She hit the floor almost soundlessly, but still her grandmother shrieked, “Quiet!”
A pause the length of two breaths.
The old lady hoisted herself upright then, on her knuckles and the baldness of the lie: “Suppose I was up anyway.”
Alice’s grandmother was a plan-foiler, a dream-dimmer. When Alice had smuggled a clean uniform home her first week and put it on for display, her mother had leaned in from a distance to cup Alice’s cheeks so that she wouldn’t touch the apron and smudge its glow—but Alice’s grandmother had done her best to ruin everything. “You look like a tarty pincushion,” she’d said. “People’ve always pickled just fine in regular clothes.”
Alice was actually a labeler and not a pickler. Still, she knew what Mr. H’s picklers did was nothing like her grandmother’s pickling, sweaty and stained and clouded by hot vinegar steam, shoveling already rotting vegetables into their boiling bath like some kind of unbelieving prayer. Everyone winced when eating what came out of her grandmother’s pickle jars. Mr. H’s were made of faceted clear glass, and the bobbing pickles inside were a bright, inviting candy-green. To look at one was to feel it snip crisply between your teeth, to set your mouth watering. Alice was midwife to that salivary burst. That was what she dressed up for. Today it mattered even more than usual.
But Frieda arrived late, and then Alice’s grandmother fired questions about how Frieda’s mother was, and her brothers, etc., so it took ages to get out the door, and now they’d be cutting it fine to make the factory’s first bell. “How do you stand it?” Frieda said, holding her curled hair in place as they hustled down the hall, like holding down a hat in a windstorm—meaning Alice’s grandmother, maybe, or Alice’s whole life. If a representative H-girl were needed for the paper’s photo shoot, there could be no better choice to choose than Frieda. She’d worked at the H factory for over a year now and had helped Alice get the job, freeing her from years of helping with the sewing her mother and grandmother took in. (The smells of other people’s homes and lives, folded into the fabric, had released themselves upon Alice again and again in their close sitting-room while her grandmother slapped Alice’s hands for dropped stitches. But no longer.)
Frieda and Alice shoved themselves onto the full streetcar. “What do you think he’ll want pictures of exactly?” Alice asked. She found unbearable the idea that she might be in photographs taken when she wasn’t ready, printed citywide before she’d ever seen them, with her mouth at odd tender angles and eyes askitter.
Frieda shrugged. She surveyed the gray solid-looking air. “We could have gotten a nicer day.”
Alice couldn’t tell if the clouds were actual clouds or smoke: Mr. H’s smoke and the smoke pumped out too by the steel and iron and electric plants burning like hot hearts along the thick veins of their three rivers. The city got called hell with the lid off, but really Alice thought it was more like the messy heat inside a huge, many-hearted body. They were all living underneath that body’s lid. At night while her grandmother breathed, then paused, then breathed, Alice sometimes pictured the factory-hearts still and cold but waiting to start up again an hour before sunrise, so that she’d wake already in the grip of their pump-surge, pump-surge.
As Alice and Frieda walked fast toward the lit-up foursquare of factory and courtyard, Frieda’s hips went looser, and she straightened her neck to hold up her good shiny head of hair now that the light was on it. Maybe she thought the photographer could be watching already. Alice wished she’d set her own hair differently. She was always learning tips from Frieda either too early or too late to apply them.
The factory gates opened before them like a mouth and they passed through.
First, the dressing room, a clean place for becoming cleaner, where Alice gathered herself in the soap-smelling air, amidst the lustrous wood, the whisper of the water in the shining marble sinks. The matron handed her a folded bundle of uniform, and Alice retreated to a cubby to shuck off her clothes and put it on. Before the mirrors, she and Frieda adjusted the pouffes of hair they pulled from beneath the fronts of their caps. Frieda smoothed the edges of her lipstick with her finger. Alice smoothed only skin: her grandmother would have scrubbed lipstick off Alice’s lips herself. She practiced her H-girl face while she could see it reflected back at her.
Next, the manicure station. Mr. H needed their hands cleaner than clean and knew many of their homes had no running water. That her nails could be so square and pink and lovely, so naked and new, had shocked Alice on her first H-morning; she hadn’t seen the dirt that had lined their creases her whole life until the dirt had once been taken away. She and Frieda took seats next to each other and put their hands into the warm bowls. They let out happy sighs while the women opposite lifted, filed, and cut, tiny pecking birdlike motions. Alice closed her eyes.
A great flash of light then turned her eyelids bright, veiny red. She opened her eyes to find the camera, silver and enormous, in her face.
“Very nice, ladies,” the photographer said.
Frieda smiled. Alice said, “Were my eyes closed? Could you take a different one?” She felt like crying.
The photographer chuckled in a thin way. He was a natty dresser. “Mr. H sure gives you all the royal treatment, doesn’t he?”
“Well he wouldn’t want dirt in his food,” said Frieda.
But when Mr. H himself appeared on the labeling room floor as they were settling on their benches, Frieda’s face bloomed with childish pleasure just like everyone else’s. Of course he was only there because the photographer was, of course he was thinking about the picture he made, but he made the rest of them think about it too. He smiled through his splendid white mustache, his bald head polished by his own lights. “Welcome to work, girls!” he boomed.
“Thank you, Mr. H,” they called. He was the grandfather they all wished they had.
(Of Alice’s actual grandfather—dead of a throat infection long before Alice was born—her family had only one photograph. He sat with her grandmother, clenching her shoulder, staring at the camera as if he’d like to knock it down.)
“Sir, tell me,” said the photographer, “what exactly do these girls do?”
“These ones here are my labelers. They take the labels from the sheets in front of them and put them on the bottles, then put the bottles on the shelves to their side. When they finish, my runners bring them a new batch.”
Without quite intending to, Alice and everyone around her did as he said, just as he said it. Alice took a jar of sweet gherkins up, peeled a label, affixed. Mr. H had patented his jar design, rectangular but with rounded corners so it invited itself right into your palm. Alice spent so much time holding this shape that she sometimes felt her fingers curling around its phantom edges at home.
“Every other hour on the hour they get a break, and they can walk in the rooftop garden, if they like.”
“I’d like to see that,” said the photographer. Alice wondered if he meant the garden or the walking H-girls.
“Of course,” said Mr. H. “But first let me show you our picklers.”
“Hope he can hold his breath,” muttered Frieda. She’d worked in pickling before labeling, before Alice had been an H-girl at all. The process was almost pristine—the room painted white like this one, the bowls white, the wooden spoons long-handled and precise—but a pickle did still smell like a pickle. Frieda’s move to labeling had been a coming up in the world, and she said that Alice didn’t know her own luck never to have had vinegar hanging in her hair, seeping into her pores, until she’d catch a whiff even on the weekend when she moved. All they had to put up with in labeling was the way their fingertips sparked and hummed with nerves sometimes from the angles of their wrists.
“I bet he’ll think it smells good. People do, when it’s quick. He’ll probably want to try one,” Alice said. You couldn’t work here and want to eat pickles much. Though in truth Alice hadn’t fallen too far and still thought that in their jars they had their charm: green and knobbly as you could wish in their little herd, among them that one red chili pepper the picklers popped in for the look of it, like tying on a bow.
The door closed behind Mr. H and the photographer. Alice took up another bottle, peeled a label with an expert flick of thumb and forefinger, and placed it straight and true. Right, label, left. All she wanted was to be caught being the best there was at this.
They didn’t usually take their break in the gardens, but today they all went there, compelled again somehow by Mr. H’s description of their routine. Frieda and Alice strolled around twice, then snuck to a bench in the middle of some shrubbery for a cigarette.
“I’m seeing Tommy tonight,” Frieda said, inspecting her nails.
Tommy had a mean laugh that made Alice nervous, but Frieda seemed to respond to the way he looked and moved like the star of something. Alice worried he was pulling Frieda forward with him. That Frieda was leaving Alice behind when she felt she’d just arrived.
“He has a friend he wants to bring. I’m going to see if Helen will come.”
“I could go.” Alice tried to imagine: entering a room buzzing with music and standing with a faceless boy who’d hold her by the waist.
Frieda elbowed her in the side. “Oh Alice, you’re just a kid.”
For the rest of the morning Alice tried to look older. Also composed and impressive, for photographs—the most front-page-worthy H-girl. But the photographer didn’t reappear, and Frieda kept chatting with the girl on the other side. When the bell rang, they all walked through the bright courtyard to the lunchroom, where they sat in their rows with the same white dishes full of the same food in front of each of them. Mr. H reappeared at the front of the room to offer the blessing, and the photographer took pictures of how godly enterprise could be made. Then he turned the camera on the girls taking bites and trying not to get Mr. H’s ketchup on their white aprons. He moved the way a small dog circles something it wants to eat, darting here and there, taking pictures all the time, lunge-snap, lunge-snap, but he started way at the other end of the room. So Alice made it through lunch and back to her bench without any additional recorded humiliations.
And her bench, now that she saw it fresh: how neat, how sensible its ordering, how even she’d left the stack of labels, how ready for systematic use. The runners had taken her labeled jars from the left-hand shelf and brought her a new batch of sweet gherkins while she was away. The jars spanned the right-hand shelf in a neat row the very shape of her work. Right, label, left, right, label, left, a single smooth motion.
Right, label, left. The photographer should come now, right now. Alice wanted a picture of herself in just this moment. Right, label, left. Her left hand had the corner of the label already peeled up by the time her right brought the jar. Even Frieda wasn’t so fast and seamless as Alice. Right, label left.
What was that, there in the jar?
Her tipping of it had surfaced, glinting through the gherkins, a tiny bit of flotsam in its miniature walled sea. Nothing inside should be silvery, only green and the one red accent of the pepper. Whatever it was had sunk again now, or maybe she’d only mistaken the shine of glass. Alice tipped and twisted, searching, and nothing, nothing, no, there it was again. The pickles parted to reveal it whole.
A silver ring.
It was a cheap ring, meant to be worn and treasured by the kind of girl who couldn’t afford much, the kind they all were. Hammered tin polished to look silverish, but lighter than real silver would be, you could tell that from the way it wafted. In its center a filigreed flower had bent a little at the edges and been scratched and dinged here and there in the course of the business of the hand that had worn it.
“Frieda,” Alice hissed.
She extended the jar carefully toward her so the ring wouldn’t sink away again.
Frieda’s eyebrows rose. “Guess somebody broke the no-ring rule.”
“What do I do?”
No one had ever raised this possibility. There was a much-touted quality inspection, but it happened before the jars were brought here. Mr. H believed in territories, divisions. As labelers they weren’t meant to worry about contents at all.
There shouldn’t have been any way for a ring to make its way into a jar, not when all of their hands were cleaned and approved before they were allowed to touch anything. This wasn’t Alice’s sitting room, grimy fingers on grimy fabric.
Here was the photographer, coming up behind them while Alice’s arm dangled loosely in the aisle. Rapid clicking, flashing lights, and she pulled her hand as if from a sudden heat to its station, where it did its work and labeled, and then she moved the jar to its place on her left-hand shelf. Snap, snap. Alice smiled for the photographer, down at her work, a picture of industry. The runner was upon them now with her cart, moving the jars onto it. There wasn’t any time to whisper to her not that one. It was too late. The jar, the ring, were gone.
Back in her own slumping clothes, headed down the dusky streets away from Mr. H’s blinding light, Alice asked Frieda, “Do you think it’s my fault?”
“Doesn’t matter, it’s over with now.”
Frieda ran her hands up and down her arms as if scrubbing them. “Helen and I will freeze tonight.”
They walked, walled in here by dark stone buildings draped in soot, and by the low seal of the clouds and smoke, which started far below where the tops of those buildings might otherwise have shown themselves. Started, actually, far below even that solid-looking layer; Alice could smell the smoke and taste it, and feel it biting at the back of her throat. She could see it in the way all the fast-moving people and creaking carts and cars blowing their sharp horns had the haze of farther-off things, and in the dimming of Frieda’s outlines mere feet from her. They might have been fording fog. They might have been fairytale maidens ready to happen upon their future when this fog parted in the cleared space before them. Except tales of that kind had always felt irrelevant to Alice, like distant music. This fog wasn’t ever going to end enough to show her something else. It offered only itself and more itself until Mr. H’s lights made it end.
Why, then, should Alice take responsibility for what somebody else’s eye might fail to see? The world was a dim and hazy place, its every corner full of darkness—and if a person ate a jar of pickles in an ill-lit kitchen, if the label Alice had placed hid a truth, if a person couldn’t tell that the contents of a jar were not as pristine as promised, if that person even put into the mouth a thing that shouldn’t be in the mouth, what was Alice supposed to do about it? Mr. H’s lights couldn’t reach everywhere. She couldn’t be in every gloomy corner at once. Anyway it hadn’t been her ring.
Before supper, when Alice reached for the plates to set the table, her grandmother caught her by the wrist. “Not with those dirty hands you don’t.”
Alice wriggled her spotless fingers through the air in front of her grandmother’s face. The clean edges of each nail crisp as folds of paper, the knuckles almost invisible, no line anywhere underscored by dirt. She reversed to inspect the palms, then reversed again, her hands flipping and flopping. “Where’s there dirt?”
Her grandmother sniffed. “Where isn’t there.”
So Alice went to the kitchen bucket and scrubbed with water that could only make her hands dirtier. She brought them back still wet.
“Disgusting,” her grandmother said.
“Where? Show me.”
Her grandmother spun her own hand through the air in front of Alice’s. “All over them.”
Alice held her hands closer to her nose and still could see only skin.
In a dark kitchen somewhere, a man, a woman, a girl, a boy would see only the edges of pickles behind Alice’s label. They would never see the ring, would never understand until they’d eaten most of the jar of pickles how it was tainted. If they were eating quickly, if the ring had sunk itself into a pickle by then, they might never notice it until it was lodged in the throat, digging in.
Her grandmother shook her head and took the plates from Alice to set the table herself.
As she passed through Mr. H’s courtyard with Frieda in the morning, the light felt harsh in Alice’s eyes. She wondered how long a ring might stay in a body. She’d seen something in the newspaper once about fish dredged out of one of their rivers and how they turned out to have stomachs stuffed with rusting bolts, coins, ragged scraps of rubber, buttons. There’d been a photograph of a sliced-open fish with the river’s detritus spread below it like a cache of eggs. The fish had been carrying the burnt-out seeds of their city around with it most of its life.
The photograph was why she remembered that fish. Photographs did that, fixed a thing.
They sat down at their stations. “You haven’t asked me how the date was,” Frieda said.
“How was it?”
“Fun. The music was something.” As if there were no more specific word to describe it that Alice would understand.
The photographer was back for more today, working the other side of the room, though surely he had enough pictures of the labelers by now. Alice watched him. How many different views were necessary of a girl pressing paper to a jar? She lifted from the right, peeled the label, affixed it, slid left.
“You aren’t interested, I guess,” Frieda said. “I really think I could be serious about Tommy.”
“Oh you are not.” Frieda had never in all the time Alice had known her been serious about anything.
Frieda gave Alice the silent treatment after that, all through their first break, so Alice got no cigarette. Her morning plodded forth and carried her around the garden a few times, around the courtyard, then back to her bench. Right, label, left. Right, label, left. The streetlights stung through the windows. Right, label, left.
Again, something that shouldn’t be inside this jar was nonetheless inside it. This time a swirl of white fabric, floating and curling around and shrouding one of the pickles. Alice held the glass tightly and turned. It was a handkerchief. Some girl’s handkerchief, tucked up her sleeve, probably, before it had dropped somehow into the brine. Whose? Alice tried to call up particular memories of H-girls using handkerchiefs but couldn’t even find any girls’ faces in the records in her mind—only the uniforms were clear.
How boneless the handkerchief looked, twisting there fleshily. The sight of it made Alice’s stomach clench tight.
“Frieda.” She showed her.
Alice pushed her bench back. It scraped the floor and turned all heads, even the photographer’s, but she didn’t stop, just headed for the floor supervisor.
Alice held out the jar. “Look at this,” she said.
The woman’s face woke up. She took the jar from her to twist it the way Alice had. “Hmmm.”
There was something yesterday too, Alice almost said, but then this woman would ask her why didn’t you bring it to me?
“All right. You go on back to your station,” the floor supervisor told her, and left the floor with the jar in her hands.
“What did she say?” Frieda asked, when Alice sat down again.
“Nothing, she just took it.”
A weight began to lift, now that Alice had done what she should have done the first time. Maybe this rightness now somehow made up for the wrongness then. Right, label, left, and all the pickles were just pickles inside their jars, friendly bumpy green, nothing bobbing or drifting in their midst. The floor supervisor would take that jar where it needed to go. A mistake—even Mr. H’s factory could make a mistake, but now he would unmake it. So the handkerchief would not tangle wetly in even the most careless person’s mouth, throat, because the jar with the handkerchief in it would never find its way to anyone. Now that they knew about the handkerchief, they’d set about understanding how it had happened, what had gone wrong with all their inspections, and maybe they’d find the jar with the ring in it without needing to be told. Maybe Alice had said enough, even if she hadn’t said everything.
“Come with me, Miss.”
Alice looked up. The floor supervisor was standing over her. Alice hadn’t seen or heard her coming at all.
“What?” Alice said. Meaning what are you doing here? In her mind the floor supervisor had been miles away by now, making everything safe again.
“Mr. H wants to see you,” the floor supervisor said.
Alice wanted to catch at Frieda’s hand, the way you’d catch hold of a shipmate if you were going overboard, but Frieda kept her face so blank there was no fingerhold to find.
Alice stood and followed the floor supervisor from the room.
They walked in silence to the shiny elevator. Alice had never been inside this or any elevator before—to reach the rooftop gardens the H-girls used the stairs—and the feel of a climb taking place beneath her motionless feet made her dizzy. The elevator operator smiled at her, but the floor supervisor stared at the wall.
With a muted ding, the doors opened on the lush red landscape of the top-floor restaurant, empty except for Mr. H, over at a window table with a teacup in his hands.
The floor supervisor brought Alice across that thick, hushing carpet, like crossing a sea.
“Miss Lund!” Mr. H rose to greet her, to Alice’s disbelief. He knew her name? His smile was obviously valuable: you would pay to have it on you. “Please, have a seat, join me,” he said, and waved a hand. An alertness like joy ran across Alice’s shoulders, into her fingertips. “Have some tea.”
He poured some into her cup, but if she lifted that cup Alice knew it would shake and he would see. She put her hands around its edges, pressing her fingers to the warmth coming through the thin, fine china. That would have to be enough consumption for now. Mr. H looked at her hands, and she wondered if he could see them shaking anyway.
Or maybe he could see dirt on them the way her grandmother had, even though he’d cleaned them himself.
“I hear you’ve had quite a morning,” he said.
Alice didn’t know what to say. She just smiled back at him so it would be clear that she wasn’t complaining, that she was fine with it, with the morning she’d had.
“I wanted to let you know, personally, that it’s all been resolved now.”
“Oh good. That’s good.”
“Yes, it turned out to be nothing.”
Alice nodded her head agreeably. But she expected him to keep talking, keep explaining.
“Nothing?” she said finally.
“Nothing at all.”
“But what do you mean? I saw a handkerchief.”
He held up a finger. “You thought you saw a handkerchief.”
Alice shook her head now. “I did. I saw one.”
“I can see how it might have looked that way. But it turned out there was nothing there.”
“I don’t understand.”
“That’s all right.” He sipped his tea and regarded her pleasantly. “You don’t need to understand anything, because it was nothing.”
I saw a ring too.
“Now, Miss Lund, I have something for you. To lift your mood, after this morning.” Mr. H pushed a plush velvet box across the table to her.
Alice opened it. A silver hair comb shone inside. Real silver, judging by its density when she weighed it in her palm, shaped into a decorative seashell at the top. Below, the long straight teeth, sharp and gleaming.
Mr. H put his cup down with a gentle clink that she could tell signaled, like a punctuation mark, the end of this sentence of his day. “I’ll let you get back to work now, Miss Lund.” He extended a hand into all the space she should use to walk out of the room. Alice slid the box with the comb into her pocket.
“What did he want?” asked Frieda, when Alice got back to her bench.
“To tell me it was nothing.”
“Nothing.” Alice picked up her labels again. Why should she give Frieda any more than that? Though once she’d have died for the pleasure of showing Frieda a prize like the comb now hidden deep in her pocket’s dark.
On her way out at the end of the shift Alice hung close to the floor supervisor and pulled short for a second as she passed her. “You saw it.”
“I saw what Mr. H says I saw.” The floor supervisor met Alice’s eyes. “So did you.”
That night in bed, Alice felt many small tuggings at the sheets. She peered over her shoulder. Her grandmother was usually asleep in an instant, but tonight she was inching herself into the mirror of Alice’s own usual position, as far to the edge of the bed as she could get without falling off, tipped up on her hip.
“What are you doing, Grandma?”
“You’re covered in filth.”
“It’s dark in here. You can’t see a thing.”
“I don’t have to see to know,” her grandmother said.
Alice had been working to believe Mr. H, to understand that she’d just seen wrong and it was nothing—that Mr. H knew, and she did not, what something was. Alice didn’t want to have seen it anyway. But her grandmother knew dirt. There was no hiding it from her. She could see that Alice was dirty now, because of the dirt she’d allowed.
Dirt like that, maybe it didn’t matter how much cleanness you covered it up with.
Her grandmother’s breath settled into the rhythm that meant she was sleeping. A breath, then another breath. So on. So forth.
I don’t have to look, Alice told herself, at her bench in the morning. Her hands knew what to do without her eyes. They were strong, as strong as they felt to her, even if somehow not as clean, and they performed their tasks without need of sight at all. She tried staring at the door at the end of the room, the way you were supposed to stare at the horizon if you felt seasick. Alice did, in a way.
She’d left the comb at home, buried beneath the clothes at the bottom of her drawer. It seemed to belong in the dark, like a shell dredged from the deepest part of the ocean, the part so deep light never reached there.
Alice watched the photographer circling. Today was his last day at the H Factory. The light was the same as yesterday’s light, out the windows. Alice could look out the windows. Alice could look everywhere but at the jars, no rules, not even in Mr. H’s rule-filled factory, about where a person had to look.
A crash, the sharp-to-splashing sound of a glass object full of liquid breaking. Frieda grimaced. “My dumb elbow—knocked it right off.” The cleaning girl was already hurrying in their direction with her mop and bucket.
So it was Frieda’s fault, really, that Alice forgot herself enough to glance down again, at the jar she was about to lift from its shelf. Which was fine, that one was fine, but in the one beside it she saw curled, amongst the pickles within, pickled and ragged and fishy, whitest white, the tip, just the tip, of a finger.
Which finger? It was hard to tell without the context of the rest of the hand. The finger was bent a little at its one joint. Very ashen, bleached of its color, drained of its blood. Very neat of nail, too.
What were they partitioning out here, jar by jar? This whole seamless system for housing and sealing, all these tidy identical finished containers—what was inside? This factory might be chewing up girl after girl, bit by bit, and spitting them out again. Disaster of any size might fit into these pickles and relishes and sauces if severed, trimmed, ground down enough. The wreckage of any sea.
It wasn’t fair to make a person see and then make her see this.
Alice rose. Bearing the jar in front of her, she cut a path straight to the photographer.
He lowered the camera’s silver eye. “Miss?”
Alice held the jar up to the light. The abundant, strong, false light, coming in through the window.
The jar flooded with it like a green bulb, the finger floating central as a filament.
“Take the picture,” Alice said, and held it closer to be sure he could see well enough to make the camera see in turn. She turned the jar back and forth and the finger pointed now this way, now that, this, that, while the camera flashed and caught.
And in every one of the pictures was Alice. Making herself cleaner and cleaner with every frame: Alice, holding the jar in one hand, pointing at the bobbing finger with her own still one.
There, there, you see? You see.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents in this story are either the product of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.