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  • Cotton Compress*
  • Robert J. Williams (bio)


They marched into the yard like survivors of a massive blizzard. Cotton dust powdered the tops of their denim caps and unkempt heads, despite Vina's repeated directive to "Brush it off, leave it outside!" Their conversations, bounded by boisterous, doubled-over laughs, carried on all the way to the porch and into the orderly line they formed at the kitchen door. They cussed the most incompetent foreman on the planet, teased one fellow about his wife's tar-baby complexion, and longed for the day when "Miss Vina" would forget her ornery widow ways. Then, getting a whiff of the kitchen aromas, they speculated on the source: Rabbit? Squirrel? Vina would never tell. As long as it adequately sustained them until quitting time, what difference did it matter what meat made its way into her stew?

Before allowing the men to come inside, Vina carefully raised the morning's concoction upwards to Randolph, her nephew, home for the summer after completing a first year of graduate school up North. "How that taste?"

Randolph answered with a tight-lipped wince. He dashed to the sink, spat, and then positioned his mouth beneath a stream of rust-flavored tap water flowing from the faucet, relieving the peppery burn festering on his tongue. Vina tossed a rag over her hunched shoulder, not bothering to explain what Randolph knew: she used bad meat. Damned near rotten. The pepper masks the stink. The men from the cotton compress wouldn't have it any other way, she'd once said.

Randolph shook his head. "Now this exemplifies the twisted psychosis of the oppressed Negro. Our perceptions of ourselves remain so perversely distorted, we heartedly believe in our inherent inferiority. We can only conceive ourselves as deserving less than what we truly deserve. So we eat stinking, rotting meat because the bigoted universe ordains it to be."

"Nephew, if all those words mean 'them lint-headed niggers eat it because they like it,' then yes, I shall find agreement with you. Now, I thank you for coming to visit your old auntie, but erase all that lecturing from the chalkboard inside your brain and help me serve up these bowls before you up and take off. Those empty bellies outside want to be filled with food, not all your college words."

A unique enterprise had been fashioned under the grand shed and in the old warehouses on the other side of Mill Street, directly across the way from Vina's and a row of other [End Page 92] tidy clapboard homes. Fortunately so, most would claim, as it provided employment for dozens of its Turpin Hill neighbors. Hour after hour, day after day—save the day of the Lord—bales of cotton paraded into the back of the building and magically transformed into smaller bales for compact and efficient loading onto waiting boxcars destined for mills, ports, and manufacturers in various points North and South. Cotton compressing was all they did across the street. The economics and presumed profitability fascinated Randolph. How long does it take to train a man to operate the powerful machines that squeeze the cotton as tightly as earthly physics allows? How much time and money do the bosses and owners lose to the idiosyncratic ways of their workers' ilk, fickleness, or prevalence for sickness and lies? How does one account for losing productivity to actual aches and pains lodged deeply into their backs and legs? How many fuel-draining railroad trips are subsequently saved by having those noisy machines squeeze six oversized cubes of cotton into the space of one? What deals secured the land beside the railroad tracks? What clandestine negotiations determined the allowable regulated density of the compressed bales? Engineers, accountants, mathematicians, politicians, financiers—a hundred smart men must have reasoned through a hundred ideas to produce the logistics that created the employment that paid the wages that produced the nickels traded daily for Aunt Vina's forsaken stew. The budding socialists back at the university had no appreciation for cooperative invisible hands steering the wheel of innovation, steadied and encouraged by the rewards of free markets.

No time to ponder such...


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pp. 92-99
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