Gordon could feel the mill exhaling, its air handlers making the summer evening shudder as he sprinted from the parking lot. He was on time, but most of the incoming night shift were hurrying, too, dragging hard on cigarettes like Baptists late for prayer meeting. In fact, the 19th-century textile mill, beautifully muted Carolina bricks stacked five stories high, bore more than a resemblance to some hulking church, a Romanesque temple perhaps, one square tower with an illuminated clock standing in for the steeple. Gordon wondered how many of his co-workers had drawn this analogy. Or for that matter knew what an analogy was. "That's the advantage a liberal arts education gives you," Gordon thought, with only a trace of self-pity. As he passed the guard shack and shouldered through the man-high turnstile, the acres of indigo shadow thrown by the mill left him blind. His pupils were still pinholes from the point-blank sunset he had squinted against getting here. In 12 hours he would drive straight into sunrise.
He fetched up hard against someone's back and the other man glanced over his shoulder sharply. The brown face softened instantly in recognition, and the man shook his head, "Don't be in such a rush, white boy. It not all that fun in there."
"Hey, Ty. I was just trying to get inside before they laid us off."
"That's why I go so slow. To kind of hold that time off." The father of eight children, Tyler Jackson had more cause for concern than Gordon. He and his wife had worked in the mill since they could legally work. Gordon couldn't shake the notion that Tyler's newly-emancipated ancestors had thrown the last bales of antebellum cotton onto their backs and trudged into a textile mill to spin it into cheap thread. Historically, it was more likely Gordon's own share-cropping kinfolk who had first trudged into the mill.
Tyler ran the row of carding machines that Gordon's blenders fed. The carding machines combed the blended synthetic fibers into rough alignment. Early on, when the greenhorn Gordon could hardly keep enough stock flowing toward Ty's ravenous machines to keep them running, the black man's lean shape would materialize and sidle up to the bale from which Gordon was desperately filling an almost-empty blender. Ty would gape in mock wonder while his dark, remarkably incomplete fingers combed through the snowy fiber. "I just got to see what this wonderful stuff look like, Gordy. Do you know 'bout all my cards run on this very same stuff? Hey, I just remember it my birthday today. You know what I want for my birthday, white boy?" But Ty never complained to Gordon's supervisor, and Gordon got stronger and faster. Now the two men could spare time to convene over a bale, pulling stray wisps of fluorescent rayon from their chin stubble, and rifting on racial stereotypes with an enthusiasm that would have appalled Gordon's former professors as well as Tyler's pastor.
Tonight a smiling Tyler greeted Gordon with the sing-song announcement, "I got those card machines running like Cadillac cars." Gordon pulled one corner of his mouth a millimeter over to acknowledge Ty's expertise and the indirect acknowledgment to his own adequate work.
"How would you know how a Cadillac runs, Ty? You drive a Buick Eighty-eight built a year or two after I was born."
"My daddy ride in a Cadillac car."
"Your father had a Cadillac?"
"I say he rode in one. And after that day he wouldn't ride in nothing else."
"You mean ..."
"Big ol' Caddy."
"... a hearse?"
"My daddy wouldn't be caught dead in nothing else."
As the two were speaking, McCaskill, the white-bearded head blender, deftly tipped a stock bale approximately the size and weight of a Volkswagen off his hand truck and joined them. He gummed a cheekful of Chattanooga Chew out of the pouch secreted in a bib pocket of his overalls. Another pocket held a darkly brimming Dixie cup. McCaskill's beard just beneath his lips had acquired a mellow brown shade, but every other hair on his head was like new snow.
"Ha, he got one on you there, Ty. Own up how he got one on you. Uneducated as he is."
"Cask, you remind me of a Bible verse: 'my cup runneth over.' Isn't Cask nasty, Ty?"
"Hey, Cask." Tyler said. "My cards turning out some nice white stuff. Light and cool. Maybe I get my old lady down in the cutting room to hold out a few yards. Sew you a nice new sheet and pointy hat." The white men laughed and shuffled their feet. Tyler and Gordon strongly suspected that McCaskill had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. They had begun to entertain this suspicion one evening during the midnight break when McCaskill, in a fit of wistful nostalgia, had announced to everyone that he had been a Klansman when he was a young buck.
"Ty. I'm in a clan, too," Gordon said. "We even have a castle way over in Scotland. Does your wife ever have any plaid cloth left over? Maybe she would whip me up a kilt."
"This what I always saying," Tyler said, "Ain't no way to keep a white man out of a dress." Tyler turned and started back to his department.
McCaskill spat lavishly into his cup and asked, "He got both of us on that last one, Gordy. Want to run him back to them cards?"
"No, Cask. I can't run that slow."
At first, Gordon had been too polite, or gun shy, to join in this ritualized repartee. He had hung back and grinned sheepishly as the two experienced men traded barbs. Gordon had been brought up in a racially enlightened household typical of the New South. This meant that both parents had made heroic efforts to censor any hint of racism from their speech, so that their child would escape that ugliest of Southern legacies.
Gordon's boyhood had been populated with a slow parade of black gentlemen. A "black gentleman," as referenced by Gordon's father, was any African-American male on the high side of 20, attired in presentable clothes, not audibly using profanity, and not blatantly involved in a larceny. Likewise, Gordon's mother was swooningly enthusiastic about the "soul food" recipes she had begged from Gordon's matronly black baby sitter and made a point of remarking the beauty of young black women, coveting the smoothness of their skin if not its tint. Not surprisingly, Gordon now treated black men with an exaggerated deference, as if they were ambassadors from another solar system, and he had developed a sort of Oedipally charged attraction to black women, secretly dating a black girl with good skin in college.
Given this upbringing, a stunned Gordon had braced for righteous bloodshed his very first night, when McCaskill had saluted Tyler with, "Say there, Ty, I taken up whittling again, and I got something stylish for you. But I forgot to ask if that hole through your nose had closed over." Ty had only taken a steel pick out his hip pocket, combed lint out of his hair and replied, "Keep carving. Cask."
Noticing his uneasy silence, Tyler and McCaskill had become so assiduous in their insults to him that he had at last joined the dance, not only for the sake of self-preservation but also from a Southern sense of conversational equity. And for some perverse reason, he had felt a heady license uttering the very worst things in the 100-decibel forum of the mill. Then one evening he had realized that he and Tyler and the former Klansman McCaskill could say just about anything to one another because no man viewed the other as a threat or as a potential competitor on any level whatever. There was another enemy, a vastly powerful, crushingly indifferent and perfectly impersonal foe. Tonight, as Gordon trotted back to play catch-up with his rapidly emptying blenders, he could smell the foe's ozone stink, hear its unearthly howl just outside his earplugs, and feel its leviathan heartbeat through the soles of his boots.
On their first night back after a four-day break, Gordon and McCaskill noticed the stopped-off line the moment they walked into the department. There was a chord absent from the discordant score the mill played day after day. The two men grimaced cheerfully at one another as they shoved their lunches into cubbyholes behind the break room. One less line meant several tons less loading for both of them, a cakewalk, but it also meant they had to fix whatever problem had caused the sorry bastards of the previous shift to shut the line down. McCaskill paused to get the lowdown from the outgoing head blender and to offer opinions on the other man's parentage.
The line was stopped due to a jam at the top of a blender, the point where the stock was conveyed up from the hopper on a slatted belt and roughly aligned by a large, spiked beater before flying toward the carding machines. The previous shift had overloaded the hopper, and the blender had jammed solid. As Gordon spruced up his floor with a wide push broom and flung stock on the running lines to keep them going while they cleared the other, McCaskill packed one cheek with tobacco and leaned a ladder against the two-story blender. As head blender it was his job to clear the jam. From his perch the old man beckoned to Gordon.
"Get your skinny self to the switch box and see if she'll turn over anyhow."
As Gordon jogged over to the wall of switches, McCaskill opened the maintenance door of the blender and squinted into its dim maw.
"Ready, Cask?" Gordon had to shout at the top of his lungs over the roar of the mill.
"Yes, dammit! I ain't clumb up here for the view."
Gordon popped open the safety lockout, pushed the green button and heard the circuit close behind the panel. A lot of electricity was amping to the blender, but nothing was moving.
"Shut her down. They got it jammed good. Hand me up that doodlebug." The doodlebug was a pistol-grip rotary pick that removed strands of stock the same way a fork spooled up spaghetti. McCaskill was reaching into top of the machine shoulder-deep, like a cat clawing around in a mouse hole, his face cranked sideways, mouth working his chew.
"Look like you treed a peckerwood, Gordon." Tyler had wandered over to find out why his carding machines weren't running.
"Hi, Ty. The day shift put it to us again."
"I bet they ashamed, maybe can't sleep tonight." Tyler and Gordon dodged as the doodlebug sailed down from on high.
"Switch it on!" A drizzle of brown spittle stippled Gordon's upraised face and he ran to the button. "And stay put and stay sharp at that box, college boy."
"Y'all leaving that blender circuit hot while he up there in it?" Tyler puffed his cheeks out and let his face slowly deflate.
"Yeah, but I'm right on it."
"I guess it fine, then. If you on it."
McCaskill extracted a greasy half-melted bolus of polyester the size of a man's head from the blender and threw it down, bawling for Gordon to hit the switch again. The blender trembled this time, but then froze. McCaskill swore and made a vague signal with his free hand. Gordon punched the OFF switch as McCaskill began ramming a broom handle into the jammed beater. A moment later Gordon heard the broom clatter to the wood floor. McCaskill shouted out another command. Gordon pushed the ON switch. This time the machine churned into life.
McCaskill's head slammed into the side of the blender as the spiked beater scythed down, taking his hand and forearm with it. But the next second it kicked upward, freeing the bleeding limb. Gordon and Tyler took a few steps toward the foot of the ladder, watching as McCaskill wrenched his arm out of the maintenance hatch and held his mangled hand up. The man looked as if he were holding a bright red torch.
Then the old man was screaming in earnest. Tyler and Gordon grasped McCaskill's legs and lowered him half falling down the ladder. McCaskill kept his flayed hand raised high like a dire Old Testament prophet, thick tendrils of tobacco juice draggling his long beard.
"I'm sorry, Cask. God, I thought you said—" But Tyler cut him off.
"Gordy, give me your belt, I ain't wearing one." The black man was tearing off his head rag and whipping it around McCaskill's hand. Gordon fumbled with his belt buckle. Tyler tied the belt around McCaskill's wrist. McCaskill howled and struggled as Tyler cinched the belt tight, but Tyler threw an arm around the old man, whispering in his ear, "Easy now, you be easy now. Don't stir yourself. OK, OK, I done with it, you can keep your hand up, that all right. Won't bleed so bad up there."
For the rest of his life Gordon would remember the image of the two men striving chest to back like brute dancers, their boots slewing in blood, Tyler's dark arm curled across the old man's bony chest like a bandolier, McCaskill's bandaged hand flung high in a gesture between divine petition and profane imprecation.
Then the ashen-faced supervisor ran up and took McCaskill's good arm, and the three men moved toward the break room to get McCaskill flat on a table until the EMTs arrived.
Gordon stood watching them for a long minute, his hands twitching by his sides. Then he carefully took down the ladder, laying it safely out of the way. He looked down at the foot-printed pool of blood on the floor. Taking a handful of raw stock, he began to wipe at the mess in a slow circular motion. The polyester fibers absorbed nothing, so Gordon widened the orbit of the circles and quickened the motion until his arm was a blur. After a while Gordon couldn't see any blood. The solid maple boards, swept spotless every two hours for a hundred years, simply gleamed back at him.