The Girl from the Sweater Factory
We called it the “Sweater Factory.” No one remembered which of us gave it the name. A hulking, derelict of a monstrosity looming at the end of our block and taking up half of Hulbert Avenue, the last place in the harbor to hold on to its brick street, wobbly and buckled as it was. Our parents forbade us to go anywhere near it, which of course was a guarantee we would go as often as we wanted.
The long-abandoned textile factory had been quietly rotting for decades. The faded masonry lettering at the top of the third floor preserved its owner’s legacy, whoever Hosea S. Johnson was but his name preserved in Railroad Gothic style seemed both pathetic, given the decay, and enduring, still defying time’s passage even as the entire structure caved in beneath it.
None of our parents could remember relatives working there. We kids from the neighborhood weren’t the only visitors, however. All the broken glass, rotted floorboards, and Norwegian rats the size of housecats darting in and out among the debris hadn’t deterred generations of post-Depression homeless men and alcoholics from using it as a place to share a bottle of Thunderbird or Mogen David wine. This was a time before junkies and discarded needles, a time before the contemporary political correctness demanded that every shifty-eyed panhandler be declared “a transient” or “homeless” person. To us, the few we encountered lurking in the weeds were called bums and avoided.
Cigarette butts and broken bottles littered the ground beneath the camel humps of creeper vines we had to push through to get to the back of the building out of sight of traffic. A graffiti-scrawled plywood door out front not being the preferred mode of entry. Evidence of nature’s relentless attack on the premises increased yearly as the sumac that sprouted right next to the foundation had, over the years, pushed branches through the empty panes of the upstairs floors—very few were left unbroken for our own missiles to vandalize. In the summer, the foliage gave the upper floors a lurid green cast as the sun moved around the building.
In August, the stultifying heat stuck our tee-shirts to our backs and soaked the brims of our baseball caps. The squalid interior of the upper floors with a row of black mechanical looms for spinning and tufting made an ominous impression at first sight. We always gathered on the second floor to plan whatever games or adventures we had in mind.
The tall, skinny girl who showed up one day in summer said her name was Mallory. She gave no last name. None of us knew her. Johnny O’Kurran, the youngest of our gang, hadn’t reached that stage of puberty that makes boys both obnoxious and curious around girls; he didn’t hesitate to challenge her on her right to be there.
“This is our fort,” Johnny told her. “No girls allowed.”
That led to the challenge.
We had all performed it once, a rite of passage—with the exception of Johnny, who compensated for his size by daring—would show off by creating his own twists on the challenge, which was to enter the factory’s upper floor from a window. The means of access were the sumac trees growing close to the building; you had to pick one, shimmy up it, grab a branch and swing hand-over-hand to a ledge. Position yourself on any ledge, all of which were sloped for runoff—all this while dangling or perched twenty-five feet above the mounds of rubble below: cement blocks, bottles, rusted cans, and other sorts of debris too slimy or jagged to enumerate.
The trick was the “the leap”; you had to swing your body toward the building at an upward angle to catch the ledge with your heels and hope you had enough momentum in your swing as you let go of the branch. Even then, you had to be careful how you crawled through to jump about eight feet to the floor. All the windows on that side were busted out, most with shards of glass that could cut your hands or your flesh if you slipped on the ledge and grabbed the metal frame.
Some panes were better than others. Most resembled the jagged teeth of an old man’s mouth. The slender trunks of the sumac were not the best for climbing and their branches, sodden with gummy sap, not as thick as typical trees like the ash, cottonwood, and maple surrounding the factory. Ironically, the best trees for scaling also had the most dangerous windows opposite them with shards of broken glass that made me think of jack-o’-lantern fangs. Because I was older and heavier than most, I had little choice but to take the biggest tree and the worst window for my challenge. A livid tapeworm of white scar loops my shoulder and stretches across my back to remind me of that day. Washing the blood out of the shirt didn’t fool my mother but I lied and said I slid into second base over a piece of half-buried glass.
Mallory didn’t hesitate to accept her challenge. While she surveyed the sumacs, Johnny picked one out for himself; we knew he planned to embarrass her.
“This’ll be great,” someone said, using a common word that described everything from snow days canceling school to a new episode of Johnny Yuma, the Rebel or The Rifleman.
Mallory was definitely a tomboy, not like our sisters who grew up with Barbie dolls and liked to play house before graduating to make-up and nicer clothes. She was taller than all but my cousin Mike and I. She looked older but she was scrawny, absent the telltale bumps and curves of puberty. My vantage gave me a good view of her long, thin arms taut with ropy muscle encircling a slender sumac too far from the building, one never used before, and before a word was spoken, she was ascending faster than Johnny on his.
She’ll fail at the leap, I thought. I watched her hanging from a branch midway down, swaying, pretending to be a monkey making eee-eee-eee noises and scratching her armpit with one arm while we watched below, our mouths opened in awe. I’ll admit that I secretly wanted her to fall. This was a deep humiliation for all. We stared while she hung there goofing off, kicking her legs out in midair as if she were in no danger at all, shrieking cries of fake distress. A minefield of accumulated glass, shards glittering in the sunlight, chunks of cement, and bricks waited for gravity’s final tug and that slender branch—no thicker than her bicep—to snap.
Tired of performing, not hearing any encouragement, she made her entrance through a window with more panache and daring than we’d ever seen. She tucked her body at the height of her swing and flew through a window without touching the ledge. All this time, Johnny was panting to catch up, still negotiating the last few feet toward a ledge. We all heard the thud of her landing. As if our heads were joined on twin pairs of swivels, we looked at one another in pure amazement.
After that, Mallory didn’t ask to be accepted; she assumed it. We had years of running as a pack and we knew one another’s strengths and weaknesses regardless of age or size. Johnny’s older brother Joe, a lower-ranking hyena in the pack, didn’t possess Johnny’s status when it came to determining sides. Mallory, however, had the physical traits and daring that put her up front in everything going on. Even more impressive to us, she didn’t try to boss anyone. She was accepted without any formal recognition we were “voting” her in.
Each floor held different kinds of machinery: the offices of the first floor were mostly trashed and reeked of urine from the winos who used to congregate there while the massive looms and spinning machines were on the second floor. The third floor was empty except for the broken glass. Depending on what we felt like doing that day, we’d pick a floor to occupy ourselves. Often, no matter where we spent most of our time, we’d head up through a fire escape to the roof where we had a panoramic view of the harbor from the breakwall to the east to the old Finnish section of the harbor in the west. Sometimes my cousin Jimmy brought along his Super 8 camera to film our fantasy or war games.
The first floor was the dirtiest and smelled the worst. Water damage had rotted huge chunks of floorboard we dropped down to crawl through like soldiers tunneling out of our prison camp or commandos sneaking up on an enemy fortress. Oblivious of rats and snakes, we’d crawl along bellowing out names of friends and enemies, obscenities too risky to utter in anywhere else in public, or call out whatever we’d been watching on TV. In those days, Twilight Zone and Outer Limits were favorites. We watched shows like Leave It to Beaver and I Love Lucy with our parents, but no one brought them up unless it was to mock the show’s two brothers.
Mischief was easy to find in the upper floors, such as a five-gallon buckets of some petrified chemical at the bottom to give it weight for rolling down the fire escape or tossing off the roof onto the canopy of sumac trees that surrounded the foundation and had taken over portions of the building where rain and snow had rotted the roof.
The extraordinary thing, to all of us, was that none of us had a parental prohibition to stay away from the place, even though my cousins’ house and my house was at the end of the block and my other cousin Tommy’s and Danny’s houses were right across the street at the top of Hulbert Avenue. Our other friends, like brothers Joe and Johnny, were midway down the block. In those days, kids left the house in the morning after breakfast and didn’t “check in” like today’s kids; we roamed, went fishing, swimming at Walnut Beach, or dove off the Pyramids down by the Norfolk & Southern Railroad yards by the coal docks.
As the summer days shortened into that familiar autumn feeling, Mallory began proposing more of our activities. She was a good enough first baseman we didn’t mind her joining in. She always quarterbacked one of the teams. After one pickup game, she gave my cousin Tom a bloody nose with a stiff arm and Mike wore a black eye home from her churning knees when he tried to wrap his arms around her hips. Mike later told me she had a strong body odor, which I took to mean from her clothing. She always wore the same cut-off jeans, bobby socks, gray tennis shoes with holes. Her baggy sweatshirts often had the names of taverns on the front or back. Only once did she wear a girly blouse—a red-checked kind I associated with Lawrence Welk’s dancers. After a Sunday of drinking at the kitchen table, my parents sat down to watch The Lawrence Welk Show, and I hated it because The Rebel came on at the same time. Mike whispered she was “white-trash” and said she was older than the 14 she claimed.
I was mesmerized by her. I knew her secret. Her real last name was Boone and her father was a cop killer. It was a day stuck in my head forever: blood pooled and dripped off the end of a front porch of a house on Third Street. A cop had been shot in the head when he arrived at the Boone house for a domestic violence call. The Boones were a noisy clan notorious for fights and criminal activity. My father said the words from the Herald-Tribune--“no stranger to the police”—were invented for the Boones. The fight between spouses was over cigarettes. Ray Boone dropped his deer rifle and ran, but he was captured and executed in the state pen in Lucasville a few years later. His mugshot tripped me to Mallory’s real identity; she had those same piercing eyes and razor-lipped scowl. Raymond Boone murdered in a time before death-penalty lawyers grew wealthy filing appeals. His execution was announced in the paper the same day the memorial stone was dedicated to the slain officer in front of the county court house.
But three years ago, on my paper route on Third Street, I had stood in the street along with dozens of other rubberneckers. I saw a small figure looking out an upstairs window when the cops were driving up, sirens blaring—a young girl my age, I thought. I didn’t connect her to Mallory for weeks after she showed up but it was her. She was that little girl in the window.
I kept it to myself. Mike was right: she was getting bossier. And she did smell. Her fingernails were always black. A goatish odor wafted from her skin, not just her clothing. Her stringy blonde hair was always unkempt; in the dog days of August, her head smelled rancid like butter left out too long. Hanks of it were steam-pressed to her neck. Her legs beneath her cutoff Levi’s were scabby, crisscrossed with dirt-streaked cuts. If it weren’t for the mad violence of her energy in everything she did like her reckless dives off the Pyramids into the slip, sailing like an osprey diving for a perch, and just missing the rusted spike of a bolt sticking out from the wooden dockside, she likely would never have confronted water that entire summer.
Mallory’s vocabulary, never genteel, was laced with profanity. She surpassed any of us in cursing and went way beyond our limited vocabularies, all of which were inherited from our parents, a World War II generation that did not embrace the casual obscenities of today. Mallory, I suspected, was privy to some things the rest of us were only aware of in our dreams and nightmares. When Billy LaForge mocked her for mispronouncing a common word, she knocked him to the ground with a leg sweep, blew her nose into her hand and rubbed it into his face until he cried for her to stop.
“Here’s some jism for you, knucklehead!”
I went to my older friend Jerry and got a crash course on the facts of life—insofar as he knew them. No one after that wanted to take her on in a verbal or physical fight.
As August drew down and school became more real to us, Mallory grew more urgent in her demands for our collective obedience. The rough-and-tumble democracy we once enjoyed had devolved into a ruthless matriarchy. More worrisome to us, she upped the risk factor of pour outings. But knowing our time together was also coming to a close, with the prospect of new classmates, teachers, sports, and “important” subjects on the horizon, we weren’t willing to foment a palace revolt with time so short.
When we arrived at the sweater factory that last day in twos and threes, we followed our routine of slinking to the back among the sumac trees. Mallory was there alone—until three others came out from hiding. My heart sank when I realized who they were: Sammy Boone, a boy around sixteen who had spent months in juvenile facilities and was known as one of the worst of the Boone clan. His neighbor Dale Sweeney, who adopted the “hood” look with his duck’s-tail hair, the white tee-shirt, the pack of Winston cigarettes rolled into the sleeve to the shoulder. Worst of all, for me, was Ante Ente, my private nightmare stepping out from behind a thick tree draped in Tarzan vines.
To this day, I don’t know his real name. That’s how Danny said it and he was closer to the public school crowd than the rest of us Catholic boys. I’d seen him once, a few feet away, and he terrified me: a blond-white Finnish boy in a flattop, not that big but crazy in the eyes. If my dog Buster hadn’t been with me, I think Ente would have chucked me into the slip or worse. He carried a knife and cherry bombs that day, which he shoved into the mouths of dead carp and sheepshead rotting on the banks of the slip where I was fishing. Danny told me how Ente would challenge boys in high school to fight after school. Then Danny would act out being Ente, swooping low and springing up with an uppercut. Even the tough Joikiniemi twins from Tivision Avenue, Arnie and Mikko, didn’t mess with Ante Ente.
I was already having a bad week at home. My father had been arrested for hitting a neighbor’s teenaged son because he’d shouted something obscene to my mother. My oldest sister, a high-school senior, had announced her pregnancy. My parents despised her boyfriend. They drank and argued more loudly than ever after drinking a case of Stroh’s beer. The only good thing was that I was ignored and could come and go all day long without being questioned.
I was trying to grapple with the appearance of this trio when I heard a rush of noise behind me, feet clambering through rubble, and then Mallory spoke: “Let ‘em go, Dale, the chickenshits.”
Danny and I remained alone. The others, my cousins, and friends, had abandoned us. I saw Mallory for the first time as something different, something dangerous, not a skinny girl I used to trust in our games.
She saw me glancing behind, guessed I was about to bolt too. I barely saw her move before I felt her hands pinning me where I stood, her fingers digging into my shoulder blades.
“He ain’t afraid, he ain’t no rabbit like them others, are you?”
I stuttered that I wasn’t a rabbit, but I felt very much like one trapped in its hop.
“Better not fuckin’ be,” Ante Ente said. He moved closer to me, approaching sideways like a predator.
“Youse rabbits try to run, I’ll fuckin’ gut you both with this,” Dale said.
He flashed a long-bladed knife in his hand and made a roundhouse, neck-slashing movement in the air.
“Shut up, Dale,” Sammy told him. “They ain’t going nowhere.”
Danny answered for us both: “Hell no, man.”
I squeezed my eyes shut. Danny’s bravado posed its own risks.
With Dale and Sammy walking behind us, Ente in front, we were escorted to the third floor from the rickety fire escape. The place seemed different—no longer mine, safe, but a filthy sty of mold and dirt littered with glass and smashed machinery. Mallory, however, was firmly in control.
She explained the plan. Her deep-set ferret eyes glittered in a column of light pouring through the broken windows and buzzing with insects.
It was all about robbing a family-owned variety store on Bridge Street below Hulbert. We bought our orange and cherry sodas from that place. A surly, acne-scarred teenaged son ran the cashier and drilled us with his eyes every time we entered. He watched us as we moved about, giggling at men’s magazine covers, scowled as we fingered the cheap household goods. Danny went out of his way to mock the boy and draw his ire.
Dale and Sammy would commit the robbery using Dale’s knife to hold the cashier in place while Sammy looted the register. Mallory and Ante Ente would ransack the place for whatever they could scoop up. Danny and I were to be posted outside as lookouts.
“Any adults try to come in, you get in their way, hear me?” Sammy ordered.
“Whistle, you see cops,” Dale added. “You punks know how to whistle.”
Danny put three fingers in his mouth and blew a shrill single note. His father was a dockworker who whistled Danny home the same way from his sloping backyard overlooking the railroad yards. You could barely see him on the hillside but you could hear that whistle all the way to Flat Rocks past the Pyramids.
“We meet back here. You two hang around in the street, act like you’re not with us,” Mallory said. “Come back and let us know what’s going on.”
“They ain’t with us,” Dale mumbled.
I stood with my back to the store, my heart knocking in my chest. Danny seemed to enjoy his role in the heist. He pranced back and forth in front of the store as soon as the others entered, Sam and Dale together, followed a few seconds later by Ante Ente and Mallory. Nobody in disguise, no one except Ente attempting to hide his identity with a Chief Wahoo baseball cap jammed low on his forehead and a red bandanna. He had drawn clumsy tattoos of Navy anchors on his biceps in a ballpoint pen.
Traffic on Bridge Street was heavy. Whenever someone walked past, I held my breath. Time slowed to a molasses crawl. Danny maintained his agitated gait back and forth, speaking nonsense and doing anything but keeping inconspicuous.
Then shouts—Dale’s thick voice. A long minute passed before I heard the sounds of things crashing to the floor, glass breaking.
Danny stopped in his tracks. I couldn’t make myself look. I thought of the pimply-faced boy inside with Dale’s filleting knife against his throat. I imagined gouts of blood spouting from his neck.
Ente was out the door first. I couldn’t see what he held in his hands but sacks of potato chips flew out. Mallory raced out on his heels. She was a blur running past. Dale and Sammy, like two clowns tumbling out of a circus Volkswagen, hit the doorway at the same time—and stuck. Most of what they held scattered to the sidewalk. I remember the grunts, the curses—and they too were racing up the sidewalk toward Hulbert.
Danny and I exchanged a look—and we both took off in the same direction as if we had sparks flying from our shoes.
The cops knew everything in minutes, of course. Even where Danny and I both lived. When the police officers pounded on the door, I was sitting on my bed sobbing.
I gave up everyone including Mallory.
The weeks that followed were ghastly. I was pointed out at school as one of “the robbery kids.” I was punched on the playground by some older boys, ignored by most of my peers. Being new to high school as it was, I felt sick to my stomach every morning getting up to go to school. I had destroyed what little happiness my family had after all that had happened that miserable summer.
A man in a dark suit with greasy hair plastered across the top of his head told me I wouldn’t have to go to jail or even a juvenile detention center. My family’s reputation might not have been sterling but there were many of us in the harbor all related and that was enough to prevent worse consequences. My grades and altar boy past helped, he said, although the parish priest refused to write a letter attesting to my character for the judge. My father was bitter about that. “They take the goddamned money every Sunday fast enough!” he exclaimed to my mother.
Sammy Boone and Dale were rounded up and sent off to an adult prison in Chillicothe, a place I’d never heard of.
Just as things began to settle down, Mallory contacted me at school. A boy in a class ahead of me tossed me a note in the cafeteria. It was written in pencil; some words were misspelled:
You betrayed me. I trusted you! I liked you a lot. I thought you likked me!!!
I saw her outside the school yard near the bus stop behind the cyclone fence a week later. Her fingers gripped the chain links like talons, and I thought immediately of their strength when she dug them into my shoulders.
I ignored her, knowing she was watching me with her deep-set eyes—a rodent feeling the owl’s eyes measuring its back.
“Leave me alone, damn you!” I shouted. I broke into a run.
She could have run me down if she wanted. For all her personal ungainliness, she was a gazelle on the savanna when it came to speed.
When she wasn’t at the fence the next day or the day after, I began to breathe more easily. I felt a glimmer of hope that life would get better. The odd thing is, however, I can remember the sirens wailing down Bridge Street, not an uncommon occurrence considering the number of bars and late-night brawls that occurred there. Instead of a diminishing warble, the sound shifted a decibel higher, and then I knew something had happened on Hulbert. I’d just gotten home from school and was debating whether to do math homework or turn on the TV.
The next day’s paper explained the sirens: Mallory May Boone, aged seventeen, had committed suicide. Her body was found lying on the first floor of the sweater factory, which the paper referred to as “the site of the former Hosea Johnson textile plant midway on Hulbert Avenue.”
I was at that peculiar age where recrimination was difficult but sentimentality came easily. I waited until Thanksgiving week vacation before going there alone. Shreds of yellow crime scene tape still fluttered like Christmas ribbon on the overgrown pricker bushes where we had crawled through.
My intention was to lay wild flowers and cattails gathered from the wetlands near the breakwall on the floor where Mallory had chosen to die. Gossip at school said she committed hara kiri with a knife like Dale’s. I knew she’d hanged herself. The Northtown Trib account said it, for one thing, and included a description of the rope tied off to a ceiling bolt. My flashlight beam lingered on the section of rope where a paramedic or a police officer had sliced through to cut her down. I imagined Mallory’s weasel-slim body dangling from the taut rope, her tongue lolling out of her mouth, just as Danny said happened in hangings.
She’d chosen a spot beside the gaping hole in the floorboards. I shone my light down there and saw a rusted 5-gallon bucket that she might have used before stepping off. I’d gone down into that hole many times on our forays, once with Mallory when we were teamed up. Unafraid of rats, we sat together quietly breathing the rank dust—escaped prisoners, we were—while German soldiers composed of my cousins and Danny searched for us with pellet guns.
I thought it would be the right place to lay my bouquet. I jumped into the hole and got on hands and knees, flowers gripped in one hand, flashlight in the other. I crawled along the tunnel as I had done so often and found what I thought was the place where we had sat together.
I had just placed the flowers on the dirt and was considering a prayer for her soul. Owing to some freakish yearning for forgiveness, I clicked the light off thinking my prayer would rise through the ether all that much faster in pitch dark.
I heard the word as distinctly as any word ever spoken to me in my life. One word: Traitor! Said with a husky malice--
I lost my grip on the flashlight and swept my hands about in the gritty soil to locate it.
Traitor . . . I trusted you . . .
Crying out, bumping my head on the floor above me, I reversed position and scrambled back to the hole, my heart pumping all the blood in my body as every foot of progress in that horrible darkness seemed to be going nowhere at all.
A milky light ahead exposed the hole. I didn’t climb out of it so much as leaped upwards like a fish breaching. I skidded across the floor, kicked out the plywood over the front entrance and ran home. Unseen by my siblings or parents, I made my way upstairs. I looked at my reflection in the bathroom mirror, staring at my shocked, white face. The burning sensation of my inner thighs I was only then aware of had come from the urine stream released in my terror.
For days, I never thought of it. I convinced myself I had created Mallory’s voice in my head out of sheer guilt. The only cure, I thought, was to go back—never again in that hole—but stand there and face my fears, listen to what the dark had to say. Just a need to prove to myself I had only imagined her voice. I chose a time close to supper and slipped out of the house.
Making my way to the back of the sweater factory, I looked above through the dappled canopy where fern-like fronds had already turned a crimson red. Smaller bushes of sumac grew among the taller trees with their rust-red, furry branches covered in hairs.
The image I had suppressed so long since I’d heard of her death, one that cored me, came flooding back. Mallory had leaned over to kiss me in that darkened tunnel. I had never kissed a girl until then. When I reached for her to kiss her back, she giggled and shoved me away. We never spoke of it.
I saw nothing, heard nothing other than the gentle rustle of the sumac fronds overhead.
Returning to the front of the building, I scooped up a handful of dandelions growing in a crevice of broken cement blocks. I was going to redeem my cowardice, if not my betrayal. I stood above the hole looking down into the darkness, smelling that unmistakable odor. I threw the dandelions in and turned to go. When a scuttling behind me sent a ripple of fear up my back. Rodents. I headed toward the plywood covering over the entrance.
Footsteps, slow footsteps. A dragging, not the clicking of rodents this time. A sharp intake of breath—then a measured cadence of footfall, one after the other, a slow gliding across the floorboards from the darkened portion of the building. Coming my way . . .
Once more, I fled home as fast as I could run.
That winter I caught the flu; it turned into pneumonia. In my fever dreams, I saw Mallory beckoning. I ran, as ever, but she followed and appeared everywhere I went in the crazy logic of my dreams. Her footsteps were a steady smack-drip like the silent saline bag attached to my arm.
I never went back to the sweater factory. By that year, we had outgrown it. No one mentioned the place when we got together to play basketball in Tommy’s backyard. If I happened to be in the car with my parents, I turned my head away as we drove down Hulbert past the factory. I feared seeing Mallory’s shadow moving among the broken windows. The sound of her gliding across the floorboards filled me with an exquisite terror and sadness.
I slept with a light on until I went off to college. Footsteps on the creaking stairs of our house at night would send an icy ripple of fear up my spine. My mother heard me whimpering under the covers once, delirious and soaked in sweat. I went to the college’s health center to get medication for night terrors. The drug left me dopey but it kept Mallory at bay even if my grades and social life suffered.
I’m a grown man now with a wife and kids of my own. My job as a CPA for an international company has involved two out-of-state moves, once to California. Last week, I called my cousin Bill on New Year’s Eve. He told me the city tore down the sweater factory years ago. We never spoke of Mallory Boone.
I’m still waiting for her to call my name again. I listen at night for her footfall wherever I am. Traveling and staying in motels is worse. She sometimes appears before dawn accompanied by the awful odor of that factory of my youth. Like some mythical creature who disappears the moment you try to look at it, she hovers at the edge of my waking and sleeping. It’ll happen in an unfamiliar place when I’m alone and away from my family. I’ll turn around and she’ll be there wearing the severed rope around her neck the way she was when they carted her out of the sweater factory. Those glittering, feral eyes sunk deep in her face will bore through me. I don’t know what I’ll do. I might fall to my knees and ask her forgiveness even while I watch her raise that filleting knife to strike home.