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Hometown legend, p.9
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       Hometown Legend, p.9

           Jerry B. Jenkins
 
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  And so Rachel did. Over the next two days she asked everybody she saw, including everybody at church. Lots of em told her they’d be there. I didn’t want to pop her balloon, but I didn’t expect much to come of it. “I invited the county school board,” she said, “and it looks like they’re coming.”

  That was a surprise.

  • • •

  Monday morning Bev had that meeting for me with Lee Forest and a few others off the line. They’d volunteered to come in for it on their own time but there was no way I was gonna let em do that. I told Bev, “Keep track of the time, add a half hour to it for each of em, and see it’s reflected in their pay.”

  She looked funny, like she wasn’t following. “Got it?” I said.

  “Yes, sir,” she said, but she didn’t write it down till she got back to her desk. A few minutes later she took a call and asked me if I wanted to talk to a Mr. Seals from Malaysia.

  “Who is he?” I said.

  “Wouldn’t say, but he’s calling from there.”

  “Long distance?”

  She turned in her chair and stared at me through the window. “That would be a fair assumption,” she said.

  I smiled an apology, but I guess she hadn’t seen any humor in my stupidity, which she usually does. “You reckon it’s about manufacturing?”

  “You reckon I’m clairvoyant?”

  She wasn’t mean. I was just dense. I pointed to my phone and picked up. “I’ll get right to the point, Mr. Sawyer,” the man said. “You can imagine what time it is over here and I can imagine how busy you are there, trying to keep your business alive.” He sounded so friendly and sincere.

  I said, “Fire away, Mr. Seals.”

  “I’m an American, sir, a southerner like yourself. I even played at Bama, like you did.”

  “You don’t say.”

  “You’re a straight shooter, I can tell. I’m probably not the first business owner in this part of the world to approach you, but I’d like to be the last. I don’t want to waste your time, but just let me say I’d like the opportunity to show you how you could do your manufacturing here at such a fraction of your current cost that even with shipping your raw goods to me—I assume you get them from Chicago like the rest of us—and my shipping finished product to you, you would increase your profit per unit by more than 25 percent.”

  I didn’t know what to say.

  “Are you still listening, Mr. Sawyer?”

  “Uh-huh.”

  “Good man. Now I know you’re finding that hard to believe because that shipping cost would be yours, and you’re wondering what you do with your equipment investment if you let us take over your manufacturing, though I’m guessing some of your machinery is more than a hundred years old.”

  Bev may not have been a mind reader, but this guy was.

  “I’m also wondering what I’m sposed to do with loyal workers that have been with me for decades,” I said.

  “Everybody faces that, sir. But with the profits you’ll be making, you could make them mighty happy with appropriate severance packages, couldn’t you?”

  Maybe I could, but I wasn’t about to start saying yes when he was talking about something I’d been fighting for years. “Some of my best accounts—”

  “Let me guess,” he said. “Those include certain leagues and bowl games that count on you for instant turnaround and for specially packaged kicker balls.”

  “Exactly.”

  “We can match and maybe exceed the quality of your top-of-the-line product and set you up with sufficient inventory to where you could always be prepared to ship overnight to those clients. And if you want to keep your equipment and your top half dozen tradesmen, you can keep a boutique operation there for specialty products. Am I making any sense here, Mr. Sawyer?”

  “Some, sure.” I didn’t want to say too much. I don’t like being bowled over. “I’ve been giving some thought to expanding our product line.”

  “Like any good entrepreneur. Other kinds of balls? Or gloves?”

  He had me. “Gloves.”

  “You have clients. You know your market. But don’t invest in new manufacturing hardware until you hear our prices on those as well. We both know the moneymaking part of your business is selling to retailers. Your good name stays on your good product, but we do the dirty work. I can tell you’re a thinking man, Mr. Sawyer, and that you don’t make snap judgments. I am prepared with two alternatives. Three of my partners and I will be happy to visit you and discuss this personally, and I will guarantee none of them will be Asian.”

  What was that sposed to mean? “I got no problem with Asians,” I said.

  “But you must admit that if an entourage comes to visit and any one of them is Asian, it could tip off your troops.”

  “I see,” I said, and he was probably right, but it still sounded rotten to me.

  “Or,” he said, “and frankly we prefer this, I am prepared to bring you and a loved one or one of your associates here, first class, all expenses paid, to put your mind at ease about our workplace, quality control, and ability to handle your work.”

  “That’s certainly generous of you, Mr. Seals. But I—”

  “Does either of those options sound better than the other at first blush?”

  I cleared my throat. “I spose if I was ever gonna consider something like this, I would need a certain comfort level with your operation.”

  “We’d love to have you and … Is there a wife, Mr. Sawyer?”

  “No, sir.”

  “You and anyone you choose—and if you wanted to bring others, we would work with you to find the most thoroughly economical way to bring them. Do you have your calendar handy there, sir?”

  “Well, we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here, Mr.—”

  “I would want this to totally be at your convenience. Of course there’s no better time than the present. I mean, if this is right for your business, that means that every day you delay—”

  “I’m certainly not going to rush into anything, Mr. Seals. This company has a long history—”

  “Absolutely, and that’s the reason I’m calling only you, sir. We’re not interested in manufacturing for just any—”

  “You wholesale yourselves, then?”

  “Well, no, sir, but we work with only the finest—”

  “What other stateside companies would you be manufacturing for, if you don’t mind my—”

  “Now, Mr. Sawyer, you understand that that would be highly confidential, proprietary information. You would enjoy the same level of confidentiality as any of our clients.”

  “But I wouldn’t be able to sell a product without ‘Made in Malaysia’ on it, would I?”

  “Unfortunately not, but as you know, that is a requirement of the United States government, not of Malaysia’s.”

  “Our government wants people to know when they’re buying other than American-made goods.”

  “Right, Mr. Sawyer. And while that used to connote lesser quality or cheap labor, the sheer number of widely known brand names who manufacture here has taken away much of that stigma. Now, with your raw goods coming from Chicago and being assembled here under your specifications, you might want to consider another option. You might want to have the final process handled right there in Athens.”

  “Athens City.”

  “Right. You might want to lace there or to inflate and mold.”

  “And what would be the advantage?”

  “To be able to stamp ‘Partially Manufactured in Malaysia with American Goods’ on each and every product.”

  “Uh-huh.”

  “Now, when can we schedule you and someone of your choosing? I suggest now only because I assume your specialty manufacturing for the season is likely finished and it’s just a matter of stamping the correct team names and logos on the balls for bowl games. Surely the head of the company doesn’t need to be there for that.”

  “Some days I feel like I ought to lend a hand on the line, Mr. Seals.”


  “That bad, huh? I knew your work force had been decimated the last few years, but I can only imagine how tough things are getting.”

  I had the phone pressed against my ear and both elbows on the desk. I rubbed my eyes. “All due respect, sir, but most of the people in this town, when they’re not blaming me for our predicament, are blaming companies like yours.”

  “Oh, believe me, I understand. That’s our biggest public relations challenge, Mr. Sawyer. But I hope you can see that we’re here to help. It just doesn’t make sense to pay more than you have to for production when margin is the name of the game. We cut your cost and improve your margin.”

  “And shut down my operation.”

  “That’s one way to look at it. But if I had a facility costing me more than it needed to, I’d seriously consider shutting it down.”

  I leaned back in my chair and stared at the ceiling. “Mr. Seals, to tell you the truth, I’m a patriot. Sometimes I wonder why, but if it comes to selling American-made and me worrying about who gets enough work to keep their families fed, you gotta know I’m gonna look out for my friends and neighbors first.”

  “That’s admirable, Mr. Sawyer. But you’re bearing the entire cost. You do everything you can to keep your business alive, and as it dwindles, you get blamed anyway.”

  “True enough.”

  “So what better time than now to come and see the possibilities?”

  I told him I was coaching and that the rest of the season would give me time to think about it. “But I don’t want to waste your time,” I said. “I gotta tell ya, this is a long shot. I don’t know if I could keep living in this town if I sold out to—”

  “Oh, Mr. Sawyer, don’t refer to it as selling out. We don’t want to buy your business. We want to help you to stay in business.”

  • • •

  That conversation was ringing in my ears as the clock moved toward the meeting with my old-timers. I sorta wished I’d told Bev to listen in to the call, cause she’s a good sounding board and I wanted to know if she thought I’d been wimpy. She was sitting there sorta spacey again. I mashed the intercom.

  “You okay in there, lady?”

  She turned slow and looked at me. Bev had been so low maintenance for so long that I knew something was up.

  “How much longer till Lee and the others come in?” I said.

  She sat there for a second, then checked her schedule. “They’re all on eleven to seven today.”

  “I know,” I said. “But they’re coming in early to see me still, right?”

  Bev stood quickly and bent over her desk, like she was trying to cover that she was sick or hurting. “Yeah,” she said. “Course they are. In half an hour or so. Oh!”

  She stood straight up and pressed a hand on her abdomen. I closed my eyes and opened em slowly. Bev hadn’t wanted me to hear or see that, I was sure. I mean, if she didn’t even tell me what she did on her own time, she sure wouldn’t want me to know about her, you know, female, feminine, women whatever.

  “Mr. Sawyer, I’m not feeling well.”

  I couldn’t remember her ever leaving work. She’d called in sick now and then, but once she showed up, I never had to worry she was gonna change her mind and go home. I felt like a jerk sitting there when I could see she was out of sorts, so I got up and went into her area. “Sit down for a second, Bev. You okay?”

  “I don’t know,” she said, looking pale. “I don’t think so.”

  “You need to go home?”

  “A little dizzy,” she said.

  “You want me to call someone?”

  “No. Let me see if this passes. I’d like to make it home on my own.”

  I looked at my watch, feeling like a clod. “You need me to run you? We can get someone to carry your car home for you later.”

  “This is so embarrassing,” she said.

  “Nothing to be embarrassed about,” I said. “When you’re ready, you tell me, and I’ll take you home.”

  “I don’t want you to miss your meeting. I’ll get Ginny to sit in here for me.”

  “I can have you home and be back here in time,” I said. She called Ginny and told her she was feeling under the weather and needed her to fill in for the rest of the day. “Would you rather she take you home?” I whispered. I wasn’t trying to get out of anything. I just didn’t want her feeling self-conscious.

  Bev shook her head and hung up, then stood slowly. She put both hands on the edge of her desk. I didn’t know where to look or what to do. “I don’t think she could help me if I fainted,” Bev said.

  Fainted? What was I supposed to do if she fainted? She reached for her bag, carefully slung it over her shoulder, took a deep breath, and moved away from the desk. I could have offered her my arm, but I didn’t want her to feel—oh, face it, I would have felt conspicuous. I musta been blushing, following her down the hall and out to my car, praying nobody was watching. It woulda been easy to explain, a course, but you don’t think about that kinda thing at the time.

  “You wanna take some medication or something?” I said, opening the passenger door.

  “Better not,” she said, hesitating and straightening again. “Since I don’t know what this is.”

  For some reason, that made me feel better. I didn’t know what it was either, but I didn’t have to worry it was something I didn’t want to talk about. I settled behind the wheel while she tried to buckle herself in, but that took two hands and she kept wanting to press the one against her abdomen. “I don’t think you need that belt for just a coupla miles,” I said.

  “I’d feel more comfortable with it,” she said, looking at me, and I knew I was gonna hafta help. I held the receptacle in place but still she couldn’t turn enough to get the clip into it. I grabbed that, but the belt had caught and tightened, so I had to let it snap back to the starting position. Now she was holding herself with one hand and keeping the other out of the way, so it was left to me to lean past her and do the whole seatbelt thing myself.

  She held her breath as I did it, and so did I, but there was no way I was gonna avoid incidental contact, if ya know what I mean. So I just buckled down and buckled her up, didn’t look at her, started the car, and got real serious about the rearview mirror. It hit me that I had worked with the woman for years and years and had never touched her, even by accident. I figured she was as embarrassed as I was.

  “Thank you,” she said quietly.

  I drove slow through town, not wanting to look at Bev to see how she was doing. So instead I looked at all the closed businesses. I think they made the town look sicker’n Bev was. “Ever had appendicitis?” I said.

  “No, and this is in the wrong spot for that.” She was so quiet she hardly sounded like herself. “Must’ve been something I ate. This is so embarrassing.”

  “Think nothing of it.” I was embarrassed enough for the both of us.

  I pulled all the way up the drive so I was just a few feet from the front door of her little house. She kept one hand on her pain and unbuckled the seatbelt with the other, but the thing started sliding across her and then just stopped. She looked at me. I grabbed the clip and shook it a little until it rolled back into place. Then I sat there like a doofus.

  “I hate to ask,” she said, “but could you walk me?”

  “Course!” I said, as if I hadn’t considered anything else. I jogged around the car and offered my hand. She’s a smallish woman, but she had trouble getting leverage. She seemed even unsteadier once she was standing. What I shoulda done, I knew, was put my left arm around her waist and let her hold my right hand with hers, but I couldn’t get that coordinated soon enough. I just offered her my elbow and we slowly made our way to her door. She hung on like she was really hurting.

  “Key?” I said.

  “Haven’t locked my door in twenty years.” She reached to open it. I didn’t know whether to help her in or what. “Think I’m okay from here,” she said, giving me her car keys.

  “Call if you need an
ything at all, ’kay?”

  She thanked me and shut the door. I shoulda offered to call the doctor for her, taken her to Emergency, something.

  19

  I got back to the factory just in time to pull in behind Lee Forest. “I’d like to trade for your hours,” he said, looking at his watch.

  I held the door for him. “No, you wouldn’t.”

  The three other older workers—Dave, Carl, and Belle— were waiting near Bev’s area, chatting with Ginny. They kidded Lee the way he had me—“Glad you could make it,” and all that. Ginny was full of whispered questions about Bev as I pointed the others into my office. Ginny had thought to add folding chairs.

  “I’ll let her tell you,” I said. “Meanwhile, get a couple guys from maintenance to run her car home for her. They can use mine as a second car.” I gave her both sets of keys and joined the others in my office.

  The four people across from me represented the oldest long-term workers American Leather had ever had. Carl reminded me he remembered when my wife was born. Past that, he and the other two were with Lee just for moral support. As usual, he did the talking.

  “Mr. Sawyer, we ain’t the kinda people who have a problem with young people being our boss.”

  “I know and I appreciate that.”

  “We go back as far as Estes himself, and it’d be easy to criticize anybody who came after him.”

  “Used to do that myself,” I said. Every time he had a problem, a question, or an issue, he started the same way. My mind wandered as I sat taking in the signs of a lifetime of leatherwork in the arms and hands before me. Belle had mostly run the cutting machines and done lacing and inflating and molding. But the men had been turners in their younger days, using a straight or curved metal rod to help muscle the balls rightside out before the finishing process, and their biceps and forearms were massive and rocklike. Their fingers were orange, their knuckles big and bony, and nobody but their peers would dream of arm-wrestling em.

  They were all in less strenuous jobs now, running the sewing machines or inserting bladders. But they were still eight-hour-a-day piece workers. They had seen the place humming and been there when the records were set that now faded on banners in the rafters.

 
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