Main Menu (edit)
March 3, 1887
Mary Katherine Delehanty wiped the sweat from her brow with the back of her hand. Her head pounded, its beat in rhythm to the persistent clatter of the looms that filled the sweatshop. A swirl of particles danced in the rare ray of sunlight that streamed in from a window high above the floor, and for a moment, Mary Katherine looked up from her work, closed her eyes, and dreamed.
But not for long.
“Girl! Back to work!”
The harsh words of the floor manager snapped her out of her short-lived reverie, and she returned to daydreaming with her eyes open, and her hands busy.
Someday, she promised herself, she would have her own shop. A little store in a small country town, where she would know everyone, and the town’s wives would buy all their best frocks from her, and she could close her eyes when she needed to, and sit for a spell in the warm summer light.
“Girl! I warned you once already!”
Mary Katherine’s eyes flew open, and looked into the rage-filled face of the floor supervisor. “Mr. Townsend, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…”
“Lazy bloody Irish chit! We’ve got more of your kind than we could ever want, eager to take your job, and grateful for it. Don’t make me-”
She shook her head frantically. “No, please, sir, I’m sorry. It won’t happen again. Don’t fire me, sir.” Her eyes, raw and red from the fibers that flooded the room, looked pleadingly at him.
He snorted, “Then get back to work,” and turned away again, to harass a redhead who’d paused to smooth back her hair.
Mary Katherine turned back to her work with renewed fervor. “Someday,” she whispered, and tried to keep her mind on her work for the rest of her long shift.
The next day, the sun was gone, and Mary Katherine walked to the factory in a downpour that soaked her skirts. By the end of the shift, standing all day in wet clothing, she had a cough. Two days later, the cough was harsh in her chest, and her eyes burned. On the third day, as she pulled herself out of bed in her boarding house, she fainted on the way down to breakfast, and lay all day in a fever. On the fourth day, she was fired.
A week later, recovered but still weak, she sat in a rocking chair in the front room of the boarding house, pale sun falling on her feet, wrapped in a quilt. Her landlady Mrs. Fitzpatrick sat with her, unable to meet her eyes. “I’m sorry, Mary Katherine, but I can’t let you stay without coin. I’ve a girl asking after a room, and with you not working now, I have to look after my own health.”
Mary Katherine nodded. It was hard to blame the woman for her business sense. She couldn’t ask her for a favor on the basis of friendship, since she was a lodger first, and a friend second. Still, Mary Katherine had managed to put aside some of her wages. Enough to stay a few weeks, maybe, with time to find a new job – or enough to take a risk.
“Tis fine, Mrs. Fitzpatrick. I’ll be out by the end of the week. I wonder though – could I trouble you for paper and ink? I’ve a letter to send.”
The woman nodded, grateful for Mary Katherine’s easy acquiescence, and scurried off. At her return a short while later, Mary Katherine took pen to hand, and composed a short letter.
It was a long and uncomfortable journey by rail in third class cars from New England to the dust and heat of Texas, and Mary Katherine spent much time imagining her new life. Her cousin had written of a new venture, a small community that sprung up around a crossroads – shops, and lodging, and meals served by white-aproned staff to eager customers. He wrote of baked goods nearly divine, and land as far as the eye could see, rich and red under a warm sun.
Mary Katherine’s persistent cough still plagued her, and she thought of the warmth longingly. Perhaps, also, this paradise William praised in his letters would contain a partner for her. A love match, if she dared to dream. Failing that, a kind man she could marry, and work with side by side.
In the midst of a dusty plain, remarkable for its pure unremarkableness, the train slowed and the conductor called out “Midway!” Mary Katherine took her few small bags and belongings in hand and stepped off the iron beast, squinting in the noonday sun.
“Mary Katherine!” A voice shouted as the train pulled out of the station, and she turned to see William waving his hat. She waved back and met him halfway, gratefully handing over her bags to his stronger arms. “Welcome to Paradise!”
His tone was warm, and Mary Katherine smiled to hear her cousin’s excitement. “Paradise? Indeed, cousin?”
“Aye, it is, Mary Kay, or ‘twill be by the time we’re done with it.” As he spoke, he walked her across the tracks and towards a sprawling building in various stages of construction. At what seemed the front entrance, he waved to a gentleman in conversation with one of the builders, a man who turned to watch them approach, dismissing the worker with a small wave of his hand.
William ushered Mary Katherine up the wooden steps, and introduced her. “Mary Katherine Delahanty, may I introduce Mr. Ronald Oberst? Ron, my cousin Mary Kay, whom I told you about.”
The gentleman took Mary Katherine’s hand in his own, clasping it warmly, and holding onto it as he looked at her. “Yes, yes, you did, Will. Though you neglected to mention… hmmm, yes, well.”
“It is a pleasure, Mr. Oberst. William has spoken very highly of your endeavors here.”
“Has he?” Oberst pulled his gaze from Mary Katherine’s face for a moment to look at William, and out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw her cousin shake his head ever so slightly before her attention was caught once more by Oberst’s smile, wide and friendly. “Well, then! Shall we show you what we’re building here?”
He turned and bent his elbow, placing Mary Katherine’s hand, which he still held, in the crook of his arm.
Tired from the long journey, she nonetheless tried to follow along as William and Oberst pointed out the various construction projects. There, the restaurant, and there a row of shops, with lodging above, and a general store across from the train station and a small garage and stable. It was sprawling and impressive, but confusing. Where were the homes, the farms, the ranches that necessitated this crossroads of industry?
Stopping in what William and Oberst had proudly proclaimed the “epicenter” of their new business, but what looked to Mary Katherine much like Mrs. Fitzpatrick’s kitchen, she asked, “Tell me then, what reason had you for choosing this land, this location?”
“Ah.” Oberst smiled, patted her hand on his arm. “William, if you will?”
Oberst continued the explanation, “I expect the railroad will be making more frequent stops shortly, with more trains coming through daily. It ain’t always safe for them to take the Northern Passage, as you know, and by coming across down here, why they’ll just want to stop. Maybe enjoy a piece of pie. Have a rest, maybe take a shower – we’ll be setting the whole place up for indoor plumbing, did we mention?”
Mary Katherine nodded, still confused.
“And of course,” Oberst added, “it has another proximity to recommend it. William?” He nodded, and William opened a heavy wooden door in the wall before them, exposing a wide tunnel carved into oily black stone. From below, a familiar noise filled Mary Katherine’s ears: a persistent racket, the endless clatter of an infinity of machinery, punctuated frequently with the hard snap of a whip.
“Disposable, renewable work force, gratefully supplied by our silent partners.”
Mary Katherine took a step forward, unaware of the movement. “The Infernal Mills…”
“Yes, well, as it happens, you’ve hit upon it. Exactly.”
From behind her, he continued. “I’m so very glad you’re able to join us here at the Midway.”
April 19, 2006
Mary Katherine Delehanty wiped the sweat from her brow with the back of her hand as she wiped the blood from the floor of the freezer, scooting out of the way as Fat Mac walked by with his cleaver. Another order placed. There’d been more of them, lately. Something was coming. She just hoped, when it did, if it did, she’d finally be released from her endless toil.
She hummed a song? she’d heard on the wireless once, years ago, and dreamed of having a little shop someday. A little store in a small country town, where she would know everyone, and the town’s wives would buy all their best frocks from her, and she could close her eyes when she needed to, and sit for a spell in the warm summer light…