Sunday, January 16, 2011

Forrest City*

I was sweeping in front of the automatic doors when I noticed the bundle of fliers stuck into the payphone, off to the side by the soft drink machines. There were few cars in the parking lot, and the stores in the rest of the strip-mall were mostly empty.

I grabbed the fliers and unrolled them. A gritty Xeroxed picture of a burning cross dominated the top center of the page. Underneath, directions to a park on the edge of town. I knew the place. My band had competed in a battle of the bands contest there the summer before.

I re-entered the store. The manager's office directly to my right, was empty. A black girl was on register, but I was unsure as to whether to show this to her or not, how she would take it. I headed towards the back, hoping the manager would be there, though I didn't know what he would do about it, if anything. It just seemed like the thing to do.

I pushed the floppy plastic doors open and entered the stockroom, but the manager was nowhere to be found. This was not unusual. Joe, one of the butchers, was loading boxes into the box crusher. He was a thin, forty-something year old. We got along pretty well; he used to be in a local band that had a bit of a name for themselves, twenty years ago.

"Hey, you seen John?"

He shook his head.

"Look at this," I said. "They were stuck in the payphone," I added. "I can't believe this shit. I mean, what century is this?"

"They're not so bad," Joe said.

He dug his wallet out and showed me a membership card.

"I only went one time, with a buddy of mine."

I stared at him.

"What do you mean you went one time?"

"Just a bunch of old boys," he said. "They don't mean no harm."

* * *

Forrest City was named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate General generally recognized as a brilliant tactician who was also a founding member of the KKK. Growing up, I had heard tales of Forrest's exploits. Deemed a freedom fighter by many; legend had it that the Nazis had studied Forrest's tactics while formulating the Blitzkrieg.

According to the 2000 census, Forrest City was 60.9% black, 36 % white. Though my experiences in Forrest City occurred in the mid-nineties, I had been told time and again that Forrest City was violent. Rumors of gang violence circulated so frequently that we hardly bothered checking the papers to verify them. It was something we all knew. People were murdered in Forrest City, as surely as they were in West Memphis, which was only a few miles to the east. It was only out of desperation that I took a job there.

* * *

Back out on the floor, still looking for John, the manager, I found Kevin, a black coworker, stocking. Kevin was thin and smart in a way that made me think he should wear glasses, but he didn't. He was also a musician hoping to be a producer.

"Hey man, I've got to show you something."

We ducked into an aisle and I showed him the fliers. I explained my encounter with Joe, and told him to be careful.

"I'm trying to find John to tell him about it, but he's gone."

"That preacher's one of them too," Kevin said.

He thanked me for telling him and went back to work; I threw the fliers away and came back out and helped him.

* * *

John Calvin, the manager, was a Baptist preacher. He had a little church out in the country, and the story was he'd retired from managing years earlier, and had only come back to the new Sav-A-Lot grocery store as a favor to the owner, Mr. Edwards, who owned all the grocery stores in Forrest City, and a few in other towns. I was hired by Mr. Edwards directly, before the store was even open for business, and my first encounter with John was after I'd been working for a few days.

I was stocking the bare shelves, arranging and rearranging the aisles according to the will of whoever was around at the time, and I went to the back room to use the restroom. As I entered the room, I met three or four of the ever changing group of men who were referred to as "managers." I hadn't bothered to learn any of their names because I didn't know which ones would actually be staying with the store. Some were regional managers for Mr. Edwards, some worked for the Sav-A-Lot chain, and some were from other stores just helping out.

Directly in front of me was a large man, boyish and round with curly light brown hair, wearing a white shirt, dirty slacks, and a tie. I didn't know who he was, specifically, only that he was a "manager." This was John. He stopped me and spoke with a Texas drawl. "Hey, there any colored people in the store?"

The question took me by surprise. He studied me with nervous eyes. After a moment, I answered truthfully, "I have no idea."

Another manager, whom I later learned was named Sam and managed the meat department, assured him that there weren't.

John picked up the intercom phone, hanging on the wall by the door, and spoke into it in a ridiculously exaggerated, vaudevillian black accent, as though he were about to tell an Uncle Remus story, "Massa Billy, we sho would appreciate it if you'se 'd come on back here wit' us white folks."

A couple of them laughed and the rest eyed me until I went back onto the floor. I was ashamed that I hadn't said anything to them about it.

One of them followed me out, an old grizzled man, and he caught up to me as I started back working.

"Quit that looking around," he barked. "Get to work."

"You told us to keep an eye out for spills. That's all I'm doing."

"Well, you look around too much."

* * *

Most of my conversations with John had to do with my sorry soul. Once he stopped me, right up front by the registers, and lectured me for twenty minutes.

"Your soul," he said, "is like an egg."

He talked slow and high, and put his hand on my shoulder.

"And your unbelief is like wax. Now you can dip that egg in wax one time, maybe two, and that egg's still pretty easy to break through. But if you keep dipping that egg in wax, you see, the Holy Spirit can't break through."

"How egg-xasperating," I mumbled.

Sometimes I brought books in to read during break. After a few months of John criticizing them, I gave up trying to impress upon him the value of reading. I would talk instead about reading things I knew he would disapprove of. I talked about reading histories of religion, Frazier's The Golden Bough, things he'd probably never heard of.

"I'm too afraid to dabble in that sort of thing," he told me. "You better be careful. You'll mess around and go too far. It's not good to know too much about things."

I hated John, not only for his preaching, but for the fact that he hired his own children, both too young to legally work, hated him as the months grew with a passion I had never experienced before. He seemed to represent everything that was wrong with this little town, this state, which I wanted desperately to break free of. I got into arguments with his kids all the time, especially John Jr. a teenager who looked sort of like an upside down bowling pin. He was a bully, picking on the black employees, ambling around the store like it was a playground, under the protection of his father.

As much as I hated John Sr., he hated me. I was a smart ass, young and brash, eager to lash out at a place I felt was holding me back. I looked at this job as being a mud puddle on the road of life, which made him, I suppose, the head guppy. Maybe he meant well by trying to save my soul, or maybe he was trying to save face. I looked at it as laughable at best.

Mr. Edwards, the store owner, came in about once a week. He was an incredibly wealthy old man, which was rare in the Arkansas delta, one of the poorest places in the country. He owned all the grocery stores in town and a couple in other towns.

Since Mr. Edwards had been the one who hired me, I felt as though I was really working for him. At one point, after I'd been working at the store for four or five months, I asked John about the criteria for raises. Normally, in retail jobs, I had found that there was an initial evaluation period, usually from 30-90 days, and after that, a small raise. When I asked John about Sav-A-Lot's policy on raises, I couldn't get a straight answer out of him, so I asked Gary, the district manager who worked directly under Mr. Edwards.

"I'm not even asking for a raise, I just want to know what the criteria are. How do you get a raise? How often? That sort of thing."

"How much do you make now?" Gary asked.

When I responded that I made minimum wage, he immediately gave me a fifty cent raise.

"I'll tell John," he said.

For days after this John avoided me, glaring at me from a distance.

Whenever Gary or Mr. Edwards were in the store, John took to hovering nearby. He would send me to the back room, away from them, but often Mr. Edwards asked after me. It wasn't so much that Gary or Mr. Edwards took a liking to me, as that I inserted myself into their awareness. The other employees hid, but I took no shame in befriending these higher ups and took every opportunity not only to talk with them, but to work in front of them. It seemed to me that by befriending successful men, maybe I could learn from them.

Mr. Edwards was also on the board of the local community college, and a few months after I started working for him, he encouraged me to go to college, even though I'd had abysmal grades in high school, and would have a hard time getting in. Gary would reminisce about his experiences in Fayetteville, which sounded like the stuff of bad college movies.

"You're a bright kid," he said. "You should go to college and get our of this place."

With Mr. Edwards' help, I started that summer, taking eighteen hours, working forty plus a week to pay for it. Due to the lack of employees, I took over managing the produce department. This meant unloading the truck at 7 a.m. stocking produce, running to class at 9:30, back to work at 12:30, back to class at 2, then work, for six weeks. There would be a similar schedule for the next six weeks. By the end of my first month, John came to me to talk about my performance.

"I don't know if you can go to school and still do this job," he said.

"You're right," I said. "Put me back on the floor."

"Well, I think you just need to-" he said.

"Put me back on the floor, I can't keep this up."

Later, I saw him already training his son to take over managing produce.

I had started working there in January. By early summer, John and I were the only employees left from the original bunch, including the assistant manager. Most of the others had been black. Late in spring the meat department left en masse, all but one, who stuck it out for a few more weeks. I had worked retail before, I knew about high turnover, but this seemed a bit much. They all grumbled about John. They talked of driving by the store late at night and seeing John’s turd-colored van backed up to the door. Things came up missing.

It took me a couple months to realize that the black employees were often fired a week or two after starting, usually for stealing.

I overheard John talking with the office manager, a sponge haired woman named Amanda, about one girl.

"Why are you hiring her?" Amanda asked

"We've got to," he said. "Don't mean she's going to last."

It didn't hit me exactly what he meant by that until they fired Tony.

Tony was a tall, broad-shouldered young black guy who smiled as easily as a lot of people in the store scowled. He was what my father would have called a bull-shitter from way back. I was friendly with him, liked to work with him. He played drums at his church. His mother came in fairly regularly, and he introduced me to her. We were nodding acquaintances. Maybe a month after he started, I realized that I hadn't seen him in a week, at least. His mother came in, and though I smiled at her, and tried to chit-chat, she wouldn't speak to me. After she left, I asked a black girl on register if she knew anything about it, and where Tony was.

"They fired him. Didn't you catch him? That’s what I heard."

"No, Tony wouldn't steal," I said. "Who told you I caught him?"

"He did," the girl said.

I had two tires slashed while I worked at Sav-A-Lot. I discovered the slow leak in the first one and when I took it to be repaired, the guy pointed out to me that it had been cut shallow, on the side.

"So it would blow out while you're driving," he said. "Someone's trying to fuck you up."

Late in the summer, they fired John and his sons. Mr. Edwards, Gary, and a couple other "managers" came in. I hadn’t seen this big a group of them since the first days, before the store actually opened. There was a weird vibe in the store. I went to talk to Mr. Edwards about my slashed tires. I knew who'd done it, everyone knew. The enmity between John and me had trickled down into his sons, but as is often the case in these situations, there was no proof. I wanted to ask Mr. Edwards if I could park nearer to the store, so that I could watch my car. He was distracted, and when I looked up, John and his sons were being marched outside by Gary and some others. I ran out to my car, and John revved, in his van.

"Come on out in front of me so I can run you over, you son of a bitch," he yelled.

I ran back to the store and he drove off.

The atmosphere in the store became like that of a scolded household. We all worked long hours, filling the void.

Maybe a week later, John came back with his sons to pick up, I assumed, his severance check.

"How's unemployment treating you?" I asked John Jr.

"Great," he said.

I walked off, and he stayed, talking to Kevin. Later, Kevin came up to me.

"He said he's going to slash your tire again," Kevin said. “Said you’re the reason they got fired.”

I went to the front of the store. John Jr. walked out to the parking lot and looked back at the store as he neared my car. He saw me, standing, watching him, and paused. We stared at each other for a moment, and then his father came out. They all loaded in the van and left, and that was the last I saw of them.

I heard conflicting reasons for John's firing. The story he told around town was that Mr. Edwards had tried to make John work Sundays. All Gary would say was that this wasn't the reason, and John was lucky that this was all that was done to him. Anita, the office manager, let slip that there was a discrepancy with the
books, but wouldn't say anything more.

With John gone, Anita moved up in rank, and I worked longer and longer hours. I stayed for the rest of the year, until the store deteriorated so badly that I gave up and quit. The next spring, I moved to Fayetteville, to go to college. I knew that I was lucky. Mr. Edwards had been good to me, encouraging and helping me to start college. The other employees hadn't had that. And the discrimination I had faced because of my aspirations and lack of religious fervor were nothing compared to what the black employees had faced. I was annoyed, they were unemployed.

I never told Mr. Edwards about Tony or John's possible Klan connections. I kept my head down, and I got out, which in some ways made me as bad as John.

The KKK, I had been taught, was formed as a last ditch effort to preserve southern traditions. They hid under sheets because, though they knew they were sinners, only God was allowed to know who to assign the sin to. They could be anyone, under that sheet. So you never knew who to trust. In a way, they were everyone.

I was reminded of something Kevin had said to me after Tony was fired. We were stocking the chip aisle, and talking about what had happened to Tony.

“That preacher, he’s a dream-killer. This whole place is. That’s all they study around here, keeping people down.”

*Originally appeared in The Cimarron Review.


Glenn Buttkus said...

Another great story, and how very
appropriate to post it so close to
MLK Day. You have both the
southern background and poet's
liberality going for you in this
one, ending it on a positive beat;
suggesting that it is still not too
late to let go of racism. Your
references to having a band, and
playing in a band, of course, also
have that ring of authenticity.

Hey, I finally goggled the name
of this blog and found it is from
a quote by William Faulkner;
Literature 304--courtesy
Mr. Bledsoe.

Unknown said...

Looky there, at all the character that one job built in you. I never realized it was that bad there, I knew it was tough, you working and going to school. This makes a big sister want to put a smack down on some red necks....