Samuel Houston pulled the Oldsmobile 98 onto I-65 from Harding Place heading south. Hatch had no idea where they were going. He sat quietly in the passenger’s seat, looking out the window as they paralleled Franklin Pike, passing the Brentwood exit.
He liked seeing the WSM radio tower which rose above the countryside on this stretch. It was an odd structure, made of two towers actually, the lower one upside down with the skinny part at the bottom and its base opening upward to connect to the base of the upper tower. Steel cables stretched to the ground from its midpoint in every direction to keep it from tipping over. Rolling green pastureland surrounded the tower and its tiny white-washed Breeko-block control building. Cows, tree lines, and barns were the only other features among the rolling hills through which the freeway cut in sweeping curves.
“Nashville’s going to grow, son, and this land here is going to be the most valuable in any direction. If money weren’t so tight right now, I’d buy every acre I could get my hands on.”
Hatch was vaguely aware that the economy was slow. His father mentioned it frequently, but Hatch tended to tune out such news, whether from his dad or Walter Cronkite. Politics did interest him, however. Gerald Ford seemed likeable but not particularly bright. He liked what he had seen and heard of the newcomer, the governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter. He decided it better not to bring that up right now.
A billboard advertising the James K. Polk Motel was followed by the exit for Columbia. The further they drove, the more curious he became about where they were going, but he felt gun shy. Or perhaps, he admitted to himself, he did not want to give his father the satisfaction of asking. He respected his father but he had never felt close to him, not like he had felt with Pappy. As they did every day, Hatch’s thoughts returned to Maria Elena. Though he still watched the landscape pass by out the window, he saw only her face and her figure in his mind’s eye.
“Listen, William,” Samuel said after they had stopped to get coffee and gas, “I was harsh this morning. I’m sorry.”
Somehow, saying “That’s ok, Dad,” did not feel right, so Hatch still said nothing.
“I may be way off base here and maybe it’s none of my business, but I’m going to butt in anyway.
“I was lucky, you know. I met your Mama at a party before the war. We danced, we laughed, we kissed goodnight, and right then I knew that she was my girl. We got engaged when I was on leave just before being shipped overseas. She wrote me a letter every day. I can’t say I returned the favor. But I was so glad to make it home alive and to have her here waiting for me that we got married right away, rented a little house, and started in on a family. Of course, first came your sisters, and stopping there would have been fine with me.
“But your mama thought I wanted a son so we kept on going. It didn’t really matter to me one way or the other. I think your Pappy may have been the one who pushed her for a son.”
“And there you sit.”
Hatch wondered if his father was being ironic.
“Yeah, I was lucky finding your mama. We’ve never been out of love. Sure, there have been problems along the way but we’ve always found a way to work things out. Houston men haven’t always been so lucky. Maybe you know about that already.”
“No, Dad, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Hatch finally spoke, surprising himself. Samuel Houston kept his eyes on the road. His face was relaxed.
“You know we come down from Sam Houston, the Sam Houston, don’t you?”
“Of course. Pappy talked about that a lot.”
“Yeah,” Samuel smiled, “Pappy loved to talk about Sam Houston. I guess he told you all about Sam’s life with the Cherokees, his adventures with Andrew Jackson, his career in Texas?”
“Yes sir. Over and over.”
“I never liked to advertise the fact that I was a direct descendant, maybe just because Pappy did so much. Kind of hard to hide with my name. But I’ve always wanted to be judged for what I do, not what someone before me did.
“Anyway, did he ever tell you about Eliza Allen?”
“No. I don’t think so. What about her?”
“Well, I’m surprised at the old bugger. There was nothing he liked better than a scandal.”
“Are you sure you don’t mean Ellen Galt Martin and William Walker? He did tell me about that.”
“Ha! No. He probably told you about that because it happened in your mother’s side of the family. Maybe he didn’t want to show you any chinks in Sam Houston’s armor. He revered Sam Houston. But actually, the thing with Ellen and William Walker wasn’t scandalous, just odd. On the other hand, the affair between Sam Houston and Eliza Allen sure was.”
“Well, not that kind of affair. I should have said the ‘episode’ between them. What happened is, well, let’s see. You know he ran away from home and lived with the Cherokees when he was a teenager, then came back and distinguished himself under Jackson’s command. Then Jackson got him to run for a seat in the Tennessee legislature, and eventually he was elected Tennessee’s youngest governor.”
“Well, in the process of all this politicking, he got to know the Allen family up in Gallatin. They were very wealthy and influential. To make a long story short, after he became governor, he married their daughter Eliza.
“Now Sam Houston was quite a rounder in those days. He was a big drinker, a big tall fellow, taller than you and me, and they say women flocked to him. He had had all kinds of wild experiences in the wars and with the Indians. So for a local girl like Eliza to capture his heart, she must have been something special.
“Of course, with Houston being governor, the Allens were all for the wedding. It seems like the only one who wasn’t so impressed was Eliza herself. She just kind of went along with it. They had a big wedding and everything seemed fine.
“But then one night after just a few weeks, Eliza ran screaming from the governor’s house. She ran home to her parents and never came back. She swore she’d never have anything to do with him again.
“She never told anybody why, at least anybody who would talk, and historians have never figured it out with one hundred percent certainty. Some speculate that Sam picked up some kinky sexual habits among the Indians, others that she was repelled by a wound that never completely healed. Still others say she accused him of adultery or he accused her.
“In any case, it created a huge scandal and turned the Allen family squarely against Houston, once they gave up on convincing Eliza to make peace with him. Houston felt that his public honor had been ruined and his personal honor would not allow him to oppose a lady. So he resigned as governor of Tennessee just like that, only one or two days after it happened. He, too, refused to talk to anyone about it, not just then but for the rest of his life. He got on a riverboat and went to Memphis, and from there back to the Cherokees in Arkansas.
“Good grief! What do you think happened?”
“Well, I think it was much ado about nothing, myself. There’s a book you ought to read about Houston by a fellow named Marquis James called The Raven—that was Houston’s Indian name. It's not real specific in detail about all of his wilder side, because it was written back when historians kept some respect even for a man's privacy. But it is still considered the authoritative biography of Houston.
“James thinks it all started because Houston accused Eliza of unfaithfulness that night. Houston begged her forgiveness after she got angry, but she just wanted none of it. Maybe a year later, Houston was passing through Nashville and Eliza begged to meet with him because she had reconsidered. But by then he didn’t want anything to do with her. That’s where we come in.”
“Where we come in?”
“Yep. There’s a family secret about this.”
“Another one? Oh wait, I remember Pappy did tell me there was some sort of secret about Sam Houston.”
“Sure enough. What Sam Houston certainly never knew and no historian to date has discovered, is that when Eliza Allen left the governor’s house that night she was pregnant. At the time she was too young and ignorant of such things even to realize it herself. She and her family thought she was just sick all the time from the tension of the whole thing and gaining weight because she did nothing but sit around the house all day.
“But she was really showing by about the fourth month. The Allens had publicly put themselves into such an extreme anti-Houston position that they could not afford to have this known and Eliza had stayed close to home almost like a widow ever since the scandal anyway, so they just sequestered her at the house until she had the baby. They told no one about it and sent the baby away to some relatives in East Tennessee to be raised.
“I guess Eliza was too proud to hook Houston again by telling him she’d borne him a son. After he came through town and refused to see her, she must have just said to hell with it. But that child was your great-great-great grandfather, or something like that. The story’s been passed from generation to generation, but no one—even Pappy—has ever seen fit to inform historians.”
“Why should we? Whose business is it but ours? Anyway, we honor both Sam’s and Eliza’s pride by keeping it to ourselves.”
“Man, Dad,” Hatch said, turning to look at his father. “This is far out. First William Walker’s story. Then this one. I’ve got some kind of weird blood in me.”
“That you do. And my point is, Houston men don’t always have the best luck with women. Now I don’t know, and you don’t need to tell me, but I suspect you had one of those Houston-bad-luck-with-women things when you were down in Mexico. Listen: shake it off. Life goes on. There are other women in the world.
“And sometimes things that seem to have gone all wrong at the moment—well, later you look back on them and realize it all happened for the best. Imagine how history might have been different if Eliza and Sam Houston hadn’t been such hot heads and he had never left Tennessee. Maybe Texas never would have become a state. Maybe the Mexican border would still be at Nacogdoches instead of Matamoros. Maybe the Civil War would have been put off or never happened at all the way it did. Maybe you and I would never have been born.”
“Bingo on the bad-luck-with-women thing.”
“Ha! Maybe I’m not such an old square after all, hey William? You know what Mark Twain said, don’t you?”
“About being thirteen and twenty-one and all that? Yeah, Pappy laid that one on me already. And that other stuff you said, about Texas and all, Pappy would have called that Sam Houston’s kismet.”
“Oh yeah. He sure would have. That was one of his favorite words.”
They drove in silence for a while.
“I wonder what my kismet is,” Hatch sighed.
“Well, I don’t know that,” Samuel answered. “But Pappy figured you had one hell of a kismet coming, being a mix between two of his favorite kismet subjects. He wanted to live to see you find it. At your age, kismet is wide open. But I’d bet that whatever happened in Mexico is part of it.”
“Yeah. That’s what Peggy said.”
“Peggy?” Samuel Houston asked, looking at his son with a grin. “Is that the girl’s name? It doesn’t sound very Mexican to me.”
Hatch smiled back at his father and looked back out his window. He was not ready to talk about Maria Elena.
“Where are we going, anyway?”
“You’ll see soon enough.”
* * *
Moore, Lincoln, and Giles counties sit just above the state line from Alabama. The hills there are unlike any others in Tennessee. They don’t roll like the gentle hills around Nashville. They leap with steep though not extremely high slopes covered by a rich green blanket of thick grasses and deciduous hardwoods. This is the northernmost edge of Alabama’s famous Tornado Alley. The hills get more than their share of precipitation.
Moore County, furthest to the right on the map, is famous for its county seat Lynchburg, home of the Jack Daniel distillery. Giles County, furthest left, is infamous for its county seat, Pulaski, the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan. Lincoln County, featuring the placid town of Fayetteville, sits unpretentiously between its two well-known, if scantly populated sister counties.
Fayetteville, it turned out, was Hatch and Samuel Houston’s destination.
“Good grief, Dad. You want me to work all the way down here?”
“Hell, it’s only about an hour’s drive. You can borrow my Fuzzbuster. And you’ll be paying for the gas out of your own paycheck, by the way, not mine.”
“I thought you didn’t get a paycheck.”
“Well, I don’t exactly, not the weekly kind you’re going to get. When I make one good shopping center deal, we eat well off that paycheck for a year. If it’s too long between deals, then we eat beans until the next one.”
“What’s wrong with the other summer jobs I’ve had? Why can’t I just do one of those?”
“Good question. I’ve been wondering that myself. Your mistake this morning was sleeping in, just like you’ve been doing for the last two weeks. If you don’t catch the devil, the devil will catch you. I gotcha.”
Samuel Houston pulled around the town square and headed east on Railroad Street. A line of old brick industrial buildings ran along the left side, train tracks along the other. He pulled into a guest parking space near a main door. A name was painted in bold letters along the roofline: Forrest Apparel Company.
“They make clothes here?”
“I believe that’s the common meaning of the word ‘apparel’.”
“What am I going to be doing?”
“Well, Mr. Johnson will tell you that.”
“Who’s Mr. Johnson?”
“Nicholas Johnson. He’s one of the guys I went to Scotland with on that golfing trip last year. He took a job here as a floor mechanic just after the war and worked his way up. Old man Forrest didn’t have a son. One day in about 1950 he just walked up to Nick, handed him a set of keys, and said, ‘Here. I’m retiring. The company’s yours. Pay me what you can.’
“As it turned out, the company was practically bankrupt. Nick went right to work straightening out the books. He called some old army buddies and got a couple of uniform contracts and before long he had it humming. They still do a lot of government work and some other contract things.”
“How much am I going to make?”
“Minimum wage is $2.10 an hour now, isn’t it?”
Hatch sighed and got out of the car, vowing privately never to get caught sleeping again.
* * *
“Pleased to meet you, Mastah William Walkuh Houston. I’m Charles Gaddes. I’ll put yo’ white ass to work, all right.”
“Go easy on him, Charles,” Nicholas Johnson said, laughing. “He’s not used to us yet.”
Mr. Johnson, a tall, thin, white-haired man of about fifty-five, wore slacks and a tie with a light blue pinpoint oxford shirt. His shirt cuffs were rolled halfway up his forearms. He turned back to Hatch, smiling as he spoke.
“Charles is our cutting room manager. You’ll work for him. That means, of course, whatever he tells you to do, well... I guess you know how that works. Your dad and I are going to get some lunch. He said you had a late breakfast, so I’ll leave you with Charles. We’ll see you when we get back.”
Charles’ office consisted of an old beat-up metal desk and a school-style hardwood chair tucked into one corner of a large work area that Mr. Johnson had called the cutting room. Chalkboards hung on the walls nearby with production schedules mapped out in neat block letters. Rolls of paper patterns hung from large nails angled into pine two by sixes running the length of one wall starting from Charles’ desk. Most of the adjacent wall was taken up by a two-bay truck dock.
The cutting “room” was actually a complete building, set behind the old brick building that housed the main factory. It was comparatively new, a prefab design with steel girders holding up the roof and green corrugated aluminum siding for walls. The dock doors were kept open and a huge fan worked on the hot summer air from the other end of the building. Hatch was sweating from head to toe. It was only noon. By three o’clock it had to be unbearable.
“William Walkuh Houston. Now that’s a hell of a name!”
Charles laughed loudly. He had a deep voice and was probably six foot four and three hundred pounds at least. He wore overalls and a red fishnet shirt. He had a medium length afro and he was as black as any person Hatch had ever seen. The whiteness of his teeth seemed almost unnatural. Charles continued laughing as he called one of the workers over.
“What the hell are we gonna call you, Mastuh Walker? ‘William’ don’t seem to fit you quite right. Hey, Bubba, this here boy seem like a ‘William’ to you?”
Hatch knew enough to know that Charles was testing him. Charles’ calling him “mastuh” was meant to embarrass. It did. He put out his hand to Bubba.
“Call me Hatch. Everybody else does.”
“Haitch? Now waird you-uns git that name?”
As black as Charles’ accent was, Bubba’s was redneck. Straight out of Deliverance, Hatch thought. He was no stranger to the country way of talking from his time on Pappy’s farm, but there were variations of it. “You-uns” was part of a vocabulary Hatch had not run into before.
Bubba was short and half as wide as he was tall. He wore green khaki cargo shorts, Keds tennis shoes without socks, and a too-small white tee shirt that said “I got it in Gatlinburg”. The shirt had a brownish tinge to it.
“Happy birthday, Lester,” Bubba responded in his high, nasal voice. “Pleased to meet. You-uns want a Yoo-Hoo? I gots me a cooler full.”
Hatch thought that if this were all an act, they were putting it on well. He had no idea what a Yoo-Hoo was.
“Sure,” he replied, smiling at Bubba, who stared slightly to the side of Hatch. “That would hit the spot right now.”
Bubba smiled and shuffled over to his cutting table. He bent over a plastic cooler stored beneath it and pulled a bottle out. Bubba’s shorts slipped down a bit and his tee shirt rode up on his back revealing a roll of fat around his waist and about three inches of indecent exposure.
“Whoa, Bubba, hold the crack shot!” Charles roared.
A wolf whistle emanated from somewhere down one of the other cutting tables and a couple of workers let out Rebel yells. Seeming oblivious to the commotion he had caused, Bubba rose back up slowly and twisted the bottle cap off using the front of his tee shirt. Charles leaned over to Hatch and whispered into his ear.
“They ain’t nuthin Bubba loves better than his Yoo-Hoos. You do right by takin’ one, boy. Drink one a day and Bubba’ll be your best friend.”
Hatch walked over to meet Bubba half way back from the cooler.
“Thanks, Bubba. I love these things.”
Bubba smiled like a Munchkin. Hatch took a swig. Not bad for a chocolate soft drink he decided, but he was not sure he could drink the whole bottle.
“So,” Charles continued. “Hatch it shall be. Uptight, outtasight. You’ll see more of this cutting room than you care to, so let’s go see the rest and I’ll introduce you ‘round. Besides, it’s cooler in the other building. We all finds excuses to get over there.”
Charles laughed again and strolled off toward the door through which Mr. Johnson had disappeared. Hatch hurried to follow.
“Do you mind if I call you Charles?”
Charles did not turn around nor slow down.
“Shit no, man. Whatchoo wanna call me, Shirley?”
Charles stopped just short of the door and turned to Hatch.
“Now, boy, we gots about five hundred women workin in here and ain’t one of ‘em gits enough at home. They old and young, fat and skinny, black and white. This be their turf. Don’t let ‘em scare you. But don’t git caught in no dark corners alone, neither.”
Charles roared at his own advice and opened the door.
“Welcome to Boss Man Johnson’s Harem, young Mastuh Hatch!” he said loudly. The door opened into a cavernous room.
As he stepped in, every pair of eyes within thirty feet of Charles’ voice looked up at Hatch. They all belonged to females bending over sewing machines that made a cacophony resembling a hundred buzz saws all starting and stopping at slightly different times. Hatch could have sworn he heard another wolf whistle but could not say from what corner it might have originated.
“Hey, Charles,” a woman’s voice yelled from one row of machines over, “what’s this you bringing us? A snack? Ain’t you sweet!” A chorus of guffaws and shouts followed, muted amidst the din of the sewing machines.
Hatch’s gaze bounced around the room. Despite Charles’ warning, he was amazed by the variety of women and embarrassed by the attention. He felt flushed and awkward. He also could not fathom how they understood each other over the noise of the machines, though they joked and laughed as they worked. He felt Charles’ large hand on his left shoulder.
“Now, remember, boy.” Charles leaned over to Hatch’s right ear as he spoke. “They like to kid a lot. This here’s line one. The further we get from this door, then we gets to line two, then three, and so on. Each line assemble a different product, you know. Gabardine slacks, then shorts, ladies’ dresses, men’s shirts, and so on.
“We does a little bit of everything, as long as it made out of woven fabric ‘stead of knits. We tried doin’ some of that knit shit a few years ago. That was a pain in the ass, man. I talked Mr. J out that real quick.”
They proceeded through the lines, Charles explaining different operations as they went, introducing Hatch to line supervisors and quality control managers and the two or three men they ran across here and there working on machines. Hatch had no idea what Charles was telling him and knew that he had not retained a single name to memory. Everywhere Charles took him, it seemed as if a sea of faces looked up at him.
He was relieved when they finally left the sewing room and entered the front offices, a quiet, cool area with one long hallway off which each room contained one or more people doing specific jobs such as printing piecework tickets, calculating payroll, making patterns, and so on. At the last of the hall’s offices, Charles paused, taking care to introduce Hatch to each of the three women who were hunched over drafting tables.
“Now these here ladies, Hatch, you gots to treat them special. They the most important ladies in the whole building.”
They looked lovingly at Charles. They were middle aged or older white women, plump, each wearing polyester slacks with a floral print shirt, their hairdos suggesting the inspiration if not the direct plagiarism of a Dolly Parton or Tammy Wynette stylist.
“Why, Hatch,” the oldest of the three exclaimed immediately, “that’s an unusual nickname. Oh goodness, it is a nickname, isn’t it? What’s your Christian name, son?”
“Now that’s a lovely name. Remember, Jesus loves you, William.”
Hatch smiled at Dolly or Loretta or whomever—he had again not caught the name—and glanced over her shoulder at Charles who was smiling beatifically, betraying none of the sarcasm Hatch had already come to expect from him.
“Now, Hatch, Miss Ethel here is the number one boss lady, far as I’m concerned,” Charles said. Ethel, the one who had already spoken, beamed again.
“What she do is, she take the master pattern and grade it. That mean she figure out all the sizes we gots to cut in the cutting room from the master pattern. If something don’t work right in the sewing room—if the seam don’t match or the zipper don’t fit—it’s either her fault or mine, and so far she be battin’ a thousand and I ain’t done nothin’ but swing strikes.”
“Oh, Charles,” Ethel scolded him. “You’re just buttering me up. Quit it, now!”
Charles leaned over to Hatch and said behind the back of his hand, as if Ethel and the others would not hear: “And she make a mean chess pie, I tell you.”
“Charles!” one of the other ladies said excitedly, “That reminds me. I’ve been meaning to tell you one.”
She held her left hand out palm-down in front of Charles.
“Charles, tell me, how’s my hand like a lemon pie?”
“Well, now, I don’t know, Miss Sheila,” Charles said. “How is yo’ hand like chess pie?”
“Why, can’t you see, Charles? It’s got m’rang on it!”
The ladies let out peals of laughter and Charles roared along with them. Hatch laughed, too, though he did not get the joke right away.
“Oh Miss Sheila, you kills me,” Charles said, still chuckling. “That was a good one. I got one for you, too, later, but it’s rated R. I’ll tell you next time.”
He winked at all three of them at once. They raised their eyebrows and clucked at him.
“Ladies, we’d like to stay but I still gots to show young Master Hatch the Crystal Palace.”
“Now listen, William,” Miss Ethel said, turning to Hatch. “You be sure to come see us. We’ll show you how we do this job. We all loved to play with paper dolls when we were little, and this is just like it! God bless you!”
Hatch was not used to being blessed unless he sneezed, but taking Charles’ lead, he smiled and blessed Miss Ethel in return and they backed out of the room. Hatch still expected a wink or a sarcastic grin, but Charles continued wearing the same pleasant smile.
Charles pulled a ring of keys out of his overall pockets and opened a door at the end of the hall. Stepping inside, they faced an oak-paneled living room decorated with oil paintings of duck hunting scenes. It had a small kitchen at one end with a bar off its side, leather couches and chairs, and a wrought iron spiral staircase at the other end.
“That staircase lead to a bedroom. Hoo-wee!”
“Wow. This is nice,” Hatch exhaled, amazed at the abrupt transition from factory to living room. “Does he know you all call it the Crystal Palace?”
“Naw,” Charles chuckled, “I don’t know. He might. We don’t say that in front of him. We’s good-natured about it, those of us that knows him good. Most of them people out in the lines never seen it. They’d talk nasty about it, accusin’ him of gettin’ rich off their backs. But not me. I knows if Mr. J want his shit pot lined in diamonds, he deserve it.”
“How long have you worked here, Charles?”
“You mean, what the nigger doin’ with the keys?”
“No, sir,” Hatch stammered, “I just...”
Charles’ laughter echoed off the paneling. It was hard to tell whether Charles’ humor was good-natured or hostile. It might be both at the same time.
“Hey, little Hatch, loosen up, man. I be messin’ with you. Listen here. I been workin’ with Mr. J for about twenty year. He be one helluva man.
“We didn’t used to do nothin’ but the sewing here for years. The cut parts came from down in Decatur. That worked ok ‘ceptin when they was cut wrong or we had a rush order, then we’d be settin’ on our hands waitin’ on work.
“So Mr. J decides to put up that new cutting room and he come to me—I started here sweepin’ the damn floor and cleaning toilets and had worked my way up to bein’ a mechanic—and he pass over all them other white mechanics and right in front of all of ‘em he say, ‘Charles Gaddes, congratulations. You gonna be my new cutting room manager.’ I didn’t know squat about bein’ no manager, much less runnin’ a cuttin’ room.”
Charles lowered his voice and continued:
“One day some asshole slashed my tires. I didn’t say nothin’ but Mr. J found out. He started in one by one, callin’ ever’ body that work here into his office till he find out who done it. And he fired that fucker’s ass. Right on the spot. That ol’ redneck’d been workin’ here longer’n me, too.
“Yeah, I’d do ‘bout anything for Mr. J. Pay me good, too, and that be important—I gots a wife and younguns to support, and ex-wives and younguns, and girlfriends and younguns… Mr. J got no idea who all he feedin’ in Fayetteville’s little Harlem!”
Charles bellowed another one of his big laughs and ushered Hatch out the door.
“Yeah, Hatch-man, Mr. J—they don’t make ‘em any better than him.”
Back in the cutting room, Charles took a phone call before introducing Hatch to the rest of his crew. Hatch stood uncomfortably a few feet from Charles’ desk, hands thrust into his jeans pockets, gazing over the work area. The floor was dominated by four long tables with polished wood tops and steel frames. A large machine as wide as the table ran quietly up and down the far table, while another identical machine sat idle at the end of the second table.
A tall, middle-aged woman accompanied the working machine as it glided along the tabletop, spreading denim off a large roll on a stout metal bar suspended in uprights that projected from the side panels of the machine. She grasped a handle on the side of the machine with her right hand, seeming to twist it as she went, and held a yardstick in her other hand which she used to smooth wrinkles in the fabric as she walked along in the wake of the machine’s progress.
At the two other tables, men worked large electric knives through spreads of fabric piled several inches thick. The knives produced a throbbing hum as they cut the fabric, which was covered by pattern paper over the top layer, into small shapes and long pieces roughly in the form of pants legs. Another two men were stamping the cut bundles with an apparatus that looked like the date stamper used in a post office. The cutters and stampers glanced up at Hatch from time to time. Hatch feigned interest in the roll goods stored under the tables.
At the closest table with a half-full Yoo-Hoo sticking out of a back pocket of his shorts, Bubba had a side panel off another spreading machine identical to the others. He peered into the machine’s innards, holding a screwdriver in one hand and a pair of needle nose pliers in the other. Hatch saw a spark out of the corner of his eye and heard a crackling sound, then something skidded across the floor a few feet in front of him. It was Bubba’s screwdriver.
“Damn it all to Hay-ull!” Bubba’s high voice screamed into the machine. “This piece of shit machine don’t work!”
Bubba’s face reddened and his lips quivered as he stared at the loose wires and circuit boards hanging out of his machine. He pulled the Yoo-Hoo out of his back pocket and emptied it in one gulp, then cursed again quietly and sat down on the floor, setting the empty bottle in front of him and covering his face with his hands.
Charles looked up, laid the phone in its cradle, rose and strolled calmly over to Bubba. He leaned over him, putting a hand on his back.
“What’s the matter, Bubba?” he said quietly.
Hatch could not hear Bubba’s answer. Bubba sat hunched over Indian style, a large swath of white skin spilling out below the bottom of tee shirt. His shoulders began bobbing up and down as soon as he heard Charles’ voice. At first he thought Bubba was laughing, but then Hatch realized he was watching Bubba sob.
“Now, Bubba, it ain’t no big deal. We’ll fix your machine. Tell ol’ Charles what she doin’ to you now.”
Hatch heard Charles’ question clearly, but could only hear yelping sounds from Bubba. Charles stood back for a few moments, his hand on his hips, staring at Bubba, then looked up at Hatch and winked. No one else in the cutting room paid the slightest attention to what was going on with Bubba. Charles drew himself up straight. With the tip of a shoe, he lightly tapped Bubba’s exposed backside.
“Bubba. You get off that floor now and go outside. I’ll come get you when I’ve got your machine fixed. Just go drink you a Yoo-Hoo out yonder under the live oak.”
Bubba’s face looked up at Charles. It was red, puffier than normal, and tear streaks ran down both cheeks, though he was smiling now.
“Do I have to clock out?”
Charles frowned at Bubba.
“No, Bubba. You don’t have to clock out.”
Hatch watched as Bubba jumped to his feet with surprising energy, smiled at Charles, dipped quickly into his cooler for a fresh Yoo-Hoo, and bolted out the door, a spring in his step. Charles caught the look on Hatch’s face and laughed.
“Hey, Hatch-man! You looks like you seen a ghost. You just gots to get to know Bubba. That’s one thing I learnt quick about supervisin’. A man gots to know his people. Bubba do somethin’ like this about oncet a week. Ain’t nuthin’ wrong with his machine. Fact, I ain’t even gonna fix it. He just need a little attention’s all. You watch, he’ll be back in and runnin’ that machine before you knows it. Let me show you ‘round to the other folk back here.”
Charles introduced Hatch to the cutters first. Two were older men and two were teenagers who looked much younger than Hatch. The older men worked bare handed. Both of them lacked parts of fingers on their left hands. The teenagers wore gloves on their left hands made of metal mesh. As each of the cutters pushed his knife through the fabric with his right hand, he would press down with his left hand on the top ply in front of the blade to keep it from wrinkling.
“Mr. Dean. Mr. Rudy. Where y’all’s gloves at?”
The two older men worked at opposite sides of separate tables, each with one of the teenagers as a partner. They looked up at each other when Charles spoke, then looked back down at their work without answering.
“Gentlemen!” Charles said louder, a hint of aggravation in the word. “The big boss say I gots to write you up for a safety violation if you uns don’t wear them gloves.”
Dean stole a quick glance at Rudy. There was still no answer. Charles continued.
“Now. Who’s gwine a be wrote up today, gentlemen? Y’all, me, or nobody?”
Dean stopped his knife, looked up and smiled. The gaps in his teeth resembled his incomplete hand. He wore a workman’s suit with his name embroidered over the pocket like a gas station attendant. His thinning brown hair was slicked back with oil.
“Now Mr. Charles,” Dean started in a high tenor, similar to Bubba’s voice but carrying an edge to it, “you know I got a problem with them gloves.”
He looked at Hatch rather than Charles as he spoke.
“Wearing ‘ems more dangerous than going bare handed. Where I’m missing fingers,”—he held up his left hand—“the fingers in them gloves droop off and want to get caught in my knife blade.”
Charles looked directly at Dean.
“Mr. Dean, we done fixed three pair of gloves for you special already this month. Where they at?”
“Somebody stoled ‘em.”
Dean looked back at his knife and fingered the power switch.
“Stoled ‘em?” Charles said. “Well, I’ll be damned. Stoled ‘em. Now who the hell would want a cutting glove with two stub fingers fixed in it? Mr. Dean, maybe you look around a little better, you’ll find one of them gloves. Meanwhile I’s going to have to write you up. I’ll do it in pencil though, ‘case that glove show up before I finish writin’ the report in the logbook.
“Hatch,” Charles continued, still staring at Dean, “this here be Mr. Dean and that there be Mr. Rudy. Gentlemen, this be Hatch. He be helpin’ us out this summer. Be shore ‘n show him around good and work him hard.
“Them two boys helpin’ Mr. Dean and Mr. Rudy is Buster and Drew. They only been here a couple a year, but they gots all ten fingers. They wears they gloves.”
Charles turned his back on the four cutters and strode between the tables toward his desk. Hatch nodded at each of them and turned to catch up with Charles. He heard one of the men, Rudy he thought, make a comment as he turned his back, then all four cutters laughed. Hatch purposely walked slowly toward Charles, though Charles was already at his desk. Charles sat working a toothpick in his mouth and doodling on a scratch pad when Hatch reached him.
“Man gots to know his people. Those four crackers hates me, the old ones ‘cause I’m a nigger, the young ones ‘cause they don’t know no better. But they all needs they jobs. If I writes up the old ones for not wearing gloves, they know Mr. J’ll make me fire ‘em eventually. The young ones wears the gloves hopin’ Dean and Rudy’ll not wear them gloves one too many times and they’ll end up lead cutters. Means fifty cent an hour.”
“Why don’t they want to wear the gloves?”
“They say the gloves slow ‘em down. That’s bullshit. The gloves gets hot is all. But they’d have all their fingers if they be wearin’ gloves all these year.”
“It looks to me like those gloves wouldn’t stop one of those knives.”
“You right about that, Hatchman. Them knives’ll cut through them gloves like nuthin’. But the blade raise a lot of commotion when it hit the glove metal—sparks flyin’, makin’ a screechin’ noise and all, and the cutter pull his hand away by instinct.”
“But that don’t work with the round knifes, just the straight ones. Don’t you never wear no glove with a round knife.”
“Well, the straight blade, it go up and down in little short strokes. That what make all the racket when it hit the metal. But a round blade, it just keep goin’ round and round. Don’t make no noise when it hit the metal glove. Don’t make no sparks fly. Next thing you know, the tip of you finger be lyin’ on the table with the selvage and blood be squirtin’ out everywhere. And you don’t feel nuthin’ till you see the blood. It be a clean cut, like a razor.”
“Ewwww,” Hatch clenched his teeth and shuddered. “Well,” he said, trying to shake the feeling, “if they don’t want to wear the gloves and they don’t care if their fingers get cut off, why does Mr. Nick make them wear them?”
“We do a lot of govmunt work, Hatch man. And you know those govmunt fuckers know what best for all of us. They comes in here—they be called OSHA inspectors—and they looks here, and they looks there, and they be makin’ notes all the time, and if they writes us up for too many safety violations, Mr. Nick have to pay a big fine, or we could even lose a contract.”
“Really? I would think it’d be some kind of union thing. I didn’t know the government did all that.”
“Shut yo’ mouth, boy! Don’t never say that word ‘round here again. Mr. Nick’ll fire yo’ white ass no matter whose boy you be! Hoo-wee!”
Charles laughed out loud again. Hatch was absentmindedly looking off in the direction of the cutters. All four faces looked up. They were all wearing gloves now.
“Still,” Charles continued, “I gotta say, if Mr. Dean and Mr. Rudy want to cut they own damn fingers off, I think they oughter have a right to do that. Maybe they queer about it, but to them, a cutter ain’t a cutter till he’s had a finger cut off. Like a rite of initiation or a purple heart to wear around. Burns my butt, that OSHA man comin’ in here and tellin’ us what’s best. Don’t make my job no easier neither.”
“Charles,” a female voice said from behind Hatch. “Mr. Johnson is ready for William to come back to the front office now.”
The girl’s voice startled Hatch. She laughed when she saw him jump. He turned toward her sheepishly. The way she talked, he had assumed she was white.
“Hatchman,” Charles said, “this here’s my niece, Lynne. Ain’t she purty?”
Lynne smiled at him and spoke up herself before Hatch could muster an answer, much to his relief.
“Hi, Hatch-man,” she said, subtly mocking her uncle’s manner of speech as she held out her right hand. Her thin arm extended unbent straight from her shoulder and her hand hung limp at an angle off the wrist, the fingers pulled together to form what looked like an elongated arrowhead. The skin of her arm was smooth and dark. Not black like Charles’ but the color of a rich coffee. Hatch clasped his hand around hers and lightly squeezed. There was no pressure in return, so he held on for what he felt might have been a second or two too long, furthering his embarrassment.
There was a pause in which Hatch managed to say nothing, so she continued.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you. Don’t let Uncle Charles corrupt you with his nonsense. Believe me, he doesn’t know what he’s saying fully half the time, he’s so busy putting on airs.”
“Oh,” Hatch finally found his voice, “he’s showed me all around and taught me a lot already.”
“Oh my God!” Lynne burst out exaggeratedly. “I’m going to have to set you straight.”
“Now, baby,” Charles said sternly, “don’t be trashmouthin’ yo’ uncle. Remember who got you this summer job. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you now.”
Lynne’s voice rose sharply in reply. “Feeds me? Watchoo say?”
Hatch noticed that her manner of speech changed, becoming more like Charles’.
“I got this job on my own, without any help from you. Fact is, if Mr. J knew I was related to you, he’d kick my...”
Lynne stopped and turned smiling to Hatch.
“Hatch, this man loves to stir up trouble. Come on, William. Your father’s waiting for you.”
Charles sat down at his desk and the two of them watched Lynne walk to the far door of the cutting room. She was tall, easily the same height in her heels as Hatch. She wore pressed burgundy slacks with a sharp crease in the back and front, the hems flared out slightly into bell bottoms. Her legs were long, as was her stride. The slacks were loose down the legs but tight at the top, accentuating her fullness there, a feature not lost on Hatch. Charles was laughing again.
“Hey, Hatch-man, I ain’t the dangerous one here. That little girl’s butt is a wonder to behold, praise the Lord!”
Hatch could not hide a guilty smile when he turned back to Charles.
“She is pretty.”
“Damn hot stuff, even if she is my own blood. That’s brown sugar in its purest form, boy. You be careful around that shit.”
Hatch didn’t know what to say. Charles laughed again, slapping the sides of his chair.
“You gonna be all right, boy. This’ll be a helluva summer camp for you. We gonna work yo’ ass off, but we gonna have some fun, too. Now get on to you daddy. I’ll see you next week.”
Charles extended his hand and shook Hatch’s firmly.
“Thanks, Charles. I can’t wait to start.”
* * *
On Monday Hatch awoke at five a.m., showered, shaved, and jumped in his car, a 1966 Corvair convertible. It was handed down from his older sister. He had despised the car when he first turned sixteen. But at least it was wheels he could call his own. When it was running well—it often wasn’t, but his father had agreed to pay all repair bills to induce Hatch to stop lobbying for a new car—it had plenty of zip thanks to a one hundred ten horsepower rear engine with dual carburetors.
Hatch had installed a cassette tape deck, bypassing the factory AM radio and adding two extra speakers in the back seat. With the stereo blaring and the top down, it was the perfect car for cruising Nashville on summer nights. Although the Corvair was older than any of his friends’ cars, they all let Hatch drive them around on a night out on the town, preferring its open top to their Pintos or Dusters or their parents’ cars. Hatch usually charged them one beer each for the privilege of burning his gas, so as long as he had a car full, he could at least get a buzz on without forking out any cash. He figured he was coming out ahead in the transaction.
Hatch enjoyed the ride to Fayetteville. Even in the hottest days of summer, the mornings were cool enough, especially with the wind rushing through his still-wet hair, and cooler yet when he got to the hills of Lincoln County. By the second week he had timed the ride perfectly so that he could leave the house a half hour later than he did the first day and get to Forrest Apparel just in time to clock in at seven.
The work was hard or easy depending on the production load. It was all about coordination of contracts awarded, fabric orders, cutting capacity, and delivery deadlines. Some weeks whole sewing lines would be shut down waiting on more work; other weeks all lines ran full bore on twelve-hour shifts. Though he did other things, Hatch was assigned to the cutting room. He normally helped Bubba and the others roll loads on the spreading machines or ran a spreader for someone while they took a break. He considered himself really lucky when a cutter would call in sick and he got to run a knife.
Hatch was slow compared to the others, but Charles was happy enough to have someone on hand beside himself who could cut. Charles spent a lot of time on the phone. Every time Charles was paged, Bubba would look over at Hatch and say, “They’s another one of Charles’ gull-frainds.” Bubba said it every time Charles was paged, whether anyone was listening or not. Charles’ prowess with women, Hatch came to learn, was a source of great pride for Bubba.
Lunch was Hatch’s favorite part of the workday. The eight or ten men who worked in the cutting room would clock out and walk over to Charles’ corner to get their brown bags or metal lunchboxes out of the old refrigerator that stood next to the dock doors. They sat in a row of chairs against the wall, staring out at the cutting tables as they took bites from their Spam sandwiches and drank their “sodey pops”. Some days they did not speak much. Other times one or another of them would tease Bubba, or Charles would tell a story about a misadventure with jealous girlfriends and get them all laughing, even Mr. Rudy and Mr. Dean, who otherwise might never pass a word with anyone except each other.
For a long time Hatch thought they all ate together like that out of a spirit of camaraderie or friendship. But one day Charles mentioned that he required them all to eat lunch together.
“Yeah, Hatchman,” he explained. “I used to wonder, why the hell was my cutters and spreaders turning up absent after lunch so often? Or if they was there, why’d they production go all to hell after lunch? I kept talkin’ to ‘em about it and they was always some damn excuse— ‘I got the runs and had to stay close to home’— ‘My ol’ lady needed a ride to the doctor’—or some such shit. It was always the worst on Thursdays and Fridays and if they didn’t come back to work on Thursday afternoon, it weren’t likely they was gonna be here Friday morning.
“So one day I borrows my ex-wife’s car and parks out front ‘stead of out back here like I usually does. I leaves the cutting room about five minutes before the lunch bell and goes out front, gets in the car. Soon as I sees ol’ Rudy drivin’ off down Railroad Street, I pulls out and follows him.
“Well, I wondered how I coulda been so stupid. We don’t go half a block before I knows where he’s a goin’. They’s a pool hall down on the square. They’s goin’ over there and gettin’ em a beer or two—if they come back and don’t work worth a damn—or five or six, if they don’t come back ‘tall. I didn’t even bother follerin’ him all the way over there. I did a U-turn at the end of Railroad and here come Dean in his ol’ rattletrap pickup face on to me, tracin’ the same route. He glances over at me and I catches his eye and he looks away like he don’t know me no more than Cooty Brown. I knew I had ‘em then. They both come back after lunch that day.
“Next mornin’, I tells ‘em they’s a new govmunt policy, says we all gots to eat together, black and white. I says it’s a requirement on our new contracts, part of the federal govmunt ‘integrated workplace program’. Told ‘em they stands to lose they job if they leave for lunch without a written excuse ‘cause we stands to lose the contract if we don’t integrate our workplace. Hooeee, they bought it hook, string, and sinker-lead!”
Charles roared with laughter.
“And now we all eats together ever day just like a happy little family. Call it the Charles Gaddes Workplace Integration Program. I oughter get the No-bel Peace Prize. And best of all, I ain’t got no more drunk cutters layin’ out on me or riskin’ no accident!”
Charles laughed some more and grinned at Hatch.
“See here, Hatchman. I ain’t gonna be the friend of no cracker like Rudy nohow. He ain’t up to my standards for a friend, black or white. I’d rather have heartburn than eat lunch with him. Them idiots in the govmunt makin’ all these rules, makin’ my kids go to the white school and the white kids go to the school where I lives—that’s bullshit.
“I don’t want to be no white person, no more’n you wants to be black, but somebody someways, up in Dee Cee I guess, decided we all ‘sposed to melt together and love one another and be like one another and all that shit. I don’t want black women gettin’ white women’s ways, all cold and frigid like, skin and bone, hardly tell where the leg stop and the butt begin. I can talk just like a whitey, but what for? You can’t talk like me and pass as no nigger. That makes me better off, to my way a lookin’ at it. Not to mention you stuck with all those cold white bitches while we gettin’ down, baby, gettin’ down!”
Charles slapped his hand on his thigh and laughed at Hatch’s lack of response.
“You all right, boy. You knows when to laugh, and you knows when to keep you mouth shut, just like ol’ Charles. You gonna do ok in life.
“But listen: They’ll always be somethin’ in the way, some damn rule that make you do things you don’t wanna do or some asshole that don’t want to cooperate no how.
“But long as they’s a system, you can beat it and make it work for you own end. Sometimes the way ain’t apparent at the first, but they’s a way. They’s always a way.”
* * *
Whenever the cutting room was caught up, Charles would send Hatch up front to check with Lynne and see where else his help might be needed. He usually went the long way around to get to her spot at the front door where she served as the receptionist. That way he would not have to walk by Ethel and company in the grading room and make up excuses for why he would not be able to come to their church service and pot luck dinner over the weekend or whatever else they had going. They were nice but persistent. It was easier to walk through the sewing line dodging bundle trucks than to get past their door in the hallway unaccosted.
Lynne’s window had a hole cut in the middle of it for talking and another at the bottom for passing papers. Like Charles, Lynne had an exceptionally bright smile and her eyes were wide and a deep dark brown under long lashes. Usually she sent Hatch to the mechanics who would give him the jobs they hated most like timing loopers in the tight spaces of serging machines or replacing broken needles when the set screw was stripped. Hatch enjoyed the odd jobs and learned how the sewing machines worked little by little.
One afternoon when Hatch had been working there only a couple of weeks, Charles called Hatch over to his desk and told him to go see Lynne. Charles winked at Hatch as he spoke.
“What was that for?” Hatch asked.
“Why’d you wink at me?”
“Oh? Did I wink at you, Hatchman? I don’t know what come over me, Hatchman. I don’t remember doin’ no winkin’, ‘specially in yo direction. Now hurry on, Lynne be waitin’ on you.”
“Waiting on me? She doesn’t even know I’m coming.”
“Sho’ she do, Hatchman. Take my word on it. She be waitin’ on you.”
Hatch shook his head and worked his way up to Lynne’s office.
“Hi, Hatch!” she smiled brightly.
“Were you expecting me?”
“Yeah, Charles said you’d be waiting on me.”
“Hatch, when are you going to learn about him? He’s just making trouble.”
“Well, he’s my boss. And he’s your uncle.”
“Yeah, mine and about thirty other cousins’ from half a dozen different women!”
“Ha! Yeah, I guess he gets around a little, at least by reputation.”
“Let me tell you, Hatch, his reputation ain’t even half the story!”
Lynne laughed, not unlike Charles. She stopped to answer a call on the switchboard. She turned her back to him, arranging some papers on a worktable behind her chair. Hatch shifted his weight to the other foot and drummed his fingers lightly on the counter, looking at her through the little hole in the glass. He could see her just fine through the window glass, but he found that since he talked to her through the hole, he tended to want to look at her through it, too. She hung up the phone and resumed her paperwork without glancing back to the window.
“Well, what do you want me to do today?”
“Oh. Sorry. I’ve got a lot to do here and forgot all about why you were here.”
“Do you want me to help you?”
“Well. I don’t know. I’ve never been told I could have any help.”
Another call came in. Hatch walked around to the door of Lynne’s reception station and went in, looking at the papers while she handled the call. He sorted them according to the pattern he could tell she was using. Another call came in while she was still handling the last one. By the time she turned back around, he had the piles complete.
“Here you go,” he said. “This one’s done. What’s next?”
“Oh, thanks,” Lynne smiled at him. “I guess I could use your help. I’ve got to make a pack just like that, three-hole punched and inserted in those binders”—she pointed at some boxes against the wall—“in time to give to every employee before they go home today.”
“How many have you done?”
“Well, that was the second one.”
“It’s one o’clock.”
“I know. It’s not looking good. The first group leaves at two.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll do this. You answer the phone and punch the packs as I get them ready.”
“I guess you were waiting for me, after all.”
Lynne only smiled at Hatch in response and fluttered her eyelids in pantomime of a damsel in distress, then moved over next to him. He noticed that she wore a very light fresh scent, perhaps nothing more than skin lotion.
“You’ve saved the day. My hero,” she laughed as she showed him where the various piles lay to get the sequence started. She touched Hatch’s arm lightly as she moved away with the two ready stacks. Hatch was surprised at his reaction to her touch. Before it became obvious he decided he had better focus on the work.
* * *
“You-uns like to fish?”
Bubba was standing next to the Corvair in the parking lot as soon as Hatch drove up on a Friday morning just before the fourth of July. Hatch had not seen Bubba walk up. He had the odd feeling that Bubba had been standing there all night, waiting.
“Why sure, Bubba. I love to fish. I used to fish with my grandfather all the time. And good morning.”
“Mornin’. I’s thinkin’, maybe you-uns wants to go fishin’ with me’n Lester tomorry mornin’. We got us a real good hole. Don’t nobody know about it ‘ceptin’ me’n Lester.”
“Well, gee, Bubba...” Hatch stammered. “You know I live up in Nashville.”
“You kin spend the night at my place, if’n you’d like.”
“Oh. That’s nice. But... I’ve got plans tonight.”
Bubba stood staring at the ground as usual. Hatch grabbed his lunch bag and got out of the car.
“Shoot, Bubba. I never get a chance to go fishing anymore. Where should I be and what time?”
Bubba looked up and grinned.
“Why, not too early. Maybe about sixt. I live in the trailer park off the highway down yonder. It’s easy findin’ it. I’ll be waitin fer you-uns out front. Lester’s gonna love meetin’ you.”
“Yeah, sixt. But if you-uns wants to start earlier, I speck I could git me’n Lester out there earlier.”
“No, no, Bubba... Six is fine. But you’re going to have to give me better directions.”
“Well, hail, I thought you knowed how.”
Hatch looked at Bubba blankly for a minute, then laughed out loud.
“No, Bubba, not directions on how to fish. How to get to your place.”
Bubba’s expression remained unchanged.
“Oh. Wail. Maybe you-uns better ask Charles. He’ll tell you. I ain’t too good at that kind of stuff. But it ain’t hard. I git here from there every day on my own.”
The seven o’clock bell rang. Bubba turned abruptly and headed into the building. Hatch still had to put the top up on the car. He hollered after Bubba.
But Bubba was already in the building.
* * *
Charles laughed when Hatch told him about the fishing date as he was getting ready to leave.
“You be in for some fun tomorrow, Hatchman. You gonna see how the other half live.”
“I can’t wait.”
“It won’t be that bad.”
“No. To tell you the truth, I’m looking forward to it. Do you know who Lester is?”
“Yeah. Bubba says some guy named Lester’s going with us.”
“Oh. Yeah. I don’t know who he be, but Bubba’s all the time tellin’ me he be doin’ this with Lester and that with Lester. Must be his best friend.”
“Well, meeting Lester should be interesting.”
“Yeah boy. Have a good time. I’d join you but I gots my own fishin’ to do tonight, and you know I’ll just be hittin’ the sack about the time you be pickin’ up Bubba and Lester.”
* * *
Hatch pulled up to the trailer park a few minutes early. Bubba was nowhere to be seen, so he cruised up and down the rows of trailers looking for a likely one. Clotheslines, rusted out cars, and Big Wheel tricycles dotted the landscape. Even as trailer parks went, this one had to be among the worst, Hatch thought, as there was not even a double-wide to be found.
About the time he was starting around the lot for the second time, Bubba stepped out of the front trailer in the first row. A small dog bounded out the door ahead of him and ran to the corner of the neighboring trailer to lift his leg. He had curly hair the color of cappuccino, a short straight tail, and big floppy ears that bounced as he walked. When he spied the Corvair, he made a beeline for it. The next thing Hatch knew, the dog had jumped over the passenger door onto the seat beside him. He stood on his hind legs with his front paws over the top of the door and his tongue hanging out.
Hatched pulled up a few feet closer to Bubba’s trailer and put the gear in park.
“I see you-uns done met Lester. I tode you he’d be happy to see you.”
Hatch laughed and ran his hand down the curly hair on the dog’s back.
“So this is Lester!”
Lester responded by licking Hatch’s hand.
“Lester! Wair’s your ball?”
One of Lester’s floppy ears immediately shot straight up like an antenna. He looked around the inside of the car. Realizing his mistake, he hopped back out and ran up the porch steps to the trailer. Bubba opened the door for him and a few seconds later Lester reappeared with a tennis ball in his mouth, his excited barking muffled by the obstruction.
“Shhh! Lester! Hush! You gonna wake everbody up!”
Hatch laughed and got out of the car to help Bubba with the fishing gear and a cooler full of Yoo-Hoos. He was surprised by how neat and clean Bubba’s trailer was. There was a picture of a smiling Christ on one wall and a Peter Max poster on another. A well-worn recliner settled in a corner of the living room opposite a large black and white television in the other, circa 1960. Lester had a small oval embroidered dog bed placed to one side of the recliner. On a table by the front window, what appeared to be electronic diagrams were carefully stacked next to an ashtray from Howard Johnson Motor Lodges.
“Do you live here by yourself, Bubba?”
“Jis’ me’n Lester.”
“It’s nice. You keep it real clean.”
“Thanky. I like it. I been here about fifteen year, ever since my mama died.”
“You ready to catch some fish, Bubba?”
“Well, I don’t rightly know. They don’t call it catchin’, you know, jis’ fishin’. I ain’t guaranteein’ we’ll come home with anything.”
Bubba giggled at his own joke. They climbed in the Corvair and drove off. Lester stood erect on his hind legs in the tight space between the two of them, his front paws on the dash as if navigating. They pulled off the highway on a farm road and wound around through hills and valleys dotted here and there with ramshackle old farmhouses and barns reminiscent of Pappy’s, then followed a wide creek for a while until Bubba told Hatch to stop.
The creek collected into a wide pool at this spot. A large stone made a natural seat for them to sit on and get their poles ready. Lester bounded from tree to bush to tree marking his territory and taking in all the smells.
“You-uns like jerky?”
“Don’t know. What’s venison?”
“Why deer meat. Ain’t you never heard’a venison before?”
“Oh, yeah. I knew that. Just forgot it! I’ve never actually eaten any.”
“Wail, today’s your lucky day, Haitch. I gots some my aunt Sheila made for me. Lots of it. You hungry?”
“Yes I am. I’ll take some if you don’t mind.”
“I noticed you-uns don’t like Yoo-Hoos too well.”
“Sure I do.”
“Naw ye don’t.”
Bubba looked downcast. Hatch hoped he would not throw one of his fits now.
“Why do you say that?”
Bubba ignored the question, then brightened.
“I got something special for ye, though.”
Bubba finished baiting his hook and cast his line into the water. He opened the cooler sitting next to him and handed Hatch a baggie full of jerky and a couple of soft biscuits, then pulled a plastic thermos out.
“I figgered you-uns might be wantin’ some coffee this morning. It’s fresh and hot.”
Hatch’s eyes lit up. He had not had time to stop for breakfast or even coffee for fear of being late for Bubba.
“God bless you, Bubba.”
“I know. My other aunt Ethel tells me that all the time. I love her.”
Lester came and lay down between the two friends, dropping his tennis ball to the ground and resting his head on his paws to concentrate on watching their bobbers.
* * *
After that, every Saturday morning Hatch made the drive down to Fayetteville to fish with Bubba and Lester. They didn’t talk much but they enjoyed each other’s company. Lester, always sitting in his same spot between the two men with his tennis ball close by, would bark whenever one of the bobbers bobbed, sometimes waking Lester from a nap or pulling Hatch away from his daydreams.
They always came back to the trailer with a good mess of fish. Hatch would sit in a folding chair while Bubba cleaned the fish at a rickety picnic table. Sometimes Hatch stayed longer and they grilled the fish, tossing bits to Lester as they ate them with corn bread and cabbage that Bubba would boil in pork fat. Otherwise, Bubba wrapped the fillets in newspaper and put them on ice in a plastic grocery bag for Hatch to take home with him.
By mid-July, Hatch felt entirely at home in the factory. At one time or another he had worked in every corner of the place filling in for somebody. He had learned to joke around some with the sewing machine operators. He hated getting up early in the morning but he looked forward to being at work. He entertained his friends at home with stories of Bubba and Charles and the other workers.
On a Monday morning about the third week in July, Hatch came in to work as usual, slapping Bubba on the back as he passed the time clock and saying his customary good mornings. The responses were not enthusiastic, but that was normal at the seven o’clock hour, especially coming off the weekend. By the first break around nine o’clock everyone would have the sleep worked out of their systems and be ready to chat and joke around.
But at break time only he and Bubba went to the chairs. The others filtered off toward the bathrooms or out the dock doors, though it was an overcast, drizzly day. Charles had been missing all morning, presumably attending a meeting in the front offices. Toward the end of break time, Charles and Mr. Johnson came in through the far door to the front offices and walked back to Charles’ desk. Hatch stood up and greeted them but received only a nod in response from Charles and a clipped good morning from Mr. Johnson. Hatch and Bubba punched in and the others followed silently.
“What’s going on, Bubba?” Hatch whispered back at their cutting table.
“Whair?” Bubba answered.
Hatch walked over toward Charles’ desk. He was not on the phone, but he waved like a traffic cop moving rubberneckers past an accident, so Hatch kept on walking. He entered the sewing room where the machines were buzzing as normal but no one looked up at him. He took the direct route to Lynne’s station past Ethel’s crew, but even they did not turn around to see whose footsteps were passing their door.
Lynne was at her post but her smile seemed strained. He did not bother to talk through the hole, rather making a motion to her that he would meet her at her at her back door. She seemed reluctant. There was a degree of privacy in this spot because it was accessed through a supply closet and could not be seen except at an extreme angle from the window.
“Hi, Lynne. What gives?”
“Whatchoo talkin’ about?”
Hatch looked at her carefully. It was not like her to speak in the black manner, especially with him, unless she was joking around.
“What’s with the ‘watchoo’? Why’s everybody acting so strange today?”
She took a breath, glancing back at the window to make sure no one was there. Her shoulders, in which Hatch had not noticed tension before, relaxed.
“You don’t know, do you?”
“Know what? What the hell do you thinking I’m asking you for?”
“Listen. Something bad’s happened over the weekend, up at McMinnville. One of the other sewing factories voted a union in by surprise on Friday and the owners shut it down today. They won’t let anybody in the gate. Uncle Charles heard about it on his CB.”
“What does that have to do with us?”
Lynne looked at Hatch as if he were stupid.
“That has everything to do with us. We’re next. That was a pretty small factory, but we’re the biggest one anywhere around. There’s never been a union come in down here before. It’s going to upset everything. Mr. Johnson, he thinks unions are communist. And the unions, they don’t care who they line up with, long as they get their election and start collecting dues.”
“Yeah, but... why would anyone want a union here? It doesn’t seem like anybody’s particularly unhappy. It’s a decent place to work.”
“It’s a damn decent place to work. You know if you do your job for the man, Mr. Johnson’s going to take care of you. And it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white. Mr. Johnson’s no nigger-lover, but when it comes to business, he’s all business. Whoever does the job best keeps the job and gets a fair day’s pay for it. Workers aren’t black or white to him—they’re green. They’re the color of money. And that keeps us all in work. That money gets him his duck blind and his golf clubs and it gets me my education.”
“Well, how’s a union going to mess that up? Won’t it give you a stronger position? Won’t it get you and everybody else here more pay?”
“Boy, you are naive.”
Lynne shook her head and rolled her eyes, glancing over her shoulder at the window.
“Listen. Lynne, I really don’t have a clue about all this. Tell me.”
“All right, Hatch. I’m going to tell you real quick, but don’t be debating me and asking all sorts of stupid questions. Then I want you to go back to the cutting room and leave me alone before somebody thinks I’m plotting with you.”
“Look, Hatch, you’re the big man’s eyes and ears in the plant as far as anybody here knows. I can’t afford to be caught whispering with the management spy.”
Lynne shook her head again and rolled her eyes.
“Just shut up and listen to me. Here’s the long and short of it. There’s enough malcontents here to cause problems. And believe me, it’s not my folks. It’s the whites. The bad ones, they don’t want us blacks here at all. We’re hungry and this is one of the few places in this town where we have a chance to make something out of ourselves and they know we’ll work our asses off to keep our jobs. The good ones, they’re doing their best to accept us, but all it’ll take to turn them against us is a little scare talk from the bad ones. They’ll get things all confused as if we’re the ones instigating trouble.
“Mr. Johnson, he knows better, and he’ll stick up for us, but then that’ll get all the whites, good and bad, riled up against Mr. Johnson like he’s playing favorites and that’s when the union’ll move in. They’ll call an election and boom, we’re a union shop.
“Then one of two things happens. Mr. Johnson says to hell with it and shuts it down, or he gets in bed with the union. Either way the black folk lose out. Because if the union comes in, it’s the bad whites that are going to control it. That’s how it works in a place like this, Hatch. Welcome to the real world. At least the real world in Lincoln County, Tennessee. No sir, we don’t want no union here.”
“Jeez... But what do I have to do with it?”
“Like I told you, Hatch. I know you’re just a spoiled rich kid sent down here for a summer job that your daddy arranged, but not everybody else knows that.”
“That’s not fair, Lynne.”
“And where’d you get the idea life was fair? Is it supposed to be fair for you when it ain’t for nobody else?”
“And what are you complaining about anyway? Being called a brat or mistaken for somebody smart enough to be a management spy?”
They both laughed. She squeezed his arm.
“Listen, Hatch. Just do your job and keep your mouth shut. There was big trouble over the weekend. The KKK paid a visit to niggertown and Uncle Charles stood them down with a shotgun. The police showed up and everybody backed off with no fighting but the mayor’s imposed a curfew now and everybody’s on pins and needles. It’s no coincidence that this happened when all the union stuff came up. Now get away from here and don’t come back unless Charles tells you to.”
Hatch and Lynne stood staring at each other intently for a few moments, then he backed away from the door.
“Thanks, Lynne. Be careful.”
Hatch turned to leave, then thought better of walking away empty-handed. He grabbed a case of rubber bands from Lynne’s supply closet before making his way back down the hall and over to the cutting room.
* * *
Charles was not around much the rest of the day except for brief run-throughs to bark orders at everyone. Bubba seemed to have no idea of what was going on and Hatch was afraid to talk to anybody else. When work let out that afternoon, union organizers stood outside the parking lot handing out leaflets.
On Tuesday there were no fabric deliveries. The cutting room workers spent most of the day stripping and polishing the tables with lemon oil. In the afternoon the organizers were out on the street again and a television reporter was down from Nashville interviewing them.
On Wednesday morning security guards were posted at the back parking lot entrance and along the front of the building. Hatch noticed that more and more people were absent from work, black and white. The cutting room was idle again, so they pulled the side panels off the spreading machines to lubricate all the working parts. When they had finished with that, Charles had them clean the bathrooms. Mr. Rudy had been absent all week. Mr. Dean had left at lunch on Monday and not come back. Lunch times were now quiet affairs. No one said a word.
Mr. Johnson did not reappear in the factory after his brief visit to the cutting room with Charles on Monday, not even making his usual mid-day rounds through all the departments. Each afternoon Charles disappeared into the meeting room in the front offices and did not return to the cutting room until it was time for everyone to leave.
Finally on Thursday fabric was delivered. Dean and Rudy both showed up for work that day and except for the lack of communication and general tension, it was a normal production day. Hatch was dying to talk to Lynne again but dared not risk it. He had scoured the newspapers and watched the news every night at six and ten, flipping among the three local stations, but he found nothing about the situation in Fayetteville.
Friday afternoon he went home as usual, still wondering what was going on. Saturday fishing with Bubba and Lester brought no revelations. He was anxious all day Sunday, making a point to go out with friends who had a ski boat just to try to take his mind off the job.
The next morning for the first time all summer, he overslept. Cursing his bad luck, he rushed to get dressed and flew out of his driveway in the Corvair, making it to Fayetteville in record time but still a good half hour late. He ran breathless into the cutting room.
It was Charles bellowing at him as soon as he entered the door.
“Where the hell have you been?” he yelled, stalking toward him from his desk.
Hatch stopped and faced the big black man, who looked as though he might be coming with violent intent.
“Get your ass over to table three and work the knife! Hurry up! I’ll clock you in.”
“Me? Work the knife on three?”
The look in Charles’ eyes made Hatch think better of questioning the order. He bolted to the table and started in on the spread. There was only one other cutter working, Simpson, one of the fellows who usually ran a spreader. All the other cutters were absent.
Simpson nodded at Hatch and then they both bore down on their work. They worked straight through the break at Charles’ insistence and they would have kept on going, but he did make them stop for lunch. Charles took over Hatch’s cut marker and told him to get up to the front office, that Lynne was waiting for him.
“Waiting for me? Sure, Charles. I’ve heard that before. I’m not falling for that again.”
Charles laughed for the first time, Hatch thought, in a week.
“Get yore skinny white ass over there, boy, before I kick it there! And hurry back when you done.”
Hatch wondered why he had ever questioned Charles considering how much he had wanted to talk to Lynne for the past week. He didn’t bother to go to her window. He ducked straight into the supply closet and opened her door without knocking. As soon as she saw him, she rushed over and gave him a hug, squealing and smiling from ear to ear.
“Oh, Hatch! Isn’t it great news?!”
Hatch had no certain idea what the news would be, but her joy was contagious. He grabbed Lynne’s arm.
“What news? Tell me! What news?”
“Boy,” she exclaimed loudly, slipping back into her black character and laughing at him, “don’t you ever know nuthin’?”
“Apparently not. Now calm down and tell me.”
“Well, all right. This weekend the KKK paid another visit to niggertown. Of course Uncle Charles and the others were ready for them. They didn’t even have time to get their cross put up and lit before Uncle Charles and about twenty others had them surrounded.”
Lynne’s eyes were open especially wide.
“Charles and them, they had a plan, sir. An excellent plan. There’s this big field next to the neighborhood where the KKK is always raising their burning crosses because the whole neighborhood can see it and it provides them with a quick getaway. Well, what the KKK didn’t take into account is that we got our own volunteer fire department now and the city finally put in fire hydrants down there last year with some of that urban renewal money.
“So what Charles and them did, they had all the firemen sitting on the truck just waiting for the KKK to come because it was as predictable as the sun coming up that they’d show out again this weekend. Soon as they parked their cars, the fire truck comes up behind them and parks crosswise on the street so they couldn’t get away. Meanwhile they had their hoses already hooked up to the hydrants and laid out on the sidewalk. They jumped off their truck, picked up the hoses, and commenced to spraying those clowns. It was like a wet tee-shirt contest gone haywire with those sheets just plastered down on their clothes dripping wet!”
Hatch instinctively clapped his hands.
“I love it!”
“The next thing you know, up comes about a dozen police cars. Only it wasn’t the local boys, it was the Highway Patrol and the T.B.I. and a couple of F.B.I. agents to boot!”
“They cuffed them all and took them away. It was fabulous. But that’s not all. Guess who the ringleaders were?”
“Hell, how am I supposed to know?”
“Your friends Mr. Rudy and Mr. Dean among others, including two guys who had spearheaded the union drive in the McMinnville plant.”
“Dean and Rudy? You’ve got to be kidding!”
“If I’m lying I’m dying!”
Hatch rolled it over in his mind for a moment.
“So... Does that mean the union drive is dead here?”
“You’re darn right it does! They lynched themselves this time. And not only here. Word is, the workers over in McMinnville have all signed a petition throwing them out over there, too. Isn’t it great?!”
“Yes, it sure is,” Hatch said. “But listen, I’ve got to get back to work. Charles has got me cutting today. One last thing—he told me you were waiting to see me. Were you really?”
“Get back to work, rich kid.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Hatch laughed.
“Bye-bye, baby,” Lynne said in her best black style, leaning forward and pushing him gently away.
Hatch stumbled backwards away from her, grinning as she shut the door behind him.
* * *
Hatch spent the better part of the rest of the summer cutting, an art at which he improved quickly and loved for its exacting nature. Once he was done cutting a marker, it was simply done and he could chalk it up as an accomplishment. And he got a dollar an hour raise, which felt like big money. Still, Charles knew that Hatch’s time there was soon coming to an end, so after a couple of weeks he had recruited new cutters and put Hatch to work training them. As the trainees grew more confident in their work and the end of summer drew near, Hatch had more and more downtime in the cutting room, which meant more visits to Lynne. Though she usually sent him on to the mechanics, they always spent some time chatting first.
Lynne told Hatch that she had decided she was going to keep her job at Forrest full time and finish college at night and on weekends. She had started college intending to become a teacher but lately had become more interested in law. Hatch encouraged her. He urged her to think about moving to Nashville or Atlanta where she could get a better job and have access to better schools. There was no better deal than the free rent she had at her parents’ house, however. So unless he could come up with a better idea, she would stay in Fayetteville.
One afternoon while Hatch stood at Lynne’s door waiting for her to assign him somewhere and hoping that she wouldn’t, Lynne’s mother called. Hatch listened as Lynne explained to her mother that her car would not start, even with a jump. She wanted her mother to arrange a ride home for her.
“Hey, Lynne, I can give you a ride.”
“If you need a ride home, I’ll be happy to give you one.”
Lynne looked at him in disgust.
“You’re crazy, Hatch.”
“What’s so crazy about that? You need a ride; I give you a ride. Are you that scared of my driving?”
“Hatch, there’s nothing about you that scares me except how stupid you are sometimes for somebody who’s supposed to be so smart.”
Hatch held back a moment trying not to be angry. He was used to Lynne’s kidding, but this seemed rude.
“What in the world do you mean, Lynne? Of all things.”
Lynne stopped what she was doing and stared for a moment at Hatch. She seemed to have forgotten their argument.
“Your eyes aren’t blue, are they? You know, Hatch, in all the time we’ve been talking, this is the first time I’ve noticed that you have gray eyes. I don’t think I’ve ever seen gray eyes before in my life.”
It was now Hatch’s turn to look dubiously at Lynne.
“Lynne...” he started, but decided not to pursue his initial thought. “Lynne, would you please tell me how I’ve been stupid by offering you a ride home?”
“Listen, Hatchman. You have got an awful lot to learn. Do you really think that I, a local black girl, am going to get in a little blue open-top sports car with a rich white boy from Nashville and ride home? Do you realize what could happen to me for something like that?”
“Well… I guess I don’t, Lynne. I know I’m still in Tennessee, but it’s not the same. Nobody, or at least hardly anybody, would think twice about that in Nashville.”
“You damn sure better think twice about it here, Hatchman. In fact, if you have to think more than once about an idea like that, you better just live somewhere else. Sure, my mama would thank you kindly when you got me home, but when I got in the house my daddy would wear me out. And I don’t mean a tonguelashing. I mean a real thrashing with his belt.
“And every neighbor who saw me—which is anybody in niggertown because we all watch out and all know each other, believe me—would call me a whore and run me out on a rail. For that matter, any whites who saw me between here and there would call me the same thing. And you’d be lucky not to get stopped by the law on the way out of town and given a strong suggestion never to come back.
“That’s the way it is, sir. So thanks but no thanks. Uncle Charles can always take me home. It’s just I hate to ask because my mother’s so hostile towards him.”
“Why do I have to teach you everything?”
“You’re just lucky, I guess. But what’s wrong with your car, anyway?”
“I don’t know,” Lynne moaned. “It does this every time after a rainstorm. I turn the key and nothing happens, not even a click. Can’t jumpstart it either. But give it about twenty-four hours in the sun and it starts right up. I’ve had every mechanic I know look at it and they all just scratch their heads.”
“Ok. How about if I see what I can do?”
“What do you know about cars?”
“Well, next to nothing really. But I might be able to get it fixed. Give me your keys and I’ll get on the job.”
“But you’re on the clock.”
“Hey, if I get caught, I’m out of here in about a week anyway.”
Hatch made his way back over to the cutting room where Bubba was leaning against the wall and drinking a Yoo-Hoo while the cutters worked through his last spread.
“Hey, Bubba. You know anything about working on cars?”
“Naw. Nuthin’ much. Less’n it has to do with the electrical. I can fix anything electric.”
“Great! That’s what I thought. I’ll be right back.”
Hatch walked over to Charles, who was on the phone as usual, talking in undertones. He waved Hatch away but Hatch stood his ground and made a slashing sign across his throat to tell Charles to get off the phone. Charles cupped the receiver against the palm of his hand and glared up at Hatch.
“Whatchoo want, boy?”
“Listen, Charles. Unless you want to deal with Lynne’s mother when you have drive her home tonight, let me borrow Bubba on the clock for a little while.”
“What? You crazy.”
Hatch turned and started to walk away.
“Wait. Whatchoo mean, deal with her mother? I don’t want to go nowhere near that woman.”
“Yes or no, Charles?”
“All right. Go on. But make it quick,” Charles barked at him, then pulled the phone back to his mouth. “Sorry, baby. I had to put some uppity cracker in his place. Now what was you sayin’?” Hatch gave the high sign to Bubba and headed for the door.
Bubba shuffled along behind Hatch through the back parking lot around the building to the front and over to Lynne’s car, fretting the whole time that he should not be outside without clocking out. Hatch swore repeatedly that he had cleared it with Charles and that he himself would take all responsibility anyway. He explained the problem with Lynne’s car to Bubba and opened the hood for him. Bubba pulled a screwdriver and a pair of wire pliers out of his back pocket. He worked on the starter, then the generator, then the distributor cap and back to the starter.
Wires were pulled out in various directions. Hatch began to have doubts about what he had gotten going. He decided he would feel more comfortable not watching and lit a cigarette, leaning against the door of Lynne’s car. At that moment, Mr. Johnson emerged through the front door. Hatch’s first instinct was to avert his face but there was no escaping the old man’s notice, so he quickly decided his best defense was an offense.
“Hi, Mr. Johnson!”
“Well, hi there, young Mr. Houston. How are you? I hate that you’ll be leaving us soon. You’ve been great help.”
“Me, too, Mr. J. I’ve had a great summer here.”
“What are you boys doing there?”
“Oh, this is Charles’s niece’s car. We’re fixing it for him.”
“Charles’s niece. Why that’s Lynne’s car. Who told you she was his niece?”
“Why, he did. And she did. Didn’t you know?”
“Well no, I sure didn’t. That girl sure is something. I almost didn’t give her that job, but if I had known she was his niece, you know I’d have hired her on the spot.”
“Maybe that’s why she didn’t tell you.”
“Yes,” Mr. Johnson laughed, “that would be like her. Now you boys have clocked out haven’t you?”
“We’re on break sir.”
Bubba, whose face Hatch could see was already red, had been madly connecting wires during the whole exchange. His fat jowls quivering, Bubba looked up at Hatch as if he had gone mad.
“Oh, fine, Hatch. Nice of you to help Lynne out like that. Y’all take care now.”
“We will, sir. Have a nice day!”
Mr. Johnson got into his car. Simultaneously, Bubba slammed the hood of Lynne’s car shut and ran around the side of the building back toward the cutting room. Hatch cursed him and stomped his cigarette out in the pavement. He opened Lynne’s door and turned the key. Bingo, it started right up. He retracted his curse on Bubba and reentered the building through the front door, dropping the keys by Lynne’s station as he went.
“You owes me one, baby,” he said in his best black imitation and walked on down the hall. He could hear Lynne’s muffled fussing from behind the glass and heard her open the door of the supply closet just as he turned the corner into the sewing room.
* * *
The new friendships and experiences of Hatch’s summer in Fayetteville were as good a distraction as he could hope for. By the time he got home each evening, he was beat. He usually headed straight to bed after supper and some television watching. Now and then one of his buddies from high school would talk him into coming out for a beer, but he usually reserved that for weekends.
Classes at Sewanee would begin right after Labor Day. Hatch dreaded going back. He suspected that he would not adapt easily again to the different pace at school, where he would have to self-start and enforce his own schedule. Downtime had to be avoided. It always led to thoughts of Maria Elena.
He wrote letters to her throughout the summer. None were returned, yet there was no response. At times in anger he resolved never to write her again. He could not imagine what sort of cruel reason she had for ignoring him. He imagined her laughing at him, taking pleasure from playing him for a fool. When he was consumed by such thoughts, his palms sweated, his breathing was short, and he felt that he had to get away from wherever he was.
He would hop in the Corvair and drive to one of the Warner Parks, large tracts of wooded hills at the end of Belle Meade Boulevard, crisscrossed by winding W.P.A. roads. He took the turns far too fast, pushing the Corvair to its limits, letting the wind rush through his hair. Eventually, having to focus on the danger of the turns took the edge off his lapses into anger at Maria Elena and he headed back home.
Yet the idea that drove him wild, that she had merely played with him and dropped him, did not jibe with his memory of what she was really like, of the love he had felt for her and from her when they were together. He sensed that there was a much bigger reason that she disappeared, one over which she had no control. He felt at heart that she suffered as much missing him as he did missing her. He pictured her sitting at home or sequestered somewhere, wringing her hands and pacing back and forth with a look on her face like the one he had seen after she argued with Juan Carlos. At times, just before waking to go to work, he dreamed this scene. She spoke his name repeatedly and cast her eyes about as if looking for him. And he tried to call out to her from the other side of the dream, but his voice was mute.
In a way, it was more difficult for Hatch to think of her this way than it was to be angry with her for jilting him. The anger he could dissipate through action—through aggressive driving or a hard run or chores. But the heartbroken feeling was impossible to shake. That kept him awake at night. He would go to a movie and the next day could not tell a friend a thing about it. He would set off on chores and never complete them, like running to the market to pick up bread for his mother and returning to the house an hour later empty-handed.
The work at the factory, though mostly requiring little mental effort, filled in the spaces between meditations and anxieties relating to Maria Elena. After a restless night, it was a relief to get in the Corvair for the ride to Fayetteville. The discipline required for working the cutting knife and the concentration and diligence needed for maintaining the sewing machines and knowing that someone was waiting on him to finish all the time, kept his mind just busy enough to avoid obsessing over her.
* * *
The Monday morning of his last scheduled week at the factory, Hatch arrived with a new resolve. Production was covered in the cutting room, so he checked out with Charles and headed up front to see Lynne.
“You what? Hooeee! Hee, hee, hee, hee!”
Lynne doubled over laughing, holding her stomach with one hand and slapping her desk with the other.
“Go on, now, Hatch-man! Tell me another one!”
Hatch looked at her in surprise. He had started out talking to her in undertones. He thought of Lynne as his best friend at the factory other than Bubba and as someone he could relate to on the same level intellectually. He had come to her because he wanted her to help him sort out his thinking.
When she laughed Hatch backed away. She looked up at him from her bent-over, table-slapping position and saw the hurt look on his face. She started laughing again.
“Who the hell do you think you are, Hatch Houston?”
Lynne’s hair, which usually was pulled back tightly and secured by a band in the back, hung loose today. It was long and somewhat frizzy, draping her oval face in clumped strands. One fell wildly down her forehead as she regained her composure. She flipped it absently back but it fell forward again as she spoke.
“Some folk are too smart for their own good,” she sneered. “But you, boy, sometimes I think you get so smart you make yourself stupid.”
Hatch slouched against the doorjamb with his hands in his pockets. He looked at Lynne but not directly into her eyes.
“Listen, Hatch, you got a lot of nerve comin’ in here and talkin’ to me about you gonna quit school. Here I am strugglin’ through every day, workin’ my butt off here and then goin’ to school at night, studying till I can’t see and gettin’ up the next day to start all over again. Workin’ at the market on the weekends, helpin’ take care of my nieces and nephews in between, stretchin’ every dollar like it was a hundred.
“And you need a change? And you’ tired of school?”
“Aw, Lynne,” Hatch said, feeling that he might as well have talked with his father about it. “It’s not like that. I’m tired of talking about life. I want to live it. I want to do something, not just study about it. I felt like I really did something here this summer, being part of this company.”
Lynne laughed again, but there was no mirth in it, neither of humor nor mockery. It had a flat and bitter sound.
“Yeah, Hatch, you and your white bread upbringing, you and your convertible automobile, you and your high IQ. You did something all right.”
Lynne’s eyes challenged his. She stood straight and moved closer to him, drawing her shoulders back, her feet shoulder length apart and her body tense.
“Yeah, you did something all right. You got a taste of how the other half lives. Ain’t that cute? Ain’t that noble?
“White boy enters redneck world. White boy works side by side with niggers. White boy with 130 IQ does work of mentally retarded. White boy meets personal heart of darkness in Fayetteville, Tennesseee.”
Lynne’s eyes still locked on Hatch’s. Hatch tried to look away but she moved so close to him that even with his eyes averted, he could not escape her sneering, belligerent stare.
“What a great leap for humanity. Let’s all pay homage to the no-blesse-o-blige missionary who’s not too good to touch us lepers.”
“Lynne! Never mind. I’m sorry. Forget it.”
He turned to leave but she grabbed his arm and pulled him around, leaning her face right into his, her lips inches from his own. Her eyes were wide and intense. They shifted rapidly from side to side as she spoke in a hoarse, angry whisper.
“I’ll tell you what you did, white boy. For gas and beer money, you took some poor nigger kid’s milk money for three months.
“Me, I was hopin’ my cousin could do what you did here this summer. He’ll be a senior in high school next year—if he goes back. He could’ve been working here making some money, learning something about how to keep a decent job. Instead he’s been hanging around the streets. Who knows what he’s gotten into.
“And you want to quit school? You want to keep workin’ here? Like you be doing the world some great favor.”
Lynne let go of Hatch’s arm and turned her back to him. She lifted some papers off her desk and began sorting them.
“No, Hatch. Do us all a favor. Go back to your school. Learn something. Use your high social standing to make a better world from up top. But don’t be getting in our faces down here in the real world, you hear?”
Hatch retreated, closing the door behind him. He paused alone in the dark supply closet. He wanted to go back and argue with Lynne but he could find no arguments. Her rage had thrown him off balance. He thought it was unfair that she took all her own frustrations with life out on him. At the same time, he felt embarrassed returning to the cutting room where Charles had told him he had nothing for him to do. He decided to clock out for the day and go home.
* * *
The next three days dragged. There was little for Hatch to do in the cutting room. He helped the mechanics in the sewing room each morning, then left at lunchtime each day. He thought about skipping Friday altogether, but Bubba caught him first thing Thursday morning.
“Haitch, you ‘uns goin’ to be here tomorrow, ain’t ya?”
“I don’t know, Bubba. There’s really not much for me to do here. I‘m going to talk to Charles about just making today my last one.”
“No!” Bubba insisted more loudly than Hatch was used to, his face twitching as it did when his spreading machine was not working right. “You gotta be here. Ask Charles.”
Hatch knew better than to argue. He turned and walked over to Charles’ desk.
“Yeah, Hatchman, you gotta be here.”
“But there isn’t any work for me.”
“Will be tomorrow.”
“Just be here, dammit.”
Charles picked up the phone and turned his back. Hatch shrugged his shoulders and slowly trudged over to the mechanics’ areas. He wondered why everyone seemed to be turning cold to him. He had avoided seeing Lynne all week. Checking with her before going to the mechanics had become a formality anyway after she blasted him on Monday.
Hatch showed up Friday, but about an hour late. Bubba met him at the door.
“Whair you been, Haitch?”
“I overslept, Bubba.”
Charles came over, a scowl on his face.
“It’s still not too late to fire yo’ white ass.”
“So do it. I got other places I could be.”
Charles stared at him.
“Yeah, like you got somethin’ important to do like gettin’ laid?”
“Like a snowball in hell,” Charles snorted. He picked up his new reading glasses and inserted the end of an earframe into his mouth as he gazed mockingly at Hatch.
“I may not be educated, Hatchman. But I knows when a boy needs to get laid. And you eat up with that look, boy!”
Charles roared. Hatch felt everyone in the cutting room looking up from their work.
“Aw, shut up, Charles. You don’t know. Besides, I don’t have to take this abuse from you anymore.”
Charles kept laughing and motioned him out of the cutting room. Hatch thought about going to see Lynne since it was his last day, but did not. He plodded through the morning, oiling several machines whose operators were taking the day off. As lunchtime approached, he headed back to the cutting room to clock out and say goodbye. Charles was at his desk.
“You can clock out, Hatchman, but just for lunch, and it ain’t quite time yet.”
“Oh, come on, Charles. I’m bored. Let me go.”
“No, sir. I can’t. Mr. Johnson gave me specific orders.”
“Yeah. He said he wants to see you in the Crystal Palace at lunchtime. I guess he wants to tell you goodbye. It’s just five more minutes. Let me finish this report and I’ll go with you.”
Hatch turned to look for Bubba and was surprised that he had already stopped his spreader and disappeared somewhere. Hatch turned back to Charles.
“Say, how about I leave after this lunch thing?”
“No, Bubba took the afternoon off. You’ll have to run his machine.”
“He did? Without even saying goodbye?”
Charles looked away.
“Well, yeah. But he asked me to tell you to stop by his place on your way out of town this afternoon.”
“Oh, ok,” Hatch said, hesitating. “I guess I can do that.”
They walked up to Mr. Johnson’s office, passing Lynne’s reception area. Although aggravated with her, Hatch felt his heart sink when he noticed the lights off behind the glass.
“Where’s Lynne?” he said to Charles.
“How the hell would I know?”
Just then they arrived at the door to the Crystal Palace. Mr. Johnson pumped Hatch’s hand like a politician and invited him and Charles inside. The table in his suite was set for four. There was a black woman working at the stove in the small kitchen area. She doubled as server, setting out a glass of wine for Mr. Johnson and mugs of beer for Charles and Hatch.
“Gosh, Mr. Johnson,” Hatch said as the three sat down to the table. “This is an honor. I never expected anything like this.”
“Well, son, you’ve done a damn good job here this summer. Charles has consistently given me nothing but the best reports about how you’ve handled yourself. To tell you the truth, we hate to lose you. I thought you deserved a little something special for a send off.”
Mr. Johnson looked at his watch.
“Our other guest should be here shortly. How about while we’re waiting, I show you the upstairs? That’s a treat reserved only for special guests!”
Hatch and Charles followed Mr. Johnson up the spiral staircase. Hatch could hardly believe his eyes. It was all a huge bedroom outfitted with a California king bed, a Jacuzzi, a glass enclosed walk-in shower, another bar and refrigerator, a pool table, pinball machine, and more curios and gizmos than Hatch could take in all at once. Narrow horizontal windows ran along one wall, facing the town square. The windows seemed to let in a surprising amount of light until Hatch noticed that the ceiling featured a large circular sunroof just over the bed.
“On a clear night, Hatch, you can look up at the stars through that sunroof,” Mr. Johnson laughed.
“And that refrigerator behind the bar comes in handy for a midnight snack.”
Busy absorbing all the features of the fantastic bedroom, Hatch paid little heed to what Mr. Johnson was saying. A voice hollered up the staircase from downstairs.
“Hey, where is everybody?”
Hatch had barely caught the voice, but it sounded familiar. He and Charles followed Mr. Johnson down the staircase.
There at the bottom stood Samuel Houston. Hatch laughed in surprise and spontaneously walked over to hug him. The cook set out another glass of wine and the four sat down to lunch of roasted duck and vegetables with chess pie for dessert, made special for the occasion by Ethel.
The conversation was spirited among Mr. Johnson, Charles, and Samuel Houston, ranging from stories of the building of the apparel company to a boisterous debate over what the coming football season held in store for Vanderbilt and Tennessee.
At the end of an hour, Charles looked at his watch and excused Hatch and himself, saying they needed to return to work. Mr. Johnson stood and shook Hatch’s hand.
“Listen, son, I hope you’ll come back to work with me as soon as you finish up there in Monteagle. Talk to me before you make other plans, you hear?”
“Yes, sir!” Hatch smiled brightly. “I will! Thank you!”
“And stay out of trouble tonight,” Mr. Johnson laughed.
Hatch smiled, unsure how to respond, which he thought caused all three of the others to laugh far too loud. Charles slapped him on the back. Hatch said goodbye to his father and returned to the cutting room.
Now, I had no idea what they had in store for me. Not a clue. And I still wonder to this day if my Dad was in on it. I'm pretty certain that Mr. Johnson was. I can imagine them both having a good laugh about it over a glass of brandy after Charles and I left the dinner table. But I was oblivious at the time.
I went to work on Bubba’s spread when we got back to the cutting room. About an hour before quitting time I went around and told everybody goodbye, cutting up with the operators and the mechanics and making sure to stop in and hug Ethel and thank her for the pie.
When I got back to the cutting room, I shook hands with everybody there. When I came to Charles, he said, “Hold on Hatchman. Change of plans. I got a call from Bubba and he wants us both to come over. Says he needs some help settin’ the trailer off the blocks or something. Move yo’ car ‘round the building and I’ll meet you out front and we’ll ride over there together.”
I protested that I ought to drive my car to Bubba’s since it was close to the interstate and I could go on from there, but Charles insisted. We rode over in his big Lincoln, which he explained was one of Mr. Johnson’s castoffs. He had tricked it out with low riders, velvet blankets over the seats, air freshener, and yes, fuzzy dice hanging from the mirror. He called it his pimpmobile.
We got some stares driving through town, me sitting there with my white face in the middle of the big gaudy Lincoln. Charles had one of those small red coolers on the floor and pulled out a beer for each of us. He cruised slowly through his neighborhood and showed me his house. He had the windows down and talked to everybody on the street as we went through. I could barely understand what they were saying, but there was a lot of good-natured joking about what I was doing in his car. It was fun.
We finally got to Bubba’s about five. Lester pushed the screen open and shot through the door as soon as he saw the Lincoln. Bubba followed, then everybody who worked in the cutting room and several operators. It looked like cops coming out of one of those clown cars in the circus. I have no idea how all those people fit in Bubba’s trailer.
For several minutes, I didn’t even realize they were all there for me. ‘Course, in retrospect, I realize that they were mainly just up for a party on any excuse, but I felt quite honored at the time. And man, they did party, all standing around outside Bubba’s trailer, Lester scooting from one to the next, getting a potato chip here and piece of burger there. Charles worked the grill and some of the operators had brought baked beans and coleslaw. A couple of the mechanics played banjo and guitar. Beer flowed like nothing I’d ever seen, even at fraternity parties.
And the women, mainly all those sewing machine operators—I guess there were seven or eight of them there—led the way. They were loud and boisterous. I’d thought of them as old women, being just about twenty myself, and I guess they were mostly in their thirties. Some had their work shirts pulled back and tied in a knot and others changed into haltertops and short shorts—it was hot, you know. I just drank my beer, standing next to Bubba and taking it all in.
They’d make a suggestive joke about me every now and then, being fresh meat or something like that, and I’d laugh but never knew what to say in response. Charles would jump in and tell them to keep their lecherous hands off me and he’d volunteer to take care of them if they needed relief. Believe me, they didn’t seem to mind his suggestion, whooping and hollering. As the evening wore on, they got more aggressive and a couple of them started rubbing up against Charles, who seemed to take it in stride. Charles caught me staring and winked at me. I’d have been embarrassed earlier but I had enough beer in me by that time and just laughed.
One of the women sort of locked on to me sometime after dark, talking about her ex-husband and so forth. She was dumb as they come, but boy was she built! She had blondish brown hair pulled back in a ponytail and was wearing a halter top that left little to the imagination, and there was plenty there. She had a good dark tan and really long, muscular legs. I wasn’t paying a bit of attention to what she was saying. I was mostly just trying not to be too obvious about how she was affecting me. By this time I was leaning against a tree and she was getting like right in my face to tell me whatever it was about her ex, holding her beer can in one hand and a cigarette in the other, practically on top of me. I remember the cigarette was dangling from her fingers with an ash about an inch long and I was wondering how in the hell it was held on with her gesturing and swaying as she talked.
She threw the cigarette down and it landed right behind my shoe, so she put her foot forward to stub it out and the inside of her thigh brushed against my leg. She held it there and looked up with a big smile, thrusting her chest out against me. She said, “Oh, I’m sorry,” real slow-like and pulled on my shirt collar with her free hand. I was about to explode. I was just opening my mouth to ask her if she wanted to take a walk when Charles stepped over to us.
“Hey, Hatchman, we gots to go,” he said.
At that moment the woman kind of fell
against me and started giving me big wet kisses on my neck. The full
weight of her hips was pressed against mine. I was like pinned to the tree
trunk. I couldn’t believe Charles picked that moment to leave. I looked up
at him like he was crazy. But before I could protest, he carefully pulled
her off me and told her to go get him a beer. She cussed him and he
laughed and told me to tell Bubba goodbye now and get in his car. He was
serious. So I reluctantly did as I was told.
In the car I was giving him hell. He just
laughed and laughed and told me I didn’t want to get mixed up with a crazy
bitch like that, that there was no telling what I’d pick up from her, that
she’d screw anything that moved, and so on. But I didn’t care. I kept on
complaining. He told me not to worry, the night was still young, and that
just got me going again. We stopped at a Hardees by the interstate and
Charles ordered us two coffees, then we turned around and headed back to
town. He told me to shut up and drink my coffee, that I’d need it.
I was pretty buzzed. He pulled off the road just before we got into town and we both took a leak. He seemed to be stalling about something, because we stood there outside the car and chatted. A sheriff’s car with two deputies in it slowed down and looked us over, but when they realized it was Charles they laughed and waved and went on. I was sobering up some finally and told him I guessed I might as well head on home. Actually, I was thinking that once he got me to my car, I could stop off at Bubba’s again on my way back to the highway.
When we finally got back to the factory, Charles said he needed to go in and take another leak, so I went in with him and stood in the front hallway while he went into Mr. Johnson’s office to use the john. I looked into the receptionist cage and thought of Lynne and felt sorry that we hadn’t gotten to say goodbye. When Charles returned, he suggested I take a leak, too, before I hit the road. I figured even though I didn’t feel the urge, that wasn’t a bad idea.
While I was still thinking about that, he quickly said, “See ya, Hatchman,” and shot through the front door, locking the dead bolt behind him. I was surprised, you know, and went to the door and tried it, though I knew it wouldn’t open. So I yelled through the door and pounded on it but Charles was already pulling out of the parking lot. Man, I was confused! I figured it was some kind of prank but couldn’t imagine what was coming next.
I stood there a couple of minutes looking around as if there might be a clue somewhere, but there was nothing to see but an empty vestibule in a dark old building. It was eerie. So with no other plan in mind, I walked over to Mr. Johnson’s door and opened it. The lights were on. I figured Charles had left them on on purpose, knowing I’d come in there to use the bathroom. But then I noticed that there was music coming from up that spiral staircase. At first I got spooked thinking someone else was there, but I concluded it must be on all the time. Then I heard a voice and just about jumped out of my skin!
Hatch laughs and leans back in his rocker chair, looking at Jenny. His eyes are bright and open wide. He pulls a cigarette out of the pack in his pocket but doesn’t light it yet.
The next thing I knew, there were high heels coming down the spiral staircase. Slowly—tap, tap, tap. I was watching them from about six feet away like it was a ghost descending or something. As they made their way down, all I could see was long, thin legs. I thought they’d never end but just before I saw the whole show, a short tight skirt appeared. The steps quickened toward the bottom and the girl made a hop past the last step and there she was, laughing to beat the band. I must have had some kind of look on my face, my mouth hanging open, my eyes like saucers, whatever—like I had just seen the ghost materialize.
Hatch lights the cigarette, takes a drag, and then leans forward again, smiling wide as he exhales. Jenny is on the edge of her seat, leaned toward him as well, her mouth slightly open.
It was Lynne!
She was laughing so hard she couldn’t speak.
“Hatchman! Now you don’t think I was going to let you get away without a proper goodbye, do you?”
“Well, I... uh... I looked for you today but you weren’t here.”
“That’s what I mean.”
“But, I figured you were all mad at me and like, good riddance.”
“Whatchoo talkin’ ‘bout?”
“That tongue lashing you gave me the other day!”
Lynne puckered her lips and frowned, batting her eyes.
“Why, Mastuh Houston, I don’t know what you means.”
Lynne laughed again approaching Hatch and slapped him lightly on the belly, catching him by surprise and causing him to double over, which made her laugh some more. Hatch backed over to a couch and fell back into it, his mouth still gaping through a half smile.
“Lynne, would you tell me what is going on?”
“Why are you always asking me what’s going on, Hatchman? You’re supposed to be so smart and yet you never know what’s going on.”
“Well, now more than ever.”
Lynne giggled. She sat next to him on the couch.
“Lordy, Hatchman, you smell like a brewery!”
“Sorry,” he stammered, still slumped back into the deep cushions of the couch. Lynne kicked off her high heels and pulled a leg beneath her, facing him with one arm on the back of the couch.
“I was having a good time at Bubba’s party and the next thing I knew, here I am.”
“How many beers did you drink?”
“Hell. I don’t know. They just kept bringing them to me.”
“Well, you need to get cleaned up, boy. The party’s not over and I ain’t doin’ no partyin’ with you smelling like that.”
She leaned over Hatch and reached for something on the table next to him. Her exposed shoulder brushed his neck. She smelled sweet like vanilla and her skin felt smooth and warm.
“Here, take this robe upstairs and take a shower.”
“You heard me. Throw your clothes down the staircase. Everything—underwear, too. I’m going to wash them. But before you take your shower, brush your teeth. There’s a new toothbrush in a plastic wrapper by the sink. Use it. We got to get you presentable. I told Charles not to get you all beered up, but he never listens to me!”
She frowned and stood up directly over him. She put out her hand as if to help Hatch up. She pulled hard on his hand. Though he got up on his own power, she surprised him with her strength, pulling him off balance and directly into her. She stopped his momentum with her body and steadied him momentarily with both arms around his chest, then pushed away from him.
“What are you trying to do, Hatchman? Get away from me!”
Hatch backed away blushing. She shook a finger at him.
“Now do what I said and don’t try anything like that again!”
She laughed and walked over to the kitchen corner.
“I’m putting coffee on. Hurry up.”
“But where are we going?”
“Nevermind. You just get ready. I’ll take you there when you’re cleaned up.”
Lynne turned to the stove. Hatch climbed the stairs, scratching his head as he went.
Lord, what I wouldn’t give to be twenty years old again, even for a day, or a night—especially that night! I had no idea where she was going with this, but at that stage in my life and with a little beer in me, I had no worries, no alarms going off in my head telling me to watch out, not a care in the world for what tomorrow might bring or whether it came at all. I climbed that spiral staircase just as I was instructed. Upstairs I noticed the music again but I couldn’t see any speakers. It seemed to come from every corner. It was real soft, like easy listening, but acoustic, sort of country—I couldn’t quite figure out what style, but it was very nice. Nothing I’d listen to in the car or anywhere else for that matter, but it felt right up in that bedroom.
The room was dimly lit by some eave lights and a couple of candles that were burning on each side of the bed. I walked over to it and looked through the skylight. The stars were amazing. I sat on the bed and stared up at them for several moments.
Lynne hollered up from downstairs. “I don’t hear no water running!” So I got back in gear and walked over to the shower, turned the water on to warm up, and found the toothbrush at the sink. I pulled my clothes off and threw them down the staircase. “’Bout time!” she hollered right after. “Hurry up!”
The shower was larger than I expected. It was a little room to itself and had its own music speaker concealed somewhere. It had a sort of low shelf or settee built out at one end, with another showerhead above the settee. Everything from floor to ceiling was covered in tiny, probably half inch square multicolored pastel tiles. I could hardly believe it all! I spent the first couple of minutes just getting completely wet and letting the hot water pound on my back.
The next thing I knew, the door opened. Still clueless, I instinctively turned my back and said ‘what the hey.’ But I didn’t stay stupid for more than a split second. I turned back around and there was Lynne, all five foot nine of her completely naked, looking like God’s gift to Adam. She shivered at first until she pushed me out of the way and moved over to the water herself with her arms outstretched toward me, palms out, smiling.
My God! Her long black legs glistened from the water streaming down. Her arms invited me to come to her, but I didn’t move. My eyes had to take it all in first.
She laughed and turned around to take the shower’s stream front-on, instructing me to turn on the other shower, the one above the settee behind me. Lynne’s back was long like her legs, her shoulders square but softly rounded. I remember sighing a long sigh which she heard even over the water. She laughed again, throwing her head back to catch the force of the water on her neck. Her wonderful skin was textured light and dark in the curves of the shoulders and the arch of her back, in the taper of her thick, strong thighs, and even at the twist of her ankles. Her hair hung down in ringlets, water streaming from the ends.
Finally I came to my senses and could move. I’ll spare you the carnal detail. Let’s just say, we moved from the shower to the bed. Later, I finally realized why Mr. Johnson had told me about the leftovers. Lynne and I had a feast on them about three a.m.
After we ate, Lynne said we’d have to go. I protested and she kissed me. She said we had to get out of there before daylight. I asked her when we could meet again and she said never. She said I knew better. But I didn’t of course. I was dying for more, as if I had not already had more than I deserved. She said this night was our goodbye gift to each other and she thanked me for it. Thanked me! I laughed when she said that. Then we got dressed. She said her cousin would be in later to clean up after us. She had a key to the front door, looked out to make sure no one was coming down the street, then we darted to my car and I drove her to a parking lot where hers was.
And that wrapped up my summer at Forrest Apparel Company. Ha!
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