the most they ever had

Outsiders like to talk about the working people of the Deep South in clichés, like to say their lives are consumed by football, stock car racing, stump jumping, and a whole lot of violent history.  But it is work that defines them.  You hear it under every shade tree, at every dinner on the ground, whole conversations about timber cut, post holes dug, transmissions pulled.

They do not ask for help from outsiders, unless it is from a preacher, a lawyer, a doctor, people who have skills they do not possess.  They can, most of them, lay block, pour concrete, swing a hammer, run a chainsaw, fix a busted water line, and jerk the engine from an American-made car with muscle, a tree limb, and a chain.  If their car breaks down at the side of the highway they do not call AAA.  They drive the roads with a hydraulic jack, a four-way lug wrench, and a big red tool box that takes two hands to lift and jangles with one thousand leftover screws.  They have installed a million radiator hoses by the glow of a Bic lighter, and would have no more left the house without jumper cables than without pants.  They know how a septic tank works, how to wire a laundry room, how to safely pull a tick off a two-year-old, and how to unravel a bird’s nest from a Daiwa reel.

The women are tougher, still.  They know how to compress time, how to work a twelve-hour shift, cook a good supper, run a sewing machine, sing to the baby, ghost-write homework, go to choir practice and the Food Outlet, pick an armload of tomatoes from their own vines, and watch General Hospital, at 9 p.m., on the VCR.  They eat supper as early as 5 p.m. and are in bed by 10 p.m. — because at 4 a.m. they have to wake up and do it all over again.

They live in little frame houses perched almost on the lip of the highways, in modest brick ranchers on the wet side of town, or in the mill village itself, in what used to be company houses.  On weekends they drive to Leesburg to fish for crappie, and on Christmas they shoot mistletoe from the high branches of trees.  The men — and some of the women — will go at you with a tire iron if you insult them, but they can swallow a lot of bile, if it means a job.  They cash their checks, usually, instead of depositing them, because they have to sacrifice the future for the right now.  They play Rook on Saturday nights, and consider fried bologna and canned biscuits to be a first-rate breakfast food.  They know a deer roast tastes less gamey if you soak it overnight in a pan of buttermilk, and can reupholster a pickup seat with a sheet of vinyl, a quarter-mile of nylon cord, and a pair of needle-nose pliers.

It is the work that makes them, holds them up.  They like the fact they can measure it, see yarn filling up spools, see how perfect it is.  They would hate, most of them, sitting at an office keyboard, moving phantom money around on a computer screen, then glad-handing a boss with a real Rolex and a phony smile.  On the mill floor, you never stopped to gland-hand — the machines would stall, and the chains of production would break.


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