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.
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.
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.
William 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