Ellis Dodd had time on his hands, not a lot probably, but
certainly all he had left was his own. He still went to his office
every day, only these days he needed it more than it needed him.
Things ran splendidly without his hand at the tiller and Ellis had
little real business to conduct. Every morning, in the manner of a
ritual, he read the paper, not all of it; the obituaries always, the
sports from summer into early fall, and on good days the comics.
One morning his son came up to see him.
"Have you seen this, Dad." Ellis looked at his son as
though he hadn't seen him in years, wondering how the boy had
gotten so old. He looked at the pages placed before him. By
the time Ellis had finished his son was gone. No, he hadn't
seen this. He most certainly had not. He took the rest of the
Ellis Dodd walked along the chain link fence, searching
for something he was certain he would find. He didn't expect to
be the first or the only, because someone, he felt, was bound to
have been there already. Someone had been, and between the
rusted water tank inside the fence and the back of the ruined
community center outside, he found a neatly snipped opening .
A foot hardened trail led from the fence to the mill building.
"So many," he marveled, "so many that they wore a
He bowed beneath the remaining wire and entered as one
who had a right to be there, not as a trespasser. Like those others
on this path before him, he knew he had earned a last visit -- a
right to view the body before it disappears into the earth.
Ellis walked away from the half-wrecked, community
center building, he couldn't bear to look at it, but it followed him,
entered him, and revealed itself to him not as the ruin he saw
now, but as it was then.
Then.....It was night, humid, honeysuckled night,
and Ellis was sixteen again. There was music and laughter. The
street in front of the Community House..... yes, that was it, the
Community House. Not Center, but House. How could he have
forgotten that?...... The street? Oh yes, the street was blocked off.
People were dancing... Japanese lanterns were strung over the
street and people were dancing under them. People, people
everywhere, on the verandah of the Community House, sitting on
their porches, standing on the sidewalks, everywhere. Where
could he go? His palm began to sweat lightly and she squeezed
it tighter. Iris, her name was Iris and she knew a place.
"This way, Ellis."
Behind the Community House, darker, cooler, private.
Between the wall and the tall boxwoods, a bower, she knew
how to get there. Iris knew. The smells: night air, the earth, her
body. A cotton dress under his hand sliding over her thigh, her
They remained there through the speeches. They listened
to Donald Jr., silver hair and silver tongue, talk about the great
things that had happened that year, the progress the mill had
made, about the dreams of his father, his grandfather, the whole
race of Cramers. The history of the mill from the first two bricks
mortared together to the most recent load of seersucker shipped
out this morning. He went on so long that they embraced again.
"We have plenty of time, Ellis."
When the speech ended, and they joined the crowd
swelling toward the refreshment tables, they were starving. Ellis
wanted to eat, but he also felt like running and jumping and
singing. He marveled at himself, he was amazed at how he felt.
Iris smiled at him, she had seen this before, and tucked it into her
mind like a secret trophy.
Iris. He had not thought about Iris in years. There had
been a time he could think of nothing else. What happened?
And when? He walked past the rusty tank, the mill was a
shadow in the corner of his left eye. Not yet, he wasn't ready.
Ellis walked to the right. The doors of the warehouse stood
wide open, inviting. The warehouse first. Then, when he was
ready, the mill.
It was empty, swept clean. Not so much as a bale ticket
left. He wasn't surprised. Donald Jr. had kept things clean. The
Cramers always kept things clean, even at the end. Who had
overseen this? The son? No, probably one of the grandsons.
They were all cut from the same cloth, whatever one
Cramer did every Cramer did. Except perhaps this very last one
who lost the mill. But, it was clean, and there is something to be
said for leaving a place clean, especially for the last time.
The sound of his heels echoed off the walls. If there had
been pews he would have felt he was in church -- the service
over, the people gone to Sunday dinner, nothing left but Ells
He looked at the rough wooden walls, and saw white
spots in the gloom. Cotton, bits of cotton stuck to nail heads
and splinters in the wall. He tore a piece loose and rubbed it
between his fingers, he held it to his nose and smelled Roger
Roger Ivey never wore shoes in summer and when Ellis
spent summers with his grandparents he threw his own shoes into
a closet to be forgotten until dread September neared.
Then, he lived. He lived in shifts of days with Roger and
nights with his grandparents. Ellis slaved with Roger in the
cotton fields to buy them time in the woods or at the creek. They
took turns, one at the plow, one on the mule's back until the
cotton grew as high as Mr. Ivey's thigh. Then, with hoes so worn
that the blades were no wider than the breath of three fingers,
they chopped the weeds away from the cotton plants. They
chopped until the hoe handles were wet with blister water. It
was glorious, it was youth, it was barefoot summer.
By September Ellis was almost as wiry as Roger, but by
September it was over for Ellis and feet that had spread until one
toe never knew its neighbor had to be painfully crammed back
into shoes, shoes that would climb onto a city bound train, shoes
that would be jailers until that great liberator, summer, came
once more to imprison shoes and free boys.
Then finally, one summer was the last summer and Ellis
never lived barefoot again.
In the empty warehouse Ellis stood tearing the cotton
fibers into fine lint that floated to the floor like milkweed. His
chest heaved once and he turned and walked into the daylight,
toward the mill.
The lock had been broken, then rehung in the hasp after
the door was open. An apology? Ellis knew he would have done
the same thing. Inside was the vestibule, straight ahead the doors
to the weave room, that would reserved for last. Left, the stairs
rising up to the other floors, each floor the home of some
operation essential to the making of cloth. The wall to his
right.... the time clock was gone. The metal racks for the time
cards were empty. Hundreds of slots, filled hundreds of times,
thousands of days, millions of hours. Pennies for wage.
He remembered something he had heard countless times.
"The mill don't pay much, but they treat you good."
It was half true. There were street dances, there was low cost
housing in the mill village, there was Mr. Donald Cramer
Senior's camp on the coast where every worker could have a
week a year in a cinder block bungalow, but there was no escape.
It was a life sentence. No, it was more than that. The same
subtle indenture that bound Roger to the cotton field, had bound
Iris to the mill village, and each generation of seasons there
would appear a new Roger, a new Iris, a new Cramer. A new time, the same culture.
He went up the stairs and visited each room, the place of
each operation: the roving room, the spinning room, the slasher
room, the dye house, the spooler room. the quill shop, the
machine shop, the winder room, the carding room. His head
swam at the thought of how many men and women it took to
produce a bolt of cotton cloth. And children, he had started at
fourteen, it was hard to remember that he had ever been a child.
In the carding room he found one bit of debris that the
last Cramer sweeper had missed. It was a piece of brittle cast
iron from one of the carding machines, the big bristling drums
that combed and stretched the cotton fibers so they could be
turned into the loose fluffy yarn called roving. The piece of iron
had a date, 1899. Nearly a hundred years, he thought. This
place has been "good " to people for nearly a hundred years.
Ellis had lived long enough to become a hostage to his
possessions, to feel the responsibility of survivorship, that death
duty that can be paid only by another death. Until then graves
must be tended against the day when....... Ellis thought morbid
thoughts every time he tried to catalog the mass of crumbling
photographs he had become heir to. These fading, long dead
faces added compulsion to his visit, they were with him now,
and he became the eyes of the dead. He could find among them
few who had no connection to the mill, to cotton. A grandfather
in a band uniform, the mill band. At twelve years old this
grandfather had conducted John Philip Sousa's band at a concert.
One tune, Stars and Stripes Forever? He could not remember, he
knew the mill had sponsored Sousa's visit. Other pictures
visited him, the same grandfather, hair parted down the middle,
thin mustache, a tuxedo. His own band, the drummer had
painted a palm tree on the big drum. Jazz, he could almost hear
it. Years later, an aging man in overalls, a weaver for the mill.
His mother's father in a baseball uniform, the mill team.
He knew this story. A bad hop at the Cubs try-out. The eye
never the same, but there was always a place at the mill for even
a one -eyed machinist. They were good about that.
Pictures, faces, stories -- all different, all the same. He
dropped the bit of iron and walked down to the weave room.
The doors opened inward. He prepared himself for the
silence and entered. Once, when he was fifteen or sixteen, the
power in the weave room had failed. The stillness was
unsettling, the nerves in his ears resonated to a vanished tempo,
the way an amputee feels an itch on a discarded limb. He took a
few steps into the huge room, one whole floor of the mill. It
wasn't so bad.
If the warehouse had been a church, the weave room was
a cathedral. A tall ceiling supported by massive piers, all wood.
There were no longer trees from which to cut such gigantic
beams and planks. There would never again be such trees, they
couldn't live on the same planet as men.
The oak floor showed the places the looms had stood,
over four hundred of them. He was standing in what had been
the central aisle. He moved to one side and stood in a worn cross
aisle, looking down at four ragged bolt holes in the flooring.
A Draper, this had been a Draper Loom, slow, steady,
rhythmic, and able to weave horseshoes and dice onto a western
pattern, never missing a spot on the dice. He held out his hands
like a child standing before a player piano. He could feel it, a bass
thump, thumpthumpthummp. From the rear of the room the
tenor of the E Models, the oldest looms, English made. The
Belgian Picanol's a humm, a blurr, fast tight weavers. Rich
baritones. Soon he could hear them all, feel the floor vibrate
beneath his shoes. From the din, the cacophony; a theme began
to develop, theme of motion, heat and passion. He looked at his
flabby arms and saw the muscular arms of a teenager, arms that
every night had wrestled ninety pound rolls of cloth away from
whirring, smashing, pounding robots.
He had grandsons now, grandsons older than he was then,
one of them worked with him-- just down the hall, in an office of
his own. Ellis looked across the vast room, a wooden door. The
foreman's office, industrial green to the height of a man's
shoulder, stark white above. His grandson's office was larger and
better decorated. The boy worked at a computer terminal,
constructing from electrons and imagination, structures of glass
and steel; modern, light, clean buildings. Buildings with
dimensions tailored to fit the voids left by the passing of the
great cumbersome dinosaurs like this mill. New kinds of
buildings for a new kind of men, a new kind of world. The boy
teased the old man because he was "computer illiterate." Ellis
was and he would stay that way, but his looms had been
primitive computers: loops of chain had controlled the batteries
of shuttles that shot across the loom, batted in ceaseless line
drives by tappets on each side of the breast beam. Ellis could
weave any pattern by adjusting his chain: stripes, checks, plaids,
dice that rolled boxcars instead of little Joe. He could create any
pattern the foreman would allow or demand. He manipulated the chains of his
mechanical charges and the Cramers manipulated him.
Ellis went into the foreman's office and closed the door.
He closed it just as Mr. Donald Jr. had done all those years ago.
Donald Jr. gave Ellis a gift. He was proud of Ellis. He
said so. It is hard to finish high school and work a regular shift.
(A twenty-five dollar savings bond, it would appear in the
mill bookkeeping the next day at cost: $18.50.)
Was Ellis aware that the mill needed educated men if it
was to survive and compete during the coming years? Had Ellis
ever thought about becoming a foreman?
He never had but he did not say so.
Loans could be arranged. Ellis could go to technical
college. Repayment by payroll deduction, just like for housing
in the mill village. No cinder block bungalows for foremen, they
could stay in the big house on the Florida trips, unless a Cramer
was in residence, of course. Think it over Ellis, think it over...
Ellis Dodd walked out of the mill a little straighter than
he had walked in. Tomorrow, after he had finished the
obituaries, checked the box scores, and read Peanuts, he would
walk downstairs to Ellis Jr.'s office. He would thank his son and
return the documents about the mill property project. He would
approve the plans his grandson had drawn. Then he would move
up the demolition schedule. Ellis Dodd wanted it to make a
clean job of it.