BY: ELIZABETH MOSIER
I’ll sleep after the deadline. Around me, inkers and painters sit at every drafting desk: old hands and new hires, their heads bent over celluloid sheets. Mr. Disney’s movie must be ready before Christmas, our momentary masterpieces stacked and filmed and finished at the Technicolor plant.
For weeks now, I’ve risen every day at 5:00 o’clock, dressed for the heat in a white cotton shift, gulped a cup of Gram’s strong tea, and walked a half-mile through the lemon grove to board a streetcar to Burbank. I ride with other women, domestics in aprons and slippers, and men in work boots and dungarees grasping tin lunch pails in their fat fists. The air is still and cool as we pull out of Pasadena, leaving behind the cramped bungalow, the patch of crab grass in front, the soiled rag rug in the kitchen, the sugar bowl crawling with ants my poor old Gram can’t see. At that new hour, the dark palms cut across the lightening sky like ravens flying in formation. I imagine painting this backdrop on glass in rose and violet shades, as we speed forward into the day, to Hyperion Avenue and the animation studio where life begins.
In the Ink and Paint department, we don’t talk. Quiet helps us concentrate, so we won’t slop ink or slip up and paint the wrong side of a cel. The little we know of each other, we’ve learned in quick flashes during ten-minute breaks. Still, we work as one body, like a giant squid dipping its tentacles in jars of Cartoon Colour, filling in the pictures Mr. Disney dreams up and the artists draw.
Today it’s POISON APPLE/Scene 12A/1 – 249. I flip over each cel and brush-stroke its backside: red for the apple, black and white and gray for the hag with her all-seeing eyes. I know how the story ends, though Gram banned fairy tales when I was small, and read to me only from the Bible. (“God loves you,” she whispers to me every morning as I set off in the dark, but it’s her love that binds. She banished my mother and held onto me.) Brush in hand, I think how little it would take to change the story—blot the hag’s eyes shut or push the apple’s outline imperceptibly to the right until it floats off the screen—but I don’t. I keep my head down, working neatly and quickly as I’ve been trained, so the paint won’t streak. Brush to jar to cel to jar, over and over and over.
I’m not beautiful, but once I was asked to pose for Snow White, to teach the young artists how real girls move. Those boys only know their own mamas, and they’re so blind and boastful they can’t even draw the Prince believably. They studied me with such longing, which I was too old, even then, to read as love. I see it for what it was: a wish to capture me with ink strokes on paper. As my mother was captured, but with words. Ruined, Gram says, by a con artist.
Brush to jar to cel to jar. This work needs a steady hand, so there’s no late-night boozing with the boys for us, no jolt of coffee or full-belly breakfast for me. Hunger sharpens my focus on each frame of the story, thousands of drawings for minutes of film. Put a brush in my hand and I enter a dream; I’m both in the picture and painting it, sitting at my desk and hovering above it thinking here I am, an animator. I’ve been at it for hours when Annie, whose desk touches mine, suddenly begins to sob into her white-gloved hands. For a moment, I’m sure I’ve imagined it.
Carol, the bossy girl from Chicago, rushes over to help her or silence her, I can’t tell which. She stands over Annie with her hands on her hips, stinking as always of cigarettes. I unwrap the buttermilk biscuits Gram packed for me, and offer Annie my handkerchief.
“He’s coming back,” Annie says, pulling a letter from her pocket and fanning the hellish air with it.
“Some nerve that man has,” Carol says. We all know about Annie’s husband, a doctor in Nogales who steals opiates from the sick and the dying. She confessed this only once, in the courtyard at noon break, but that quick glimpse was enough to set the shameful scene playing on and on in our heads. “Tell me you’re not going to take him back.”
“His brother’s talked some sense into him,” Annie says. She unfolds the letter and scans it for proof.
“For now,” Carol says. “What happens when he starts up again?”
“I’m going to have a baby,” Annie says and no one, not even Carol, has an answer for that.
Every girl has her deadline. She might arrive at the studio in a pressed dress and heels, but she will leave wrinkled and limping, her waistband either shrunken from stress or straining with scandal. Annie’s seat will soon be empty, and the rest of us will cover for her. Brush to jar to cel to jar, Snow White reaching for the poison apple, frame by frame by frame. God loves you, Gram keeps calling to me through the dark.
When I interviewed for my job at the studio, my hands shook as I showed Mr. Disney my sketches of lizards and jackrabbits, watercolors of oleander bushes and lemon trees. Fatherless and penniless, I’d pinned my hope to my talent. “I have no formal training,” I told him meekly, but he stopped me with a laugh.
“You’re perfect,” he said. “I want untrained girls. Young artists who aren’t set in their ways.” When he called me “artist,” it was my first time. He offered me a cigarette—of course I refused, sensing a test—and slid open a heavy oak drawer containing the contracts. That moment lasted forever, like a tower of painted cels rising to the sky. On the desk between us lay my drawings, naïve and unschooled, revealing nothing so much as my willingness. Then Mr. Disney smiled and signed the contract with a flourish. When he passed it to me, I drew my name with an unbroken line: Marjorie Green.
Here it is then, finished, the picture of my youth: a studio girl in a clean smock and spotless gloves, sitting at a drafting desk grasping a drying brush. When I look down again at my life’s work, I see that the gray paint has streaked. This is an amateur’s mistake, which ruins the screen’s illusion by revealing the maker’s hand.
“God,” I say.
“Hold on, Grandma,” says the girl with pink hair, folding and tucking the white sheet around my waist. “The nurse is coming with something for the pain.” Her hands smell of smoke, and her pale, plump arms are branded with Chinese dragons and Celtic scrolls. My own arms are tattooed, too—bruised where my blood has pooled in intricate patterns of branches and roots. All those years, all that ink, an enchanted forest spreading under my skin. Where are my gloves, I wonder, to keep the artwork clean?
Elizabeth Mosier is the author of The Playgroup (part of Gemma Media’s “Open Door” series to promote adult literacy), a novel, My Life as a Girl (Penguin Random House), and numerous short stories published in literary and commercial magazines. Her articles, essays, and reviews have appeared most recently in Creative Nonfiction, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Cleaver. A graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, she has twice been named a Discipline Winner by the Pew Fellowships in the Arts and has received a grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. A seven-year volunteer technician for the Independence National Park Archaeology Laboratory, she is at work on a collection of essays on archaeology, artifacts, and Alzheimer’s.