Thursday, February 20, 2014

Fire escapes

For Magpie 207

It was the little things that reminded Tessie. Roses, like the ones that had been in Antonietta's hat, her fine hat, that she'd loved so much. That pattern of floral shirtwaist that was all the rage last season, like the one little Kate wore. Fire escapes. Madonna mia, the fire escapes were the worst.

 She looked up at the redbrick building, the metal spidering its way from the second floor to the ninth. Signs hung from it, advertising bicycles, rooms for rent, most in English, but some in Italian. Laundry like flapping white birds twisted in the wind, falling like--Tessie closed her eyes, feeling heat on her cheeks, on her arms. Her skirt might have been on fire again, now, three months later, and she might have been watching the bodies, bundles of charred cloth, falling, falling, trailing flame.

"Muoversi lungo," someone said behind her, move along. Tessie stumbled to the side, leaning her head against the cool brick, letting the man with his cart of apples pass. Move along. That's what everyone expected her to do, move on, keep breathing. It was hard, when in each breath, she could smell smoke, hard when she woke up and looked over the table at breakfast at Zio Giancarlo, his eyes red still from weeping over his daughter. It was hard when every time she entered the factory, she flinched, her eyes darting away from the cloth to look at the windows, the elevators, the stairs. This factory did not lock its doors. They remembered.
And she would remember.
She would always remember, whenever she looked at a fire escape, whenever someone lit a cigarette, whenever she saw shirtwaists hanging from their lines, whenever the congregation at Mass sang "Abide with Me," and her voice cracked on the second line, whenever she saw Sarafino Maltese watching her come in from work, as he'd watched his sisters, sorrow in every line of his boyish face. She could hear even now, in this busy street, the roar of fire, the cries for help, Aiutami, Ratevet! She could see the elevator doors closing, the firemen raising too short ladders, the mangled remains of the fire escape, crushed from the fall and the weight of so many girls...

Tessie leaned a hand on the wall, using the other to make certain she had not wept, then pushed off. She would be late for work. Life had to go on, and on, and on, but she could never, would never, forget. Overhead, shirtwaists caught the sun, gleaming white like the robes of angels.

(For those of you wondering, this is about the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, from 1911. I've been a bit obsessed with it lately.If you are interested, there are some great books: Leon Stein wrote the definitive history,  Joan Dash's We Shall Not Be Moved, and Margret Peterson Haddix's  historical fiction Uprising are both great. I've also written several poems about it, all tagged. Check them out if you want)

1 comment:

  1. A pretty intense story. I remember reading about this or seeing a documentary on the History Channel or something. I know of the story, how they used to lock the doors to the factories. Back when there were no minimum age labor laws, and if there were, people looked the other way. So sad, not only for those gone but for the families they left behind. You captured that well. Loved the insertion of the Italian names and words, it really personalizes this story.