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List #5 – Michael Martone: People, Places, Things

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LISTS: LITERARY & LAUNDRY

 

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Time in a Vacuum Bottle

A Genealogy

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1.
Keapsit, The American Thermos Bottle Co., Norwich, Conn.

My father worked as a telephone switchman. He tended the old mechanical switches in hot windowless switch rooms back when all the telephones were still dial telephones. The switches clicked and stuttered as someone somewhere dialed a number. The noise the dialing made was not distracting enough to keep him awake. He drank black coffee black. The box that held the mechanism for the current time and temperature number had a little porthole. He watched the reels of tape, spooling and unspooling through the night, inside the building that sighed and chirped all around him.

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2.
Sears Roebuck and Co.

At the city’s filtration plant, Uncle Rick sat behind a desk and gauged the dials, opening and closing the valves by hand, filed reports, took samples. The water seeped by design. It rose slowly up through the layers of sand, shedding the floc. The water welled up, skinned off the percolating pool in clean clean sheets. The plant was vast. A local college used the huge limestone building in its advertisements. It looked more like a college than the college. At night he nursed coffee laced with rum.

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3.
Icy-Hot, The American Thermos Bottle Co., Norwich, Conn.
Stainless Steel, Thermos, Macomb, Ill.

My Great-Uncle Ward walked the catwalks through the wavy updrafts of heat above the boilers. The powerhouse where he worked nights sang, the dynamos in close harmony with each other backed by the brush snare of live steam. On weekends, he played clarinet in a Dixieland band; during the week, he practiced in the yawning room. The big loft windows reached up, opened, three stories tall, with all the stars mapped out in the panes’ grid. He drank hot tea he mixed with cold milk, kept an eye on the auger worming coal from the bunker into that constant fire.

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4.
Icy-Hot, Thermos, Norwich, Conn.

My mother’s brother, Uncle Wayne, worked summers and school vacations at a meatpacker. He cleaned, with high pressure steam, the stainless steel vats where the chopped scraps of meat were processed, kneaded into stuffing casings for franks, baloneys, loafs. In a jumpsuit and hair net, his shoes wrapped like cuts of meat, he slid to the bottom of the metal bowl through the scummy fat left behind after the mix had been extruded. At school he studied radiation, diagnostic not therapeutic, turned flesh invisible. He ate peanut butter sandwiches for lunch at midnight. No cold cuts. The coke he drank still had the little leftover lozenges of ice he’d grind into nothing with his back teeth.

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5.
King-Seely, Thermos Division, Thermos Co., Norwich, Conn.
Best Buy, Aladdin Industries, Inc., Nashville, Tenn.

My father’s father was a janitor at the Hotel Indiana. He worked nights snaking drains in unoccupied rooms, spackling walls then sanding and painting, changing the long tubes of florescent lights. He had a room in the basement where he sat through the night, waiting for a call from the front desk, sorted work orders by the light of a naked bulb. He drank soup early in the morning just before the guests began to stir in the rooms upstairs, washed it down with coffee. He swept. He swept a lot. The crushed cigarette butts on the terrazzo floor of the grand lobby and the marble steps up to the mezzanine. One night, moving furniture, he was blinded in his one good eye (the other already cloudy with cataracts) when a spring sprung, exploding through the cushion of a couch he had just leaned over and begun to lift.

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6.
The Only, The American Thermos Bottle Co., Norwich, Conn.
Thermo-King, Aladdin Industries, Nashville, Tenn.

My cousin Anthony owned a tent rental business. Early in the mornings or late at night he would set up his tents or take them down. He had a crew, but he often worked alone. At dawn dew collected on the grass, or it was frost. He also managed dozens of coin operated Bingo machines he moved between VFW posts, fraternal lodges, and church basement halls. He never took a break. His Thermos empty rolled back and forth on the floorboard of his truck.

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7.
Universal, Landers, Fray & Clark, New Britain, Conn.

My other grandfather read meters during the day, walking house to house, but several nights a week he worked at a full service filling station downtown across from the newspaper building. He closed up after midnight, after the newsroom editors and reporters called it a day. It was a Standard Oil shop, a white tiled box with blue trim, two bays and two pumps. Hoses crisscrossed the driveways. Cars running over them triggered the loud bell over the door. He spooned up a late supper, stale bread and cinnamon sugar soaked in cold milk, between the trips out to the pumps to pump the gas, check the oil, the air, wiping his hand often on a rag he yanked from his back pocket.

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8.
Economy, Aladdin Industries, Inc., Nashville, Tenn.

Uncle Forest, my grandmother’s brother, was the projectionist at the Embassy downtown. An old theater, it was built before safety stock film and when they still used open flame. The booth was attached like a balcony to the façade of the building, a blister, high up on the outside of the theater, perched there delicately. If it happened to catch fire, the whole room could be cut away, slide down the side of the building on fire, isolating the flames from the great hall inside. Forest, in the dark, smoked and sipped coffee, the light from below sifting up through the old warping floorboards illuminating the clouds of smoke from his cigarettes.

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Michael Martone was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Keltch Pharmacy was on the way home from each public school he attended—Price Elementary, Franklin Junior High, and North Side High. The store had an old-fashioned soda fountain. He ordered flavored Cokes mixed right there—cherry, chocolate, vanilla. Next to the comic books, were racks of candy. Martone liked candy that also combined the flavors he favored in his Coke—the vanilla Wayne Bun Bar, the Twin Bing, and Valomilk cups. Later, he taught at many schools—Iowa State, Harvard, Syracuse. In Cambridge, he lived on Central Square near the Necco candy factory. Each day, he could tell what Necco Wafer flavor was being minted—mint, chocolate, clove, licorice, lemon. His most recent book, Four for a Quarter, reminded him of another Necco candy, Sky Bar, a chocolate bar divided into four sections, each section a different flavored center—caramel, vanilla, peanut, fudge.

*The photos of the thermoses were taken by Michael’s son, Nick Pappas.

**The photos of Michael were taken in Ellen Lesser’s back yard, in Vermont, in the shadow of Hunger Mountain.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Cheryl Wright-Watkins January 4, 2012 at 3:56 pm

Brilliant. Of course.

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