With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
Subscribe and Save up to 45%
In the spring of 1932, when I was twelve years old — the last year of my childhood, as I understood it — my grandfather left the farm and came to live with us. His wife, my mother’s mother, had just died, and he could no longer get loans to keep the farm going. My father had already given up farming a few years earlier, and we were living in the village outside the Bell cotton mill.
Working in the mill proved hard on my grandfather, who had spent his entire life in the fields. He came home coughing from his first day of breathing lint, and he would cough through the night. He and my older brother Quinn and I slept in the living room of our house on Harvey Lane, though I was the only one who actually got any sleep. Quinn was courting a girl in town and stayed out until all hours, and my grandfather never really went to sleep anymore. He went to rest, he said, and that only if he was lucky. Cut from an ancient mold, conceived on a Confederate battlefield, he could handle sleeping on a rough mattress in a crowded room, but he was seventy years old. There came a time for any man, and his time was here.
The mill village was in upstate South Carolina. Springs Industries operated mills across both Carolinas, offering families like mine steady employment in a time when drought and heavy mortgages were breaking the backs of farmers, many of whom traded an uncertain, hardscrabble life for a guaranteed weekly paycheck and the clatter and clank of the machines. A brick wall surrounded the cotton mill, which could have been a prison or a large church without a steeple. Rising up on either side, two smokestacks coughed black into the blue summer sky. The houses in the village lay close together in rows, like stalks of corn, and were all of the same design: white bungalows with small, fenced-in backyards, clotheslines, and tiny gardens of tomatoes, squash, and bell peppers.
One Sunday in the middle of June, Quinn and I were working in the garden with our father, staking up the tomato plants, which were beginning to sprawl like wild vines. Daddy had been raised on a farm and had a way with growing things that I would never have. Quinn labored beside him, his arms thick and muscular from operating machines full time in the mill. I worked there only in the summer. At twelve I was still a gangly boy with freckles and a willingness to believe anything anyone told me. Once, when I was very young, I’d taken seriously my mother’s command that I wash off all of the dirt when I bathed. I scrubbed vigorously, trying to make my sun-tanned arms as white as my thighs. When I confessed to Quinn that I couldn’t get my arms clean, he played along and told me our mother would switch me good if she saw the “dirt.” I spent the next two days walking around with my arms held behind me.
Today I hung back while Quinn and our father did most of the work. “Willie,” Daddy said to me, “why don’t you get us some water?”
I slunk to the kitchen and looked for a pitcher and three glasses. Then I overheard my grandfather in the living room say, “I’m OK.”
Momma took in her breath. “What happened?” she asked.
“I don’t know. I was here, and then I felt dizzy, and then you were here.”
“You ought to take a day off.”
“I can’t.” He let out a loose, wet cough, as if he had gravel in his chest. “I can’t,” he said again.
“Daddy, you’re killing yourself.”
“I’m already worn out. Best not tell Joe. You know how he gets.” Joe was my father.
I tried to sneak back outside, but my foot caught on one of the chairs, and the leg scraped across the floor. My mother came in and saw me.
“Come here for a minute,” she said. “It’s all right.”
She led me into the living room, where my grandfather sat on the bed. “Hey, boy,” he said, and Momma put her arm around me. Her gingham dress was damp with sweat. I was nearly as tall as she was, and I realized she hadn’t held me close that way in a long time.
“Willie,” she said, “your grandfather just fainted, but he’s all right. You can’t mention this to anyone, not even Quinn.”
“Because if someone thinks your grandfather is ill, he’ll have to quit work. Your father and Quinn, they both work so hard, and they’ve got a lot on their minds without having to worry about your grandfather.” She released me and put her face up to mine. Her eyes were a washed-out blue, and her cheeks were slim and taut and unforgiving. The weight of this secret felt like no trouble I’d ever been in before. All I’d come in for was some water.
“Promise me, Willie?”
“OK,” I said, and it was like a curtain fell between us. She returned to my grandfather, and I returned to the garden, empty-handed.
“Did you get the water?” Daddy asked.
As if reading my thoughts, he said, “Everything all right in there?”
“Look at me, Son. Is something wrong? Is your granddad all right?”
“He’s fine,” I said, because to tell the truth felt on the level of a sin. Honor thy father and thy mother, the commandment said, but it didn’t say what to do when honoring one meant dishonoring the other.
My father squinted at me.
“I’ll get the water,” I said, and I ran back to the kitchen.
One morning in late August, when the house was still dark and the temperature tolerable, I woke to the sound of my grandfather stirring. The predawn light cast the room in blue shadows. My grandfather limped outside and urinated in the backyard before the sun rose high enough that the entire block could see him. Five months here, and he still wasn’t used to indoor plumbing. At the time I thought that a man became set in his ways at a certain age, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to believe that everything is fixed at birth, and we simply lie to ourselves about our ability to change until we grow too old for it to matter.
As I continued to doze, morning crept in, and pots and pans clattered in the kitchen. My mother heated up the coffee, scrambled eggs. An oil lamp burned on the table. I sat up and shook Quinn awake.
“I’m up,” he said, and then continued to lie there like an old basset hound.
“Come on, Quinn. Wake up before Daddy comes in here.”
I didn’t know what time Quinn had come home the night before, only that it had been after the rain had lulled me to sleep.
“Wake up,” I said again, and he finally rose, bleary and beleaguered.
We dragged ourselves into the kitchen and took our seats at the table beside our grandfather. Our father sat at the head. Our mother put a plate of eggs in front of us and sat down.
After saying grace, Daddy asked Quinn, “What time did you get in last night?”
“Not too late.”
“Got them raccoon eyes.”
“I’m all right.”
They scraped at their plates, and, with a mouthful of eggs, Daddy said, “It’s going to be a long, hot shift.”
“I said I was all right,” Quinn said.
The counters and floor showed grime and dust our mother could never entirely wipe away, a reminder that this house, this life we’d been living since we’d sold the farm, was rotten.
“Long day,” Daddy muttered again.
“Joe.” Momma laid her fork on her plate and glared at him.
“The boy was out half the night, and now he’s going to work tired. We can’t afford for him to get hurt or lose his job.”
“Oh, leave the boy alone,” my grandfather said.
“You stay out of this, Abel,” my father told him.
“Joe,” Momma said again.
“What? Is Quinn his son? If he had his way, I suppose we’d all be working half days and going home to our mansion on the hill.”
“That’s not what I’m saying,” my grandfather said. “All I’m saying is I’ve been around long enough to know a boy needs to be enjoying himself while he can.”
“So you’d let him tromp all over the county? If he can’t concentrate, he’ll get his arm sucked into one of the machines.”
“It’s a long life, son.”
“Hell, I know it’s a long life.”
“Well, he got his whole life to work. I’ve been working my whole life, and it hasn’t amounted to nothing.”
Through all of this I’d sat quiet and still. My father may have been worried about Quinn, but I knew it was my grandfather he needed to worry about.
Now my grandfather turned to me and said, “You know, boy, my daddy had me chopping wood when I was your age.”
“Yep, back on the farm. And all summer Daddy paid me an allowance to pick up sweet-gum balls out of the yard. He always liked to walk around the yard barefoot at dusk and didn’t want one of them balls biting his foot. Paid me a penny a bag.”
“That’s all?” I said. The mill paid me two dollars a week.
“Boy, I felt rich getting a penny a bag. I was saving up to buy me a rifle but ended up spending a few years’ worth of allowance on a clean suit and a lot of pomade so I could go to town and start chasing gals around.”
“Daddy,” said Momma.
“It’s true. Boy, wait till you get a few years older. You’re going to find some pretty gal that gets you so flustered you won’t know whether to thank God or the devil. Ask your brother.”
“That’s enough, Abel,” Daddy said. “These aren’t your boys.”
Granddad coughed, the mill whistle sounded, and we got up and put our plates in the sink. As we were leaving, Momma hugged my grandfather and whispered, “I’m sorry, Daddy.”
I watched them embrace, then saw my father watching me. He was a tall, powerful man in those days, with a stiff spine and a knowing gaze, and every time he squinted his eyes, I could see a bobbin weaving an idea in his mind. I feared for the moment when he would figure out that I knew more about my grandfather than I’d let on. Then he turned and walked out. I followed with Quinn and Granddad.
In the half light the four of us walked down the hill toward the mill. Cur dogs roamed the streets, their tongues aloll and their ribs jutting out of matted fur. Mist clung to the earth, though once the sun broke above the horizon and the dawn-pink sky caught fire, the mist would burn away, and the oppressive heat would settle in, right as the machines inside the mill warmed to full force. We trudged through the iron gates to where the mill waited for us, square and tall, smokestacks reaching: the whir of the machines, the stale concrete; a slight breeze from the fans blowing hot air. Workers trickled in, and by 6 AM the rooms were full.
They called it a “family labor system.” Springs Industries hired whole families — the men working in the weave rooms or as card hands, single girls and old women in the draw-in rooms, their children as sweepers. Everywhere were clouds of lint, the hum and hiss of the machines, the smells of oil and sweat, and heat so bad you wanted to go out and stand in the August sun just to cool off. Some families stayed in the mills, one generation after another, until the 1980s, when the last Carolina mills were shuttered.
My job was to move from room to room and sweep up the excess lint and dust and tobacco juice that wound up on the floors. Looms bobbed up and down. Women wore their fingers out plying at strands. Men pulled sheets of cotton from rolling machines. “Doffers” — Quinn was one — gathered bobbins and brought them to spoolers, whose machines, chattering like typewriters, combined a dozen bobbin threads into yarn.
My father and grandfather were weavers. They sat at looms, watching a shuttle pass back and forth fifty-five hours a week and spitting tobacco right on the floor. I swept my grandfather’s weave room after lunch, keeping my head down and my mind on the job. Though it wouldn’t last, I still found some novelty in working at the mill. I was a boy becoming a man, doing real work and contributing to the family. I liked that feeling. I liked punching out for break, when the other boys and I would play around on the machines.
In Weave Room No. 6 my grandfather and Mink Skelton were talking about the farmers.
“They got to be glad for the rain,” my grandfather said. “I left in a drought last year. Couldn’t raise nothing but a few pokeweeds.”
“I bet they’re out there now, picking cotton. A full crop of it.”
“I’m glad I’m here rather than there,” Mink said.
“Not me. I’d never have left if I didn’t have to. But today you can’t just be a farmer. It’s all cash crops now — King Cotton or tobacco.”
“Then you come here, and you don’t own your land, and you don’t own your food. This mill owns you.”
“Yep.” Mink spat on the floor where I had just swept.
Afternoon humidity steamed up the weave room and kept the cotton fibers soft, assisted by an eerie mist in the air from the sprinklers. My grandfather patted me on the back as I swept past the loom. The old man’s eyes were watery and red, same as every day he worked in the mill.
“Whew,” he said. “I believe I’ve had enough.”
“Too early in the day for you to be talking like that,” Mink said.
“I know it’s easy work, but I’m getting tired.”
“Be careful,” Mink said. “You remember Myrtle Clark. Got her hair caught in a loom last year. Lost half her scalp and made it back to finish her shift.”
“That’s nothing!” called Leuico King from across the room. “I heard tell once of a man who got caught in a pulley over in Spartanburg. It throwed him to the ceiling and splattered his brains against a beam.”
“Goddamn,” Mink said. “That’s something Satan himself would have trouble matching.”
I quit sweeping to listen. Rather than chiming in as usual, my grandfather stared fixedly at the loom, his eyes rheumy and his mouth ajar. He coughed, soft strands of cotton plied between his fingers. Then he slid off the stool and fell to the floor.
Mink ran to him. Men circled around, and I was pushed back.
Daddy and Quinn laid my grandfather on the bed while Momma and I watched. Mr. Lowery, the foreman, had given us the afternoon off to care for him. A doctor had come to the mill, pronounced it a stroke, and said Granddad would need at least a month of rest and may never be able to work again. My grandfather had been able to walk home, with the rest of us there to steady him. Now, lying in bed, he turned to the wall.
Momma sat at his feet and laid one hand on his leg, holding the other hand to her face. Then Daddy grabbed my shoulder and squeezed in such a way I wasn’t sure whether he was trying to comfort me or to tell me that he knew I’d lied to him. Then he brushed past me and led Momma outside to the front yard. Quinn and I stood in the doorway while Daddy told her the story.
“The doctor says his body’s worn out. Says when you get to be his age, the blood vessels get clogged like old drainpipes.” He wiped sweat from his brow and stared down the hill toward the mill. “I should move up to second hand soon. Even if he never works again, we won’t go into the hole.”
I could hear the frustration in Daddy’s voice, and I knew we were in a real spot, despite what he’d said. He stared at the sunburned grass in the yard and chewed on his lower lip.
“Lord,” Momma whispered.
“He told the doctor he’d had a few episodes before. Did you ever notice anything?”
Daddy read her silence and said, “For how long?”
“June? Sue, we could have been preparing for this. We could have —”
“What? We couldn’t do anything except wait.”
“Hell, we could have done —”
“Nothing. We were getting by then, and we’ll get by now,” she said.
He scratched at the back of his head and stood for several moments with his mouth open. Finally he said, “I was trying to do more than get by.”
He turned and walked off down the road.
She stood in the yard and watched him for a long time. All I could think was that I hoped Momma wouldn’t tell him I’d known, because I didn’t want him storming away from me as well. Quinn hadn’t known, so it would be Daddy and Quinn against Momma and me. But Momma would be caring for my grandfather, so it would be just me. Could I have changed the course of our family history? If I had told my father the truth that day in the garden, we could have saved up. We could have been preparing.
Momma came back inside. “We’ll be OK,” she said, and she went to her father. “Daddy?”
“It was a stroke,” he slurred.
“There wasn’t anything you could have done.”
“I could have died,” he said.
Quinn and I moved to the porch and sat on the rockers the rest of the afternoon. “Granddad’s going to be all right,” he said.
When dusk settled in, a breeze blew through the cypress trees in the front yard. The wind coasted through the tall pines across the street, and I heard a crackle of limbs, the drop of a cone against a neighbor’s roof. The night was cool for the end of August. For weeks the days had burned and the nights had remained a sweltering mess, so the cooler air was a relief. School would be starting soon, and my job in the mill would come to an end — until next summer.
After a long while Momma turned off a lamp in the bedroom, and her door clicked shut.
“I’m going to town,” Quinn said. “I’ll be back, but if someone asks, you don’t know where I’ve gone. Or tell ’em I couldn’t sleep, that I’m just walking the neighborhood.”
I sat in the shadows, the moon slicing through the ferns that hung above the rail, while Quinn disappeared down the road like our father, leaving me alone on the porch with the lonesome breeze.