Sometimes a man’s choices were difficult, unpopular with the wife, destined for trouble, but Rod had made his decision. Most of the time Jennie respected the traditional marriage setup and accepted Rod’s choices without much fight, but he could feel her eyes on his back as he walked to the truck. Jennie said don’t do it. His momma said don’t do it. His daddy wasn’t saying anything from behind that oxygen mask.
Rod’s boots crushed dew into a trail of dark green steps toward the pickup. When he came home from work in the afternoon he would have to remember to park in back of the house just in case. He threw his tool belt through the open window onto the bench seat and climbed inside where the tangy smell of years of labor swirled around him.
Jennie had watched him carry the tool belt out of the shed.
“You’re likely to get killed,” she had said.
But a man’s family had to eat. A belt full of wrenches was just in case, just a precaution. Rod adjusted the scrawny pillow just so, making sure the springs didn’t get a hold on his work pants. He drove with the window down, the autumn breeze sweet with cut grass and manure. It took him nearly an hour to drive to Russell County.
The streets of Russellville were still. The quiet belied the present vocation of the town. Inside the KFC and McDonald’s where everybody gathered to sip black coffee there was little talk of anything but the strike. In this one traffic light town, if you didn’t work at Stockton Machinery and Air Compressors you didn’t work. Every soul within a hundred mile radius was affected by the clash of wills between the machine workers union and the company.
Rod thought about last Friday night. It had taken him five beers to get up the courage to tell his friends he was going back to work.
With a flick of his wrist Barry slid his cards across the table and into Rod’s lap.
“Fucking company scab. Can you believe it?”
Rod’s hands shook under the table as he gathered cards from his lap. “Whose turn is it to deal?”
“Mine. Hand ‘em here,” Ricky said.
Rod wiped sweat from his temple. He hated himself for the helpless gestures he made, how he shrugged his shoulders. “I got no choice. We got to eat. I got bills to pay.”
“What? And the rest of us don’t?” Barry said. “I got no bills. You got any bills, Ricky?”
“Nope. Not a one.” Ricky punctuated his point with a quick expert shuffle of cards. “And I’m gonna take me a fucking cruise next week. What about you Marion?”
“Leave me out of it,” Marion said adjusting his hand. “This is like the Civil War. Brother against brother. Friend against friend.”
Barry flamed a cigarette and glared at Rod. The other three waited.
“You gonna play?” Marion said. “Or just sit there and stare?”
“I not playing cards in no scab’s house.” Barry grabbed his jean jacket from the back of his chair and angrily tugged it on. “Rod, man, you do this and you’re in for a world of hurt.”
“Come on, man. You’re my friend.”
“It’s not me you ought to worry about. It’s everybody else. You better take a crowbar Monday.”
Now Rod was headed down the same road to Stockton that he’d taken for eighteen years, only this time he was packing metal to fend off co-workers. Rod was disgusted when he thought of the optimistic young man he had been the day he got the job. Pay was $25 an hour, more than twice what anybody made over at the plastics plant in Springfield. He had a pension plan, a Christmas bonus and decent health insurance for his family. But somehow they were never able to get ahead. Something was constantly broken, his dad always needed some medical thing, the kids had to have new clothes or shoes or school supplies. Jennie was good with money, but at the end of every month they usually needed just a little bit more to make the bills.
Rod had harbored hope that his friends would understand. They knew he had his daddy’s medical bills. Social security provided barely $600 per month to his parents and Medicaid had been paying less and less each year his father lived. Emphysema gradually carved his father into a humped shell of a man that reminded Rod of the cicada husks that clung to trees after their useful parts had taken flight.
His people were just plain working folks—farmers and factory workers. Now his father spent days on the porch carving turtles out of scrap wood while he watched the comings and goings of neighbors. His mother spent her time doing for his father and Rod’s kids when they got off the school bus. Jennie hadn’t wanted them to move in, but she had welcomed his mother’s help with the kids on the days she was at the factory sewing men’s undershorts.
Rod had stuck with the union for months. He thought the dispute would be solved in short order, that the company would make some concessions, the workers would make some and everybody would go back to work happy. But negotiations stalled. The picket line had gone from a congenial gathering with light-hearted ribbing to an angry, unruly mob in a matter of weeks. Rod had been part of the line, holding his sign, walking the staggered ellipse. When he wasn’t on line, he hired on at neighboring farms to put up hay. He set tobacco. He cleaned out the shed and sold everything he didn’t need. Each day he scratched out the bottom line of their checking account and entered a lower number. They had been living out of the garden all summer, had eaten every package of beef and pork in the deep freeze and gone on to dried beans. The kids never complained. His mother had lived through the Depression and was a pro at making do with nothing. Rod was beginning to understand why she saved plastic containers and twist ties. Then came the day when the balance in the checkbook was negative. He knew to live on credit was a dangerous, dishonorable thing.
Flashlights and bonfires twinkled like battlefield camps around the plant. As he drew nearer Rod could make out silhouettes in the backlit throng of protesters. They had kept vigil during regular shifts. This was the crowd that was leaving every morning when Rod was on his way into the plant. He normally waved and nodded to those he had gone to high school with, the one’s he knew from Mt. Zion Baptist and those in the softball league. Today he headed around back to the loading dock.
“Son-of-a-bitch scab!” he heard fade into the distance through the truck cab’s rear window. Rod followed the perimeter of the hurricane fence until he reached the security entrance into the compound. He extracted a red card from the chest pocket of his flannel shirt and held it up for security check. Rod knew all the security guards, but he didn’t know this guy.
Must be corporate, he thought.
The man shined his flashlight into Rod’s eyes and then past him onto the bench seat, hovering a second on the tool belt.
“You can’t take that inside,” the guard said.
“It’s just protection.”
“Yeah, well. Better leave those in the truck. Bosses are real concerned about sabotage. They don’t want to find any wrenches fucking up the production line.” He swept the beam into the floorboard and finally into the truck bed. Satisfied, the man clicked his shiny pen authoritatively and asked Rod’s name.
A dozen men leaned against walls, sipped acidic coffee from vending machines, smoked. They were silent, ashamed men prepared to sacrifice their futures to make ends meet today.
His steps crunched and echoed through the lonely expanse of factory. Rod had never been on the floor except when production was pumping full throttle. Light from the break room raked the concrete floor.
Inside the glass door, he was greeted with anemic flourescent lighting and the familiar reek of cigarettes. He folded his lanky body into a chair, adjusted his ball cap, returned silent nods. A dozen men leaned against walls, sipped acidic coffee from vending machines, smoked. They were silent, ashamed men prepared to sacrifice their futures to make ends meet today.
The break room door opened with a suck of air and in shuffled the boss men—the suits—finishing a hushed conversation. Today crisp button-downs and creased slacks had been replaced with jeans, work boots and sweatshirts with the Stockton logo neatly positioned over their hearts.
Rod had gladly taken the three hours of overtime the company offered at the end of his shift, but now his back was complaining. His body had grown lazy and unloading and stacking fifty-pound sheets of metal all day had made his shoulders burn. As he drove out of the security gate Rod patted his pocket to assure himself that the check was still there. In an unexpected move the company had issued checks for the day’s work. He was glad to have the money, incentive tactic or not. He drove cautiously toward the mob at the front gates. He’d zipped past them this morning when other workers were coming in, too. For some reason he was now the lone one leaving. The crowd ranted and brandished their signs. On strike for unfair labor practices! Support your local union! On strike for fair contract!
Rod didn’t see the baseball bat until it was in a downward arc to his hood. Instinct made him brake. Flailing arms and angry, wide-mouthed faces immediately engulfed the truck. Sticks, signs, bare fists crushed the hood in. Rod sat motionless gripping the steering wheel. Yellow paint splashed thick and bright against his windshield.
A blow to Rod’s ear through the driver’s window snapped his head to the side. He collapsed onto the seat. Someone grabbed his shirt and pulled him upright and toward the door again. The windshield shattered into a weird sunshine pattern against the yellow paint. Rod grabbed the steering wheel to keep from being pulled through the window. He punched the gas and the engine revved like an angry animal. The crowd flinched. He revved again and moved forward in a threatening lurch. Men stepped away. He saw his opportunity and swerved hard right. The truck bounced into a ravine. At the bottom Rod quickly slammed into four-wheel drive. The truck found purchase on one sloping side and clawed its way down the gully spewing rocks and mud.
When he had put distance between himself and the factory, Rod low-geared out of the ditch and back onto asphalt. He touched his head and his fingers came away bloody. He felt his shirt and realized his left shoulder was covered in blood as if he had been shot. His ear throbbed madly all the way home.
He took the distance home in record time, always checking the rearview to make sure he wasn’t being chased. He tried to calm himself as he pulled into the driveway. He was hurt bad, but before he could think how to mask his injury Jennie was out on the stoop, worrying her tiny hands around a dishrag. He brushed past her into the kitchen grabbing the towel from her hand and holding it to his head.
“Rod?” Her voice was weak. Her hands fluttered from his face to his bloody shirt without ever actually touching him.
“I’m okay. It looks worse than it is.”
“What happened? I was scared to death. You’re late and somebody keeps calling here and hanging up. I thought it was you trying to call.”
“I want you to get the kids and go over to your parents. You’re safer in Springfield right now,” he said. “Take Mom and Dad with you.”
“You’re scaring me,” Jennie said. “I don’t want you going back to the plant again. You just call the shop steward and tell him you’ve changed your mind.”
“It ain’t that easy. Damn, woman. Just do what I ask you.”
“Then you come, too. I don’t want you here by yourself.”
“If I leave they’re liable to burn the house down.”
“If you’re here they’ll burn it down around you.”
She shook her head and slid into the car. His family all stared back at him as they pulled away, trapped behind the glass, wild-eyed and worried, although the children weren’t sure why.
Rod clutched his Winchester. The chamber held a shell. Four were ready in the magazine. He’d stayed jacked on coffee until the early morning hours, but after the mantel clock chimed two he began nodding off. He set the gun aside and paced the front room, separated the sheers, peered out at blackness. Normal house creaks sent a crawl up his neck.
His mother had patted his cheek on her way to the car. “You’re a good man,” was all she had said. Not, don’t do this. Not, I’m afraid for you. Not, you’re an idiot, which was the last word from Jennie before she crammed things she didn’t want burned into the car around the children. She had turned to him then with a look that said he could still change his mind. She was a plain-faced woman, but there was nothing plain about her figure.
She shook her head and slid into the car. His family all stared back at him as they pulled away, trapped behind the glass, wild-eyed and worried, although the children weren’t sure why.
A car door slammed and he jolted awake. Rod stepped out onto the porch, gun held in front of him.
“First motherfucker sets a foot on my property’s going to get his head blown off!” Rod regretted that he had a shell in the chamber or he would have pumped the gun for emphasis. He flipped off the safety and leveled the weapon at the car.
“For God’s sake, Rod.” Jennie’s voice drifted through the dark. “Have you lost your mind?”
“Jennie? What are you doing here? I told you to stay at your parents.”
He flipped on the porch light and she stepped into the curve of its glow as she came up the steps. She stopped, her arms crossed, head cocked sideways in that way that meant she had made up her mind.
“I know what you told me.”
“Want a gun?”
She laughed then—a tension filled sound with no hint of amusement.
“What’s so funny?”
“You. Beauford Pusser. Where’s your baseball bat?”
He smiled. “You making fun of me woman?”
“No,” she said. “Not really.” She came forward slowly, hugging her shoulders as if the night chilled her. “I’ve been thinking. The only thing of any real value I’ve got is Aunt Emma’s wedding rings. I bet I could get a thousand dollars for them. You know how high gold is now and that diamond is a carat.”
“You don’t want to sell your Aunt Emma’s rings.”
“I want you alive more.”
“What would we do when that money ran out?”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” She looked up at him with an expression he’d never seen. She seemed frightened, but open too, as if she was ready to lay her heart on the worn porch planks. “Nothing matters more than us. Not money or pride. I don’t care if we have to go on welfare.”
“I mean it.” She moved to him, took the gun from his hands, set it aside. Her slender arms slid like butter up under his shirt. She hugged him close, her face pressed to his chest. He melted, hunkering around her so she could scratch up and down his quivering muscles.
“Come lay down and I’ll give you a rub.”
For an instant he thought he should stay on watch, but the bed had been calling to him for hours. Jennie pulled on his arm and he reached down to pluck his gun up before they went inside.
“Don’t worry,” Jennie said as she guided his shirt over his head. “We’re going to be fine.”
She kissed his chest, ran her nails in soft circles around his nipples. He lay back so Jennie could unbuckle his belt. He’d lost weight and his jeans and shorts slid to the floor in one smooth motion. His mind cleared and there was nothing in the world but his wife’s smooth searching tongue, her nails trailing up and down his legs. After a while she crunched her own jeans to the floor and crawled on top of him. She guided him inside her and pushed into him, gently, gently. He cupped her breasts and pushed up into her, again and again, until his dreams and reality swirled together. It was good. He was loved. And then he was keenly aware that he was dreaming. He was standing in the front yard with the children. He touched his daughter’s hair, but couldn’t feel her golden tresses. Light from the burning house reflected in the dark puddles of her eyes. “Why’d they burn our house, Daddy?” she asked. Flames swallowed the house, but there was no heat. His mother stepped forward. “He’s hard headed. Always been that way.” His father wheezed from his wheelchair. Rod feared he was too close to the fire. His boy started to push the wheelchair toward the blaze. Rod tried to stop them, but he was mired to the ground. “No! Not so close!” he called in his mind, but the words balled up in his mouth. His son pushed his father closer and closer until the oxygen tank exploded, engulfing his family in broiling fire.
Rod jerked awake. Light cut through the curtains and fell in patterns like Queen Anne’s lace upon the bedspread. Jennie smoothed her hair away from her face, leaned up on an elbow.
“Yeah. Oh, man. It was awful.”
She rested her head in the hollow of his shoulder. “You can’t go back today.”
He was silent. She waited.
“I’m going to see the shop steward. See will he have me back. Even if they get things settled I won’t be able to work if he pulls my union card. He can do that. They hate scabs, but they hate company scabs the worse.” Rod groaned as he swung his feet to the floor. He sat on the edge of the bed looking out at the mess on his truck. He’d tried to clean it with turpentine, but yellow still clung to the crevices of his broken window and all the rusted spots held the color like patches of pine pollen. “Why can’t people just be civil? We’ve had strikes before, but it’s never turned ugly like this. It was like the minute our contract expired everybody went crazy.”
“They’ll come to an agreement.”
Rod stepped into the shower while Jennie made breakfast. He was sick to his stomach with the prospect of humbling himself before his fellow union members. While he shaved he considered his face. Age was creeping in at the corners of his eyes, gray dusting his temples.
The phone rang and Jennie answered. He waited, razor poised in the air, half his face foamed. She came to the bathroom door.
“It’s Ricky,” she said. “Something’s up.”
Rod walked to the kitchen and stood in the doorway. He pressed the wall phone’s receiver to the clean side of his face.
“Yeah, what’s up?”
“Look. I know nobody would call you and tell you this after what you did yesterday, but we’ve got a tentative agreement.”
“Company said if we go back to work that they’ll reenter negotiations. I know you’re up for it.”
“Hell. I just want to work.”
“Me, too. We’ll have to vote on the new proposal from the company. Union don’t want us to go back till the contract’s been ratified, but I’m for working again. I think everybody wants to work. I’m way behind on my house payment.”
“What time’s the meeting?”
“We’re voting today.”
“Meeting at the church?”
“I wouldn’t come down if I was you. There’s some folks pretty damn pissed. You’ll be lucky if they don’t pull your union card.”
Rod thought about his protest sign out in the shed—On strike for fair contract!
“Picket line still going?”
“At least until the vote.”
“Thanks for the call.”
Rod gingerly placed the receiver back in the cradle. He stood for a moment watching his wife move fluidly between a sputtering iron skillet and the oven. She tilted a cookie sheet and biscuits slid cleanly onto a plate. She scraped a spatula under sausage links in a skillet.
He took a dishcloth from a hook by the sink and wiped the foamed half of his face.
“You got any crow in there for me to eat?” he asked.
She never stopped, never turned to look at him, but he could tell she was thinking by the way she held her shoulders and tilted her head to the side.
“I suspect they’ll cut you some slack.”
“But I don’t deserve it is what you’re thinking.”
When she turned to him she was serious. She raised the spatula at him.
“Rod, you know as well as I do that they shouldn’t take you back. You know union rules, the real ones and the homegrown ones. They may not let you back in and I wouldn’t blame them.”
While buttoning his work shirt, Rod noticed his neck. He leaned into the bathroom mirror and ran his fingers over his gaunt, sagging throat. I look like my father, he thought. Had he too slowly turned into a shell of a man rendered useless by circumstances? A man collapsing in on himself?
The truck ride was bumpy, the air unusually cloying from hay. The church parking lot was littered with familiar trucks. Rod parked his yellow splashed truck on the side of the road, pointing toward home, just in case. Still, it wouldn’t surprise him to come out and find it ablaze.
Rod made it through the parking lot without a brick being thrown. He approached the church and a pool of union members were gathered at the bottom of the steps. He intended to push past them, but they didn’t move. Rod waited.
“This is a union member meeting,” one finally said. “That no longer includes you.”
“Hear me out,” Rod said, but suddenly his ears were ringing. He opened his eyes to a ring of silhouettes swimming above him, the sky fading a cruel red behind them. His mouth was filled with the metallic taste of blood.
“Get up, asshole.” It was Barry.
Rod touched his lips, searching for slits.
“It’s your nose. Here.”
Barry handed him a handkerchief. It was worn, soft to the touch, but when Rod pressed it to his nose pain flashed up into his skull. He turned to the side and vomited up his sasuage and biscuits.
“Get up,” Barry said. “Let’s get you cleaned up. The meeting’s about the start.”
Janna McMahan is the national bestselling author of three novels, Calling Home, The Ocean Inside and Anonymity, and a novella, Decorations. She also contributes short stories and personal essays to a number of anthologies, magazines and literary journals. “Scab” has been adapted for the screen and is part of Janna’s short story collection, Surface Tension, that was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Fiction Award. Learn more about her work and when her new novel will be released.