“Son, you look a mite pissed.”
Clay Anderson set his beer down on the bar and opened his mouth to tell whoever it was to mind their own business. But when he saw the friendly expression on the man’s face, he closed his mouth and nodded. The old coot was just being friendly.
“Yeah, you could say that.” He picked up the bottle and took a drink. Busch. If this was the last time he would get to tie one on for a long time, might as well get something besides Schlitz. “Lost my job today.”
“Laid off or fired?”
“Laid off. But the asshole I worked for was just lookin’ for an excuse.” He fished in his pocket and pulled out a smoke. At least the local anti-smoking jerks hadn’t gotten the law passed banning smoking in bars. Yet.
“I’ve been there,” the old man said. “Seems like some bosses, all they want to do is keep a man down.”
“You got that right.” He blew out a cloud of smoke and stared at the Budweiser clock behind the bar. “Company I work for—well, worked for, has their corporate up north. Only people that makes it into a boss position are either the ones they send down from up there, or that kiss somebody’s ass enough to get the job.” He shook his head. “I don’t think I’d want to be a boss there anyhow.”
“Not at a place like that.” The man stuck out his hand. “Tom Jackson.”
“Clay Anderson.” He drained the last of his beer, motioned to the bartender.
“Let me buy your beer, friend,” Tom said.
“I appreciate that, Tom, but I can’t let you buy all of ’em. I know how hard it is to live on a fixed income. My parents are doin’ it.”
Tom shrugged. “Don’t let it worry you, son. I don’t have anyone else to support, and let’s just say I’m pretty comfortable. Better off than you, anyway.” He grinned when he said that last. Took the bite out of his words.
Clay chuckled. “All right.” He stubbed out his cigarette. “Dad always said never look a gift horse in the mouth.”
“Sounds like he’s a smart man.”
The juke kicked on over in the corner. Justin Moore, the guy from down in Conway, started in on his latest song. Good to see a boy from Arkansas making it.
“Yeah, Dad’s a smart guy all right. Wish I’d listened to him more.” He took a swig of the new beer, staring at nothing through the haze of smoke. Country bars were a good place to get shitfaced and cry in your beer. Even better when somebody bought the beer for you.
“Why do you say that?”
“I just did some stupid stuff growin’ up. And he told me he had heard some things about this place I worked at that he didn’t like, told me not to take the job.”
“Well, a man does what he has to,” Sam said. “And around here, there are lots of times when you don’t exactly have your pick of employment.”
“Boy ain’t that the truth. That’s how it was then. Spent ten years down at Campbell Soup and then they went under. I didn’t want to go under with them, so I hired on first place I found. Ten years there, and look where I’m at.” He lit another cigarette.
They were quiet for a few minutes. Justin Moore was long gone from the juke and Miranda Lambert came on. He drank his second beer slower. It wouldn’t do to get a DWI after losing his job. Like Mom said, that was just adding misery to misfortune.
“Thing is, I really liked that job. The boss was a jerk, but the work was good. Made me feel like I was doing something, you know? Same thing every day, but I could count up what I did and feel good about it when I went home. What the hell ever happened to people wanting good employees working for them? When did it become more important to kiss ass than make something good?” He shook his head, embarrassed all of a sudden. “Sorry. Must be the beer.”
“Oh, no. I agree with you,” Tom said. “That’s how it was in my day. But you need to look at a lot of the places that have factories here. Corporate is up north or even overseas. Southerners are cheap labor for them. They don’t have to pay union dues.”
That was a good way to sour him on the old man. “I don’t like unions.”
“Me either. Think about it. Companies come down here because the unions want high wages. Nothing wrong with that, but when it forces corporations to move somewhere else it’s not good. They come down here, claim they pay less here because of the median cost of living, and corporate takes credit for everything that gets done. It’s no better than a company building in Mexico so they can pay those people five dollars a day.”
He studied Tom for a moment. He’d never thought of things that way, but something about it wasn’t right.
“But if they didn’t come down here, we wouldn’t have jobs at all. It would be back to working in a chicken plant or on a farm, like it used to be.”
“That doesn’t mean they have to pay starvation wages. Just because they don’t want to pay union wages doesn’t mean they have to cheat workers here.” He leaned toward Clay. “Look, I know a man who visited a BMW plant down in, where was it? Georgia, I think. Anyway, here’s the thing. He said the parking lot was full of BMWs, and those people wore Polo to work because they received three hundred dollars a month clothing allowance. Can you imagine that?”
“Not really.” He looked down at his worn jeans and faded tee shirt. “Three hundred bucks a month, hell, I could throw away everything after I wore it once, the kind of clothes I wear.” He turned to Tom. “Why would BMW do that?”
“They built in Georgia because it’s a right-to-work state and they didn’t want to deal with the union. But—” he held up a finger “—they paid their workers good wages so they wouldn’t be tempted to unionize. I bet you can guess what happened when the UAW came knocking on the door.”
Clay grinned. Yeah, he could imagine it. Tell them Mafia guys to take their asses back to Detroit or wherever the hell they come from. Folks like that didn’t need to be down here.
Why couldn’t he find a job like that? Seemed like every time he heard that kind of story it always happened somewhere else.
Speaking of jobs….
“I better get on home,” he said. “I need to find another job, if I can.” He stood up from his barstool.
“You okay to drive?” Tom said.
“Yeah, two beers won’t hurt me none. I appreciate you buyin’ ’em for me, too.”
Tom slapped a couple of twenties down. “Take these, buy yourself a six-pack, or even a case. Or put gas in your truck.”
“How’d you know I drive a truck?”
Tom grinned. “Doesn’t every Southern boy?”
That made him laugh, and he needed it, too. “Thanks.”
The old man winked at him. “Just remember, someday, to pass it on.”
Just as he reached the door, Tom called out to him. He turned and looked at the old man.
“Remember one other thing,” Tom said.
He held up his bottle. “Beer is good, as long as you don’t overdo it. God is great and will take care of you if you let Him. But most of all,” he smiled big enough that his teeth shone in the dim light of the bar, “don’t ever forget that people are crazy.”
He stared at Tom for a moment, then chuckled, shook his head, and went home.
“Thanks for coming in, Mister Anderson.”
Two months he’d been looking for a job with no luck. He knew better than to ask this latest HR drone what his chances were. For one, it was considered “bad form.” And with something like four people for every job out there, even if he did ask they’d only tell him that there were still a lot of people to interview and they’d be in touch.
Sure. Right. Whatever. Just like the check’s in the mail.
Out in the parking lot, he started his truck and checked the clock on the stereo: 4:30. Too late to worry about checking anywhere else today. Besides, he was tired. Tired of looking for jobs, tired of going to interviews, and downright weary of not hearing a damn thing after those interviews.
It was an employers’ market, that was for sure.
He made his way through town, watching all the other drivers. How many of them were doing the same thing he was? Probably more than it looked like. Heck, more than half of ’em had what he thought of as Bent Elbow Disease: one arm, bent at the elbow, cell phone stuck to an ear. He still had his phone, but only so that a potential employer could get ahold of him when he was on the road looking for jobs. These days, you really couldn’t afford to miss a chance at that proverbial second interview.
Hunger gnawed at him, so he stopped at Razorback Jim’s and got a piece of pizza for supper. They sold large, squares of pizza that were a meal all by themselves, and the price wasn’t bad. Besides, it saved him from having to cook. His unemployment was only about three-quarters of what he’d made working, but he could afford to spend a few bucks now and then on pizza and a soda.
On the way out, he held the door for a cute young thing in shorts and tight tank top. Probably a college girl. She smiled her thanks at him, but didn’t say anything. No biggy.
He got on a paved back road out of town before he dug into the meal. Better to wait until he was out of heavy traffic. He didn’t eat in it and he sure as hell didn’t talk on his phone. If somebody called, he pulled over.
The pizza was good and made him feel a little better, but the truth was, he felt a little depressed. He’d never had this much trouble getting a job. Sure, it really wasn’t all his fault. There were so many people out there looking that employers had their pick of younger and better-educated folks. These days you needed a degree to flip burgers at McDonald’s. Experience didn’t count for anything.
He finished the pizza and closed the Styrofoam container with the napkins inside. Fall was coming on, and the late afternoon sun had that orange, late-in-the-year cast to it. Good riddance to summer, too. It had been hot and dry, like so many had here lately. He was glad to see it gone.
When he got home, the light was blinking on his landline. He tried to contain his excitement. Surely it wasn’t someone calling about work. He’d told them all to call his cell number first because he wouldn’t be sitting at home watching TV. He’d done that for about a week and that was about all he could take. After that, his work became looking for work.
The number on caller ID wasn’t familiar and neither was the name: Louise Callahan. Well, it could be a job, but he couldn’t remember talking to anybody with that name. He stood for a minute, searching his memory, but nothing came. Well, maybe it was just somebody from HR that he hadn’t talked to and she’d been told to call him.
But as he pushed the play button, he realized that wouldn’t work. If it was from someone offering a job it would show the name of the company, not a person. Wouldn’t it?
When he heard the message, he forgot all about it being a potential employer.
“You son of a bitch! What the hell did you do to Daddy? I—we were supposed to get that money, not you. Who the hell are you anyway, you thief? Well, don’t you worry. You’ll get yours.” Click.
Huh? What was that all about?
He looked at the ID again to be sure he’d read it right. Yep: Louise Callahan.
She’d called a wrong number. That had to be it. Pissed at someone for taking her money—or their money—and she’d just dialed wrong. He erased the message and went to the fridge for a beer. At least CSI was on tonight and he’d be able to distract himself that way for a while.
Tomorrow would be another long day of searching, and he didn’t want to think about it tonight.
He was groggy the next morning as he fixed breakfast. CSI had distracted him all right, but once he’d laid down, it had been a different story. Worry nagged at him and kept him awake for at least two hours after he’d turned the lights out. So the first thing he did was get coffee going and stand there waiting for the smell of it to drift through the kitchen. That perked him up enough to get out some eggs and cook.
Breakfast steaming in front of him, he sat down at the table, bowed his head for a moment, then took his first sip of coffee. He unfolded the paper and put everything off to one side except the classifieds. While he ate, he searched through the Help Wanted ads, but nothing looked promising. It never did around here, unless you wanted to work with “developmentally disabled adults” or knew how to frame a house. He wasn’t too bad at home carpentry, but wasn’t anywhere near good enough to hire onto a crew.
He rinsed his dishes off, then grabbed another cup and sat back down at the table. He’d gone pretty hard at job-hunting the last few weeks and decided he’d take a day off. It was Friday anyway, and it was hard to get anything done. People who still had a job were mostly trying to find a way to start their weekend early and didn’t have much time for interviews.
He set his cup down and grabbed the front-page section. He unfolded it, lay it flat on the table, and froze.
There he was. Above the fold, a large picture of Tom Jackson. It was a portrait and he looked quite a bit different: suit and tie, hair combed back, smiling, the light shining on his balding head. But even in the photo, his eyes glittered the way he remembered them doing in the bar.
And look at the headline: Local Entrepreneur Dies At 89. The article went on to say that Thomas A. Jackson had founded several businesses that he’d then sold at a profit. Member of the local Masonic Lodge, so on and so forth, Lions’ Club, Rotary, all that. Memorial services would be Monday at the Tyson Track Center to accommodate mourners.
He laid the paper down and stared at the living room wall without really seeing it. Imagine all that. Of course, there were local stories of other rags-to-riches men, Sam Walton and Harvey Jones among them. How Sam Walton had wrecked a car driving by a Kmart and seeing how many cars were in the parking lot. How Harvey Jones, founder of Jones Truck Lines, had once bought a Cadillac at the urging of friends but returned it within a week because he couldn’t haul his huntin’ dog around in it. Hard to know which were true and which weren’t, but the bottom line was that they were like Tom Jackson: men who’d made it big by their own elbow grease and hadn’t forgotten where they came from.
Well, it explained why Tom had said he could afford to buy beers for both of them. Yeah, he didn’t have to worry about it hurting his finances.
He was so far gone in thought that it took him a few moments to realize the phone was ringing. He glanced at it in surprise, then went and picked it up.
“Is this Clay Anderson?” the man on the other end said. Hey, maybe it was a job offer.
“Good morning, Mister Anderson. I need to ask you a couple of questions to confirm your identity, if you don’t mind.”
That sounded strange. It wasn’t like he’d ever applied for some top-secret government job.
“What’s this all about?” he said.
“Let’s confirm you identity before I tell you that, all right?”
Okay. Even more weird.
“Yeah, okay. Go ahead.”
They went through a few questions that confirmed things like his driver’s license number, Social Security, address, parents’ names, some things like that. It made him nervous to go through this kind of song and dance. It was the kind of thing bill collectors liked to ask before they asked if they could expect a payment soon. Thanks to his cut in pay, he was starting to get those kinds of calls, and those people didn’t seem to understand that his circumstances had changed and he was doing what he could.
Just another one of the worries of being unemployed.
“All right, Mister Anderson, I’m satisfied.”
“Call me Clay, would you? And what are you satisfied about?”
“That you’re the Clay Anderson I have business with.”
“Look, if this is about some bill, I’m working on getting things caught up. I lost my job—”
The man on the other end laughed. “I don’t think that’s going to be a problem for you, Clay.”
“What do you mean?”
“My name is Jerrod Mitchell, and I’m a probate attorney.”
Probate attorney? Huh? “What’s that mean?”
“It means I deal in wills and estates, that kind of thing.”
“Oh, all right. Well, I’m not dead yet, Mister Mitchell, and I don’t know if I even have enough to worry about a will.”
The lawyer laughed again. What the heck was so funny?
“I’m afraid—or maybe I’m glad to tell you, considering your situation—that you’ve got enough to need a will now. Are you familiar with the name Thomas Jackson?”
The article he’d just read flashed in his mind. Along with it came that night in the bar, an encounter he hadn’t even thought about since then.
“Yeah. I knew him as Tom, though.”
“That sounds like him. You met him one night in a bar, about two months ago?”
“Well, Clay, I probably shouldn’t tell you this over the phone, but I’ll need you to come down to the office and sign some papers—”
“Wait a minute. Papers for what?” His suspicions were up again.
“You won’t regret it, I assure you.” Mitchell chuckled. “I can tell you’re confused, so let me clear it up a little. Are you sitting down?”
“Yes,” he lied.
“Well, Tom left everything to you, and I can tell you it’s really angered his children.”
All of a sudden, he was sitting down.
Autumn was in full swing as Clay parked his brand new pickup outside the cemetery. The trees were on fire: reds, oranges, and all shades in between, blanketing the Ozarks in color. That dry, dusty smell was in the air, the days were pleasantly warm and the nights cool. The weather was a relief after the scorcher of a summer they’d had.
He shut off the engine and sat taking in the colors for a moment, then opened the door and got out. It was a beautiful day. The sky was blue with a few puffy clouds. The light breeze stirred the leaves on the trees and piled loose ones against the cemetery fence. It was still warm enough that the birds hadn’t migrated yet, so their songs filled the air. The gate squeaked when he opened it, and the dry grass crunched under his feet as he walked across the graveyard.
He noticed things like that a lot more these days. Everything about life was different.
It didn’t take long to find the grave.
It was a simple one. The headstone wasn’t in place yet. He’d take care of that in about a year, when the ground had settled. It wouldn’t do to have the thing sink down into the plot. But there was a small marker, and he put the six-pack of beer, the bottles sweating in the autumn warmth, on it, and sat down. He had a beer of his own, and he popped the cap, then raised it in a toast.
“Boy, you sure caused a mess, Tom,” he said, after he’d had drink. “Your kids did everything they could to block this, but you had it sewed up tight.” He shook his head. “Of course, I had to give a lot of money to Mitchell to keep it this way, but, hell, you left me enough I ain’t noticed it.”
He stopped, bit his lower lip, then gazed at the sky. A jet flashed in the afternoon sun, riding high on its way west. He was headed that direction in a few days. Gonna go see Hollywood just ’cause he could.
“I ain’t sure why you did this.” He turned back to the marker. “We only met the once. Yeah, I read the letter you left, and I understand some of it. Your kids, well, from what I saw, you’re dead right. Every one of them is spoiled and I don’t think there’s a day’s honest work among the three of ’em. Having to get work will be a hell of a new thing for them.”
Another drink of beer. It went down good on a warm fall day like this.
“I bought me a new truck. I think you’d like it. Splurged on a Ford F150 Platinum. Had to have the salesman show me how to use most of the stuff in it, but boy is it nice. Blue, with chrome wheels and all that MP3 player satellite radio GPS stuff on it. I keep thinkin’ it’s gonna just take off and drive itself sometimes.” He shrugged. “I probably gave too much for it, but I ain’t ever had a new truck before, so I figure it’s time I did. I got Mitchell hiring me an investment advisor, so it ain’t like I’m just blowin’ all the money you gave me.”
A blue jay landed on a nearby limb and scolded him. He just smiled at it.
“By the way, your daughter Louise got my number somehow and called me the night before I found all this out to bitch at me.” He laughed and shook his head. “Her husband sure is a piece of work. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man so henpecked in my life. He was like a mouse, the way he snuck around and wouldn’t say nothing. I had to get a restraining order to make her stop calling.”
He fell quiet then and stared at the marker for a long time. Finally, he drained the beer and got up.
“Hope you enjoy that beer I brought you. I’ll be back from time to time, bring you some more. I still remember what you told me, and I think bringing you some good beer is the least I can do. I put some money in the plate every Sunday for you, too. I figure you know now just how great God is, since you’re probably up there with Him.”
He stared down at the marker for a moment more, then leaned over and patted it.
“You was right about one other thing, too, you nutty old coot. It’s the only reason I can come up with for why you did what you did for me. People are crazy.” He paused, swiped at his eyes with the back of his hand. “Thanks, old man. God is great. And so were you. See ya next time.”
He drove off into the autumn afternoon.