by | Apr 25, 2021

EVERYBODY said you were a good girl. Your mother said so with the inexhaustible tears she shed at your wake. Your father choked it out to each person who looked at their shoes when they shook his hand and drew him into a stiff embrace. Your brother’s pounding fist echoed these words as he worked fruitlessly to secure your dead body. Your boyfriend said these words silently as he pulled you around the neighborhood in his Radio Flyer once you were too weak to walk. At your trial, your lawyer repeated the words two hundred and six times; only after you died did you understand he meant this as incantation, an ode to each of your crumbling bones. EVERYBODY knew you were a good girl but did you?

Did you know it when you were seduced into painting watch-dial numerals and hands in luminous green because your salary would double or did the silk dresses and fox trim fur coat you then bought make you wonder if you were greedy? When you hid a tiny vial inside a loose seam in your coat, ran home, and painted undark on your eyelids and fingernails, did you think you resembled Janet Gaynor or instead feel like a thief? In the factory, as you licked the camel-hair brush to bring the degraded tip to a point thousands of times did you think you were pleasing your manager, or were you thinking about using the stolen vial to paint your lips and feel your heart race as you kissed your boyfriend? Did you feel like a fallen woman? When you lost a tooth and another and then your jaw and your hip bones honeycombed and crumbled did you wonder if you deserved it? The company doctor looked you square in the eye and whispered the diagnosis, Syphilis, and when your wan cheeks heated did you know he was lying or did you look back on the times you let your boyfriend slide his hands underneath your silk blouse, thrust his tongue in your mouth, and think perhaps the diagnosis was right? Your lawyer persisted and won your case after you were wheeled into the courtroom and could barely lift your arm to swear on the Bible. Was it then you realized you were a good girl or was your victory as hollow as your bones?

Now YOU know you were ALWAYS a good girl despite what so many tried making you believe. I know this because I’ve visited your grave. You’re buried in an airtight sealed coffin, beneath 5,000 pounds of soil, and there’s little that remains of your physical body.  And yet, when I moved a Geiger counter across your grave, every particle of you left danced and then screamed.


  1. Randal Houle

    OOh, the geiger counter ending. That sealed this story for me. It was good, so good and yet I had felt like I had been there before? But the geiger counter at the end elevated this story for me. Mind you, I used to arrange burials for a living, so hearing stories of long lost souls … well, its not often that I am surprised and this one did it. “every particle of you danced and them screamed” beautiful (i would remove left, for clarity ) Geiger counts make the particles alive.

  2. Judy Bates

    Jan, Your story pulled me in from the first sentence. You planted doubt— was she a good girl?
    This is such skillful craft. Even though you gave away “luminous green paint” and ‘watch-dial numerals” in the second paragraph — you kept dropping evidence that she wasn’t a good girl. I needed to know for sure, and your pacing was suburb. I couldn’t stop reading; I raced to the end. Even with the excitement to read to the end —the crime of the employer and misdiagnosis of the doctor did not get lost. Excellent job.

  3. Suzanne van de Velde

    Jan – I am stunned and hollowed out from this piece. I knew of this historical incident, the criminal exploitation of these innocent women. I love how you ground this story in her family, her small circle of love, that deceitful doctor’s whispers and finally, a measure of justice.

    My only suggestions: Consider showing that she enjoyed feeling desire and her boyfriend’s touch even though she also knew everyone else would think it was wrong.
    — don’t think we need the word “left” in the last sentence.

    Please send this out right away!

    Thank you for this, and thank you for your company this weekend.

  4. Benjamin Niespodziany

    Killer ending! So good. There’s so much to praise here. Such strong visuals, for example, of silk and fox fur and paint and camel-hair and vials and jaws. So much is packed into this piece and it’s a lovely whirlwind, like ballroom dancing with a shot glass of poison. Visceral and electric.

  5. Wendy Oleson

    WHOA. JAN. WHOA. “Entropy,” wow. This is so intense, and I’m so happy you wrote it. I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t know about the Radium Girls before reading your flash, but after that final paragraph, I quickly googled “luminous watch paint” and went down a LONG (but necessary, of course) rabbit hole. Wow. Historical fiction—I love it, love learning about the world this way, and your protagonist, my goodness what she suffered.

    Initially when I was reading, I was taken by this sentence: “At your trial, your lawyer repeated the words two hundred and six times; only after you died did you understand he meant this as incantation, an ode to each of your crumbling bones.” That detail of 206 times really got me—it made it so real—and it was such a smart strategy to focus on this idea of a young, female victim’s complicity—the way each of these people in her life called her a good girl; you slowly let me into the story in a way that moves backward at first, from death back to life, before that dancing screaming death of the final paragraph: “when I moved a Geiger counter across your grave, every particle of you left danced and then screamed.” That is so upsetting in the most artfully perfect way.

    I love the details you chose—especially the protagonist stealing the vial and fantasizing about painting her face. Licking the camel-hair brush. That horrible company doctor lying about the diagnosis—it’s rage-inducing and awe-inspiring. And now I have something to continue learning about. I’m so glad you wrote about this girl. Thank you.

    My best,

  6. Trent

    Jan –
    what might seem like some incongruent images, are pulled off perfectly here~
    A factory and its deception. Vials, a Radio Flyer wagon, a Geiger counter.
    Really nothing for me to add – this is excellent!

  7. Federico Escobar

    Hi, Jan.

    What a powerful piece! I like the dialogue between the narrator and the “good girl” that puts the idea of goodness to the test, that pokes at its flaws. The imagery from the second paragraph, the syphilis diagnosis, the self-questioning—handled very well. The Geiger counter from the ending—very good too, and the description of the particles is magical.

    I was ready to see it as something sci-fi inflected and leave it at that. But the prompt here probably made those of us who didn’t know about Radium Girls to dig deeper. My suggestion would be to include something specific enough, something Googleable, that would allow us to figure out the historical background.

    Thanks! Very good stuff!

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