Oxford Town, fiction by William Trent Pancoast

The lit­tlest black girl came breath­less from run­ning and stopped by my desk in the laun­dry office.

You need to come quick. Ricky’s gone crazy.

I saw the alarm and fear in her face and got up and fol­lowed her the hun­dred feet to the bank of com­mer­cial wash­ing machines lin­ing the wall of the plant. In front of the bleach bar­rel Rick­ey stood unsteadi­ly with the bleach pad­dle cocked like a ball bat ready to hit the oth­er wash­man Dar­rel. It was a hot Sep­tem­ber day in the laun­dry where even in win­ter the tem­per­a­ture would be over 90 degrees.

Ricky had looked a lit­tle drunk when he came in but I hadn’t cared. I’d have been drunk at this place too if I could have been. As I neared he kept hitch­ing the pad­dle back behind his right ear like he was at bat. Dar­rel had his eyes locked on Ricky’s and I fig­ured he would do a take­down when the swing came. Dar­rel had been all Ohio in wrestling and at tail­back for the Talawan­da Braves in Oxford Ohio.

Excuse me I said to the ladies in the cir­cle around the two wash­men when I pushed past. There was me and six or sev­en black girls from the neigh­bor­hood down the hill on the north side of town and five hill­bil­ly ladies from the coun­try­side plus a cou­ple of Mia­mi Uni­ver­si­ty coed dropouts stuck in Oxford like lint on a piece of laun­dry.

Give me the pad­dle I told Ricky. He dropped it sev­er­al inch­es right away and I could see in his eyes that he was relieved. He knew Dar­rel was going to kill him if it came down to it and he hand­ed me the pad­dle mak­ing sure I was between him and Dar­rel.

I knew that the pad­dle was a light­weight bal­sa sort of wood and wasn’t going to hurt a whole lot even if some­body got hit with it. Not like it was oak or ash and heavy enough to bust a head.

Go clock out I told Ricky and he was sober­ing up now from the adren­a­lin and backed up a few steps then walked up past the office to the time clock. It was silent till he was gone then the black girls gath­ered chirp­ing around Dar­rel. The foot­ball coach had told him to put on 15 pounds of mus­cle and get in top shape along with get­ting his ass enrolled at Mia­mi Uni­ver­si­ty and he would let him walk on next fall for a try­out.

You’re a hero one of them tossed my way. The oth­ers cooed assent know­ing that if Ricky had swung the pad­dle they and Dar­rel would prob­a­bly have been blamed any­ways since black folks in Oxfor­dO­hio in 1974 were still used to tak­ing the blame for most every­thing involv­ing con­flict with white folks.

I was half crazy from lack of sleep and the work­load I had tak­en on. I was doing my stu­dent teach­ing all day and man­ag­ing the com­mer­cial laun­dry on sec­ond shift. The col­lege and my spon­sor teacher had told me I couldn’t do what I was doing and I’d said okay and went ahead with it any­way. What were they going to do? Throw me out of school because I had to work my way in the world? My days start­ed at six and end­ed about 12:30.

All I want­ed was for these folks to get the fuck­ing laun­dry done so I could be fin­ished for one more day. I didn’t even have time to drink any­more. I was sur­round­ed in this col­lege town by beer and drugs and pussy and I spent my days with a class­room of eighth graders then tons of bloody hos­pi­tal laun­dry from DaytonO­hio.

Let’s do the laun­dry I told every­one. They grum­bled as they made their ways slow­ly to their assigned areas. The first loads of hos­pi­tal gowns from the dry­ers had just hit the fold­ing tables and I put half the sorters over there. The big steam roller press we ran the sheets through was run­ning good tonight. All eight of the wash­ers were churn­ing suds except for the cav­ernous four hun­dred pound capac­i­ty behe­moth that Ricky had been pulled from and tossed like a bag of laun­dry across the con­crete floor.

He’d called Dar­rel a fuck­ing nig­ger then made the mis­take of turn­ing back to his work of stuff­ing a fifty pound mesh bag into the wash­er like it was busi­ness as usu­al after the insult. I have no doubt that Dar­rel had first called him a crack­er like I heard lat­er but I didn’t real­ly give a fuck. There was laun­dry to be done so I could go home and guys call­ing each oth­er crack­ers and nig­gers I didn’t have time for. Some­body some­where along the line should be respon­si­ble for telling all humankind that some moth­er­fuck­er soon­er or lat­er was going to call them a crack­er or a nig­ger or wop or dago or a sono­fabitch and that the cor­rect response was to grin and say that’s not nice and walk away. But no. Young men and old men had to beat each oth­er with bleach pad­dles and oth­er blunt objects when some­body called them a name. Sticks and stones moth­er­fuck­ers.

They were all back to work and I head­ed to the office and tomorrow’s les­son plan. We were going to lis­ten to Richard Nixon’s res­ig­na­tion speech from the spring of the year. Clas­sic dip­shitese. God help us that a piece of shit like Nixon could have been elect­ed pres­i­dent. There would be a writ­ing reac­tion to his speech and I was jot­ting down top­ics when the lit­tlest black girl was back again breath­less.

Rickey’s mom is here.

The lit­tlest black girl was hot and I loved it when she pressed up next to me. When I had first seen her and the oth­ers togeth­er the first night I saw that she was the lit­tlest one and that’s what she always was in my mind—the lit­tlest black girl. Her real name was Cindy. She wore over­sized glass­es. I liked her cute lit­tle ass and her nice boobs. She pushed close to my desk eye­ing my les­son plan. I could feel heat escap­ing from the neck of her white blouse and smell a nat­ur­al sweet­ness through her Ivory soap. I real­ly was start­ing to like her.

You the man­ag­er? I heard gruffly from the door­way.

I am the tired moth­er­fuck­ing man­ag­er I want­ed to say but instead said yes ma'am.

I learned in the next fif­teen min­utes from Ricky’s moth­er that Ricky was a fine upstand­ing youth with a fam­i­ly to sup­port and he damn well need­ed this job and she damn well expect­ed him to keep it or she would use her con­sid­er­able clout as assis­tant head of house­keep­ing of women’s dor­mi­to­ries on the South Quad to damn well make my life hell at Mia­mi Uni­ver­si­ty.

We had walked out of the office to the laun­dry area and she kept look­ing down the aisle at Dar­rel and he kept track of where she was look­ing and I wished there had been some grav­el to kick. They were the Oxford Hen­leys I was told. Gen­er­a­tions of them had lived on the same farm and lit­tle Ricky was des­tined for some form of great bull­shit. I took in all she was say­ing. I didn’t want trou­ble with any­body.

 ***

I nev­er aspired to be a laun­dry man­ag­er. I saw an ad in the Oxford Press for sec­ond shift help for min­i­mum wage at the Oxford Laun­dry down the hill on Col­lege Avenue. I didn’t real­ize till I got there that it was a com­mer­cial laun­dry. They did one hun­dred per cent hos­pi­tal laun­dry that I was soon to find was gross as punc­tured intestines. There were some­times fin­gers or oth­er ampu­tat­ed body parts wadded up in the bloody sheets or organ­ic items no one even want­ed to try and iden­ti­fy. Most­ly it was just bloody.

I usu­al­ly helped at the hor­ren­dous job of sort­ing. Help with some of the shit­work. Show the ladies I was one of them. And get them start­ed on it. They would stand and look at it some­how think­ing they could avoid what they knew they had to do. All of them had to say eww at least twice and exam­ine each bas­ket­ful as if siz­ing up the ene­my.

I usu­al­ly said let’s sort this shit and grabbed a tan­gle of gowns and sur­gi­cal garb and they squawked like teenagers which half of them were. The black kids were all under age 20 and the white ladies were old­er pick­ing up a few bucks for their fam­i­lies for Christ­mas. When­ev­er pos­si­ble I assigned the old­er folks to this job. Hav­ing learned that bulling ahead was the best way to deal with bad shit in life they would get it done quick.

It was a nice June day when I applied for the job. My breath was sucked from me when I entered the place. Heat radi­at­ed off every item in the plant. Wash­ers and dry­ers, Steam boil­ers and press­es. But I came to find that it was a dry heat like they say Ari­zona has and was some­thing a per­son could adjust to.

Min­i­mum wage was $2 an hour. That would feed me. I had a thou­sand dol­lars saved up from my stint as a sales­man and only need­ed to get through anoth­er nine months. Turns out they were putting on a com­plete­ly new sec­ond shift to take care of a con­tract for a Day­ton hos­pi­tal and the own­er want­ed me to be the night man­ag­er. I had only want­ed to work about twen­ty hours a week but he offered me $200 a week salary. I could hard­ly turn down a job in a col­lege town dur­ing the Viet­nam War at two and a half times the min­i­mum wage. I took the job and it near­ly killed me.

***

My les­son plan was fin­ished and I was help­ing Dar­rel load the wash­ers. I enjoyed heft­ing the flop­py fifty pound mesh bags into the open­ings of the wash­ers. It was good exer­cise and I didn’t have to do it if I didn’t want to.

I was prob­a­bly respon­si­ble for the mess with Ricky and Dar­rel. The wash­man duties amount­ed to a per­son and a half job and we had two peo­ple to do it. They had been alter­nat­ing on the shit­ty part of the job with one of them at any giv­en time sit­ting for extend­ed peri­ods while the oth­er worked. The boss had noticed this when he stayed over a few times and told me he want­ed them busy. So I told them to work togeth­er think­ing that they would only make each oth­er mis­er­able. Not get stu­pid about it.

I tossed a bag into the medi­um wash­er in the mid­dle and saw a man enter the rear of the place through the fire door. He head­ed for the lit­tle roller press where Dar­lene was feed­ing pil­low­cas­es and an argu­ment ensued. Dar­lene was one of the hill­bil­ly ladies. She seemed glad to be here at work every night and did a great job help­ing get the laun­dry done and me home.

She rolled her eyes and shook her head no all the while tug­ging tan­gled wet pieces out of the bas­ket.

There’s no fuck­ing sup­per I heard him say.

She was telling him what was at home to fix for him and the kids and he stood look­ing down at the gray enam­eled con­crete floor.

I took a step clos­er and he turned his head toward me. And you bet­ter just stay the fuck out of this he said.

Before I could react to what he said Dar­lene cut past me and was plead­ing for a few minute break to get her goofy half drunk hus­band out of there.

No prob­lem I assured her and head­ed back to the wash­ers. I kept my eye on them near the back door and in five min­utes all the shout­ing was over and he stood look­ing at her with his low­er lip quiv­er­ing and I swear he wiped a tear from his eye before she pushed him out the door into the park­ing lot.

Dar­lene hur­ried over to me. Thanks she said. We need the mon­ey from my job. It won’t hap­pen again.

I stood nod­ding my head and watch­ing her hur­ry back to her job. With an edu­ca­tion she would have made a good nurse or maybe a teacher. Folks worked hard. Every­where I’ve ever seen it’s the same. Peo­ple hump ass all day and night what­ev­er it takes to make a liv­ing. Bet­ter than grow­ing turnips for the king I guess but the work­ers always seem to get the short end of things.

I smelled John and turned to find the old man lean­ing on his broom. He was a human cloud of BO. Hot tonight he said blow­ing the sweet scent of Boone’s Farm Apple wine over me. That’s good wine he had told me one day. Bet­ter than that rot­ten Moger Dav­en he called the MD 20/20. I didn’t have the heart to tell him it wasn’t even real wine. But Boonie’s was pret­ty friend­ly stuff for a dol­lar twen­ty-five. In high school we called it liq­uid acid. A bot­tle of that stuff would set you free. Some­times I envied old John his dai­ly Boone’s Farm.

John had been a medic on Guadal­canal. The first 24 hours left him crust­ed in a lay­er of blood and dust and sand and he had start­ed shoot­ing up with the mor­phine from the emer­gency kits of the dead men. It was the only way he could keep going and do what a man and a sol­dier need­ed to do. After that he would nev­er again go anoth­er day with­out being fucked up on drugs or booze. Set­tling on the Boone’s Farm as he entered old age was prob­a­bly one of the bet­ter choic­es he had made in thir­ty years.

The evening was mov­ing along nice­ly now. The last of the dirty stuff was in the wash­ers. The work­ers were all doing a great job. I hadn’t had a chance to talk to Dar­rel and didn’t real­ly know what to talk to him about. Today was pay­day and every pay­day Thurs­day I treat­ed myself to a piz­za and some beer. The laun­dry paid in cash and I fin­gered the $157.36 in my pock­et and envi­sioned the piz­za. I head­ed back to the office think­ing maybe I could get a lit­tle nap.

But first I need­ed to sketch out the rest of my cours­es to com­plete my Mas­ter of Arts in Edu­ca­tion. That’s right. Mas­ter of Arts in Edu­ca­tion. Mia­mi had devel­oped a pro­gram to lure folks like me with a BA in Eng­lish to come and take a few more Eng­lish cours­es and the usu­al lame ass edu­ca­tion cours­es in order to allow them to step inside an Ohio class­room.

Nev­er mind that a BA in Eng­lish was far supe­ri­or to a degree in Eng­lish edu­ca­tion. I had start­ed on the edu­ca­tion route as a col­lege fresh­man and last­ed fif­teen min­utes into my first class. We were actu­al­ly sup­posed to divide into teams and cut out paper dolls. Yes. We would learn team­work that would be demon­strat­ed by this child­ish exer­cise and would apply all the way to high school Eng­lish instruc­tion.

In my time here at Mia­mi I had seen things. Behav­ioral objec­tives was one of them. I had sat lis­ten­ing in amaze­ment to an exprin­ci­pal turned col­lege pro­fes­sor explain how we would learn to write our les­son plans couched in terms of behav­ioral objec­tives. It would nev­er be good enough to say we will read Neigh­bor Rosicky and dis­cuss it in class. No. We would say that the read­er of Neigh­bor Rosicky will learn the mean­ing of com­pas­sion and hope­ful­ly become com­pas­sion­ate. Hah. I’ve seen plen­ty of peo­ple who will nev­er com­pre­hend com­pas­sion and civil­i­ty.

One such indi­vid­ual was in the grad­u­ate sem­i­nar in mod­ern poet­ry that spring. I was a writer of short sto­ries and had a nov­el under­way but the poet­ry sem­i­nar was what was avail­able. The logis­tics of the course escaped me and before I knew it I had end­ed up with Yeats and my pre­sen­ta­tion would be the first.

I was a Robert Frost kind of guy if I were to under­take poet­ry at all and was befud­dled as we went around the con­fer­ence table intro­duc­ing our­selves. When it was my turn I said my major was Mas­ter of Arts in Edu­ca­tion. One long­haired draft dodger thought that was fun­ny and burst out laugh­ing. I was get­ting ready to become a high school teacher to earn a liv­ing and this moth­er­fuck­er was rub­bing my nose in it. A gray-haired lady poked him with an elbow and he shut up.

So I’m mulling over my dis­con­tent remem­ber­ing being made fun of because my dad­dy didn’t have blank checks for Mia­mi Uni­ver­si­ty and bags of pot. Think­ing about how I’m even going to sur­vive the next eight fuck­ing weeks of 20 hour days when the lit­tlest black girl stood breath­less again by my desk. I inhaled her sweet­ness and fra­grance. I want­ed just me and her to go some­where.

She leaned into me and said Darrel’s uncle is here.

I looked quizzi­cal­ly up at her.

Do you think I’m smart enough to go to col­lege? she asked.

I stood up and saw my chance to give her a hug and did. Yes I said you should go to col­lege. She hugged me back and I was ready to see Darrel’s uncle.

Hen­ry was a lit­tle short­er than Dar­rel but twice as wide and his breath smelled like garbage. I could not imag­ine what cheap form of whiskey could smell so foul.

I’m sure he had a noble pur­pose when he made plans to inter­cede at the laun­dry after he and the rest of the neigh­bor­hood heard of the fight. But now that he was here he didn’t seem to remem­ber why he had come.

Dar­rel my nephew he said.

I shook his hand and it was like grab­bing hold of a pota­to mash­er all hard and so big around I didn’t feel his fin­gers.

Equal­i­ty he shout­ed belch­ing a fog of garbage gas over me. We been through a lot.

I looked at Dar­rel to maybe see a way out of this but Dar­rel seemed as scared as I was becom­ing.

Jus­tice the uncle thun­dered and brought his right fist down like a pile dri­ver on the stain­less steel work table buck­ling its cen­ter and leav­ing it con­cave.

I stepped back as much to get away from the stench of his breath as any­thing and he stepped right with me.

It ain’t agonna hap­pen again he said.

This was a big man. Prob­a­bly 350 pounds and not a lot of fat. I learned lat­er from Dar­rel that night that Hen­ry had played defen­sive tack­le for the Steel­ers in the mid fifties.

Henry’s growl­ing and thump­ing went on for anoth­er five min­utes until Darrel’s aunt got there and start­ed slap­ping Hen­ry in the back of the head. Then she had the bleach pad­dle that had ignit­ed this whole mess spank­ing his back­side and chas­ing him across the floor as he held his hands over his ears and final­ly tum­bled out the back door into the park­ing lot.

I looked at Dar­rel and he shrugged and I shook my head. I sat along the wall for a few min­utes watch­ing the folks work. The lit­tlest black girl was by her­self push­ing bas­kets to the back of the plant and this told me the rest of the fold­ers were sit­ting. Let them sit. Let the work­ers of the world sit when they can I decreed.

It was after eleven when I went out and fired up the box truck and backed it into the load­ing dock. Tonight three of the black girls vol­un­teered to help push bas­kets and racks to the dock. Dar­rel and I sized up the load and got start­ed.

I had always tried to be friend­ly and fair to Dar­rel and Ricky. They were dif­fer­ent but both were hon­est and did their jobs. We were about half way done load­ing the truck when I asked Dar­rel what hap­pened.

He called me a nig­ger.

And?

I grabbed him.

You made con­tact first?

He was drunk.

Yeah I said.

I wish I could have got Dar­rel and Ricky sat down togeth­er. It would all just have been all right. They both would have jobs and be mov­ing ahead in what­ev­er they saw as the paths of their lives. But Ricky’s moth­er and Darrel’s uncle had mud­died that up. I didn’t ever want to see any of them again.

After we had fin­ished and stood lean­ing against the dock I told Dar­rel this was his last night too.

He fig­ured that was com­ing from the con­ver­sa­tion we had had while load­ing the truck and nod­ded.

I heard the girls argu­ing about what kind of three two beer they were going to get at the car­ry­out. One of them had her dad’s pick­up and they were going spot­light­ing on the road to Col­lege Cor­ner to see what was out in the coun­try at night.

Hey I hollered across the cin­der park­ing lot to the lit­tlest black girl.

Hey what?

I shrugged.

She ran up to me and gave me a seri­ous and squishy kiss then bounced gig­gling across the lot to the wait­ing Z71.

I shut down the boil­ers and locked up. Down the block I stopped at Domino’s and ordered a piz­za. I drove out to Mil­ville where I bought a six pack of real beer and drank one on the way back to get the piz­za.

pancoastWilliam Trent Pancoast's nov­els include WILDCAT (2010) and CRASHING (1983). His short sto­ries, essays, and edi­to­ri­als have appeared in MONKEYBICYCLE, Night Train, As It Ought To Be, Sol­i­dar­i­ty mag­a­zine, and US News & World Report.  Pan­coast is retired from the auto indus­try after thir­ty years as a die mak­er and union news­pa­per edi­tor. Born in 1949, the author

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