Beattie Welles went down to the river to watch the boys fish with their hands for waste wax. It was Sunday and the boys had shed their church clothes and laid them across the dried bushes along the bank. In their underwear they worked, wading out to the middle, crouching, bending, then pulling bubbly wax blobs up from the silt and the sand. Legs wide, shoulders hunched with the carried weight, they hobbled back to the shallows to place their catches in short stacks. Occasionally one boy would grab a friend, dunk him down, and work would devolve into mayhem. As the wax stacks grew, the boys played. The splashing water washed the river bottom muck from the wax. It shined then, newly freed, and showed its palette of factory colors in the late morning sun.
The factory was upstream where the Merrimack River ran flat and steady before bending into the chopped blue and white rapids where Lavender Welles had drowned two summers before. The brick building was three blocks long and four stories high with tall murky windows that kept the machinery and the employees working in darkness. The daytime strollers who sidled past and glanced within saw only their own grey reflections. Some folks were proud of the factory. It’d been financed and built by a local son, proof that the people in town were capable of success. It was never mentioned that those folks had once said the same of Lavender Welles. That was the nature of the town’s gossip. The factory was originally fitted for textiles, first turning out children’s clothing, then later producing woven welcome mats, but now it specialized in the production of mechanical parts. The workers spent their hours sweating in the heat that rose from the molten metals they poured into wax molds. The factory was a kiln and the people inside came out as hardened, bronzed, and blackened as the metals. Its smokestacks towered as landmarks. On the Merrimack side, the building was flat and naked. There were no windows looking over the river. No doors. No tubes or pipes that dropped waste into the water. It was often wondered where the wax came from, how it got into the water, if the blackened workers used nighttime to carry buckets of waste wax down the steepened banks and noiselessly slipped the thick byproduct beneath the swirling surface, disposing too of their knowledge and opinion of the act because those thoughts would not pay.
Two boys found a large hunk of wax wedged beneath a midstream boulder and whooped. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder, clutching at their find, rocking together side-to-side until it came free and the river rushed to fill the vacancy with such ferocity that it collided upon itself, shooting a plume of water twenty feet high. On the bank, Beattie welcomed the raining mist and blinked to clear the drops from her eyes. She smiled at first and then remembered why she was there. The boys fell over backwards, losing their grip on the mass, and there was a moment where the current gently rolled the wax over one of them, pressing him beneath the surface and down like a dinosaur into the riverbed clay, and the other boys by the shore thought of Lavender drowning and Beattie thought of her sister’s red hair and of giggling and being tossed by strong arms up in the air. She remembered flying, the adrenaline warming her cheeks, and she remembered falling back to the earth, cradled to safety by those toned, summer-tanned arms. The boy popped up as the wax moved on. It bobbed and tumbled and came miraculously to rest in the shallows at the base of the collected wax stacks.
On Sunday evenings the boys would sell the wax they found to Mrs. Ribeiro, who ran an ear-cleaning shop off of Middlesex Street. In the backroom she used lathes and potter wheels to work the wax into long hollow cones she reinforced with layers of cheesecloth. Her customers came and sat in the front room, relaxed themselves into old barbershop chairs, and Mrs. Ribeiro stuck her cones in their ears and lit the ends on fire. The heat vacuum sucked at the patient’s insides and cleaned them through. Mrs. Ribeiro could remove years of earwax hardened by the verbal nagging of an over-protective husband. She could remove the earwigs and snails and politician’s promises that climbed in the ears of the poor. And she could remove anyone’s pestering thoughts. It was said she’d only failed once and botched a cleaning on the town’s ragman. But that was one rumor of many. That was the nature of the town’s gossip. Her talents were admired and scorned and then challenged one day by an out of town mechanic in town to fix metal-bending machines at the factory. Twirling the tip of his beard, he clinked through the front door and called her a swindler. It was impossible by the laws of nature. Thoughts and ideas were of the mind, not the ear. Mrs. Ribeiro asked for one moment, pattered to the backroom, and came back with a pair of her longest cones. He agreed to the test, knowing it’d be a great story to tell at the Lions Club, and she stuck a cone on either side of his head. She lit them and they burned and he lost his firm belief in the mechanical and the scientific. They burned longer and he lost his attitude and conceit. After an hour, the ends had burned just an inch and still they smoldered and smoked and cleaned him out. Mrs. Ribeiro turned him to the streets with the cones in his ears and they were burning sixteen months later when he was spotted in Lawrence Park making love to a bush of gardenias.
The boys in the river gathered around the massive wax chunk they’d found and dreamt together of what Mrs. Ribeiro would pay. They mushed their fingers into its skin. A few picked away the mud and found the wax was an evening sky blue, dark like the turning river eddies. They explored its surface and a blond-haired boy pushed his fingers in too far and pulled back with a shout and his pinky sliced and bleeding. Something was hidden inside. Something dangerous. Instead of hacking at once at the mass like it was a prize-fat piñata, they paused, talked, planned. It could be part of a sunken car, said the blond boy. It felt like a bumper of a ditched getaway vehicle. Or maybe a treasure chest! It’s probably an old shovel. Whatever it was, it didn’t matter. The boys came to a consensus to share it as they did the wax. For half an hour they worked, scooping off shallow, reserved handfuls to avoid injury, rinsing away river grit, to slowly reveal a battered typewriter. When they finished, they set it on the bank to dry but it began to type on its own. Tick tack, tick clack. The boys scrambled, leaving their clothes in the bushes, fearing Lavender had come back for a pen pal. Your sister should stay croaked, they said over their shoulders to Beattie, while blessing themselves as they ran. On the bank, Beattie Welles watched the keys type. It was the typewriter Beattie’d stolen from Sister Carlos.
Beattie carried the typewriter back to her house and it spelled out nonsense words as she walked. The letter arms clacked with determination and she kept her fingers away from their guillotine swipes. She thought of selling it to the ragman. He would be coming by tomorrow night, offering to take the dents out of their pots and sharpen their knives, and he would collect all their old soup cans and Beattie would say, here, take this too, it’s junk, waterlogged, you can probably scrap it for parts. The junk man would take it, trade her a stringless violin or two books of Shelley poetry and one copy of Les Miserables, and she would sleep without the worry of God’s judgment. The river had brought Sister Carlos’ typewriter back. It had refused to swallow the machine and Beattie had known that was inevitable. She’d gone down and waited every day since she’d tossed it in.
She stored it in the hallway closet behind the piles of yellowed newspapers her mother kept in case she ever lost her memory in old age and needed to recall the past. With the door closed and muffled by the papers, the click-clack of the keys was a soft song alongside the hum of the passing cars, the ding and grind of the trolleys, and her mother’s quick, heavy footsteps that traced a path downstairs from the porch to the kitchen to the parlor and back. It was a faint metronome for her brother’s braying trumpet as he practiced in his room and looped through “Good King Wenceslas,” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and “Yankee Doodle.” It fought against the deep bass gossip of her father and his friends that vibrated out from the den and shook every room, humming clear and discernible from the pipes and floorboards as though the whole house was gossiping and offering its opinion on the Woodson trial and the widening of North Elm Street. Beattie Welles squirreled away the typewriter and forgot about her Sister Carlos problem. She patrolled the house with her mom and when she got bored she went back upstairs and mocked the simplicity of her brother’s song selections until he threw sheet music in her face. At dinner she watched her dad’s friends chew and speak and spit and chew and drink and grow messier until she wondered what they had consumed and what they had regurgitated. Their voices carried on past her bedtime and the shaking house rocked her to sleep.
Later, at an hour when only bakeries, whorehouses, and printing presses were alive, Beattie woke amid a dream of pleasant falling to a constant thudding. Her breath popped from her lips and she panted and blinked until she knew the noise. She leaned into the hall and the closet shook. Sheets of newspaper jiggled from beneath the door. Sister Carlos had to be asleep but still the typewriter was at work. She had to be asleep, her black wig hanging from the hook on the wall beside her convent bed, her bare head propped on three pillows to ease the tension in her arthritic spine. Sister Carlos was the librarian at St. Benedict and Keith’s Girls School and she typed on her typewriter every day without paper because her words went directly to God. Some afternoons she would hunch over the machine and her clanking would be furious. The typewriter would clatter and ca-ching, her neck would bob as she transposed her words, and her black wig would shake and shift until her hairline began past her ear and ended above her eyebrow. Her right eye was glass. The teachers joked it was a replacement for the one stabbed out by a girl who’d heard “silence is a virtue” too many times. Every year the senior class stole her wig and she never acknowledged its absence. When it was returned, often wrapped nicely in butcher’s paper and twine, she tore gently through the packaging and placed it back on her head without ceremony. There was never a show of emotion. Her wrath was saved for those who left smudged ink notes in the pages of borrowed books or stuck their gum to the backside of the library radiator. It was this tradition of theft that had inspired Beattie Welles to take the typewriter.
But Sister Carlos did not control the typewriter now. It was late. This was not the hour of nuns for this was not the hour of God. Beattie knew who it was. Her stomach wormed up her chest as if she was dreaming of falling once again. Though she’d dismissed them, the boys had been right. It was her sister. Lavender Welles had been forced to continue her existence as a spirit adrift in the current. There was no way to find rest in the river. But a typewriter—a relic with an ancient religious energy embedded in its mechanics by the pecking of Sister Carlos’s fingers—that had been Lavender’s deliverance. It was something solid, something of substance to which she could latch and sink into the earth. She could live in its keys and escape the current. They could have decomposed together. She could have found rest. But the boys had dragged her out. And though ghost stories had always kept New England school kids nervous of the witching hour, Beattie Welles prayed that it was her sister’s ghost locked in the machine.
Had she stolen the typewriter as a prank? Had that ever been the true intention? Whatever typed now in the closet stopped and Beattie swung inside to find the newspapers pushed to the walls. She dragged the typewriter into the hall and punched at the keys. She thought of the night she had stood on the William Rogers Memorial Bridge and lifted the machine over her head and hucked it off into the quick waters below, and she said who is this with her typing and there was no response and she typed I’m sorry Come back I’m sorry Come back until she cried and fell asleep over the keys.
Her father found her in the morning and stuck his wet stockinged foot in her face and asked why the hallway was flooded, dark puddles all over the floor. They rippled as her mother banged pots and cooked breakfast below. Beattie said it was her tears, but she knew it smelled like the Merrimack. She couldn’t hide that. Mr. Welles knew the smell of the Merrimack. After Lavender had drowned, he swam in the river for two weeks, making slow laps from the rapids down to the boat launch. Someone at school saw him breaststroking with used toilet paper and wax trailing from his head. Little girls are built to cry, said her dad, but it’s best to learn to hold it in.
When he next poked at the typewriter, Beattie told him it was junk, that she was selling it to the ragman. It’s old hat, said her father. You’d best sell it quick. I’ve seen the university machines that write and think on their own. He nodded as though he had reviewed his words and decided them worthy. He looked long at the newspapers and went off to work. Beattie Welles put the typewriter back in the closet and mopped up the water. She scraped away at the algae that had bloomed along the baseboard, forgot about the bus, and had to run to school.
Study hall was third period in the library and Sister Carlos sat at her desk and typed at the air. The last few weeks she had been catatonic without the typewriter, but now it was free of the river and wax and she could once again send up her prayers. The girls ran a test and asked her for help finding a book; perhaps the change in the nun meant her mind had returned. They were ignored. Sister Carlos typed at the air. The girls slid their tables together for another test and gossiped in voices measured just a hair above a whisper. Sister Carlos typed at the air. They placed a Bible on her desk and drew an eight-paneled comic of fornicating stick figures over 1 Corinthians. Sister Carlos failed to respond. They saw she was gone and the study hall girls gave up. They split the tables and went back to their homework.
Weeks ago they’d buzzed and wondered who had done the prank. They’d admired it then. They’d seen it as daring. But as Sister Carlos had sat lifeless, they determined a line had been crossed. No one liked the old woman, but no one wished her a zombie. Sure, they’d stolen the wig before, but they always returned it. Beattie glanced at Sister Carlos then stared at the square loudspeaker above the entrance and waited for the office P.A. to tell her she needed to get home—her mother had gone insane from the knocking and clacking that drummed from the closet in the hall. The call never came and she went around to the girls and collected their gum and stuck the wad to the backside of the radiator. It steamed, burned, and smoked. Sister Carlos typed at the air. The gum set off the sprinklers and school was let out and Sister Carlos sat in the drizzle and typed at the air.
Beattie went home to the closet and found the hall flooded again. It smelled of rusted pipes, wet paper, and bubbler water. Her mother was using an electric mixer to spin together sand and sawdust. It would soak the mess right up. She was cursing loudly about poor plumbing. Beattie helped her spread the mix until her mother slipped and clacked her head against the wall. She left muttering about brain trauma and dementia. The sand and sawdust soaked up the water and Beattie swept it all into a small tornado that she chased out of the house because her mother was not fond of strong weather. Mrs. Welles always claimed a microburst had whipped the Merrimack into the raging waters that had swallowed Lavender. She’d been too good, too strong to die anyway else.
The ragman came around seven—the wares on his cart jingling and clanking as he came to a stop in front of their house—and he leapt through their door and suggested they invest in reading glasses. Beattie Welles’ father bought two pairs, ones with weak lenses for the daytime newspapers and ones for the lowlight of night. The second pairs’ lenses bulged thicker than the windows of the old Anglican Church. Beattie knew they were not for her dad, but for her mom. He would give them to her later so she could peer back through the newspapers and read how Lavender had ran track like a genuine thoroughbred. The articles were there. It’d been real. She’d been real. Mr. Welles bought the glasses for his wife. It was the only affection he could give that year.
When her parents were done with the ragman, Beattie brought the silent typewriter down from the closet. The ragman took it out to the porch and gave it a look in the late afternoon light. He lifted the letter arms and poked his pinkie between the keys. He pulled a strip of wax from a crevice. From his cart he brought out some paper and did a typing test. Beattie Welles watched him and agreed without pause when he offered her a twenty for the wreck. Her father coughed. It’s worth more, he told the ragman and the ragman agreed. He had no real room for the thing on his cart; it would be a bit of an inconvenience. But, he knew just the merchant who would pay a better price and offered—as a friend, free of charge—to introduce Ms. Beattie and govern the sale. But they had to go tonight. That was fine, deemed her father. He would come as well. The ragman was a family friend, but Mr. Welles would not have his daughter walk back alone.
Several streets later they passed an old brick house where the Stevens boy played in the yard with his dog. A tall gray fence circled the house and its gate was locked shut. As they passed, the boy and his dog followed along on their side of the fence. The ragman gave the kid a smile and received a trembling song in response. The boy sang muddy notes as though his voice came from above the clouds and had to fight its way down through the thick water-blue sky. The words of his song were odd— familiar and foreign at the same time, as though they were Old English, or Pig Latin, or nonsense words from a half-remembered dream. Mr. Welles eyed the boy. He flipped a pipe from his pocket. He lit it. He smoked it and coughed when the dog joined in song with the boy. It growled a bass beat and yipped some high notes. Mr. Welles smoked and said it all wasn’t right. But to the ragman, it was a good song. He stopped at the end of the fence, where a dented tin can was nailed to the last post, and from his cart he drew a reed flute to place in the makeshift cup. Mr. Welles puffed. Such music is a blessing, said the ragman. The boy’s got something we’re all looking for.
The ragman parked his cart in the alley beside Ribeiro’s Ear-Cleaning Shop and Mr. Welles said he’d stay outside smoking and watching the goods. Beattie hefted the typewriter and headed inside, glancing quickly back at her father. Get a good deal, said his eyes. She knew he thought himself too decent to appear in this place. Inside the shop, the floors were bare and crisscrossed with soft gouges from years of sweeping. It had been a barbershop once. The chairs and the mirrors remained. Now the air was too thick and too sweet for barbers to think or see well enough to cut hair. The world felt heavy in Mrs. Ribeiro’s. Beattie struggled to focus her eyes. Nothing was clear. An intangible haze obscured the far walls. She could barely see the dark rectangle of the open backdoor at the end of the room. Too many thoughts in here, whispered the ragman. Too many people have left here lightheaded. When the shopkeeper appeared through the backdoor, Beattie Welles found the woman’s clothing comfortingly plain.
Life was a burden for her customers and so Mrs. Ribeiro avoided oppressive colors, wearing always a cream, ankle-length dress. She nodded to the ragman and tilted her head towards Beattie Welles and the girl felt the nagging need to curtsy to such a woman. But she held herself straight and held out the typewriter. The boys told me about this, said Mrs. Ribeiro. She trotted to the door in the back, returning with four waxy cones and a box of redheaded matches. Beattie realized she had not been brought here to sell what she’d stolen. The ragman had planned it.
We’ll smoke this beast out, said Mrs. Ribeiro, and you’ll soon have back a normal typewriter. In went the cones, stuck between keys, and the matches were lit and held to the waxy ends. Beattie knew what Mrs. Ribeiro could do and she thought of stopping, leaving. Her father would walk her home, but he wouldn’t understand why she still had the typewriter. He’d complain about the unnecessary trip and her mother would go insane from the tick-tack typing from the closet in the hall.
When the cones started smoking, Beattie placed the machine on the floor and they all three watched. There was a moment of silence before it coughed a fit and broke out into typing. It fumed and smoke gathered at the ceiling. The waxy cones burned and water leaked from the keys and puddled on the floor as the typing quickened. They waited. The ragman glanced at Mrs. Ribeiro and she met his eyes softly and Beattie knew the rumors were right. They’d been lovers. They’d eloped. They’d lost a child. Mrs. Ribeiro had smoked the loss and the pain from her mind and done the same to her new husband, but that had not been enough. It had not worked properly—Mrs. Ribeiro had been young at the time and just a novice at the craft—and they’d parted. Beattie saw that the lives they lived now were purposeful. They could never have stayed in love but at least now they could coexist and they could work to help others. The ragman could find those in need and Mrs. Ribeiro could set their minds at ease. Although her skills with the cones and the smoke had improved with the years, Mrs. Ribeiro could still not fix the past and erase the last tendrils that tied her to the ragman. That was the nature of the town’s gossip.
The typewriter died. The ceiling smoke vanished.
Beattie tried to type on the broken machine but there was no response. She pecked carefully at the keys, wondering if she now had a chance. Perhaps Sister Carlos was gone. The guilt of the spiritual murder might ruin her, but she needed her sister. They all needed her sister. She typed. Nothing. She typed. Nothing again. Her head felt heavy, despite the haze. There was good reason to ask for her own ears to be cleaned out. No Lavender. No Sister Carlos. Whatever had lived in the typewriter was gone. There was nothing more to do but to sleep on it, so Beattie Welles offered respectful goodbyes and left behind the machine as payment. It was done. She went home with her father, who asked nothing of the sale and puffed non-stop at his pipe.
For the next five weeks the town entered a historic drought. The skies stayed clear, no rain fell, the sun torched the sidewalk weeds, the farmers and meteorologists floundered, but the Merrimack paradoxically swelled higher every day until it raged over its banks and left no part of town spared by its flooding. The price of boots and fishing waders went up. Boats were docked in driveways. People gave up staying dry and wore their shoes wet and boot prices went back down. Fishing wader prices leveled out. People started fishing their yards. The skies were clear of clouds. Mr. Welles gave Mrs. Welles the ragman reading glasses and she spent most days peering through the old newspapers. She would sometimes pet the black and white pictures. Dinners went uncooked. Family friends stopped coming by and filling the Welles house with their talk. Telephone poles rotted and broke. Gossip was confined to passing snippets thrown over shoulders as folks focused on wading, swimming, and drifting to work. Everyone was just trying to stay afloat.
Mrs. Welles looked up one day from her newspaper and saw Beattie sidestroking down the road. She passed out of view and Mrs. Welles chewed the frame of her glasses. Did Beattie know how to swim? They’d never taken her to the Y to learn. Mrs. Welles went back to her newspaper where the facts were comfortable and familiar and without knowing that Lavender had taught Beattie how to swim. Their last lesson had been that day in the Merrimack.
The flood grew and of course there were questions. Where was the water coming from? Who had cursed them? Many people guessed that the folks upriver in Nashua had grown jealous of their prospering factory, for Nashua had failed to adapt its own factories to the changing times, and it was said the upriver city spitefully unleashed its dams to wash Lowell away. Beattie dreamed of recovering the typewriter, but she’d left it with the ragman and he never did returns. Spinsters and drunks claimed seeing Lavender Welles wade through the streets. She was said to shuffle, her head tilted up, her hands clawing towards the clouds. In school, Sister Carlos sat lifeless and there was talk in the teacher’s room of notifying the diocese and calling a nursing home. Beattie stayed daily after the bell, waiting to be alone with her in the library so she could whisper to Sister Carlos the good news of the town. She listed the streets that were high enough to remain dry. She bubbled about the rising number of churchgoers, though she left out the end-of-days sermons. She boasted about her brother’s successful school concert and how his trumpeting got the people to dance on their chairs. She left out the fact that the flooding had prevented dancing on the floor. Still, Sister Carlos sat stagnant, running her eyes up and down Beattie’s face. She did not type at the air. Beattie talked and talked until she lost her voice then spent her free hours beside the nun in silence. She thought they could reach an understanding, but the quiet was too much so she reached out and patted Sister Carlos on the back gently. She squeezed her arms. And the day the rain finally came, she tried to rub her regret into the librarian’s motionless, wrinkled hands.
It came down from the north in a roaring patter that kept the town awake for a week. Babies cried then went dull, intent on the sound. The talk and gossip that had survived the floods and the loss of the phone lines was drowned out. Beattie’s brother climbed onto the roof and blared his music up in protest until rain filled his trumpet and then his mouth and then his lungs and he had to be resuscitated. He thanked no one. The flood grew. Wax blobs bobbed past windows. Manholes popped free and floated away like steel-gray lily pads. They were joined by wooden coffins washed out from the cemetery hills. The spinsters and drunks claimed to see Lavender, this time dutifully pushing the coffins along through the current, serving as the guide she’d never had in the river. The Welles home grew moss and algae and Beattie scraped at it but made no progress. Mr. Welles said he was ready for a change, took the newspapers from the closet, and lit them in the fireplace. He warmed himself over the flames but never dried out completely. The fire choked out on the damp air and Mrs. Welles had nothing left to read. In the hall, Beattie found the ragman glasses, splintered underneath someone’s heel. The heavy, misty air of the house filled her nose and she struggled to breathe, so she swam up to St. Benedict and Keith’s and found Sister Carlos.
The nun’s head had a repetitive sideways tick that kept time with the heavier beats of rain on the roof. No one knew where Sister Carlos had come from. Some girls claimed her accent was more New York than Boston but to Beattie she just sounded like a raspy old lady. There was nothing about her that told a complete story. She was simply the librarian. But that was a cop-out and Beattie apologized and rubbed the woman’s wrinkled hands. Sister Carlos had a story. It’d been told in full through the typewriter and though no one ever read it, at least it’d been told. Beattie rubbed the woman’s hands and cried, I’m sorry Come back I’m sorry Come back. The Welles family story had seemed more important.
On the seventh day of rain, Beattie went searching for a solution at Mrs. Ribeiro’s shop and found the building destroyed. The windows were blown out and river silt had gathered in dunes on the roof. The walls were cracked and the entire place seemed like a delicate card house. Only the door stood resolute.
Beattie needed to smoke out her head but the shop was in ruins, the typewriter was gone, and it would all stay that way.