I found the bottle nestled between two feed bags in the back of the warehouse. Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, the big forty ounce size, empty except for a few little bubbles on the bottom. I was seventeen, working a summer job at the Crozet Fruit Grower’s Co-op. I figured another worker, Walter, drank the Pabst. It was three o’clock and he’d been M.I.A. since lunch time.
I took the bottle to Jack, the senior man. In his forties, five feet three, built like a fire hydrant with a bowling ball head and bristly buzz-cut red hair, he didn’t have much use for Walter. “Tongue-dick,” he grumped, an epithet Jack reserved for the worst among us. I didn’t know what it meant and I was too timid back then to ask. “Best we tell Miz Pugh,” he said.
Mrs. Pugh was the Co-op’s Manager. I followed Jack across the warehouse and up the stairs to her office where he set the empty forty ouncer on her desk.
She stared balefully at it, the lenses of her horned-rim glasses glinting in the light. “Walter?” she said.
Jack nodded. “Sumbitch.”
“Please don’t curse, Jack.”
“Sorry, Miz Pugh.”
A widow in her fifties with polio, Mrs. Pugh walked on leg braces while leaning on hand crutches. Knowing Walter had a history of binge drinking, she had hired him anyway out of compassion. He had a wife and three kids and no one else would give him a job. She had every right to be angry at him for letting her down, but she betrayed no hint of frustration that afternoon. Despite her challenges, or maybe because of them, she was the most patient boss I ever worked for.
“Thank you for telling me,” she said. “Y’all go on back to work now.”
Mrs. Pugh let Walter go, and Jack and I had to cover his workload. Jack made it easy for me. He was the strongest small man I ever met. He tossed around hundred pound feed bags all day long with an unfiltered Camel Gold constantly dangling from his lips, smoke curling into his squinting green eyes, yet I never saw him break a sweat or even breathe hard.
Working shoulder to shoulder with Jack wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs. Taciturn and quiet, he didn’t seem to have much of a life. He lived alone, could barely read or write, didn’t have any interests outside his job at the Co-op, and didn’t have any friends other than Mrs. Pugh, whose kind, fair treatment had earned his devotion. My attempts to cheer him up only rarely broke through his stiff-jawed frown to produce his version of a smile, a short-lived uptick at the corners of his mouth and a single quiver of the ubiquitous Camel.
Then one morning near the end of the summer, he walked into the warehouse, grinning all over himself. “My girlfriend said we get married if I give her a ring,” he crowed.
He’d never mentioned a girlfriend before, but from there on, Becky was all he could talk about. She was beautiful with silky brown hair and a just-right curvy figure, and she was kind, sweet, and fun to be with. Jack had been crazy about her for months, but he didn’t think the feeling was mutual until she said she’d marry him if he gave her a ring.
I was happy for him. Then I met Becky.
Jack and I walked down Three Notch’d Road to a store to buy lunch. When we stepped inside, Jack sucked in his breath and rushed over to a woman standing with a man by the drink machine. “Hi, Becky,” he said, his voice trembling.
She was in her thirties, Jack’s height, and a good hundred eighty pounds. Pimples and blackheads covered her chubby face, and greasy brown hair fell limply to her ample shoulders. She rolled her eyes at the middle-aged bean-pole with yellow teeth standing beside her, and muttered, “Shit, Bobby, here he is again.”
Jack danced around in front of Becky like a puppy dog desperate for a pat on the head while she ignored him and flirted with Bobby. There was nothing subtle about the signals she sent them. She had no interest in Jack, and she wanted to get it on with Bobby.
She was leaning against Bobby and he had just slipped his hand inside her blouse when Jack blurted out that he planned to give her a ring next week. Becky and Bobby exchanged sly looks. She went up on tiptoes and whispered something in his ear. They laughed. She winked at Jack, took Bobby’s arm, and pulled him toward the door. “Better be a nice ring, Jack,” she said over her shoulder as they left the store. Jack waved to her with a little-boy grin on his flushed face.
On the way back to the Co-op, Jack was elated. “I seen a ring in the drug store. It’s real nice.”
The following week was my last at the Co-op. Thursday
morning, Jack showed me a ring he’d bought at the Crozet Drug Store. “Give it to Becky tonight,” he said, his eyes shining. “Then we get married.”
I wanted to warn him, but Jack was more than twice my age and I didn’t think it was my place to give him advice. I told him the ring was nice and kept my mouth shut about Becky.
Jack didn’t show up for work the next day, Friday. At quitting time, Mrs. Pugh called me into her office and handed me my last check. After we said our goodbyes, she mentioned Jack. “I’m worried about him. He didn’t call in. It’s not like him.”
I told her about Becky and the ring. I realized only then that Mrs. Pugh was the one person in the world who might have been able to get through to Jack about Becky. “I wish I’d told you earlier,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“You shouldn’t be. Jack’s a grown man, responsible for his own actions.”
True, I thought, but I still wished I’d told her.
After I went back to school, I heard that Mrs. Pugh convinced Jack to return to work, and I thought he’d be okay.
Time passed. I concentrated on my senior year in high school and didn’t think much about the Co-op.
Then one cold December morning I was standing by the woodstove in the Piedmont Store in White Hall when Walter walked in. He got in my face, told me it was my fault he got fired by the Co-op, and threatened to kick my ass.
My temper flared, but as he ranted at me, the look in his rheumy eyes gave me pause. He was drunk again. By then he had to know drinking was killing him, but he couldn’t stop. He was helpless and hopeless. My anger drained off. I backed down and walked away. I never saw Walter again and don’t know what became of him.
I know what became of Jack. He stopped coming to work. They found him at home, dead by his own hand, a gunshot wound to the head. I don’t recall who told me or when it happened. All I remember is the heart-wrenching shock. Fifty years later I can still feel it.
As I wrote this, I thought about Becky. I wonder how she felt when she heard about Jack. Did she know he loved her? Did she care?
Ten years ago, I wrote a novel, The Killing Tree, inspired by Jack and Walter. I haven’t tried to publish it. I don’t like it. It festers like a thorn in my hand. I tinker with it from time to time, but nothing makes it better. I can’t find a way to rewrite their lives to deliver a hopeful outcome. But I keep trying.