by Ed Nichols
Walking home from the mill, Boyd Johnson stopped and turned to look at the four-story brick monster. Ten years today, he’d spent in the bowels of the beast. In the weave room, fixing looms. “Keep ‘em running, BJ,” his boss would say every morning. Never called him by his real name—just BJ. Near the end of Boyd’s shift, his boss would always say, “Set ‘em up good now for the boys.” The boys being the men that followed Boyd on the night shift. The mill windows were half-open and he could hear the roar of the pulleys and gears, and shuttles moving back and forth on the looms. He caught the smell of oil and rubber and washed cotton coming from the ventilation fans on top of the mill. He shivered and rubbed his eyes. His back was hurting.
He walked up on the porch and opened the front door. He heard his wife, from the kitchen, “That you, Hon?”
He laughed softly and said, “Naw. It ain’t me.”
She met him in the hall, leaned up and kissed him. “Hard day?”
“Yea. Back’s killing me,” he said in a low voice.
She smoothed her apron, took his lunch pail, and went back to the kitchen. “Get you a hot bath. I’m frying some chicken for supper.”
“That’ll be good,” he said.
Relaxing in the bath tub, he let his mind go blank. He closed his eyes. For a while the water was still and nothing crossed his mind. The images appeared suddenly and without warning. Tom Benson, withering on the ground, staring at the two stumps where his legs used to be. Mike Caudell, half his face gone, trying to say something—his arms outstretched toward Boyd. Junior Sims, holding his guts in his hands. The smell of napalm and burning skin rushing up his nose. He suddenly spit in the tub water, before he realized what he’d done. Sometimes, the smells from the mill would remind him of odors from Vietnam.
For supper they ate fried chicken, green beans, potato salad and cornbread. He drank three glasses of iced tea. Then he helped her clean the table and wash the dishes. She kept telling him to go sit and watch television. “I know you’re tired,” she said. He wouldn’t go. Standing behind her at the sink, he put his arms around her waist. With her hands deep in the sink water, he moved his hands slowly up her body and cupped both of her breasts. He squeezed softly and kissed her on the side of her neck. She tilted her head back and they kissed. She smiled.
He released her, and said, “I think I will go to the sofa.”
“I guess it’s too cold to sit on the porch.”
“It is. I may go out later and smoke,” he said.
They sat in the living room on the sofa and watched television. He reached for her hand, and told her, “I have something important to say.”
Her eyes widened. “Okay. What is it?” she asked.
Boyd stretched his legs. He said, “You know what today is, don’t you?”
“November first. How come?” Then she put her hand over her mouth. “Oh, my gosh. It’s your anniversary date at the mill.”
“That’s right. Ten years ago today, I started.”
She reached over and placed her hand on his thigh. She said, “It’s hard work, isn’t it? But, what’s something important—your anniversary date?”
“No. Not the date.” He paused. “I’ve been thinking about quitting the mill.” He reached for her hand. She was silent. “I keep searching, in my mind, for something different,” he said. “Something that will give us a better life.”
She said, “You know I love you, and whatever you…I don’t know. This mill village is all I’ve ever known. But you know what the mill did to daddy. If you hadn’t married me and lived with us…I don’t know what I’d done when he was so sick.”
“Mill work was all he ever knew,” he said.
She leaned over and kissed him. “You’re a fine man, Boyd Johnson, and if you want to quit the mill, then do so. You can find another line of work.”
“Here’s what’s been going around in my mind,” he said. “What if we move, away from here?”
“Leave this house?”
“Yea. Sell the house. Move to South Georgia or Florida. Get out of these mountains. Live where it’s warmer, all year.”
“Oh, Boyd,” she said, and then she went silent.
He looked at her and knew her mind was trying to grasp the idea. This proposition he had sprung on her, out of the blue. He said, “We can get a trailer for the pickup and load everything we want to keep, and go south.”
“Oh, Boyd,” she said, “this is the house I was born in, and the house where we lived with daddy—I don’t know. Maybe…we….”
“Well,” he said. “Think about it, okay? Moving south, I mean.” She laid her head on his shoulder and they watched television, and didn’t talk about it anymore.
Later, he stood on the front porch and smoked while she took a bath and got ready for bed. He looked up and down the street at the single light bulb glowing on the front porch of each mill house. All the houses looked just like their house. He stood and smoked, and looked and listened to the mill noises. Long enough, he thought.
He went in, locked the front door and turned the lights out. Then he went into the bedroom, undressed and got in bed under the covers. The bedroom was cold. She came out of the bathroom in her nightgown and slid in the bed. She was warm. He reached over and turned off the nightstand light. They lay on their backs in silence, eyes open to the ceiling.
“Well, what do you think?” he asked her.
She didn’t answer. He didn’t press her. He turned on his side facing her and put his arm over her stomach. He said, “You know, you are always on my mind. Always. And if you want to stay here, we will.”
She turned to face him. “Boyd, I read an article in a magazine at the library. About a little town near the ocean in Georgia. A place where there’s a lot of shops and restaurants and all. A neat, clean little town. The pictures in the article were so pretty.”
“What was the name of the town?”
“I don’t remember, right off. Saint something, I believe.” She put her hand on his arm and rubbed softly. “You know, now that I remember looking at the pictures, I remember wondering how it would be to live in such a nice place. Isn’t that weird, me thinking that, and then what you’ve been talking about tonight?”
“I’ll bet I could get work in that town. Repair work on shops, restaurants. Maybe painting and such,” he said.
“I’ll bet you could, too.”
They kissed. He slept peacefully, the roar from the mill a distant dream.
Ed Nichols lives outside Clarkesville, Georgia. He is a journalism graduate from the University of Georgia, and is an award-winning writer from Southeastern Writer’s Association. He has had many short stories published, online and in print. He is currently working on a collection of stories.
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Passionately Ran, Compassionately Fed.