Jerry Willford stood at the register counter staring blankly at the clerk. He didn’t want to repeat himself though he was keenly aware of the other customers lined up impatiently behind him.
“One hundreds or regular?” The boy asked, eyebrows raised rudely, unimpressed by the height of the large man in front of him.
“Uh, regular.” The sixty-two year old man that none of his coworkers had ever pegged at being much older than forty-five replied.
It had been forever since the last time he had smoked a cigarette. And he didn’t like to remember. It was the day after Maude had died. He swore never to remarry after his first wife left him and took their children. A few weeks before Christmas when Maude was still alive she had handed the phone to him.
“She’s askin’ for Jeremiah Willford.” Maude had said, a look on her face that he didn’t think was too strange since she had started cancer treatments already and the once thin lines had deeply furrowed on her face.
“Hello.” He said in a casually gruff voice.
“Yes, this is Sarah Kavans. I… I’m your granddaughter.”
The girl knew his daughter and ex-wife’s detailed personal information. Things not even Jerry knew but had to guess were correct. A few years earlier his ex-wife had been in an accident and died. She, the girl, or woman, Sarah, didn’t want anything, no money, promises. She seemed happy, with a new family, a respectable woman’s career. She wanted to send cards, keep in touch, visit soon, over the summer, next, or the one after that.
Jerry tried to keep the tone upbeat, but it was hard. He still hadn’t accepted that Maude might not be around next Christmas, or possibly even by summer. There was hope sure. The pastor had told them there was always hope. But that wasn’t exactly what the doctor had said.
As the old tan truck approached the rally site he saw they were already huddled together near the wood burning canisters, holding various signs and Pete the leader, usually a thorn in everyone’s side until now, when all was thorns with the megaphone around his neck. Jerry grabbed the bag of individually wrapped pastries from the passenger’s seat, stepped out and took the large, tall sign and folding chair from the back and with hand’s full ambled towards the early morning crowd that would be there all day before the real action would even begin, mostly when Pete’s nemesis and fellow loiterer at the water cooler during better times, Mike Arnold showed up.
Cindy Cropsey handed him a steaming cup of coffee that he took graciously, without opening or handing her the bag of Swedish pastries baked the night earlier that he knew she was eying. She was one of the few women that didn’t noticeably recoil on touching his ruined hands. He could still just barely feel the punch level when lined up with the metal and ceramic plugs as they came off the line. When it felt right he squeezed and the metal band punched through and around the bolt, always with an even number (the other side from where he worked always presumably with the odd). The ones that were broken or misshapen made an audible plunk as they got to the next station down the line, that is unless Cindy or one of her alternates saw a problem or pushed the wrong button. Occasionally on odd days when the ceramic had been painted over and he couldn’t tell if the connection was good he would let the bolts go, and undoubtedly the next day the line would be down for minutes and occasionally a lot longer while Mike and Andy Mitchum fidgeted around trying to look competent at repairing anything. Sadistic grin hidden by looking straight down, without letting his now almost bottle rim thick glasses fall and wiping his brow repeatedly, he never took breaks anyway so the mandatory overtime didn’t ruffle him too much. Pete on the other hand turned into a veritable litany of curses he had rarely heard since his Navy days.
They had been at it going on forty-three days, more than a few secretly beginning to collect unemployment. Pete was the only other one who probably knew both how long they’d been gathering there to the day and who was likely to stop showing up first. But Jerry thought he might have surprised him.
“We know you can hear us in there, breaking the law yourselves, for factory owners that wouldn’t know a day’s real work if it slapped them with a multi-million dollar lawsuit. Tell us, would you let a single mother with a sick child at home, work without bathroom breaks and with only a fifteen minute lunch break?” Pete Arthur’s voice roared and then died out in a screech from the white megaphone, a box of batteries he would switch out twice before the end of the day on a stool next to him.
An empty carton of eggshells sat on the stool as Jerry Willford started mixing the dough with his freshly washed hands, hard and gnarled by work and age. An old canister of oxygen with tubes attached sat in the corner, long collecting dust, a single white holiday card with silver embossed lettering now stained with the same years of enclosed air and dust hung above. Washing his hands again he walked back to the small living room and sat in a worn brown leather easy chair. The television tuned to a sports channel with the volume nearly all the way low was on at the far end of the room.
“I said, do you want a cup of coffee. It’ll be about thirty minutes before the next pot is ready.” Cindy nearly shouted against the chorusing crowds, now beginning to fill in both sides of the designated picketing areas. They both looked over at a man yelling above both crowds and threatening to break through the line on the other side. Jerry wasn’t sure if the things he was shouting at Pete Arthur were so foul because of the really vulgar expletives used or because of how backwards and wrong the propaganda fed to this man by their company after half his coworkers had walked off the job, had been. Those who turn against their own before biting the hand that feeds; it was the same old story Jerry thought. Connor Mitchum was a local boy and like so many who wanted a better life was an easy target for slick, shiny promises that never came true, like the college degree he had briefly left town to pursue over ten years ago now. Soon there would be egged windows and maybe even slashed tires. Soon there would be the police and the media as more than an interest piece. There were always police on Thursdays and Fridays, increasingly on the other days of the week now too. The younger Mitchum was pulled back by one of the older men on the other side, the foaming at his mouth now mixing with angry tears. Jerry waved his calloused, nerveless hand that felt almost nothing after years of repetitive strain and shook his head dismissively at Cindy Cropsey, Swedish pastries still in the bag at his side.
The alarm bell rang and it had been some years since Jerry had felt so excited to go, but he opened his eyes and smelled hot, fresh, sweet dough along with the buzzing ring of the timer instead, telling him it was time to take them out of the oven. Ambling over to the kitchen, knees and joints not what they used to be, he removed the tray of hot buns and set them on the counter. Immediately, before they had even a second to cool he squeezed the icing out in crossed strands, each one out of the bag exactly like the other, held over each pastry, checked meticulously so the pattern on each was just right. Five, ten, fifteen, it was a marvel how quickly he covered the whole tray with the lines of melted, white sugary syrup. Next was the filling, punched into the side by a metal tip, again before the dough had a chance to settle, a mere minute to cool. The bag of custard was a monotonous flash and flurry of activity as Jerry filled one pastry after another, combining the bread and gooey dessert he had learned from his mother and aunts and then taught was only truly perfected when made by his father and uncles.
The lawn chair Jerry Willford had planted himself in for more unpaid days and weeks than he cared to remember now snuggly sank a few inches into the mud under Jerry’s tall and somewhat heavy frame. For a moment Cindy thought Jerry wouldn’t mind if she rested her arms on the back of it, instead of leaving the crowd all together. But sitting in the car wasn’t striking, protesting or picketing as Pete had reminded Wanda Ellseby and more than a few others when some of the group would officially take a break for lunch or one of the portable toilets they were paying for by the day.
Jerry rarely ate the pastries he made. Except for testing each batch to make sure they’d come out right the doctor had told him they were strictly off his diet and didn’t begin to understand that Jerry would go on making them in bulk quantities just the same anyway, especially during the holidays. The eggs and bacon he had once or twice a week were harder to avoid and it had been a while since Pete or Mike had brought in and left extra breakfast sandwiches on the sink in the tiny break room with a single chair and refrigerator that took up most of the rest of the space. The inside of the ancient machine had long been frosted over and was always packed full of other people’s outdated food regardless.
He didn’t usually park his chair up so close to the line, but if he didn’t go eat soon he would have to take a shot and Jerry liked avoiding that when he could. That’s when he remembered the … at his side. He pulled the bag over his fingers and stood up, quickly getting a panorama of the swelling afternoon crowd. Cindy and Wanda were no where to be seen and Pete was down to his last four batteries, that would be used in a closing shouting match he felt as usual. The other side looked rather more riled up and Jerry wondered for a moment if some of the bosses hadn’t been in town, or maybe new hires had been on the job making those de facto loyalists who weren’t out vocally supporting the company paranoid for their jobs.
Suddenly a man Jerry thought must be the elder Mitchum, and not necessarily the wiser broke through the line on the other side. Jerry was about to turn around when he saw the man he was yelling at was actually Cindy Cropsey. He couldn’t believe the things coming out of Andy’s mouth, towards this woman he had personally supervised for going on fifteen years. Not even Cindy deserved that. Why wasn’t anyone doing anything? Where was Roger Altman or Barry Cordes. There was some kind of ruckus, hands were raised and Cindy was really letting loose, almost screaming at the man.
Jerry charged forward looking down at the smaller man, forcibly shoving him back with the force of his large body and severe demeanor. Andy Mitchum was shocked to see the always humble and rather quiet form of Jeremiah Willford bearing down on him. But that didn’t stop him; he mistook the situation and Jerry quite badly. Reeling back Andy then swept forward with what looked like a lunging side swipe on Jerry’s jaw. The result was almost comic in the otherwise heated tension and tragic drama unfolding. Andy’s hand and wrist crumpled, likely broken. Seemingly unphased Jerry dug his steel like fingers into the other’s upper chest and shoulder and pushed down. Andy Mitchum screamed in sheer pain under the relentless pressure of Jerry Willford’s unfeeling hand as his knees buckled and he fell in a heap, both under force and in the only direction he could move to escape the other man’s talon like grasp. Before Andy knew what was happening a beige plastic sack came down swiftly, smacking him hard across the face. The contents of the bag swished and liquefied apart as they left a visible red imprint on his face.
Those on both sides of their respective lines gaped in awe at the pathetic portrayal of madness, anguish and conflict playing out in real life between them. Someone shouted for the police, but only hired security guards rushed from the building ironically as far as they could possibly be from the actual conflict that had broken out. The torn beige grocery bag swept up and came down again on Andy Mitchum’s head. Cake, custard and icing coated his face and spilled out on the ground where he slumped. The third and fourth assault by the plastic bag of pastries hit his unhurt hand and arm that he had finally raised in some defense of his face and head.
“JERRY!!!” He felt the arms on his back and shoulders. Cindy and Pete were trying to drag him back before the guards got there, or worse, he did any real damage to Andy Mitchum. Blots of custard and torn plastic interspersed with sticky chunks of cake and crumbs littered the ground around them. Jerry stepped back, visibly shaken with tears in the corners of his eyes. His head making small jerking movements in a temporary nervous palsy Jerry sat back down in the lawn chair, sinking even deeper into the ground. He fumbled for the pack of cigarettes in his breast pocket, oblivious to those gathering near or the scarlet and cake faced elder Mitchum clutching his broken hand and being lead away.
Jerry’s hands noticeably shook as he burnt out a match on fingers that would blister but feel no pain. The next match made a clean dragging strike against the red line opposite his thumb. Smoke billowed out from his face and nose as he held the match to the cigarette and then dropped the match into the wet mud. He inhaled once, then twice, taking his time in acknowledging the small crowd standing around in awe asking a question here and there, attending to him while Wanda and Pete withheld anymore concern than they hoped was necessary and Cindy made a modest attempt at wiping his forehead with a damp cloth.