Saturday, February 18, 2012

Furnitureland

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 fiancĂ©’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.

9 comments:

sherylmonks said...

Beautiful.

Susan Woodring said...

Thanks, Sheryl. Means so, so much coming from you...

katrina said...

I agree. This is beautiful. I pass by an empty furniture factory on my way through West End and there's something mournful about it and the small patch of town I drive through. I'm looking forward to your book.

Nancy Posey said...

Susan, as you know, furniture brought us to North Carolina, and it's been more than luck that's kept my husband in one of the companies that's still successful. It's a family-owned company with a culture that cares bout the local people and the local economy. It breaks my hard to see the good companies that sold out then disappeared. I love your rendering of Goliath. So far there's not a false note!

Karen McBryde said...

testing to see if it works now that I have a gmail account.

Karen McBryde said...

It worked! Your post, which is gorgeous by the way, elegiac, reminded me so much of one of my favorite passages in all of English literature from Sherwood Anderson's short story, A Death in the Woods. This passage haunts me almost, touching on our primal need to make sense of the world, our yearning for the kind of truth only story can deliver.

This comes at the very end of the story, which is told in retrospect...a fact you forget until you come to the very end.

"The scene in the forest had become for me, without my knowing it, the foundation for the real story I am now trying to tell. The fragments, you see, had to be picked up slowly, long afterwards.

Things happened. When I was a young man I worked on the farm of a German. The hired-girl was afraid of her employer. The farmer's wife hated her.

I saw things at that place. Once later, I had a half-uncanny, mystical adventure with dogs in an Illinois forest on a clear, moon-lit Winter night. When I was a schoolboy, and on a Summer day, I went with a boy friend out along a creek some miles from town and came to the house where the old woman had lived. No one had lived in the house since her death. The doors were broken from the hinges; the window lights were all broken. As the boy and I stood in the road outside, two dogs, just roving farm dogs no doubt, came running around the corner of the house. The dogs were tall, gaunt fellows and came down to the fence and glared through at us, standing in the road.

The whole thing, the story of the old woman's death, was to me as I grew older like music heard from far off. The notes had to be picked up slowly one at a time. Something had to be understood.

The woman who died was one destined to feed animal life. Anyway, that is all she ever did. She was feeding animal life before she was born, as a child, as a young woman working on the farm of the German, after she married, when she grew old and when she died. She fed animal life in cows, in chickens, in pigs, in horses, in dogs, in men. Her daughter had died in childhood and with her one son she had no articulate relations. On the night when she died she was hurrying homeward, bearing on her body food for animal life.

She died in the clearing in the woods and even after her death continued feeding animal life.

You see it is likely that, when my brother told the story, that night when we got home and mother and sister sat listening, I did not think he got the point. He was too young and so was I. A thing so complete has its own beauty.

I shall not try to emphasize the point. I am only explaining why I was dissatisfied then and have been ever since. I speak of that only that you may understand why I have been impelled to try to tell the simple story over again."

You need to publish this post Susan, in one of the glossies, even turn it into a modern love column and get it in the style section of the NYTimes, about the beginnings of your relationship with Danny.

Susan Woodring said...

Katrina, thank you so much. It is haunting, all the little pockets of ghost towns that dot this state, all the way from where you are, in the east, to me, all the way out here near Asheville, and beyond.

Susan Woodring said...

Nancy, thank you!! I am so glad you're still enjoying the book and you have no idea what your saying the book feels like a true rendering of this area means to me. Thank you, thank you!!

Susan Woodring said...

Karen, I love, love, love this passage. Thank you so much for this. I love the story of the old woman and the dogs, about how she was the kind of person who fed animals, even after she died. Oh, oh, oh!!!

And, I love your idea of working this up for some kind of publication. Marrying Danny really was about embracing this region...something to ponder. Thank you, thank you.