I sold funeral insurance to North Carolina black people. I myself am not black. Like everybody else who was alive fifty-nine years ago, I was so young then, you know? I still feel bad about what went on. My wife says: telling somebody might help. Lately, worry over this takes a percentage of my sleep right off the top. So I’m telling you, OK?
I only did it to put myself through college. I knew it wasn’t right. But my parents worked the swing shift at the cotton mill. I went through everything they earned before they earned it. I grew up in one of those employee row houses. Our place stood near the cotton loading ramp. Our shrubs were always tagged with fluff blown off stacked bales. My room’s window screens looked flannel as my kiddie pyjamas. Mornings, the view might show six white, wind-blown hunks, big as cakes. You didn’t understand you’d steadily breathed such fibres – not till, like Dad, you started coughing at age forty and died at fifty-one. I had to earn everything myself. First I tried peddling the Book of Knowledge. Seemed like a good thing to sell.
I attended every training session. The sharp salesman showed us how to let the ‘T’ volume fall open at the Taj Mahal. Our company had spent a little extra on that full-page picture. In a living room the size of a shipping crate, I stood before my seated parents. I practised. They nodded. I still remember, ‘One flick of the finger takes us from “Rome” to… “Rockets”!’ Before I hiked off with my wares, Mom would pack a bag-lunch then wave from our fuzzy porch, ‘Jerry? Say “Please” and “Thank you very much”. They like that.’