Excerpts for Madam : A Novel


Chapter One

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 the women 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.


Excerpted from Madam by Baggott, Julianna Excerpted by permission.
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