|Drexel Furniture, circa 1906|
By the time I arrived in western North Carolina during the summer of 1997, the furniture industry was already dwindling away. I had hoped to find a teaching position in Asheville but I was late to apply. I ended up here, in this small town at the foot of the Appalachians. In time, I would get used to the sight of those far-off mountains, gently sloping and green, bare in the winter.
First driving in, I passed a sprawling lumberyard with stacks of rough lumber and jagged-mouthed machines parked on precarious-looking inclines. Their mechanical appendages were extended as if they had been frozen in place, mid-task. Running parallel on the other side of the street, there lay railroad tracks and trailer parks. A Mexican restaurant the size of a gymnasium with an attached video-rental place. Farther down, past a few stoplights and gas stations, three enormous cinder block structures stood side by side, each with a narrow row of square windows just below their roofs. These were Broyhill plants 9, 11, and 3; across the street, a shorter building was marked Bernhardt number 4. I’d stumbled upon the furniture giants, the powerhouses of the region.
The massive, unadorned buildings, pumping purple-gray haze from their chimneys, were eyesores against the backdrop of those ancient mountains. And yet, I think I felt it already then. The primordial quality to those stopped machines in the lumber yard, the sheer size and heft of the factory buildings. The thunderous bulk of the freight train, the weather-dampened green and orange crepe paper at the Mexican restaurant’s entrance. I had found my imagination’s home. Years later, in my fictionalized account of the region, I reasoned that this place had settled into a dip in time. I had discovered something like a lost world. It was as if those huge buildings, like bigger-than-life paper weights, kept the town and its people in place.
I had never before lived in a town where everything centered on a single industry. The traffic swelled at four o’clock, when the shifts changed. Thanksgiving was celebrated on Friday instead of Thursday since that was the day the factories stopped production. Everyone left town the week of July fourth, when the factories were closed. The movie-house and liquor store were jam-packed every other Thursday afternoon—payday. The Baptist churches were just as crowded. I learned that, though many held a deep and sincere faith, for others, religious observations were a sort of superstition. Drinking and Friday night cruising were life’s biggest sins, and it all was washed away during Sunday morning altar calls.
I was there, in those churches. On weekdays, I taught the children of the factory workers. In time, I was invited to be a part of their families. My fiancé’s little boy’s maternal grandmother—who adopted me as graciously as if I weren’t engaged to the man who had impregnated her teenage daughter a few years earlier—labored over a sewing machine in one of the Broyhill plants all day, and in the evenings, she laid a heating pad across her sore shoulders. There was a weariness to her and the others that came not just from the long hours bent over loud, cranky, often outdated machines, but also an accumulated weight. It came from her years at that machine, the heavy upholstery fabric slung over her shoulder, her stiff fingers quick at the machine—this was piece work and she was paid according to how many seams she sewed. It seemed to also come from the factory workers who had come before her, as if physical tiredness and the sort of exhaustion that comes from being watched by the critical eye of a foreman all day were connected to her workstation, hovering over her spot in the long line of production.
These jobs paid well enough that people rarely thought of working elsewhere, yet not so well that, aside from factory mistakes, they could actually afford to purchase anything they had produced. The evidence of their craft was shipped off to the showrooms in High Point and, once upon a time, the fancy resort hotels in the mountains. The workers stayed behind, and their beautiful furniture went out to houses in cities they would never themselves lay eyes on.
Eventually, all this gave rise to a story I had begun constructing, dimly, in the back of my thoughts the day I first drove past those somber, half-empty spaces. I started writing it in earnest years later, and the town I constructed, Goliath, became my fictional rendering of not just Drexel, where I live, but it also incorporated bits of all the small factory towns scattered in this area. I found an exquisite, almost mystical beauty to the timelessness of these places, and to the unspoken tragedy unfolding around me. These people were as hopeful as they were frightened, watching the furniture companies shift production—these people’s very livelihood—bit by bit overseas.
In my novel, I describe the factory, now closed, as something like a cathedral, and there does seem to be something sacred and beautiful to the emptiness of the huge, gutted buildings. I have given my made-up characters something the real-life factory workers in this area will not likely see: a definitive ending. In reality, this lost world is simply fading away, plant by plant. The workers retire or drift into other occupations. I wanted to instead give them a final day, a send-off. I wanted to commemorate their life and their work and to flesh out a microcosm of this place, a place we all, to different degrees, inhabit—the intersection of hope and foreboding. In Goliath and elsewhere, I believe there is a yearning to both see and not see the depths and uncertainties of our futures, a tendency to both forget and hold fast to our pasts.