published in The Yale Review

excerpt from

Glass-lung

Henrick Van Jorgen fled Denmark when he was sixteen years old, not because of a crime or a debt or a broken heart, but because he was determined to leave behind the seemingly endless memory of his homeland and find a place where he could live with abandon. He landed in New York and after several years of carousing con- sented to marry a solid-looking Danish woman who did not ask too many questions and cooked excellent fiskeboller, only to lose her in childbirth a year later when she bore him a daughter. Some men would have been unnerved by the responsibilities of raising a little girl alone, but Van Jorgen soon learned that the New World, in addition to having plenty of jobs and whiskey and card games he had never heard of in Denmark, had an abundance of young widows to whom a handsome young man with a sad story and a sweet, gray-eyed baby were irresistible; Effie never lacked for babysitters, and Van Jorgen never lacked for a good meal.

By his twenty-seventh birthday Van Jorgen had migrated west- ward and was living in Pennsylvania, working in a steel mill. It was the best employment he could have imagined. His days were composed of hefting steel beams and tipping pots of molten metal into the open-hearth furnaces. He loved the roaring of the mills, the constant glow of the fires that had replaced sunlight in his world. If the work was tough it was also simple and dependable, and he relished the feel of his body functioning as smoothly as any of the machines he used, muscle and bone working together like pistons, making the steel beams that would build the castles of the modern world. He spent his Saturday nights putting those same muscles to work boxing at the athletic club, where he pummeled an assortment of challengers while men in suits gobbled steak and porter and watched him spatter blood on the canvas floor of the ring. At the end of each night he was given two dollars, which he always took home and put directly into a powdered milk tin that he kept under his floorboards.

Effie, his daughter, spent her days in the care of a woman named Mrs. Graf, whose own children had all died of scarlet fever several years earlier along with her husband. From the ages of two to eight Effie learned the skills Mrs. Graf considered most essential, namely how to scrub floors and wash shirts, which was how she earned her own living. But as Effie did any of these things, or even while she ran through the tenement alleys with the other chil- dren, she was always thinking ahead to the hour when her father would come up the steps to Mrs. Graf’s apartment, clapping his hands and calling Effie’s name from two flights down, smelling of Banner & Magic soap and spotted here and there with traces of soot that he had not managed to wash away in the basement shower. He would throw open the door without knocking, sweep her from her feet and shake her all around like a squirming puppy. When she had finished laughing he would set her down and pass the time with Mrs. Graf for a few minutes, asking her how the day had gone and whether his daughter wasn’t a perfect angel. Mrs. Graf would hand him a dish with whatever she had prepared for supper, and he would set his hands on her shoulders and thank her in a way that Effie noticed never failed to make her blush. Then he would take the dish in one hand and lay the other on Effie’s head like a heavy hat, and they would go back to their apartment and eat. Afterwards Effie would wash the dishes and sit in her father’s lap, and the two of them would look through the newspaper to see if they could discern from the pictures what was going on in the world.

*          *          *

There came a week when the normal pattern of work in the mill was disrupted because one of the furnaces was being shut down for alterations. The fires had to be extinguished days in advance so the furnace would have time to cool. Production was not often stopped – Mr. Carnegie did not abide it except in cases of absolute necessity – but it was rumored that the great man was experi- menting with a new product, the patent for which had been sold to him by a Spanish scientist, which would fuse steel and glass to create a new material that was as strong as steel at one-quarter the weight.

Van Jorgen and a few others were recruited to make alterations to the furnace, under the direction of a small man in wire specta- cles. This man wore a fine suit that was already smeared with slag dust, and gave all his instructions in terse, heavily accented En- glish. More often than not he carried out his orders himself, impa- tiently wresting tools from their hands and making adjustments. Soon the entire group of men was coated in soot; Van Jorgen and the other mill workers climbed in and out of the mouth of the furnace fetching tools and piping, spitting wads of gray phlegm on the floor. There was something fascinating about stepping inside this beast that any other day would have seared the flesh from their bones before they had time to scream. They strained to lift the heavy pieces of machinery into place, grunting and swearing.

At six o’clock the shift whistle blew and the rest of the men left, but Van Jorgen remained, curious to see what the scientist would do next. The two men sat side by side on a crate to catch their breath, and Van Jorgen took from his pocket a small tin of snu√, which he o√ered to his companion. They relaxed in silence for a few moments, heads spinning pleasantly, and then the scientist led Van Jorgen toward a large box in the corner of the room. With a conspiratory air, he drew o√ a heavy canvas cover. The box was as big as a co≈n, with a clear glass lid. The scientist, with some e√ort, lifted one end, and a wave of smoke appeared within.

‘‘Glass,’’ said the scientist, watching Van Jorgen. He shook the box more forcefully, and the smokelike substance swirled into view again. ‘‘Very small, very thin pieces glass.’’ Van Jorgen, bend- ing to look closer, saw that this was so; what had appeared to be smoke was in fact glass fibers as fine as thistledown and light enough to be disturbed by the slightest motion.

‘‘You are building miracles,’’ said Van Jorgen.

The scientist gave a laugh at once shy and giddy as he set the box down and sank his hands into the pockets of his soot-encrusted suit. ‘‘Yes,’’ he said, ‘‘that is me.’’

The following day the apparatus was completed, and the furnace restarted. Before the doors were shut the Spanish scientist tested a set of bellows almost as large as he was that pumped the smokelike glass into the furnace. Glittering in the heat, the glass filaments alighted on the melting steel like a cloud of flies. The scientist nodded and motioned some of the men to swing shut the riveted metal door through which they had been watching the steel, and to turn the handwheel that would seal it closed. All around the furnace the workers stood with their hands at their sides, jostling for a better look. Even the shift bosses had given up their postur- ing authority and gathered to watch.

Van Jorgen balanced his weight on the outer edges of his work- boots. He had the sense that if he stood still too long the boots might melt to the floor; the room had surpassed even its usual hellish temperature. He backed away from the furnace and re- sumed his vigil closer to the door, where the flow of air created a cooling draft.

The scientist constantly checked gauges and thermometers, and eventually began heaving at the bellows. He was sweating, red-faced, but he moved with the single-minded zeal of possession. He was still working the bellows when a high-pitched squealing noise like that of twisting metal pierced the air. The men all looked up, startled, but the equipment appeared to be fine. The scientist checked the valves and found one that showed what he did not want to see – the pressure inside the furnace was rising. He took a couple of pumps at the bellows, to no e√ect. The shift bosses saw his agitation and began questioning him, all of them at once, their voices an unintelligible squabble. In any case, the scientist paid no mind to anyone; his English had left him, and his Spanish as well. Only the coded language of pressure and volume and chain reaction entered his mind, and even that could not keep pace with his desire for information.

The squealing sound did not repeat itself, but the scientist began to yell, words beyond their understanding, digging fran- tically through a toolbox and waving his hands at them as though to warn them back. The men understood him all in the same moment, and at that moment the furnace blew apart. The scien- tist and the box of glass filaments were shattered; bricks and chunks of sizzling metal flew; churning heat filled the room. As Van Jorgen turned to run the glass cloud hit his skin like a mist of fire, searing him across his arms and neck, singeing a spray of holes through the back of his shirt until the fabric gave way, and then biting into his skin. He fell to the floor screaming, with the sensation of hot needles piercing his lungs, still reaching for the door.

*          *          *

Effie sat by her father’s hospital bed for most of the next five days, waiting for him to wake up. The nurses told her repeatedly that this was no place for a little girl, and Mrs. Graf, who had an unholy terror of hospitals and could not stay in one for longer than a few minutes, begged her to wait for news at home. But Effie only twined her legs around the legs of the chair she sat in and refused to move. When the nurses changed her father’s bandages they insisted that she cover her eyes, but as soon as they turned away she peered from between her fingers. His back was blistered and raw, and all the hair had been singed away from the back of his head; from the front he looked like the same papa she had always known, and from the back like a red-skinned, boiling monster. When the nurses replaced the bandages and left to attend to the next patient he lay motionless on his side, his breath hissing weakly from the corners of his mouth, his eyes unmoving beneath their lids.

When he finally came to it was early evening and Effie was the only one in the room, aside from the other patients. Her father blinked as though waking up from a long dream and gazed up at her from his bed. As soon as his eyes were opened he looked like himself again, and Effie reached out and put her hand on his face, though she had not touched him since he entered the hospital. ‘‘Papa,’’ she said. He drew a breath as if to reply, but winced and clutched at his chest. Effie picked up a small brass bell that the nurses had placed on his bedside table and rang it.

A nurse appeared and took Van Jorgen’s pulse. Then she sat in Effie’s chair and explained to him, slowly and several times, using a variety of metaphors, that in the explosion he had breathed in atomized glass; that it had coated the insides of his lungs, which now cracked minutely with every breath. He was lucky to be alive at all, she said, and if he intended to stay alive he must take shallow, slow breaths – inhaling too deeply would cause his lungs to bleed, and doing this too much over time would slowly suffocate him. If he was careful, and stopped when his lungs began to ache, he would be able to summon enough wind to whisper a few words at a time. Then she stood up, as though that settled the matter, and said she would be back in the morning with the doctor. Effie noticed that she did not repeat what the doctor had said on the first day, when she was in the hall with Mrs. Graf and he thought that she could not hear him – that he was sure her father would die because the glass coating his lungs would slowly splinter and kill him, that he was beyond the aid of science.

In the dim silence that followed the nurse’s departure Effie stood with her hand on her father’s forehead and looked at him. She bent closer, so that her nose was almost touching his, and said, ‘‘Can you hear me?’’ He nodded, and Effie sank back into her chair.

‘‘Mrs. Graf cried all day yesterday,’’ she said, ‘‘and she made me wear a dress that used to be her daughter’s and go to a funeral. And she gave me dinner and kept calling me ‘poor chick.’ But the other children were the poor chicks, because all their papas were dead from the fire and you were only just burnt. And she put all our things in a box, and she forgot that I don’t like barley soup and she made a whole pot of it, just for me, she said.’’

Van Jorgen parted his fingers and took between them one of her dark, silky curls.

‘‘I ate it,’’ Effie said, ‘‘as much as I could.’’

She pulled her chair closer and bent almost in half so that she could lay her head beside her father’s and feel his thready breath on her cheek. The light outside had faded, leaving only a pale blue square of twilight from the window to show them one another’s faces, but she could see that his eyes were still open, and he let his hand rest on her head. Inside a minute she was asleep. 

 

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