The Tennewa Shirt Factory
Emmalee Bullard became a Tennewa girl on the last Thursday in May. She woke early that morning, like always, in the back of a two-room house squeezed in tight at the foot of Pine Mountain. But today she'd slipped away beneath the oaks and cedars without waking her father.
A steady line of cars pulled into the Tennewa parking lot, and women, mixed in conversations, spilled out of each automobile and herded past her. They giggled and pushed against one another as they funneled inside the one-story building, not noticing the willowy teenager lingering behind them. Standing on the rough asphalt drive outside the shirt factory, Emmalee listened to the hum rolling from the building's open doors as it swelled and deepened. The sound coursed through her body and lured Emmalee closer.
The shift bell rang. Emmalee climbed the concrete steps leading to the sewing room and slid onto the factory's floor, hugging the wall like a shadow skimming along smooth and silent. A dozen fans spinning from the whitewashed ceiling provided the only relief from the thick morning air. Fluorescent bulbs cast an artificial glow about the room, and the hardwood flooring, its patina smooth with age, sparkled beneath the light. High-set windows spanned both sides of the building, but most of the panes had been painted gray.
Heavyset women with thick, flabby arms and weathered skin sat in perfect rows next to younger girls with slender frames and long hair clipped behind their heads. Concentrating on the fabric streaming through their hands, they looked almost dwarfed in the large space. Their bodies nearly touched as they hunched in front of their machines, trying to make ends meet with every single stitch. Even those who had rushed past her in the parking lot had already taken their places and begun the day's work.
"You hunting your mama? Go on in, girl," said a man in oil-stained coveralls with a tool belt hanging low on his hips.
"What you need?"
The man took another look at Emmalee.
"How old are you?"
He grinned and pointed to a closed door. "Office is over there."
"Thank you," she said, her eyes turned to the floor.
The office walls were painted the color of butter beans not quite ready to pick. A few metal folding chairs and a rack for hanging coats were the only furnishings in the small space other than a tall wooden counter anchoring the right side of the room. A woman perched on a stool behind the counter peered over the rim of her cat-eyed glasses and smiled.
"Can I help you?" she asked and adjusted the glasses on the bridge of her nose. A wad of blond hair teased and piled on top of her head held a ballpoint pen and a yellow pencil. Emmalee thought this woman beautiful and caught herself admiring her pearly skin and perfect red lips.
"Sweetie, you need something?" the woman repeated.
"I was wanting to know . . . I mean I was wondering if . . ."
"What is it, hon?"
"I'm wanting to work. Here. At Tennewa."
The woman studied Emmalee.
"How old are you?"
"Well, you need to be eighteen. Anything younger than that and you'll have to get a permit. It's not a big deal, but we'll need it on file here. So how old are you?"
"Seventeen," Emmalee said. She tucked her hair behind her ears. "Come September. I'll be seventeen in September. I'm sixteen."
"Okay." The woman shuffled a stack of papers but kept her eyes on Emmalee. "That's fine. You graduate from high school early?"
"Don't go no more." Emmalee did not confess she had quit only yesterday. She had run late for the bus again, and Nolan refused to drive her the four miles in the pickup. He said it was time for her to get a job, not waste her days listening to a bunch of bullshit. He wasn't carrying her nowhere near that school, he told her.
"That's okay, hon. We always ask. I don't recognize you though. You from Cullen or you drive over from Pikeville or Jasper?"
"Who your people?"
"Hmm." The woman tapped her pencil on the counter's smoothed top. "You by chance Nolan Bullard's girl, the one that makes them crosses when somebody dies?"
Emmalee looked away. She knew people in Cullen had heard of her cross-making. She had seen plenty walk back into Red Chert to inspect her handiwork. Some thought it interesting, pretty even, while others poked fun. Emmalee didn't want to talk about it no matter how this woman judged her habit of commemorating the dead.
"Yes, ma'am," she said.
"How about that. I'm Gwen Whitlow." She extended her hand over the counter. Emmalee hesitated but shook the woman's hand. "I heard you made a cross for my daddy when he passed two years ago. Landis. Landis Williams. You remember him?"
"Yes, ma'am. I remember them all. Their names, that is."
Emmalee knew the full names of all those who had died in Cullen in recent years: George Chester Lamb, Floyd Wade Kenner, Berta Grant Price, Landis Bell Williams. She had made a cross for each one of them, even those she didn't know or didn't much like. But she had lost count of the number of crosses made since starting eleven years ago come June fifteenth, only four days after her mama died.
"Heard they're all nailed to an old tree. Nearly covered up by now."
"Yes, ma'am. A white oak. It's dead too."
"Huh. How about that." Mrs. Whitlow pursed her lips and rolled her stool a few inches back. "Kind of a peculiar thing for a young girl to be doing," she said. "But you look normal to me, and we are hiring. Can you sew?"
"Yes, ma'am. Some." Emmalee could place a button on a shirt and stitch a simple seam on a machine, all things she had learned at school. She made a two-pocket apron last spring, even placed the hem by hand.
"You don't really need to know how. We'll train you. This is real specific work. It just helps a bit, especially in the beginning. Any chance you had Easter Nichols for Home Economics?"
"Yes, ma'am." Emmalee stifled a small laugh. She had never heard anyone call her teacher by her first name.
"Easter's been working here since she retired from the high school end of last May. She's a wonderful seamstress. Does beautiful work. Always meets her quota unless she gets to talking." Mrs. Whitlow tugged on the ballpoint pen buried within the beehive heaped on top of her head. Emmalee expected the woman's hair to fall, but it held in place. "Go ahead and fill out this application. Get comfortable, as best you can in one of those old chairs, and take your time. Only got a couple of positions open, but you might be the very girl we're looking for."
Emmalee chewed on her left thumbnail while she wrote her name, address, and birth date with her other hand. She didn't know her Social Security number or what that was. She didn't even know if she had one, although Mrs. Whitlow reassured her they were easy to get and handed Emmalee another form. Emmalee bit some loose skin between her teeth.
She didn't have any past work experience, which worried her some. But she didn't have a criminal record, which made her feel better. She left those parts blank and handed the clipboard and pen back to Mrs. Whitlow, who was coaxing her hair higher on top of her head.
"Let me talk to Mr. Clayton," Mrs. Whitlow said. "He's the general manager here at Tennewa. I'll be back in a minute. Here's a magazine you can read if you like." She handed Emmalee last month's issue of Ladies' Home Journal, featuring a four-layer yellow cake with chocolate frosting on the cover.
A young man with a bolt of denim fabric balanced on his shoulder and a stubby pencil wedged behind his ear passed through the lobby on his way to the sewing room. The noise roared loud as the door opened, and Emmalee bent forward to steal a peek. But the door slammed closed behind the man, shutting out the din of the machines.
"Emmalee." Mrs. Whitlow walked in front of the counter, stopping to check her lips in a small mirror mounted on the wall.. "Mr. Clayton is on the phone with a vendor down in Georgia, but he said if I felt good about you, we could go ahead and offer you a job."
Mrs. Whitlow pointed to a man in a crisp blue shirt and red tie leaning against a window frame in the office behind her. He held a telephone receiver to his ear. His hair was white along the temple and deep lines marked his face. Emmalee thought he was handsome for an older man. When he laughed at something said on the other end of the line, Emmalee saw a gap between his two front teeth. He winked at her and continued his conversation.
"How's that sound?" Mrs. Whitlow asked.
Emmalee nodded. "Sounds good. Real good. And I'll work hard. Real hard. I promise."
"I have no doubt about that. But aren't you the least bit curious to know what you'll be doing?"
"Yes, ma'am," Emmalee said. She tucked her feet underneath the chair and rubbed her hands together.
"Well, you'll be making collars."
"Making collars," Emmalee said, repeating the words carefully.
"That's right. You'll be a Tennewa collar maker. You know what that is, dear?" Mrs. Whitlow asked.
"Well, you'll be making collars for men's shirts and women's housedresses mostly. Simple as that." Mrs. Whitlow reached for a notebook on top of the counter and opened it to a sketch of a plain yellow dress. "See, here, this is a housedress." She handed the notebook to Emmalee. "Thought about starting you on pockets or lapels, but I think you can manage collars fine, what with your experience and all."
"Yes, ma'am," Emmalee said, studying the dress's wide rounded collar.
"You'll work from seven in the morning until four in the afternoon with thirty minutes for lunch. Take a break whenever you need it. Just get your work done. We pay piece rate. I think collars run about a hundred and fifty a dozen for an eight-hour shift," Mrs. Whitlow said.
"A hundred and fifty dozen." Emmalee's eyes popped.
"Of course, you'll never make less than minimum wage, and that's running right at two dollars an hour."
"A hundred and fifty dozen," Emmalee said again.
"Sounds like a lot, don't it. It's really not bad," Mrs. Whitlow said. "Some women nearly double their quota, and that means more money for them. Two make more than seven dollars an hour. That'll take some time, though."
"Seven dollars an hour."
"That's right. But all we care about right now is that you do quality work. Mistakes cost money. Mr. Clayton there," Mrs. Whitlow said again, motioning toward the man wearing the stiffly starched shirt, "don't like mistakes. He's a nice man, a family man, got four boys of his own and a lovely wife from a real good family outside of Montgomery. But he don't like careless mistakes." Mrs. Whitlow stepped back behind the counter. "Don't worry, we'll help you along for the first month or so till you get the hang of things."
"I'm going to put you next to Leona Lane. She's worked here forever, probably wasn't any older than you when she started out. She don't talk much. But she's real good, and you'll learn a lot just from watching her. Probably the best seamstress we got. But don't go telling Cora Hixson I said that or we'll have another fight to referee." Mrs. Whitlow threw her hands up in the air; her gold charm bracelet jangled as she stressed her point. "Those two are always suspecting one another of hoarding bundles or slipping work beyond the four o'clock bell. But enough of that." She folded her arms in front of her waist. "Don't want to scare you off before you get started."
Mrs. Whitlow reached for a manila folder and fingered a piece of paper inside it. "Here's the application for the work permit. Fill this top part out. Have your daddy sign here and bring it back to me as soon as you can. We like to have everything processed and on file within thirty days of your start date. So we have a bit of time."
"Yes, ma'am," Emmalee said, knowing she would forge Nolan's signature. He could write his name well enough if his hand was steady, but he had been drinking hard for the past two days. Besides, Emmalee had grown accustomed to signing his name and believed she did a better job of it than he did, even on his good days.
Mrs. Whitlow pointed at the clock. "It's only eight. You want to come back tomorrow, or you want to go ahead and get started today?"
"Today. I want to work today."
"I figured as much." Mrs. Whitlow undid the top button of her mint-green sweater. "Just promise to get that permit form signed."
Emmalee nodded. "I promise."
"Well, come on then." Mrs. Whitlow slipped the sweater off her arms and draped it across the counter. "This time of year it starts out cool in the sewing room, but it gets hot quick. There's nearly three hundred machines running nonstop in there, so I can promise you'll never freeze here at Tennewa. I keep telling Mr. Clayton that should be our company motto," she said and pulled on the sewing room door. "So wear something comfortable. And best bring a lunch. A few of us walk down to the drugstore but that gets expensive real fast. Most the seamstresses eat here, outside on the picnic tables on the west side of the building."
She motioned for Emmalee to follow her. "After today, you'll enter and leave through those double doors there at the end of the building. That's where you'll punch your time card. I'll show you where all that's at." Emmalee stepped close behind Mrs. Whitlow, clipping the heel of her pretty black shoe. "Right here are the sleeve setters. Myrtie there has been at Tennewa for nineteen years come Monday week," Mrs. Whitlow said as she nodded to a woman snapping a long thread between her fingers.
Emmalee caught the stares of the other seamstresses. Some slowed their work; a few stopped and rested against the backs of their chairs as they examined the new employee. Emmalee pressed her hands down the thin cotton skirt she bought at the thrift store in the basement of the Methodist church and smoothed her hands across her head. Still her skirt hung wrinkled on her body, and her hair fell messy about her face.
Young men dressed in blue jeans and short-sleeved shirts darted between the rows of seamstresses checking canvas baskets for finished work. In the back of the room, two long tables stood end to end, both covered in layers of pale yellow fabric stacked six inches thick. Three or four men stood around each table positioning patterns for what looked like a dress or maybe a man's extra-large shirt. They lifted the pattern pieces and positioned them again and again, working for the tightest fit.
"Only men set the patterns," Mrs. Whitlow said as she leaned close to Emmalee. "Don't ask me why. Just the way it's always been.
Excerpted from The Funeral Dress by Susan Gregg Gilmore. Copyright © 2013 by Susan Gregg Gilmore. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.