire that, although at times banked against the mind-numbing work and bleak lives of her co-workers, never completely went out. Annie LoPizzo seemed to sense the fire within her and was always doing something that seemed to fan the small flame.
It was only during the 30 minute daily walk home that Almira could imagine that she was a girl who could go anywhere in the world (at least as long as she kept walking). Her dreams of going to college and meeting the living people who wrote the timeless books that she read, had life and energy only in her mind, only as she walked from Mill to family- responsibility. Her new friend Annie somehow gave her hope that her dreams could survive her current life.
“You need to come with me! I have some things to show you!”
Annie LoPizzo had a natural talent for languages and mimicry. Almira decided that her friend was able to ‘speak in laughter’, a dialect of the heart that demanded neither comprehension nor understanding, only the attention of the other person. It was a simple and utterly basic celebration of sharing life. She had an energy that grew from whatever situation or moment she happened to be in. Almira looked forward to their time together, all too rare an event, as the demands of the Mill, bookended by the needs of her family left little time for herself.
For Almira, the time she spent with Annie was like walking out of a monochrome landscape and finding herself in a world of color and energy, curious movements and mysterious people. Annie LoPizzo was one of those, all too rare people, who simply embraced life. She saw each day as an adventure, filled with opportunity and danger, to be equally relished. In the company of a friend, she might run for the simple joy of movement, with a lover she would seize the passion that refused apartness, and, faced with a threat, she would attack without holding anything back, without regard to cost or even outcome.
Almira felt the enthusiasm even before she considered the request. Annie’s ideas and invitations, were they delivered written on paper, might appear a demand. They were in the context of so much energy that she could only smile to herself and let her arm be pulled in the direction which her new friend wanted her go.
The two young women ran down the sidewalk, towering soot-grimed brick wall to their left and coldly-blue water of the Merrimack River on their right.
“Come on! I want you to meet some people down at the Meeting Hall. I know you’re going to like them.”
“Well, alright. But I can’t take too much time. I must get home before long.”
“I really must be getting back to Town,”
Dorothy announced, after less than a half an hour in the boat and, after zero minutes actually fishing. She’d spent most of the last five minutes staring at a clump of grayish-white clouds that seemed, as they moved across the sky, to form a shape of something from a dream, not a good dream. An animal, (because, clouds always try to look like their opposites, the land-bound life on earth), squat in shape with sharp-pointed wings.
“But we only just got here!”
Tom Hardesty sat in the bow of the boat, his back against a loose seat cushion. Looking towards the shore, he saw only the old blue truck they had arrived in, a wooden dock with a single worn bench built along one side, and beyond the copse of hickory and oak that encircled Echo Lake, he saw the beginnings of the endless wheat fields. Distance when observed over farm fields, devoid of buildings or any other feature, was nearly impossible to accurately judge. The expanse seemed to offer promise of opportunity and, at the same time, gave no clue to any path, at least a path that would lead him to the world beyond life in a large Small Town.
Tom started to sing,
“Ain’t one hammer
(Ain’t one hammer)
In this tunnel
(In this tunnel)
That rings like mine.
(Oh it rings like mine.)
That rings like mine.
Nine pound hammer
(Nine pound hammer)
That killed John Henry
(Killed John Henry)
Ain’t a-gonna kill me.
(Ain’t gonna kill me.)
Ain’t gonna kill me.”
(‘Nine Pound Hammer’ traditional, lyrics from The Monroe Brothers version )
As he sang, Tom watched Dorothy, as she alternately stared at the passing clouds and over towards the trees that bordered the small lake on three sides. She seemed at once the shy high school girl who always managed to stand out in a crowd, and a total stranger. He smiled at the memory of how determined she was to fit in, during the first two years of high school and yet, after ‘the Storm of ’37’ her notoriety as ‘the girl who rode the cyclone’ seemed to become an un-wanted burden, despite how eager she was to tell and re-tell her tale of faraway land and adventures with markedly odd characters. That their own relationship, one that he valued more than he was able to express, would be destroyed by the intensity of her need to be the center of community attention, hurt him more than he knew. She was his first experience, both of physical love making and, recognized far too late as the more dangerous, emotional love making. This was a fact that his social persona would never permit him to disclose.
Now, in the early half of a June afternoon, in a small boat, with an attractive young woman Tom Hardesty realized that he needed to learn how to avoid the life that he saw played out, in depressingly mundane detail, by his father each day. It was life of effort and passion reduced to a day-to-day routine of subsistence survival. Tom was looking for a direction, rather than waiting for permission to act. Being in a boat, (with a girl), in the middle of a Lake), did not present an overabundance of action-strategies, so he played his guitar.
Ever since visiting the Gulch farm with his father and meeting a very interesting, (and constantly changing), group of people, Tom found the time to return at least once a week. He would pitch-in and help with the seemingly endless chores that were generated by the effort of Almira Gulch to provide help to those in need. Tom took as payment for his work, permission to join in the frequent discussions and, more to his interest, the opportunity to learn songs from the itinerant musicians who, lacking shelter or a meal to sustain them on their own journeys, would stop at the Gulch farm for a brief time of rest and sharing tales of the road. Tom’s repertoire grew, both in variety and sophistication. He smiled remembering his first meeting Woody Guthrie at the farm one Thursday evening, and started to sing,
“My brothers and my sisters are stranded on this road,
A hot and dusty road that a million feet have trod;
Rich man took my home and drove me from my door
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.”
(I Ain’t Got No Home’ Woody Guthrie)
Dorothy closed her eyes and listened to the music. The guitar providing the perfect, simple accompaniment to Tom’s singing. To her surprise she found that the lyrics somehow resonated with a part of herself that she had thought she’d out-grown.
“My God, Tom! When did you learn to sing like that?” Dorothy said, the last notes of the song slipping through the trees on the shore and were immediately absorbed by the endless wheat fields beyond.
“Why over at Miz Gulch’s farm. I go over there every now and then and, more likely than not, after dinner someone would bring out a guitar or fiddle and play songs well into the night. There’s one fellow, Woody, he writes songs that you’d swear you heard before, the way it would make you feel. I never thought a person could play so well.”
The water didn’t quite turn to fire, but the sensation on her fingers became un-ignorable. Dorothy felt as if the water burned her fingers. She quickly pulled her hand from the water, into her lap, used her shirt tail to dry it and looked at Tom.
Dorothy Gale felt an anger grow within her at a speed that was surprising and somehow enticing. It seemed to be accompanied by a warning, that to give in to it would cause, would create… bad things to happen. Nothing that she could conceptualize, but somehow the farm where she was raised took on a sinister tone and, very oddly, her life at college seemed to fade, as if it had been years ago that she was away from Circe, rather than just a few weeks.
She struggled to sit up in the back of the boat.
“Take me back to shore. Now”
Tom Hardesty, sought, in the mundane a way to bridge the gap between himself and the girl in the back of the small boat. He hoped to make her laugh, but would settle for a smile and said,
“Hey, Dorothy come on! this is a small lake and though you can’t be sea sick, you’re looking a little green.”
“You know you promised that we’d go sailing today. Why are you now telling me that you want to waste time with my father’s wife’s Formal Saturday Afternoon Tea. What the hell is the matter with you?”
Eliza was very not-happy. She regretted turning down her cousin Lila’s invitation to spend June and July in Europe. 6 weeks among foreign and, presumably, attractive young men and women, (the only kind of people Eliza’s imagination was equipped to provide), traveling to places more exotic than Philadelphia,
‘Which wouldn’t take much,’ she muttered as she stared into her closet. She felt youthful and very muscled arms encircle her waist,
“Sorry Romeo, if you’re making me go and stand around with your father, my parents and a bunch of other old people, you better save your strength. So hands off…”
Eliza un-buttoned her blouse, let it fall to the floor, reached around and un-clasped her bra and, letting it fall to join her blouse on the floor, turned to face Stephen Lawrence, current houseguest and soon-to-be-replaced-boyfriend,
“Wait…. before you go, I want you to know what you missed out on today. In a couple of hours, while we’re both telling old wealthy people how difficult the past year in school was so they can tell us how easy we have it, you can look over at me and I can smile and tell them how hard things are nowadays…”
Pushing the tall, dark haired son of the Chancellor of Sarah Lawrence College out into the hallway, Eliza stood with her back to the door and looking around her room for something to throw or break, tried to get her growing temper under some kind of control.
“Aww come on Eliza! It’s not my fault, it’s business, it’s expected of us.”
The lawn, rolling away from the patio area, was decorated in a Japanese motif. Small paper lanterns hung from trees. The serving staff all wore what Eliza thought were supposed to look like kimonos, her father’s wife was quite taken with all things Oriental.
“Excuse me!” a thin man with a receding hairline and faraway look in his eyes, walked into Eliza, spilling most of the Tom Collins he was holding, only part of it getting on her, most ended up on his shirtfront.The man looked both embarrassed and panic-stricken, as if he had broken something loud and valuable.
“My God, sorry, didn’t see you. All my fault!”
“Mr. Dietrich! What are you doing here? It’s Saturday. Don’t you ever take a day off?”
Becky Stillworth rose from the small desk behind the main Circulation Desk of the Circe Free Library. Being Saturday and Summer, she wore a very light blouse and shorts. That it was Summer, and therefore the number of classmates who might come into the library was quite small, she felt free to wear clothes that might otherwise invite attention. At least un-wanted attention. Looking up at the tall man with the distant look in his eyes, she smiled at the wisdom of her fashion choice.