Blanche Curtis had been resting after cleaning out her father’s basement that spring day in 1988. She planned to tackle one room a day, starting down there and working her way up all three floors, keeping what was important, discarding the junk, then putting the house in Hiltonia up for sale.
But Rocco’s phone call shattered her respite. Her father, J.A. Schermerhorn, had left a lot of money to someone Blanche had never heard of. Rocco said the person would join them at the reading of the will, but could not provide more details. Blanche rolled the name through her mind and over her tongue, but she could not place it.
Burning with curiosity, she rousted herself from her seat and marched into the home office. She scanned her father’s Rolodex, leafed through his filing cabinet, and searched among his personal papers.
She twirled her wavy red hair and chewed her lower lip.
The boxes. Perhaps she’d find the answers there. She returned to the living room where the dozen dusty cartons from the basement now sat. She rummaged through them one by one, but nothing to help.
One small box, stamped National Porcelain Company, Trenton, N.J., remained. She reached over and opened, expecting to see items from the business. Instead, she found yellowed newspaper clippings, a manila envelope, and most interestingly, an unmarked cassette tape.
Her spine tingled. Instinctively, she removed the cassette and walked it to the boom box on the kitchen counter. She inserted the tape, took a slow breath, and pushed play.
At first she heard nothing, but after a moment someone clumsily set up the hand-help microphone.
“Hello? Is thing on?”
A smile spread over Blanche’s face at the sound of her father’s voice. For as smart and talented as he was with running a company, the man could not operate an electrical appliance to save his life. Including, it seemed, a hand-held microphone.
“Oh, yes, I see the wheels moving, so I guess it is,” he said into the machine, his mouth too close to the microphone causing his baritone voice to reverberate off the tile walls. “This is J.A. Schermerhorn here. I need to get something off my chest, a secret I’ve kept too long. Except I don’t have the guts to do it face to face.”
Blanche’s smile morphed into a frown. Without realizing it, she grabbed the edge of the counter.
She heard the flick of a lighter and her father exhale slowly. She groaned. Those damn cigarettes, she thought.
He coughed, cleared his throat, then continued. “I’m not sure who’s listening to this, now that I think about it. Beatrice, my beautiful wife, went to be with the Lord last year. Maybe Rocco. He is the executor of my estate, after all. But probably Blanche. Hello, love.”
Blanche smiled at the portrait of her parents over the kitchen table. Nearly bald with a bushy white mustache, piercing blue eyes, and a thick meaty neck, J.A. Schermerhorn looked like a true tough guy, but Blanche knew better. She whispered, “Hi, Daddy,” and wiped away a tear.
His voice brought her attention back. “So an explanation is in order. About a trust fund, my will, and the story behind it all.”
Blanche pulled out a chair from the kitchen table and sat down.
He took a long drag and blew smoke into the microphone. “It started a long time ago, in June of ’37, to be exact. I was plant manager at National Porcelain. Bayard Dunkle, the founder, was president. Despite the Depression, we were doing pretty good. We had more than seventy employees, with two production shifts and a third shift to maintain our new tunnel kiln.
“Ah, that was a beauty. A Robertson Junior, it was. May have had Junior in its name, but by golly, it wasn’t small. We had to build an extension to the plant just to fit it.
“In any event, we produced mostly electrical components back then. Insulators and pyrometer tubes and such. But that tunnel kiln required us to expand our line, to justify the cost. So we added vases, bathroom fixtures, little novelty things. Anything we could make and sell to fill it up.”
He continued after another long puff. “Dunkle said he had a customer who wanted ashtray, and Dunkle figured ashtrays would be easy to mass produce. But the customer wanted a unique design. So I’m working on specs from the customer and a blueprint for this ashtray when this colored kid comes in looking for work.
“We employed a secretary named Helen. A heart of gold, Helen had, but not always at the right time. I didn’t have time to conduct a job interview, but Helen had already walked this kid into my office. He was a janitor at Trenton High, but since it was summer, he was hoping to pick up some extra money cleaning at our plant. I said yes, but under the table and overnight so as to not get in the way. He thanked me and left.
“Well, next morning, I came in to work having made no progress the day before on that design. I found a note paper clipped to my drawing, some good ideas to improve it. I asked Dunkle. He didn’t write it.
“Next morning, I find another note with more good ideas. Now I’m real curious. I ask around the plant, but no one admitted anything. I figured it must be someone on second shift, but again, no one took credit.
“Later, Dunkle tells me he set up a meeting with the customer for the following day. Since I still hadn’t finished it, I stayed late. I’m taking a break, getting more coffee, when that colored kid come up to me and asks if I got his notes and what did I think of his ideas? Then I knew.”
He stopped his story to cough. He wheezed, caught his breath, then continued. “I looked at him for the first time. Everything about him shouted poor. Skinny, dirty dungarees, and hunger for hope on his face. He was holding a mop. I told him to put that mop down and come into my office. We worked all night on that drawing.
“It turned out great. Deep enough for five cigarettes, but taking up really very little table space. I asked him where he learned about designs and blueprints. He said he didn’t learn anything. He could just see it. He wanted to go to school, but maybe he could get a job at National Porcelain instead? He said he’d really like that. I clapped him on his bony shoulder and said we’ll talk. We both went home. I needed a shower and a change of clothes for the meeting.”
The recording drew quiet. For a moment, Blanche thought it stopped, but the wheels continued to turn. When her father spoke again, his voice thickened and slowed. “I showed Dunkle the finished drawing.” He paused again. “I took sole credit for everything.”
Blanche sighed and a knot formed in her gut.
He composed himself and went on. “Long story short, the customer loved the drawing. Wanted a prototype as soon as possible. Friday came. The kid hung around to receive his wages and asked if the customer liked our design. Our design. Helen was right there when he said it. She raised an eyebrow and shot me a curious look. She paid him out of the petty cash till, and I got him away from her as quickly as I could. Not to my office, but towards the front door.”
He breathed heavily into the microphone and chose his next words carefully. “We stepped outside. It was a real nice morning, I remember that. The air cool as it entered my lungs. Someone had tossed an apple onto the sidewalk along Southard Street and a wren pecked at the core. I watched the bird a moment before I turned to the kid. His face was so open and his eyes were so bright.”
That familiar tingle rose in Blanche’s spine. She knew what was coming, but needed to hear it anyway.
There was a long pause. She heard him start and stop several times. Finally, he came clean. “I lied to him,” he said. “I looked that young man straight in his face and told him the customer didn’t like the design and would look elsewhere. Naturally, he was real disappointed, but he said he was doodling all day on another idea and pulled out a sketch from his back pocket. He held out his hand for me to take a look at it. Dunkle was due in anytime. I couldn’t let the boss see us talking.”
Blanche sat rigid, bracing for more. Twenty seconds later, he continued in a hushed tone. “I panicked,” he said. “I told the kid his ideas just weren’t up to par. Before he could respond, I also told him we didn’t need him hanging around the plant anymore either.
“Right then, a hawk swooped down and robbed that wren of the apple it was enjoying. Just landed on the sidewalk, snatched the core into its beak, and flew off. The kid stared as the hawk soared away, leaving that wren with nothing.
“He nodded thoughtfully. ‘Yes, sir,’ he said at last. ‘I get it.’ He studied his new drawing in his hand, then crushed it into a tiny ball. ‘Imagine. Me, a draftsman. Guess I was dreamin’ above my station, huh?’”
“I didn’t answer him. Couldn’t even face him. He threw his drawing into the rubbish bin. He put on his baseball cap and walked off in the direction of Brunswick Avenue. He didn’t look back.”
Blanche leaned her head in her hand and choked back disbelief.
“I never felt so guilty in all my life. And worst part was, I didn’t know his name. It never occurred to me to ask.”
Blanche whispered, “Oh, Daddy.”
He cleared the emotion from his throat. “We got a patent for that ashtray soon afterwards. We glazed it in different colors and even customized it with advertising slogans. But, like a lot of businesses in those times, we switched over to defense orders for the war effort. We sold the patent to that customer. Sold it for a bundle, as a matter of fact.
“Well, Dunkle retired, and I became company president. When I retired myself, I did so as a relatively wealthy man.”
Growing up, Blanche wanted for nothing. She was an only child, and a pampered one at that. Now a middle-aged woman, she lived a comfortable life in good health and few worries. She had always attributed that to her father’s hard work and ingenuity.
He went on with his confession. “Fast forward to December of 1966. Beatrice and I had begun our routine of going to Pat’s Diner on South Broad each Saturday for breakfast. On the counter lay that day’s Trentonian with a big picture of a black man. As I walked past to our booth, I got the strangest feeling that his eyes followed me, daring me almost not to look.
“I stopped and stared. It was him. I paid for the paper and read the article while Bea freshened up in the ladies’ room. The fellow died trying to break up a bar fight, his skull cracked open by an ashtray. An inside picture accompanied the story. And even though the image was grainy, I recognized it immediately. I found it so poignant that the ashtray used to kill him was the Snuff-A-Rette. You see, when we applied for the patent, we had to give it a name. The Snuff-A-Rette. That was the kid’s idea too.
“Finally, after all those years of wondering, I learned his name. He was Reggie Washington.” Blanche heard the smile on her father’s face when he said Reggie’s name. She smiled too.
“He had a son, only three years old. Right after breakfast, I drove to my accountant’s office. I set up an anonymous trust fund for that boy the same day, payable on his eighteenth birthday.”
Blanche stopped the tape and brought the box into the kitchen. She pulled out the newspaper articles her father saved. The Evening Times ran a story about how Reggie had struggled over the years but finally found a good job and a great lady. A September 1967 report said his killer received a five-year sentence.
Blanche picked up one last clipping, from the Trentonian, dated April 14, 1981. It featured a beaming high school senior holding a college acceptance letter in one hand and a check in the other. The headline said, “From His Guardian Angel.”
She resumed the tape. “When I leave this earth, I want a clear conscience. That’s why the trust fund and my will. I’m sorry for not having the courage to tell you this in person. Please forgive me, and please respect my wishes.”
The tape hissed on, then the recording ended as clumsily as it began. Blanche sat for a long time, unsure what to think.
When Blanche met Dwayne Washington, she wanted not to like him, though she didn’t know why.
But her heart unclenched the moment she saw him. He was polite, sweet almost. They sat and talked about nothing important for a few minutes before Blanche asked Dwayne what he did for a living.
He smiled sheepishly. “I’m a patent attorney,” he said. “Really. It’s boring, I know, but, for some reason, I was drawn to it. Pretty crazy, right?”
Blanche smiled. “Not at all. In fact,” she said, reaching for her bag, “I hope you can use this.” She handed him the manila envelope that was packed in the box. He opened it and out fell a crinkly, hand-drawn sketch of an ashtray.
Author’s Note: This story is complete fiction, based on historical facts. National Porcelain Company, later renamed National Ceramic Company, was founded by Bayard Dunkle in 1906. J.A. Schermerhorn was plant manager and later its president. They did install a Robertson Junior tunnel kiln and did patent an ashtray called the Snuff-A-Rette in 1937.
McKeown writes: “I worked for National Ceramic Company for four years until it closed in 2016. I am an aspiring writer living in Trenton.”