In the graveyard at Ottawa, Illinois,
Geiger-counters detect the afterlife. Here
and all across town in landfills the white dust
of radioactive radium and zinc sulfide –
kissed by the sweet red lips of factory girls
and painted onto one tiny watch dial after another –
waits out the tick-tick-tick of its 1600-year half-life.
The girls twirled their paintbrush tips
between their lips, as instructed, drawing
precise outlines for the miniature numbers – 8 and 6
some of the most difficult – and pulled the brushes
deftly down the sides of the numerals, erasing
excess paint and on the next twirl of the brush,
swallowing it. See, it’s harmless, said the supervisors.
No odor, no taste, no noxious fumes!
Each number was exact, the lines
hard-edged, no gradation. No time to improvise
over a mistake – precision was everything.
after lights out, in the bathroom mirror, the girls
could see the brilliant freak show – thrilling! –
of their teeth glowing in the dark.
“Undark,” it was called, or “Luna” –
the beautiful names for radioluminescent paint,
its glow-in-the-dark lure soon found everywhere:
Westclox alarm clock faces, doorbells, bedroom slipper buttons,
the eyes of dolls and toy animals, even theater seat numbers.
US army watches shined all night into the dreams of new soldiers.
There were stories that in Switzerland,
even under a wire-thin crescent moon, young girls’ hair sparkled
and sparked at night, flashing effervescent as a halo. But in Ottawa
the angels fell apart, their teeth coming loose in handfuls, bones
crumbling overnight, dead before morning.
No more parlour games, no kisses, never anybody’s sweetie
or kumquat after that – a small settlement after the legal quagmire
and now they sink down, year after year, into the boneyard where
new teenagers thrill themselves by walking
over the graves at night, the mechanical tick of Geiger-counters
proving, beyond the rumors, that the dead
are with us, and never go away.