160. The Dry Goods Man

So. He could
Still get in.
Skeleton key
Scraping in the lock.

He stepped through.
The stock had been
Cleared: few cans
Remained. And hanging
Still above the counter,
Portrait of his boss:
“Mr. Randolph Tally,”
Marked “Proprietor,”
Face enshrined like
Roosevelt’s, or Christ.
That face stung his
Eyes. Shamed by
Unchristian thoughts, he
Turned away.

Store had closed.
Third  job he’d
Lost–the third.
A disgrace.
He sat on his
Stool–same stool, same
Store–but now no
Customers, their
Out and in, their
Questions: have you got….
All gone.
Out of work.
Worse: I’m getting
Old.

Years past, he had
Worked inside the mills. Dark
Warehouse rooms,
Spinning cotton thread.
Giant looms, huge
Spools and blades,
Flywheels whirring,
Wide as three grown men.
Close at hand
Machines roared next to them:
One girl’s hair was
Snatched clean off her
Head. She’d bent
Over, spool had
Sucked her in.
Scalped her. Blood….
Girl beside her
Tore off her own skirt,
Wrapped it round
The skullbone, naked, white.

After that
The girls had started talking,
Men too–and they
Planned what they would
Say. Rehearsed it.
One day they asked
Could they see
The owner, Mr. Vaughn. Then
Mr. Vaughn had
Called him in, that week.
Mr. Vaughn sat
Back behind a desk,
Smoking nothing,
Offered a cigar. Lit it
For him.
          So, said Mr. Vaughn: You’re
          Ring-leader.

First, he’d not
Replied. But then, just like he’d
Practiced, got it out: Sir,
Those of us now
Working in the mill,
We’d like weekly
Meetings with the foremen–
Do it after
Hours, nine or ten.

          Meetings? Why?
With cigar held in his hand
Unsmoked, he’d answered,
Well, we have
Suggestions. Jackson’s
Built a guard bar
For the blades.
And the girls, they
Changed the schedule.
Gets us home by
Dinnertime some days.
Buyers will be
In from Houston soon,
And the men in
Shipment….Sorry.
Don’t mean to
Run on.

          Jackson. That
          Black boy?
Yes, sir.
Mr. Vaughn sat
Stiff. He tapped a pen.
          He said: So.
          Francis. I’m
          A reasonable man.
          Textiles doing
          Mighty well these days.
          What’d you say to
          Four more cents an hour?
          Just for you. Boys,
          Girls, two. Been awhile.

Listening, his
Cigar had hung
Loose: had he heard
Right? He set it
Down. What should he
Do? He cleared his
Throat. Said:
Mr. Vaughn, Lord
Knows, I’d be
Last man in
The world–that raise,
Four cents–fine–
But I think those
Meetings….These
Ideas, they’re rough–
We would want you
There, the foremen too….
He’d stopped talking.

          Four cents
          Fine, that right?
And he’d answered:
Fine. Smiling,
Mr. Vaughn:
          Good. It’s settled
          Then. You go and
          Tell the rest.
          Tell them buy
          An extra beer tonight, candy
          For the wife.
          Tell them to start
          Planning for that
          Car.

Now, he
Found himself just
Staring at the wall:
“Randolph Tally, Proprietor.”
Wondered idly
If he’d get in trouble–
Empty store.
He wiped off
The counter with his sleeve.
All his careful
Inventories, counting week by
Week, had done no
Good. Still,
Store had failed. He’d
Never learned to
Write–so on
The inventory sheets, he always
Drew. Cow-head
On a sack, for cattle-feed.
Chick, for hen-feed.
Notions, bolts of
Cloth, he came to
Sketch quite well–
Then make quick straight
Marks, each neatly
Perfect, standing
For each sold.
Any day he
Could tell Mr. Tally
Dry goods kept in
Stock, exact amount.

All that
Extra work he’d brought home–
All those months his
Wife, her back in
Spasms, watched him
From the bed,
Complaining of his
Busyness–then
She had been
Suspicious, ever
Since in church she’d
Overheard Bud Hines:
“It was clerk’s own
Fault he lost that job”–at that
Other store, after Mr. Vaughn
Had let him go. And
Now he’d lost
Another….

He eased
Off his stool.
Others had been
Kind. But now
No food. My
Back’s not strong.
Getting old, he thought,
Picturing that
Auto he had
Bought, all those long
Years ago.
It had felt
So good.
Spotless tires.
Bought on time.
And the shining hood.

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