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While the thick-blooded Cajun described the best places for catching red snapper, Diane’s thoughts wandered to her father, George. He had recently passed, and she had spent the last weeks at her childhood home, putting his house up for sale and clearing out the place. Her mother had passed two weeks before her father, as some marriages last so long that its only fitting for one to follow the other in such short order.
Her children grew stir-crazy in her old house with no other children to play with. And her husband was tired, so she decided to land a vacation to Louisiana in between it all. Diane had sifted through a cascading flood of family heirlooms, bedspreads, smoke-damaged chaise-lounges, newspaper clippings—memories come to life and frustrations at missing childhood things, doubtless discarded by her mother or who knows what happened to it. She knew that the things she’d save would never be used again and would collect dust in her attic.
Her father had been a tinker, which was just a polite name for a packrat. Her son and her husband had cleared out eight trailers full of his junk from the backyard. She wondered if he ever threw anything away.
She thought of her father’s sacrifices.
Once, when she was a teenager, her father was on strike with the local USW at Van Crotha Steel just outside McComb. The strike wore on for several months, and all negotiations had stalled with agreement in sight. All the while, her mother nagged her father to go back to work.
“I ain’t unemployed. I’m on strike. There’s a difference.”
“Like the difference between comfortable and just gettin by. I’m just waitin for somethin better for you and the kids.”
“Yeah. Just waitin,” she said with venom. “If this goes on longer… have you seen our bank statement? We’ve got nothin left and the children need school clothes and we cain’t afford no insurance on the car.”
“Just a few more days. I promise. I’ll go back.”
“Whether the strikes ended or not?”
“Whether the strikes ended or not.”
A few days passed and no deal was reached. He jawed on the picket line, avoiding answers to what’s gonna happen if this keeps on much longer. He wasn’t a scab. In fact, he had been one of the most loyal members of the USW, particularly during the years when Van was paying other industries to take their business elsewhere in Mississippi. It was the main reason why McComb was a one-horse town, as they say.
Previously, no real solidarity existed in their chapter of the USW. The whites suspected the worst of Van, but at best, the blacks were only tenuously set against him. Van possessed extraordinary charisma. A corporate Huey Long, he appeared magnanimous toward all dissenters, but especially toward the blacks, who made up over seventy-five percent of his work force. Whenever someone complained, Van usually landed him back in his pocket with methodical ease. All the harder to get changes across.
George usually kept cool, because he was smart enough to see what Van was doing. To him, the blacks weren’t dumb niggers wanting handouts. That line had gotten old a long time ago. They were just lost. Lost in a sea of false promises and nice sounding bullshit that nobody, including Van himself (he had good lawyers), could understand really.
The blacks galled George, though. Every time he tried to illustrate the backhanded nature of Van’s concessions, he was met with a “but he promised me…” All it ever accomplished was to arouse the suspicions of the whites against him.
But the large print giveth and the small print taketh away, and all men have a line, and he don’t want to be pushed over it. Like being pushed into talking pussy if he’s religious, or religion if he’s licentious. Near as anyone could figure, after this accident, they’d all been pushed far enough.
The present, unifying force among the USW issued from a workers’ comp suit that was filed right before the contract expired, so everyone was still pretty incensed. The injured man was named Major Perkins. The bonds between George and Major were manifold. Both had fought in Korea, both were deacons in the church, both union workers. George had found him passed out in a browning pool of blood. Major’s left leg was fragilely attached by God only knows what, mangled mess that it was.
Van made a big show of it all, cursing the overseer for his negligence, offering excessive attention, compensation and so on. Too bad none of it was in writing. Major’s family was even responsible for replacing the uniform.
George would pass Van in the hallway and look the other way as if he hadn’t seen him, and Van would smile back or nod his head if he caught any eye contact. Van had a way of smiling that seemed natural enough to the casual observer. Under scrutiny, it looked as if he’d been taught to smile, like he was frozen in a family portrait, and he didn’t have to wanna have to be there.
After a few hours on the picket line, George decided to visit Major.
“Aluminum.” Major tapped his leg with his cane. “Light as a feather, and the best part is is it goes out another foot, ‘case I cain’t reach something.” Major demonstrated.
“Well I’ll be.”
“Mhm.” Major retracted his pegleg and let his pant leg slide back. He continued: “They still got me on these Demerols, but I reckin I don’t need um no more. You want to take a few home with you, help you sleep?” He shook them at George.
“Naw, that’s all right.” George put them by.
“I heard you was havin trouble with the missus fur a spell.”
“She’s pretty bowed up ‘bout this strike”
“I told her I’d go back in a few days, deal or no deal.”
“Well I heard there’s some ope’nins down at the phone comp’ny.”
“Yeah, I saw it.”
Major’s wife brought in a pitcher of tea and poured a couple glasses. She asked George about his wife and kids, then disappeared into the kitchen.
“Oh they’re fine.” George called over his shoulder. “Diane’s still adjustin to high school, but she’s good. I’ve been teachin her to drive.”
“Look out George,” Major said. “You’re gonna need a crash helmet.”
“And James Keith, he’s done with tee ball for the fall.”
She came out of the kitchen again, shouldering into her coat. “Well that’s nice. Major, hon, I’m goin to the store.” She grabbed her keys and left, the screen door tapping to on the edge of the carport.
“It tickles me. Before this accident, all she’d do was sit and watch her soaps and bitch at me pretty regular. And now, she’s up and around, cookin and cleanin and takin care of me like I was… you hungry? There’s enough food in there to feed Coxey’s army.”
“Naw, that’s all right.”
“Well this whole damn thing. There’s nothing I can do about it. It’s just the powers that be. They have the power and They can do what they want, and goddamn Carter’s in the Whitehouse, but what good’s that done us? All that talk about Jawboning or whatever.
“Look up. It’s one thing, fair and harmless. Look up. Look up,” he pointed at the ceiling with his cane. “It’s plunder and murder. When you get it figured out, let me know.”
George’s brows furrowed over the rim of his glass.
“But when it comes down to it, I don’t suppose any of us really deserve anything. We’re ain’t born free or with inalienable rights. Not us anyway. We still servin somebody. When it comes down to it, what’s the loyalty to a union got to do with anythin in the grand scheme of things? We serve them, just like we serve Van.”
“The union doesn’t have much else to throw on the table, near as I can figger.”
“But even those who wait upon the Lord, shall be saved, is what it says in the scriptures, and I highly recommend you look into this phone thing. Lord helps those who help themselves.”
George finished his tea. “Well….” he sighed and looked up at nothing in particular.
“Forasmuch as I’ve seen your face, it’s like seeing the face of God, George,” Major said lump throated. “You and Connie have been so good to us… and my leg, well shit.” Major poked through his pocket for a handkerchief.
That evening, George felt ill and couldn’t sleep. He tossed the covers aside and shuffled into his bathroom. He wished he’d taken the Demerols Major had offered. He reached into the cabinet and grabbed a bottle of Benadryl, but threw up his dinner instead.
He fell asleep finally.
Connie stirred from the other side of the bed, rolled over and began talking to him incoherently. She must be asleep, he thought at first, but as he listened longer and closer, he could make out her words.
Do not go on talking high and mighty –
arrogance slips from your mouth –
for a God all-knowing is the Lord,
and His is the measure of all actions.
The sated are hired for bread,
and the hungry cease evermore.
The Lord impoverishes and bestows wealth,
plunges down and also exalts.
She lost her train of thought to the time she got lost on the other side of the tracks in niggertown, a well-hashed story of increasingly epic proportions.
George rolled over to find Major moaning in a browning pool of blood. “George. Get this thing offa me!” George jumped up to help, but as he put his shoulder to the machine, it collapsed them both.
When George awoke to his alarm, a cold sweat frosted his back. He shivered into his slippers and grabbed his bathrobe. Outside in the streetlight, autumn dew rested aloof and mica-spangled on the crabgrass by the road. In the kitchen, he flicked on a pot of coffee. As the coffeemaker steamed and gurgled, George thumbed through yesterday’s paper. There was a help-wanted ad for the phone company, but it was for an upper manager job, requiring a degree or years of experience in the field. He had been a staff sergeant in the Air Force, but this alone was not enough. There was another help wanted. The ideal candidate capable of lifting fifty-pound loads. He folded the paper, dressed and drove to work to stand on the picket line one more day.
Outside the factory, George crouched down and started peeling a banana. Down the street, he spied a group of five men walking with purpose. George took a big bite.
Suddenly, a loud explosion went off in his ear, which issued from Molotov cocktail that now engulfed a nearby car in flames. George staggered to his feet. His head was dizzy and his ears were ringing severely. The approaching men were trotting towards him with their weapons raised. He ducked behind the corner of the building. One of the thugs ran after him, carrying a sledgehammer, but when he passed, George cold clocked him with his lunchbox. George grabbed the hammer and swung it low into the man’s side with a sickly thud. The man coughed blood and gasped.
George backed against the wall and peered around the corner. He slinked out from cover, but ran into another scab with a bat he was about to swing. George tried to duck away awkwardly but took the brunt of the blow on his forearm. He seized up briefly, watching his attacker raise the bat above his head. With his good arm, George swung the hammer at the scabs knee, splintering it as well as the handle. George stepped on the hammer head and twisted the handle off. He picked up the bat. He threw the handle to Jasper Tibbs, who had just arrived in his car.
Seeing the fight, Jasper pulled off his shirt, revealing a large iron cross inked across his back. He stood like a terrible monolith eclipsing the rising sun.
“Bust this, mothuhfuckin scabs!” And he smashed a mouth in with the handle. He sat on the man, crushing him under his bulk while reefing the handle up into the man’s mouth. Teeth clicked softly on the concrete.
The last two scabs had closed in on another striker, who’d just arrived, and were beating the shit out of him with crowbars. George crept behind them and smacked one of the scabs on his temple. The man crumpled. Another turned and struck George’s side, sending him sprawling. Now it was George’s turn to spit blood. The man jumped toward George for another whack, but Jasper was too quick. Jasper had thrown away the handle for a switchblade. He sidled up behind the man, shivved him twice in the side and he too fell.
Sirens whooped and hollered from a few blocks away.
There was one dead on arrival named Roger McClure. The scabs were nowhere to be found. Neither was Jasper. George had driven downtown for a while after he had heard the sirens and picked up a few donuts at a bakery and a new cup of coffee.
He sat on the bench outside, nursing his side. At length, he got into his truck and rooted through the glove box for aspirin. There wasn’t any. He snapped the door shut and returned to his breakfast.
Jasper drove up to the bakery, got out and sat next to George. He had wiped most of the blood off his hands, but it lingered darkly underneath his fingernails.
“Any of um die?” George asked quietly.
“Naw… don’t reckin.” Jasper considered. “Though, that man in the shit warn’t in no shape to be hopeful.”
George looked at Jasper gravely. “Jasper, you sure you didn’t kill anyone?”
“Yeah.” Jasper considered again for a moment. “‘less he’s too stupid to go to a doctor. Then he’ll just bleed out, I guess.”
“Did you recognize any of um?”
“You reckin Van had somethin to do with um. Prob’ly from up in Jackson.”
“Shit.” Jasper rested his sweating face in his ebony paws and wiped his brow with the backside of his arm. “I reckin his position is clear nuff then.”
“I gotta go home.” George and Jasper exchanged a raised-eye salute and went their separate ways: George to one side of the tracks, Jasper to the other.
When George got home, Connie was vacuuming and smoking feverishly with the radio on all the way up. The news was reporting the incident, and two were dead on arrival. George shouted at her over the clamor.
Connie shut off the vacuum and hung on his neck like death. Her eyes were bleary. George winced as she squeezed his side.
“I thought you might be dead!”
“It was close enough.”
“These thugs came walkin down the road and then a car blew up by me.”
“That’s what the radio’s been sayin’.” George listened.
….there will be an ongoing investigation, our sources say, into the murders of Roger McClure of Summit, Mississippi and Anthony Evans of Jackson, Mississippi…. the strike will resume tomorrow, union officials say, despite the violence….
George slumped into his worn barcalounger and creaked it back. It flung up nebulas of dust around him. His head began to throb. Tomorrow’s the last day before he promised. But now, who knows what? Another day. The Union would want to make a stand, would call up people from other chapters, with guns and security. And if they became organized, they could press charges for assault, extortion… that is, if they could implicate Van Crotha, and if the cops weren’t in on it…
…gangland violence that has been breaking out…
“What? Listen to this, Connie, I cain’t believe this. This wuhn no thugs from across the tracks. They was all whites.”
“Cain’t you talk to the police bout this?”
“No, I thumped two of those scabs real good. I don’t wanna get in trouble for that. We don’t need that, Con, not now, not ever. Besides, listen to that spin. The cops think it’s gang violence. Either they’re in on it, or Van’s got some guys posing as witnesses, feeding that bullshit to the press.”
“George, please. The baby.”
George gritted his teeth.
“George, you’re a leader down there. We could be in danger. If it’s what you say it is. If its Crotha’s hired bullies from Jackson, then you are in danger, the kids are in danger I’m…”
“So whatchu want me to do? Think I wanted this?”
“I’m just sayin that if armed men showed up and beat the hell out of you, then do you think he’ll stop?”
“Come on, don’t worry.”
“George, he knows that you show up at the picket line the earliest. It’s because you’re the leader.”
“What’re you saying? That he tried to have me killed?”
“Honestly, George, what do the facts say?”
“He knows you out of all of um show up early. Only this time, Roger McClure happened to be there too.”
“Slow down. Now listen. I went to visit Major again this mornin bout a phone comp’ny job, and I’s late to the picket.”
Connie was in hysterics. George persisted in his lie.
“It wasn’t a hit. It was just intimidation. You and I and the kids are safe.”
“And that makes a difference how? That some thugs tried to kill you. How does that make me feel safe?”
“Listen, I mean…”
“I’m saying is you’re the leader in this chapter of the Union, and you’re the one makin all the fuss about Major’s leg.”
“I still don’t see how you have some better idea of what to do.”
“Go back to work, for heaven’s sake!” Connie stormed down the hall, slammed the bedroom door and got out a suitcase to begin packing.
The more George began to think of it, the more it occurred to him that she might be right. Maybe Van was sending a personal message to him. Call off the strike. Call it off or bear with the consequences. George stood up and limped down the hall. Connie was slumped on their marriage bed, sobbing.
“Connie, I know… I just…” Connie grabbed him. “You’re right. I’ll go back.”
Connie looked up sniffling.
“I told you I would anyway.”
That evening, George got into his truck and drove over to Major’s. He graveled into the drive to howling dogs. Major’s property spread several acres in the front yard, initialed only by a propane tank and a rotting tractor. Industrial draft of a dying age. On the porch, George and Major talked war and peace while getting steadily drunk. George told Major he was going back to work.
“Crawlin back, huh. I don’t blame ya, I guess.”
“Don’t have much of a choice. But I’m every bit as worried about the Union ‘s I am about Van.”
“Cain’t the Union press charges on this thing? Damn near same thing happened three years ago uppit Pontotoc.”
“The police ain’t payin much attention to this. Or the right kind, anyway. They got it wrong. Either way, I thought I might die this mornin.”
“Reckin you might die tomorrow?”
“We ain’t guaranteed tomorrow. So why should tomorrow be different? This life is like goin down a staircase in the middle of the night. You know that feeling when you git to the bottom and there ain’t any steps left? …and you land real awkward.”
“Or else you’re groping around for stair that’s s’posed to be there, but ain’t.”
George took a long pull off the bottle. “That too,” he winced.
“I heard a preacher—well, ain’t sure he was a preacher, but this man on the radio put death like—well, I put it to heart.” Major poured more whiskey in his glass, and poured a glass of water for George.
“How did he put it?”
“A violent rending asunder of body and soul.” This gave them both pause. Only crickets and the quiet rustling of spiky pines broke the silence. Kudzu vines continued their slow and certain invasion of Magnolias along the rim of the woods. The sunset was radial oranges, reds and purples, broken and emptied out underneath a harvest moon. All were at rest, except for George and Major, their eyes hard as birdshot.
“Sums it up.” George replied at length, fingernailing his watch.
“So whaddoya think Van’s gonna say when you go back?”
“I’ll worry about him when I get past that picket line.”
“I’m sure they’ll understand if you cross over.”
“Hmph…. a scabs a scab.”
“Well tell um you got my go-ahead.”
“Connie kept sayin I’s a leader, which I never found myself to be that exactly….”
“Well, that’s true, they do look to you…. least the ones been around long enough to know what we been through before. Reckin the Union’ll cut a deal?”
“On account of me? No. I don’t reckin.”
On the way home, George spied a pair of lights behind him. He slowed to the speed limit, but the car persisted, turn after turn, until he was home underneath the carport. As he got out of the car, he heard a car door slam thickly and he jumped behind his wife’s azaleas, realized they weren’t, shit, high enough, but soon found that his pursuer was the deputy.
“May I help you, officer?”
“Nope, just makin sure you got in all right.”
“Oh… well I ain’t been drinkin,” he lied.
“Ain’t sayin you were…. goodnight.”
After the deputy pulled away, George stood staring for a long time at the darkness outside his kitchen window. He creaked along the floor to the sink for a glass of water. Connie had gone to bed already. He would join her eventually, but not to sleep. Certainly not to make love at it’d long since lost its vigor.
Whenever he was angry, he would wash dishes quietly and without the usual racket, so he wouldn’t betray his mood to her, smoking and watching her soaps amid the drone falsetto caused by the tap’s loose O-ring. His daughter sometimes approached, white knuckles and shoulders to thighs, and squeezed tight, unyielding, until all the need had sponged out of him. As he thought of her, he lingered on the grey water valving down his drain, and listened for a clearance that pressed on the threshold of language, humming like the faucet he couldn’t bring himself to fix.
George had always tried to be humble, but in this instance, he realized that being humble meant being humiliated. The sermons he’d heard on humility left that part out, or hadn’t made it clear that humility and humiliating were, in fact, the same thing, though the crucified Christ—up there, exposed and mocked—was humiliated plenty. Not that there was any comparison, George thought, which didn’t bring him any comfort.
Despite what he’d told his wife, he still wasn’t sure he’d go back. At a minimum, he expected a good ass-beating from someone… maybe a friend even. His side and head ached. His ears were still ringing from the explosion. His fever persisted without breaking. He swallowed a few aspirin with his water.
In the bedroom, his wife snored quietly. The heater kicked on with a soft roar. What would his dreams have brought him tonight?
His fever broke and he’d finally fallen into a light sleep. His alarm blared him awake. O-five-hundred hours. He showered and dressed, and read the Bible for strength and comfort. There the Lord’s promises were. He wasn’t sure if God would drop what he was doing in some third world country just to tend to his situation. He skipped his morning coffee. Connie woke and kissed him goodbye. He got in his car and drove off.
He waited in the parking lot for an hour or two. Something strange was happening. Rather, nothing was happening. No picketers. Nothing at all. He’d planned to picket a little himself, just in case, then sneak in around lunchtime. But the emptiness concerned him. He hoped a deal had been struck. At length, he entered the building. Nothing stirred in the factory. His boots rapped and startled him in the empty warehouse.
Above, a light was on in Van’s office.
“Well, lookithere. Fine-ly back…” Van smiled. George said nothing to this. Next to Van stood his chief goon, Claude Gentry. “Well yer old jobs just sittin there waitin for ya.”
“I was wonderin if a deal had been—“
“No, this little tiff over insurance has dragged on long enough, though.”
“So you want back, hm?”
“Done.” Van flashed a big grin. “And for your sense, I’ll promote you.”
“After tryin to kill me?” Van furrowed his brows in denial.
“What madeya think that… oh, that? Coulda been the Union, too, you know. They’re strong up in Jackson, I hear…. mighta got wind of yer defection.”
With that, George left Van’s office. Bewildered, George searched the rest of the factory. Nobody was there, Union or non. This relieved him at present. He flicked on a radio that sat on a toolbox. The news was on.
….so far we’ve determined that singer Ronnie Van Zandt and a backup singer, Cassie Gaines, are now dead, as are the pilot and copilot. Guitarist Steven Gaines has been admitted in to McComb Memorial and is in critical condition…. needless to say, the Street Survivor’s Tour has been cancelled…. the future of Lynyrd Skynyrd looks very dim….
George blinked. Then he knew. Everyone was out in the woods where this plane full of rock stars was crashed, gawking at medics excavating bodies on ATVs and whatever else that could get back in those woods.