National Blank Book – Sally Bellerose

A factory built of brick, surrounded by canals, National Blank Book produced paper. Blank, lined, bound by the gross and by the ton. Spiraled, graphed, embossed, paper. Raw pulp was pressed into diaries, pads, date books, birth, and death books, in shades of white and every color.Every girl wanted to work a line with color.On Thursday when the rain came the girls working the line were glad. Nice weather on a work day meant trouble, bent our minds toward sabotage; tripped fire alarms, cardboard jammed in punch presses.The foreman, carrying his clipboard, wanted workers for the week-end, checked names of girls who would, x’d names of girls who wouldn’t. My cousin Jeannie, afraid of being x’d, said yes. Outside was mid-day, but already early evening dark. Inside eight foot lengths of fluorescent lights hung from cable above the assembly line. Rain slapped the roof. Wind spat water on twelve foot windows long since sealed shut. We heard the downpour through holes of metal punching paper.

Cutting, packing, all that product moving: conversation was not possible. Every girl was left to her own thoughts. I thought about my cousin, Jeannie. She seemed so old to me. Jeannie, twenty-eight, with ten years seniority, had gotten me this job. She stood now at the end of the line sorting guest books, throwing the faulty into a bin, to be sold at the company store for cut-rates.

Jeannie, timid and kind, looking forty, scared to use the bathroom without an escort. Afraid of being alone with the rats that sometimes scurried when the stall doors opened, or worse, stood in a corner, beady eyed, watching.

The foreman took me off assembly to stack my cousin’s misaligned and mangled cast-offs. A plum job, off alone by the big dirty windows, working at my own pace, which was fast or I would not have been chosen. One factory girl among one-hundred allowed to labor alone until a rat appeared and sat on the deep sill, gnawing a slice of bread dragged from the lunch room. Somewhere far off, a crack followed a boom. Not the excitement of thunder and lightening, just factory noises from the second floor.

The rat and I stared each other down, glanced away just long enough to get our separate jobs done. The lunch whistle blew. Paper stopped moving. The rat gnawed on. The rat’s teeth were yellow. Its fur was slick and wet. Desperate to check my fear, I clapped my hands. When the rat did not move, I decided it was factory-deaf.

Eighteen: my hearing still intact, I never felt sorrier for any living creature.

Except perhaps myself. It was an accident of birth that either one of us was here.

The rat showed its teeth and I showed mine.

Ten years seniority and too afraid to say no to working Sundays or to pee unaccompanied scared me more than yellow teeth and slick wet fur. All I wanted was outside that factory. I was hungry. It was lunch-time. I was trained to be quick, but my left hand inched toward the crowbar slowly.

There were many rats, and I feel sorry still, but once I held the metal, cold and solid, I was damned if I’d leave my cousin, alone in that paper mill, while that one rat lived.


Sally Bellerose’s writing most often involves themes of queer identity, illness, and class. She has received various grants and fellowships including an NEA, The Barbara Deming Fiction Prize, and The Rick DeMartinis Award. Her recent work can be read in Rock and Sling, The Binnacle, The Journal of Humanistic Anthropology, The Boston Literary Magazine, Passager, Cutthroat, Saint Ann’s Review, Memoir (and), and Per Contra. She can be reached at

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  1. Mark Renner says:

    Nice article on National Blank Book, but the mill you portray as them is actually the Albion Mill that was the 2nd to last mill of american writting (4th mill from the south hadley falls bridge). The mill you need a pic of is right north of the Willimansette bridge going to Chicopee.

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