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Chapter 8: The betrayal

Published December 8, 2005

The Holly Wreath Man

Hear an audio version read by co-author Christopher Scanlan
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Teachers using this serial story in class can encourage students to continue reading it during the winter break.
Newspaper in Education

The Holly Wreath Man Web site

Ever so carefully, Fred Swiggett pulled up to the back of his store in the 1962 Ford Galaxie convertible, Corinthian white with red trim, that was his pride and joy. He spied a smudge, took out his handkerchief and gently rubbed it clean. Satisfied, he opened the store's back door and quietly made his way to his upstairs office. For the job he had to do, he didn't want any interruptions.

Fred loved his office, just big enough for a desk facing a one-way mirror that gave him a bird's-eye view of his domain. It was slow, only Mabel at her register and two old cronies by the stove.

He opened the phone book. Turning on the desk lamp would give him away, but enough light streamed in from the store for him to read the number for the Wage & Hour Division.

The world was changing, leaving the old ways and old-timers like Pop behind, Fred thought as he dialed. Allie's future lay with him and the Superette, not with holly wreaths nobody wanted anymore. She just needed a little push to see it.

"If you look into it," Fred said, "you'll find that Henderson doesn't pay minimum wage to those farmers who make his wreaths." He paused and looked out the mirror just in time to see Jeff Henderson, in canned goods, appear to slip something into his jacket pocket.

Fred leaped to his feet. "Look, your investigator won't have any trouble finding him," he said.

Jeff moved down to the spice rack, looked over each shoulder, and lifted a jar in each hand.

"Just tell him to ask for the Holly Wreath Man," continued Fred, dragging the phone across the desk.

He was about to bang on the glass when a customer crossed over into Jeff's aisle. The boy returned the jars and hurried out, leaving Fred with nothing but his suspicions.

Fred scowled. "Just say I'm a concerned businessman who believes in the Fair Labor Standards Act."

Fred hung up the phone, switched on the light, and smoothed back his hair.

* * *

The next morning, the usual collection of pick-ups, station wagons and delivery vans jammed the Farmers Market parking lot on the banks of the Wilford River. Inside, buyers and sellers filled the cavernous space with tobacco smoke and the din of bartering.

Pop Henderson stood at a table stacked with holly wreaths, arguing with a department store buyer.

"You've seen this coming for years, Pop. The market's just not there anymore," the buyer said, brushing dust from his overcoat. "People want things they can pack away and use next year."

* * *

Two hundred miles away, on a city street flanked by brick factories, Labor Department investigator John Turner sat in a gray sedan watching women bundled against the autumn cold, scurry inside the employee entrance of Marvella Fashions.

The morning Chronicle spread across the steering wheel gave cover for the notepad where Turner counted the employees disappearing inside the factory. The sidewalk cleared. He checked his watch - 8:02 a.m. - and tallied the numbers, writing "65" in an angry slash at the bottom of the page.

A gleaming 1963 Cadillac pulled into a space with the name "Mr. Horton" stenciled on the wall. A tall man in a camel-hair topcoat got out. Turner crossed the street, limping slightly.

"I have nothing to say to you," Horton shouted, edging fearfully toward the door as Turner approached. "I told you yesterday, talk to my attorney."

Turner stopped at the Cadillac's rear fin. "I just have one question for you, Horton."

"What?" Horton said, suspiciously.

Turner sauntered around the car, his hand caressing the tail fin.

"Yesterday your books showed 35 workers on the day shift."


"So how come I count 65 going in today?"



Christopher Scanlan was working as a reporter for the Delaware State News 30 years ago when he happened upon a story about a bygone industry.

During the first half of the 20th century, many farmers supplemented their income at holiday time by selling handmade wreaths to city dwellers. But by the time Scanlan wrote his story in the mid 1970s, the business had died because of strict fire codes and competition from artificial decorations.

Scanlan and his wife, writer Katharine Fair, decided to explore what would have happened if things had turned out differently. The Holly Wreath Man is the result of their many years of on-and-off work. First published as a newspaper serial in 2003, it is now available as a hardcover book (Andrews McMeel, $9.95).

Scanlan has worked as a feature writer for the St. Petersburg Times and national correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers. He is now a senior faculty member in writing at the Poynter Institute, which owns the Times. Fair, a freelance writer, was for four years the editor of Re Advisory News. They live in St. Pete Beach with their three teenage daughters.

[Last modified December 7, 2005, 09:47:02]

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