15. The Trip, Chap. 5: The Packing Shed

The Packing Shed (Ch. 5)

July 1973

I woke to full daylight filtering through the trees into the cabin porch. My first thought was of the knife. Where is it?

Still on top of the refrigerator, I hope. I lay listening for a long moment, fearful. As my mind cleared of sleep and the silence calmed my fears, I rose very slowly and looked into the pine room.

The fetal form still lay curled tightly under the blanket. Carefully, I crept to the door, peering into the dim cabin. It was still there. I reached out for the knife and the shudder made me pause. My nostrils flared with the effort, but slowly I grasped the black, ridged handle and pulled the knife close to my body, then stood for a moment with my eyes closed. Shivering slightly, I glanced back at Charlie, then quickly left the cabin, slipping silently out the screen door and down the path, my only thought to get away.

Halfway to the house, I stopped, realizing I still had the big knife clutched against my belly. I stared at it, then began raising my hand to toss it across the retaining wall into the brush. In mid-motion, I froze. What if he asks about it, or somebody finds it? What would I say. I don’t want to talk about it. I felt confused, afraid.

Not sure what to do, I started back to the cabin, trying to think. I moved quietly past Charlie’s sleeping form again, and entered the cabin. Inside, I saw his bag against the wall. I glanced back at the door, then went to the bag and opened it. Inside was the sheath. I started to slide the knife back into the sheath – pretend the whole thing never happened. Again, my hand stopped, indecision freezing me. I remembered that knife against my throat, the look in Charlie’s eyes, the whole insane scene. I looked at the knife and dragged my other hand over my face, squeezing my eyes shut, then looking back at the knife. “This is crazy!” I muttered. I pulled the sheath out of the bag, rammed the knife into it, then closed the bag and stood up.

Holding the sheathed knife low and against my leg to hide it, I turned and once again headed out of the cabin. What do I do with this damned thing now? I wondered. I need to put it somewhere that makes sense, somewhere he’ll find it later. If he asks about it, I’ll just … I’ll just say what? Shit, I don’t know. But I’m not leaving the damn thing in the cabin. I’ll just put it in the van.

Still not sure of my decision, but at a loss for any other course, I took the knife down to the van and stashed it behind the edge of the mattress. I sat for a moment, lost in reverie. I remembered the guy in the VA group in Phoenix who told about finding himself crouched in the bushes along the alley behind his suburban house, drawing a bead with his .45 on a couple of kids riding bikes. I shook off the memory, jumped out of the van and quickly mounted the steps to the back door of the A-frame.

Inside, Robin and Juli were sitting at the table finishing coffee and toast. They stared at me wordlessly over their cups as I came in. I just looked at them and shook my head, sighing. My eyes began to tear up and my throat got tight. “Hell of a night, huh!” I choked out. “I…” My voice broke and I couldn’t go on. The bright sunlight streaming in the windows and the yellow-flowered wallpaper were far too cheery.

“It’s okay, man,” Robin said, coming around the table and putting a hand on my shoulder.

“Yeah, I guess,” I said without conviction, clearing my throat and wiping my eyes. “I just can’t believe all that shit actually happened.”

“Is he still asleep?” Juli asked, her voice unsteady.

“Yeah, I guess. I didn’t hang around.”

“Did you just go down to the cars?”

“Yeah, I put the knife back in the van. Behind the mattress.”

“You did! I’d throw the damn thing away if I were you!” she said, eyes wide.

“Yeah, I know. I almost did. But what would I say. I mean, if he asked?”

“Man!” Robin burst out. “Don’t worry about that! He’s the one needs to be explaining what the hell he’s doing, scaring us all like that, attacking people! Shit!”

“I don’t think he knows he did it,” I said, looking at the floor and wondering where I got this from. “It’s… it’s not his fault, really. You don’t know what it’s like, it’s…” I felt lame. “I don’t know what to do now,” I croaked.

“Well, it’s your life man, but I wouldn’t spend another night with the guy.”

“Yeah, I know… but shit… when ya’ got nothin’ ya’ got nothin’ to lose.” When reason fails me, I quote song lyrics. Great!

Juli sputtered. “Poor old John!” she said with derision.

I ignored her. It was too early for all this. I blew my breath out hard and walked to the stove. “Any more coffee?”

“There’s hot water and Kava. We didn’t make coffee. Help yourself.” She shook her head and looked at Robin.

“Thanks. What’s today, anyway?”

“Friday,” Juli replied.

“Crap! I was hoping it was Saturday. I’ve got to go to the packing shed today. Should be there now!”

“Well, look, John,” Robin said, clearing his throat. “We don’t want to add to your problems, but we’re gonna take Juli’s Mom to my house ‘til this settles down, an’…”

“Yeah, I don’t blame you.” I looked at Juli. “I’ll get him out of here one way or another. I’m sorry about all this, Juli.”

I wheeled the rattling van into the packing shed lot, throwing up a cloud of dust as I slid to a stop next to the row of pickups facing the shed. I saw with relief that the line was not yet running. A dozen eyes peered at me through wooden side-body slats as I jumped out and slammed the door. “Hey!” I called out. “No ‘maters yet?”

“No ‘maters,” one of the men said without moving.

“How come, Burl?” I asked, peering in the back of the truck.

“Ber-yl!” the man said slowly, looking up at me, irritated. “It’s Ber-yl.” He paused, then looked back at his feet. “They’s runnin’ ‘cukes today. Ain’t none here yet. They pick slow on account ‘a the stickers.” It was the most I’d ever heard ‘Beryl’ say. I was still working on the names after three weeks at the packing shed.

“Oh,” I said. I could think of nothing else to say to the group sitting in the back of the pickup staring at me. I nodded my head and looked from man to man. I had never felt comfortable with this group, but I found their stares especially unsettling today.

“Hell, they pick slow ‘cause they ain’t many cukes!” It was old Perkins, the weigh-master. Perkins seemed to know all about the shed. “Pickin’ fast don’t make the sun go down no sooner!” I laughed at this high humor, but the others just looked at Perkins like they wished he’d shut up.

Wonder what these old boys from back in the coves do when there aren’t any vegetables to pack? I thought. As the group dropped their heads and resumed their customary level of conversation, which approached total silence, I meandered down the row. Soon, I came on several of the younger workers gathered in a pickup bed shaded by the building. No one spoke, and I leaned against the wooden railing in silence. Even the younger ones seemed to regard me as some exotic creature not to be trusted. They rarely spoke to me unless I asked a question.

After a few moments, one of the boys looked up at me in uncertainty, looked back down, and then said to no one in particular, “Jerliss drunk a six-pack ‘a talls and come down in seventeen minutes last night.” I tried to remember the boy’s name. Pete, maybe? His comment referred to a recent installment in the famous (and nearly the only) local entertainment: fast driving on mountain roads, preferably while drinking.

“Who tole you that lie!” one of the other boys jeered. “Jerliss cain’t drink no six-pack, let alone come down the mountain after.” The only face visible was Pete’s. The rest of the group sat with elbows on knees, heads hanging down, faces hidden under their hats, shaking their heads at the callow youth. I could imagine their slow smiles.

“He tole me hisself!” Pete retorted indignantly. “An’ I seen the cans in backa his truck when we ‘uz at the Tastee Freeze!” Pete was red-faced from the effort of this soliloquy and the doubt of his companions. Several of the young men spit between their feet and looked up briefly, smiling, exchanging knowing glances. I watched in amusement, scanning the group. I noticed then that my usual work partner was not in the group.

“Where’s Clarence?” I asked. No one responded.

Then someone asked, “Who?” sounding slightly irritated, possibly at having to acknowledge my presence at all.

“Clarence,” I repeated carefully. I knew his name; worked with him every day stacking boxes of packed tomatoes at the end of the line.

“Don’t know nobody by that name,” another boy said. They looked at each other, quizzically, frowning, deep in thought, shaking their heads.  Apparently their conviction of my total strangeness was now perfected.

“Never heard ‘a him,” another said, spitting and looking up at me.

I was confused. Are they just messing with me? Clarence was there every day. “Sure you do,” I ventured. “You know, long tall skinny guy, always wears black cowboy boots, glasses, cowboy hat?” They were silent for a long moment, but I could feel recognition in the air.

“You talkin’ about Clarntz,” one of the boys said flatly, acknowledging what the others were thinking but unwilling to say. Suddenly I saw the problem. In the Western Carolina hill dialect, the name had only one syllable and rhymed with “warn’t.” My pronunciation had failed to communicate. Just like the conductor in Thailand, I remembered.

“Yeah, yeah, that’s him. Sorry. I get names confused easy. So where is Clarntz?”

“He had ‘a go down to the socisucurity office to see about Momma’s check today,” the boy said. “I’m workin’ fer ‘im. I’m ‘is brother.”

“Oh. Okay. Great! Well, we’ll be working together. What’s your name?”

“Buddy.”

“Cool. I’m John, Buddy, nice to meet ‘ya.” Buddy couldn’t be more than 12, I thought. Hope he can keep up the pace. Stacking and loading those boxes is hard work, and you gotta keep up with the line. I didn’t feel much like taking up slack for a kid today. But the boy looked strong enough. None too bright looking, though.

The conversation slowed again, and I wandered over to the shed. The box crew was up in the loft working at their usual unhurried pace, laughing and talking as they punched out the flat cartons and deftly slapped and folded them into the boxes that would hold the vegetables – ‘cukes, it seemed – that came through the line today. I spent most of my free time at the shed with this group. They were from all over and traveled together, working at different vegetable or fruit packing sheds in each season. Unlike the closed, suspicious man of the coves, these boys had a wild, loose attitude that I felt more comfortable with. I had partied with them a couple of times, and they seemed to like me.

As I reached the top of the ladder to the upper level, I saw Sheila, the woman who bossed the box crew. She was half-reclining on a bright patterned blanket spread on a dusty stack of uncut cardboard, leaning regally on her left elbow with her shoulder against a rough timber; her left leg was extended and her right propped up with her foot crossed over her left knee, revealing the shapely curve of hip and thigh. Seemed like she took this pose a lot. She was writing on the cardboard surface with a stubby pencil. I paused, caught by the vision she presented. Her presence transformed the rough perch into a throne, for she was a beautiful woman, though her lined and weathered face revealed her forty-plus years. Half Cherokee, half Irish, with fine dark features, blue eyes and long black hair, she wore a white fringed western shirt, tight white pants with a fringe down the seam, and red boots – Tony Lamas – with snakeskin uppers. Silver and turquoise hung from her ears, her neck, and her wrists. I marveled at how she was able to always look so cool and clean despite the dusty heat and dirt of the old packing shed.

The loud slap of a stack of cardboard as one of the crew re-loaded the box machine shook me back to my senses and I climbed on up on the deck. Sheila saw me then and smiled, her teeth flashing behind the sensuous red curve of her lips.

“Hey, Georgia Boy, how are ya!” she called over the din of the clattering machine. She watched me as I walked toward her, and I could feel my lips beginning to burn I was smiling so big. I felt better just seeing her, being warmed by the fire of her attention.

Every time I came to work, I hoped for a chance to talk with her. It was a high point in my days. She had been friendly from the start, and I was beginning to relax around her, though I still flushed at her easy familiarity. I guess she’s always that way.

“I’m okay,” I answered, trying not to smile so hard.

“What’s the matter, Georgia boy?” Sheila asked, “You don’t look so hot.”

“Nothing, why?” I rubbed my eyes. Didn’t realize it showed. Of course, you couldn’t hide anything from Sheila. She must really be a goddess, in disguise. Walking the Earth.

“Don’t give Sheila that shit, honey, you look like you slept with a ghost.”

A man would play hell trying to put subtle moves on this woman, I thought. Not that I’d think about it, any more than would anyone at the shed. We’d seen how she dealt with the direct approach when a big trucker had slapped her on the ass and called her sweetie. I still remembered the nasty curl to her lip when she wheeled around and said, “Eat shit, you sonuvabitch!” When the man had laughed and said, “Eat me, bitch!” Sheila had caught him with a surprising left cross that spun him clear off the dock. By the time he picked himself up, ten men stood between him and her, and he walked off cursing and spitting blood.

“Well, I almost did I guess,” I answered, looking hard at her and wondering at the eerie accuracy of her comment.

She gave me her brightest smile. “What happened, Georgia? Tell mama; you’ll feel better.”

I hesitated, wanting to tell her, but not sure. “Nothing important.”

“Just tell me and stop stalling!” she demanded. Her face was serious now.

“God, Sheila! You don’t give up, do you!”

“Just takin’ care of my boys!” she said. “Now talk!”

I laughed, understanding a little more the fierce loyalty she inspired in her crew. Some of the boys could have been her sons. “Well… you know that guy I told you was traveling with me? Well, the muthafucka tried to cut my throat last night. Got drunk, freaked out and nearly killed us all.” I was sweating from the heat and the effort of putting all this into words, admitting it to myself as well as to her. I looked at the floor and wiped at my face.

“Damn, Honey! That’s worse than I thought!” She looked concerned. “What’s his problem?”

“I guess he’s about as crazy as I am. He was in the war, and it kinda fucked him up.”

“Ya might say. Kinda is not the word I’d use!” she said, shaking her head. “You better ditch this cowboy before he loses it.”

“Yeah, but I feel responsible for him, Sheila. He can’t help it. We were in the war together, kinda… I’d feel like a real shit if I left him behind.” I knew this wasn’t making much sense to her – or to me.

She was shaking her head and smiling softly again. “You just need to sign up with us, Baby. I’m gonna need some more good help when we head north outta here. You’d like it. We have fun.”

“Yeah, I probably would.” I felt my heart leap slightly, a hollow growing in my stomach. “Where do y’all go next?”

“Ohio I think. Somewhere up there. We just pack up this old machine and follow the vegetables north ‘til the apples come in and then we head back to Florida when we finish up apples. I’ve got a couple of double-wides down on Lake Okeechobee. Me and the boys and my friend Louise – did I tell you about Louise? – we just hang out ‘til the citrus starts running and then we’re off doing it all over again. It’s not bad. We don’t get rich, but we have a helluva time, and we take care of each other.”

“Yeah, it sounds good. I like to keep moving.”

“Yeah, it’s alright!” Sheila smiled and gazed at me steadily. She pulled a Lucky Strike out of the pack beside her and lit it with a silver-encased lighter. She blew smoke out slowly, continuing to look at me. I grinned, shook my head and looked at the floor. I’d follow her anywhere.

“Hey, Sheila! What we gonna do with all these boxes? Ain’t no more room up here,” one of the crew called out.

“Just shut it down ‘til we see how many ‘cukes they’re gonna run,” she shouted back.

Someone hit a switch and the dull clatter of the box machine ceased. The crew wandered over to the big yellow water cooler in the corner. “Should’a brought some beer,” someone drawled.

“Too early for beer, Batchelor,” Sheila teased. She looked at her watch. “Damn! Eleven o’clock! Them ‘cuke pickers’re slow today! We’re never gonna get outta here tonight!”

“They’s a truck comin’ now, Miss Sheila.” It was Randy, a buck-toothed Carolina boy that signed on for the tomato season. “Hit’s ole man Raulerson, an’ he got a load uv ‘em!” the boy croaked from the little window.

“Oh boy, time to stack boxes!” I said, turning to leave.

“You think about signing up, now, Georgia Boy,” Sheila said, grinning around at the crew. “He’d fit right in, wouldn’t he boys?”

“Yes’m” and “Oh yeah,” echoed around the group.

“An’ we have us a time, don’t we!” She winked and slapped her leg and let out a little whoop. All the crew standing around laughed and kicked dirt around on the plank floor, looking up to grin at me.

“I mean we do! You know that!” Batchelor said, grinning. I knew he was referring to the wild, drunken ride down some twisty mountain road that Batchelor and three other crew members had taken me on two weeks ago. Not that I had been really scared, but I wasn’t exactly having fun the whole time. They had claimed to be better at it than the locals, but I wasn’t sure. There were moments.

I grinned at Batchelor. “Oh yeah.” I tried to sound genuine. “I’ll sure think about it, Sheila. And thanks.”

“You bet, Honey!”

I climbed quickly down the ladder. ‘Cukes! Something different will be nice. I bet I ate twenty-five tomatoes this week already.

It was dark when the last box of shiny green cucumbers was loaded into the trailer truck parked by the shed.  The other three loaders and I sat on the dock, our legs dangling off the edge, wiping sweat with already soaking tee-shirts and gulping cold drinks. I was bone weary but happy, too tired to think about my dilemma.

“Well, you did yourself proud today, Buddy!” I said to my young helper. “You can tell Claren… Clarntz that you carried your load today.” The boy nodded and kicked his heels into the wall. “How old are you, anyway?” I asked.

“Fourteen.” The boy answered without looking up.

“Really. Well, you’re a hard worker for fourteen. How’d you learn to work like that?”

“Jis’ been always workin’,” he said. “My daddy he’s got a bad leg. Me’n Clarntz takes care ‘a the farm an’ all.”

“What happened to your Daddy’s leg?”

“Got it blowed off in the war. Part ‘a his arm, too.” The boy spoke without emotion. “I wuz jis’ a baby. I growed up workin’ – been workin’ all my life.”

I remembered the Filipino maid at the BOQ in Louisiana. She had said the same thing: “I just been working all my life.” I wondered what work Charlie had ever done.

Maybe both of us could sign on with Sheila’s crew.