The Power of Radium

1919, Denver, Colorado

“Good day, Mr. Tom,” the uniformed doorman held open the ornate door at the entrance to the Brown Palace Hotel. “Do you need help with your package?”

“No thank you, Jules,” Tom laughed to himself to think that after years handling a pick and shovel he’d need help carrying the small parcel in his hand. He crossed the most ornate hotel lobby between Chicago and San Francisco, hardly noticing the stained glass domed ceiling eight stories above his head.

“Hello Deborah,” he announced his arrival to the lovely woman tending the hotel pharmacy counter. “Is your husband in?”

“Oh, hello Tom,” she replied brightly, “please go on back, he’s anxious to see you.”

“Zachary, I understand you are looking for me.” He shook hands with the stoop-shouldered gentleman at the back of the shop.

“Not really, ” replied the older man crustily, “but if you have some more vials in that bag, we can both get rich.”

Tom laughed heartily, “From what I hear, you don’t need any more money, and more money couldn’t buy a prettier wife!” The last was said intentionally loud.

From the front came a rejoinder, “Not unless he’d agree to spend a little of it on her!”

Zachary squirmed and sighed, “A man tries to put a little aside for old age, which may not be that far away…”

“You old rascal, I’d not be surprised to find out you owned the whole hotel.”

Slyly, Zachary smiled, “Not yet.” Then he became serious, “Did you bring more of the vials? Tomorrow we expect a trainload of tourists back from the mountains, and I know we’ll have many requests. We’re having trouble getting people to return the vials after one night, and we rented out the last just now.”

“Well, here’s another dozen, but that’s it for at least a month. We’re cutting back on production while we upgrade some of our equipment.”

Zachary took the parcel, and opened it to reveal a dozen glass tubes full of yellowish powder. He checked each one carefully for cracks and to make sure they were properly sealed. For the first time, he smiled.

“Maybe,” he mused out loud, “we should increase the rental rate.”

“Isn’t two bits a bit much, now?” asked Tom, not intending the play on words.

Deborah entered the conversation, “I think for our regular customers, you are right. We shouldn’t increase the prices for them. But maybe for the tourists?”

“Do what you want, Deborah. If I disagreed with you, you’d just sic Linda on me, anyway.”

For the last year, ever since the Curran brothers had followed the National Radium Institute to Denver and relocated their operations from Long Park, Tom and his family had stayed at the Brown Palace. At first it was for a few weeks only, but a few days after they arrived he got into a discussion with the pharmacist about the curative properties of radium. Zachary was curious if, as a carnotite miner, Tom was free from the illnesses thought to be cured by radiation.

He had never really thought about it, but was conscious of the effect long absences from his wife while working in the mines had on him. Linda and Deborah, no doubt, had their own conversations. He was sure it was Deborah’s idea to package some carnotite ore for rental to the elderly, and not so elderly, ladies that stayed in the hotel. Linda had convinced him to try it out, and now it was a nice little sideline.

He had forgotten about the conversation by the next day. He was helping some of the plant workers remove one of the evaporators when someone called to him from the office, “Tom, there’s a lady on the phone for you, says it’s important.”

He cursed, and slid out from under the recalcitrant device. “I’ll be back in a minute. Take a break.” His crew complied willingly.

“Mr. Curran, this is Deborah at the Brown Palace Hotel Pharmacy.” she spoke in a stilted manner, as if someone was listening. “There is with me now a Mrs. Pelham of the Boston Pelhams. We are sorry to disturb you, but we have rented out our supply of radium, and hoped that you could make up another vial.”

He tried not to get mad, “Look Deborah, just tell the old Biddy to take a rest. Maybe some will come back in tomorrow.”

“Oh, I understand, Mr. Curran. But Mrs. Pelham feels that a dollar is a small price to pay for relief from the nagging pains she has suffered due to our primitive transportation systems. She has heard such glowing accounts of the powers of your radium, that we must absolutely find a way to help this noble woman.”

Tom knew a scam when he saw one. “Alright Deborah, I have a feeling that I don’t want to know too much about Mrs. Pelham’s problems, or how you intend to help her solve them. Send Jules over and I’ll find something to give her.”

He rang off, and walked out into the plant. They were completely out of ore, until the next cars came in next week. Certainly refined radium would be wasted in this use, and anyway, it was locked up where even he couldn’t get to it today.

He wandered among the equipment, then out the door at the far end of the plant. Scattered around the back end of the lot were piles of process waste, stripped of recoverable radium, vanadium, and some of the uranium. One pile contained sandy, distinctly yellow waste. He smiled to himself.

A half hour later, a large fancy touring car pulled up in front of the plant. When Jules emerged, everyone stared as the tall, uniformed black man entered the offices to find Mr. Tom, then departed with a wrapped parcel, and drove away.

It was several days before he saw the pharmacist or his wife again. He and Linda were lunching at the Hotel, when Deborah and Zachary entered. Tom invited the other couple to join them.

“So how did Mrs. Pelham’s investment pay out?” asked Tom.

Deborah smiled, not entirely without a wicked tint. She and Linda exchanged glances. Deborah explained in an attempted New England accent, “Mrs. Pelham, of the Boston Pelhams, has suffered greatly from back discomfort on her long journey in the company of Mr. Pelham. Through the miracle of radium, not only has the condition of her back improved, but she and Mr. Pelham delayed their return by a day, departing only this morning.”

Then she whispered, “They gave me a fright at first, not leaving their room all day yesterday.” Both she and Linda giggled like schoolgirls.

Linda picked up the tale, “But this morning she appeared in the lobby in full regalia, why she looked like a sailing ship with full sheets. She had a rosy glow, and hummed to herself. Her husband, on the other hand, seemed to walk with some difficulty.”

“She begged me to let her keep the radium.” Deborah went on, “And I probably would have, since she offered me ten dollars for the vial. But Zachary was so insistent, and as you know,” she said sweetly, “I always do what my husband commands.”

Tom and Linda laughed, but Zachary sat quietly. Then he looked up and said, “Well, I couldn’t renege on a deal.”

“What deal?” asked his wife.

For the first time in the conversation, Zachary’s face lit up and he smiled, “Why my deal with Mr. Pelham. He paid me twenty dollars to get the radium back and not let Mrs. Pelham have any more.”

Deborah blushed, then joined in the general laughter.