To Mate for Life
The heart has its reasons which reason does not understand.
– Blaise Pascal
I felt awkward going to this funeral parlor in a strange town. I didn’t have the right clothes, and it was too far to go home and get dressed properly. Figuring to make the best of it, I parked my bobtail tractor and walked up the steps of the funeral parlor. I had never met a soul here, though it seemed like I knew the widow. Bobby had talked about Sherry a lot.
I first met Bobby when I was running store fixtures out of Muskegon, Mich. He was from Ashland, this hardscrabble coal-mining town in the mountains of Eastern Pennsylvania, and he had a crusty exterior to go along with it. Under the crust was a really nice guy – the sort of fellow who is easy to love – it just took a little while to get through. I had the time to do that, though, since our dedicated fleet usually hauled auto parts from the east coast back to Lansing or Grand Rapids and then deadheaded to Muskegon, often to spend an afternoon and part of an evening waiting for the fixture loads.
The company had some space rented across the street from the factory, and we would sit in this dingy little driver’s lounge exchanging the usual tall stories and gripes about life on the road. If we were there long enough we might go out to a steakhouse or some ethnic restaurant for dinner. We made the best of a bad situation.
You get to know a guy pretty well doing that for a stretch of years, seeing him sporadically, sometimes every week, sometimes not for months at a stretch. Bobby and I became good friends and always brightened up when we ran into each other; sometimes we even embraced, something you don’t see much among truckers.
Bobby had a wife back in Ashland, though I couldn’t see that he spent much time at home with her. It seemed like he ran more miles than any of us. We had all heard about her, though. Sometimes he talked about her so much the guys got sick of hearing it. He would ramble on about how he and Sherry would drive to Philly to some fancy restaurant for dinner or how he and Sherry went down to the shore for a week or up into Vermont when the sap was running in the maple trees.
We heard so much good about Sherry, and it seemed so genuine, we thought him a lucky man. To hear him tell it, Sherry was everything a man dreamed of: pretty, buxom, witty, supportive and more devoted to him than any over-the-road trucker had a right to expect a woman to be.
He had a 5×7 photograph of her wearing a bikini that he kept in plain view on the dash of his truck. He was really proud of that photo, I guess, because he never got a new one in all the years I knew him. She did look good. Apparently they never wanted to have any children, or else he simply wasn’t at home enough for it to happen. The subject never came up.
He would call her on the phone and sit for an hour or more huddled in the corner so the rest of us could not overhear their conversation. When he emerged from one of those prolonged sessions, he would be nearly in tears and very quiet for several minutes. Usually then there would be an update on Sherry’s life, directed mainly at me. If I found it boring I never let on. I liked Bobby too much. In fact I envied him. Maybe secretly, the other guys did too. A lot of us had a divorce in our past, and we all knew that many marriages endure because of convenience or familiarity. Bobby gave the impression that he and Sherry still had a strong romance going.
It went on that way for years. One summer evening, I rolled into the lot in Muskegon to find Bobby stretched out in a chaise lounge beside his truck. “Should have been here last week, man; Sherry was along,” Bobby said. “She comes with me a couple times a year, you know. Jeff and Benny and Sherry and a bunch of us went over to that fish place on the lakeshore for dinner. It was great,” he said.
“I’m sorry I missed it,” I told Bobby. And I was. Jeff and Benny were a couple of other drivers, guys I had never gotten to know well. Bobby leaned back in his lounge and beamed a great smile of satisfaction across the evening shadows. It seemed that he, at least, had found the secret to happiness. He could truly enjoy life through the simple things.
Once Bobby and I rolled into the lot together and caught Benny coming out of his sleeper with a lady, who, we soon found out, was not his wife. The guys tended to mind their own business on such things, but Bobby let him know later on that he thought it was pretty low class.
Hauling the store fixtures wasn’t the best job a driver could get. A lot of people came and went. There were a few of us, me and Bobby among them, who made up the core of the company, old hands with 10 years or more on the turn. We had developed into a sort of clique, I suppose. But we were never close enough to visit each other at home or go on vacations together. We were friends through work, and that’s where it ended. We never met each other’s families, though we often talked about doing something together so that we could. So much of a trucker’s life seems tentative. Talk was as far as it went, and I regretted that when Bobby died suddenly of a brain aneurysm in 1999.
So here I was at the funeral home in Bobby’s hometown. Dispatch had broken the news to me while I was delivering in Harrisburg. Feeling a great sense of loss, I went out of service for a couple days. I ran up I-81 to a motel I knew in Frackville, just a few miles from Ashland, so I could pay my respects to Bobby’s family and finally meet Sherry. I figured it would be a comfort for her to hear how much he talked about her and how much he loved her.
I thought I could figure out who Sherry was from the many times Bobby had described her, but I couldn’t. There didn’t appear to be any one person especially grieving for him, but I wasn’t going to leave until I paid my respects to the widow. I thought perhaps the blow had been too great, and she did not wish to see people. How would I know?
What happened next is something I never told any of Bobby’s other friends. I went through the receiving line. I told all of Bobby’s family that I knew Bobby from work and how much everybody liked him. At the end of the line was a redheaded woman, obviously not Sherry. The woman in Bobby’s photo was a platinum blond. The redhead turned out to be his sister, and since she was the last person I could easily ask, I swallowed my reticence and said, “I was hoping to meet Sherry here, could you point her out to me?”
“Who?” the woman said.
“Sherry, Bobby’s wife. He told me so much about her. I just wanted her to know how special she was to him.” The puzzled look on the woman’s face slowly changed to one of suspicion, and I sensed that I had committed some social blunder. She backed up as much as the cramped space would allow and stared at me. “I’m sorry. Did I say something wrong?” I said in a rather clumsy fashion.
A man came over, evidently noticing the woman’s distressed countenance and wanting to offer her his aid. She pulled him away a short distance and they had a little conference, whispering in each other’s ears, now and then shooting a glance my way. Finally they came back toward me, her face wet with tears and puzzlement.
“You say you worked with Bobby, drove truck with him?”
“Yes. We hauled the same product. I got to know him pretty well.”
“And he talked a lot about Sherry?”
“Yes,” I smiled. “Sometimes I think I know Sherry better than I knew Bobby.”
“What year did you meet him?” she asked, as if trying to put together some mystery.
I thought about it a minute. “I guess it was sometime in 1986 or ’87. Not before then, certainly.”
The two mourners exchanged intense looks and clove together once more to whisper to each other. Now the man was tearing up also. I knew something was very strange here. I heard Bobby’s sister say, “The poor guy, all those years. The poor guy.” I took a few steps toward them and ventured, “She is all right, isn’t she? Sherry, I mean.”
“I don’t quite know how to say this, Mister, what did you say your name was?” The sister approached me now. I told them my name again then. Her face got friendly, as if she were grateful to me. But she was struggling with something, too. She reached out and squeezed my arm.
“Sherry was Bobby’s wife – that’s true.” There was a painfully long pause then. “She was killed by a drunk driver over on Route 309.” There was another pause, “in 1985, only a week after their wedding.” She waited until my facial expression revealed that what she had shared with me had sunk in.
“I see,” I muttered weakly, suddenly feeling sick and wishing I hadn’t come.
“It was just before Bobby bought the truck and went on the road,” the sister said, her eyes glistening with tears. “We always wondered if he took that job trying to forget. The truth is