About the Author
Julie Whan, 39, is a purchasing manager at a glass company, and her husband Al drives for Great Lakes Window out of Toledo, Ohio. He has been a driver for his entire adult life. They live together in Erie, Pa. Julie’s hobbies are writing and distance running.
It’s a cold wind today, pushing past the trailers and screaming up through the wells; the kind of wind big Bill would make a song about. He’s not here, though, and Holliday is hungry. Her moon-grey feline eyes pry my face for an answer, her black tail a question mark. She still looks for him, but deep down inside, she knows where he is. So do I.
What do I know about money? Nothing. Neither did big Bill. He could drive, and I knew I would hire him before we had a formal interview. It was a day like today with the unfriendly blade of a Toledo wind, and Droopy couldn’t work a straight line and dock things right. He was out there grinding and shifting, trying to blindside the tall sleepers into place, but the snow drifts were winning, and I had racks of vinyl windows needing to be loaded. The door to my office was five steps from Well No. 2, and I stood in it with the feeling that, I know, puts a red streak down my cheek. That streak is what the rest of the boys say makes me look like the devil himself when I’m sitting at my desk. I’ve got a good rack of steer horns on the wall above my chair, so maybe they have a point. I need to relocate those horns.
That day I needed to get out there and show Droopy how to do it, but that wasn’t my job anymore. I had 20 years of driving behind me before I traded the keys in for this job, and Droopy was going to hear it. I grabbed my flannel coat and started to head for the outside when Bill appeared. I had recently placed an ad for a new driver, and the thought of a 1 p.m. interview had completely slipped my mind. He filled the doorway, a very African-looking man in dress pants and tie. The tie was a refreshing sight. His frame stopped the noise in the wells.
“William B. Fletcher, sir.” He glanced down at me a bit when he spoke. “I can help here, if you don’t mind.”
I haven’t met too many men who have to glance down to address me, and I nodded quickly as I pushed past him. The windows were waiting, and I did remember that he had a good, long driving record with no violations. There was no time to worry about whether his clothes would get dirty. They got dirty, all right, and so did mine. We swung into the wells and waved Droopy to a stop. He was more than happy to give up the wheel and climbed up onto the dock to watch us, rubbing his shoulders unabashedly. Bill climbed into the tractor and tempered the engine to a putt as he eased into Well No. 2 without a problem. I took the next one and within 30 minutes we had docked all 12 rigs and pushed the coal out of the loading area.
Droopy had gone into the shop, as usual, to avoid the lecture, and would hide until we moved into my office. He was in charge of the loading crews, and, unfortunately, moving the rigs around. I could see the tattoo on his neck jiggling as he bellyached to one of the shop foremen, one eyeball urging me toward my office. It was a partial tattoo of a lightning bolt, because he had stopped the artist when he found that the process actually hurt. It was a running joke and personified his character well. Droopy’s ego had already been bruised. This would not be the first time Bill bruised his ego.
I entered my office, and William B. Fletcher was standing there looking at a book from my magazine rack.
“Where you from, William?” I asked, shaking his calloused hand.
“South Carolina, originally. Oh, you may call me Bill, if you like,” he answered.
“You read Byron? I saw you checking out that book,” I asked.
“No. My middle name is Byron,” he said, laughing, “but I have heard of him.”
“That’s a good name, because you have to be sort of a tyrant around here. You know you do all of your own unloading at each drop. If someone’s there to help you, that’s good too, but it doesn’t happen often. Can you start Monday? You could take the New Jersey run.”
“I’ll be here. Sir? I have a cat, if you don’t mind. She’s -”
I was surprised. “I don’t really care for them, but as long as my bunk stays clean, it won’t be a problem. Jerry has a Jack Russell.”
He looked relieved. “Thank you. She’s the only woman who ever cared to stay in my life.”
“The quieter, the better, right?” I laughed. “See you Monday, Bill.”
Bill was on time every day. We didn’t talk that much, because the window industry was a busy one. A good deal of the Jersey Distributors actually phoned to comment on his polite character, but I did receive a phone call asking that only white items be delivered to a particular store. I politely asked the owner how many miles away he would like to have his white windows dropped, and I heard a dial tone after that. Business didn’t drop any from that store, so I think I got my message across.
It was Christmas Eve, and I had the drivers in my office for their bonuses. There were still loads to be taken out, and things were sort of rushed. Droopy was out on the dock, yelling at his guys to get things loaded. Droopy liked to yell.
I always give out those instant lottery tickets at Christmas time, with the comment that, if you win, you still have to deliver your load. It’s a running joke – a driving joke, I mean – and the guys were huddled around my desk, scratching away with their pennies and cursing the ticket makers. I could hear Bill out in Well No. 6 methodically thumping the wheels with his tire buddy and humming to himself. He liked to hum a low tune and was usually a pleasure to listen to, but he sounded a bit edgy today. He had a big delivery to make, his tractor was running, and Droopy was distracted with something other than the loading of his trailer.
Sometimes when trouble comes, you see it take place in slow motion. It’s almost surreal, and if it’s a necessary trouble, your better half lets it play itself out. Trouble came and went in seconds at Big Lake Window on Christmas Eve. We have a sanitation man named Louie, who’s a bit simple and very likeable. Louie also likes to sing to himself as he sweeps, and he was doing so as he brushed past Droopy. Louie had forgotten to pull his pants up all the way that morning, so they were a bit low. Droopy, who was already electrified by the attention he was commanding, seized the opportunity to help Louie’s pants go a bit lower. He yanked them with one hand as he passed with a double hung window, and down they came to reveal a very colorful pair of boxer shorts.
The whole dock exploded with laughter. Some of the drivers stepped out to see what the commotion was about. Louie was frozen, and Droopy seized the moment. He set his window down and began to tango around the embarrassed man, continuing the song Louie had been singing in a high-pitched tone.
I could feel that streak coming in my face, and my guys were aware of it. They parted and made a path in my doorway for me, their mouths shaped into silent whistles, but William Byron Fletcher stopped things before I had the chance. I had not heard his tire buddy cease its air-check, but he had dropped it and was up on the dock before it hit the ground. By the time I made it to the doorway, he had the tip of Droopy’s nose between his thumb and forefinger, and had raised him up enough that only his toes touched the cement. There was now silence on the dock, except for a hissing sound that came from the dangling Droopy. Bill glanced my way, and I saw grave sincerity in his eye as he turned back to Droopy quietly and said, “Tain’t so much how a man dances as where he steps.” It was really the only slang I had ever heard from him. With task completed, he then lowered him, jumped back into the well, and picked up his tire buddy.
By this time, Louie was gone. So was everyone else. It was just Droopy and me, and he was looking at me with mouth ajar, pointing at Bill’s truck.
“Done loading, Droop?” I asked.
He was angry, and he wouldn’t close his mouth, but he knew he had been wrong, and his witnesses had disappeared. It was evident that we were all on the same page. It took one week for him to resume his usual character, but he never bothered Louie again. Bill and I never spoke about it.
Christmas came and went, and Bill gained more and more respect at Big Lake Window. He had a very quiet way about him, but his presence was larger than life. He even caused me to do some inspection on myself once in a while.
It was a fairly warm day when Bill walked into my office holding the slender cat I had heard about in one arm. In his hand was a small envelope. He was sweating.
“A bit sick today, sir,” he said. “I’ll be going into the hospital for a few days. I’ve got one large and one small favor. I’ll start with the large.”
He put the cat on the chair next to the magazine rack. “Can Holliday stay in here until I come back? I’ve got no relatives, and I really -”
“That’ll be all right, Bill. Just get yourself to the doctor and don’t worry about anything. Call me if you need anything. I don’t have any relatives either, so here’s my home phone number. You won’t bother the mice in my house.” I grinned.
Bill shook my hand, gestured to a bag of cat food on the dock, and started for the door. I had never seen him look so tired.
I yelled, “Your ship’s gonna come in someday, Big Bill!”
I heard his steps hesitate and a brief mumbling that sounded like, “Ship did come in, sir.”
I never saw Bill again. Two days later, the hospital phoned to inform me that William B. Fletcher had died of complications from pneumonia. Mine was his only contact number. He left word, also, for me to open the envelope he had left on my desk.
I stared at Holliday, stunned. Such a gentleman, and he was gone. Several hours passed before I remembered the envelope. I thought there would be some contact information there, but the only thing I saw was one of my Christmas lottery tickets.
It’s been three weeks, and I still have that ticket. Holliday is staring at me. The only instruction Bill left was to please feed his cat. He also thanked me for hiring him. Somehow, he knew he would not return.
“Tain’t so much how you dance as where you step, right Miss Holliday?” I asked.
What do I know about money, anyway? This cat’s going to eat well.
On March 18, Weddle’s trailer crossed over the centerline of the highway, ...