The Millwright’s Epiphany

Twenty years ago this summer, my late husband and I successfully settled a plant closure litigation in Charles Town, West Virginia. The defendant, Dixie-Narco, had put 800 workers out of jobs without notice – indeed, it had encouraged them to believe their jobs were safe. The $16.5 million settlement provided generous awards for many of the former employees we represented, but it did not, of course, restore their lives. The experience inspired me to write a short story, The Millwright’s Epiphany.

Now, widowed and retired from litigation, I rediscovered the story, which speaks to me more personally about identity and purpose. Ultimately, it is a story of recognition, optimism and determination.

The Millwright’s Epiphany

            Farrell Jackson’s neighbors made it a point to lower their voices when they spoke of the rope burns on his neck. Farrell himself, a small wiry man – if he were a woman, you’d call him petite – with unexceptional features save only his sky-blue eyes, had no such qualms. He would recite in a gentle monotone that belied the violence of his act how he’d hung himself with a seven foot length of three-quarter inch rope, purchased at Lederer’s Hardware some years ago for a use now forgotten, that had been lying in a loose coil on top of the furnace in his sister’s house long enough to acquire an overcoat of soot. He’d attempted first to clean it up a bit, brushing off the pieces of dirt and dust snared in its crevices, picking out the sticky threads of cobwebs.

It was this fastidiousness, in part, that cost him his death for, having spent a good hour at the task, he left too little time for the business of tying the noose, threading it securely around a basement pipe, setting up and then kicking over the kitchen footstool, to allow the rope to finish the job. His sister, returning home from work as a checker at the Sunrise Market, found him dangling, but still alive, at 4:15 p.m.

At the hospital, Farrell initially provoked alarm by responding “I don’t know” to the question, “Who are you?” His sister Francine concluded despairingly that he’d lost his mind, until a doctor rephrased the question.

“What is your name, Sir?” he asked.

To this, the patient promptly replied, “Farrell Jackson.” His response both relieved and angered his sister who demanded to know why he’d not said so in the first place.

“No one asked,” Farrell said.

The doctor urged Francine not to argue the point as her brother needed rest, so the matter was dropped. Instead, Francine went home, removed first her white plastic-clip-on earrings and then her soft-soled shoes, notified Farrell’s daughter who lived in Ohio of the near-tragedy (as she called it), took a little bourbon straight up in a juice glass and went to bed.

“It was the job was the last straw,” she told her neighbor, Anne Lawson, the next day. “Losing the job after 23 years was too much. I told him not to mind, he’d find something else, but he took the plant shutdown like it was a personal thing. He wasn’t the only one, I told him, there’s 300 others just like you, I said, but he didn’t see it that way. ‘Not with 23 years,’ he’d answer me. ‘What’s a millwright going to do in Newcastle with the plant gone?’ I told him something’d come along but nothing I said made a difference.”

This is what she also told Carol Dietz, the other daytime checker, Jerome Buckle, the day manager, Emily Walters, her neighbor on the other side, Father Don at Christ Methodist Church, and Tim Lederer, who was the second generation Lederer to own the Hardware. “It was the job,” they repeated over their breakfast tables, across their newly budded gardens and around the counter at the Star Mountain Diner, even as they raised an eyebrow at the explanation.

“There’s 300 others out of work too,” said Suzanne Belcher, the Star Mountain waitress on the early shift. Tim Lederer sat before her in his regular spot, the red plastic covered counter stool nearest the cash register. “Nobody else done such a thing. He’s a little soft in the head, if you ask me. Jacksons was always a peculiar family.” She held aloft a Pyrex pot of coffee. “More?”

Tim shook his head and swallowed a last lukewarm mouthful of coffee. He squeezed his thin white napkin into a tight ball and dropped it in the empty ceramic mug. “Well,” he said, as he laid out 65 cents on the counter. “The apple don’t fall far from the tree.”

It was a thought that had passed through other minds, and across other lips as well. The more timorous usually added, “Anyway, that’s what they’re saying,” but others maintained that there was something funny about that family. As a result, people tended to look sideways at Farrell when he was released after eight days with a prescription that was supposed to perk him up, the nurse said, in a week or so. Farrell touched his tender neck lightly with his fingertips and said thank you to the nurse, he guessed that was right and he appreciated it. The Democrat, the weekly county paper, noted his release from Providence Hospital, though it had thoughtfully omitted the news of his admission a week earlier.

At home, cheering up her brother became Francine’s mission. She cooked his favorite dishes and ironed his favorite shirts and watched his favorite TV shows. Several times a day, she took his emotional temperature.

“You feeling better, Farrell?” she’d ask, knowing that her brother would reward her concern with reassurance.

“I’m doing fine, Francine, just fine,” he’d say.

“He’s doing much better,” she confided in Anne and Emily. The three women stood by the overgrown hedges separating the Jacksons’ yard from the alley that ran behind their homes and the row of battered aluminum trash cans with misshapen lids. Francine plucked at the collar of her floral print shirtwaist and pinched the neckline closed a little higher.

“I saw him out back just yesterday it was, Francine,” Emily said. “Nice day, isn’t it, he said to me. I told him it surely was and he would’ve said more – he was just about to – but there was my phone, all of a sudden, just ringing its head off, and Joe being over at Lederer’s, well, I had to leave him. So I said, see you later, Farrell, and ran in. I looked for him after but I guess he’d gone in too.”

“Right as rain he is,” Francine said, and stroked one arm soothingly with the other. Her friends nodded, flashing bright smiles at her. But after Francine left them to start supper, they agreed it was a funny thing the way Farrell never looked them in the eye any more.

“He was staring past my right earlobe,” Emily whispered, tugging at her ear. “Squinty-eyed, like maybe he was trying to make out something in the distance. So I turned around to see what it was, but there was nothing.” She glanced furtively towards the screen door to Francine’s kitchen. “I was trying to think what to say when the phone rang.”

“There’s worse than that, Emily. The other day, out front, he starts telling me about the hanging, same as if he’d had a case of the flu or something. Well, I said real quick that I’d heard all about it so, thank God, he said he’d be off and have a good day, he didn’t want to keep me from my business.” Anne gave three staccato clucks and then continued. “It ain’t normal the way he’s acting. You just never know what someone like that will do.”

Emily gave her no argument, but to Francine she said, the next time she saw her out back alone, that Farrell seemed like his old self again.

Farrell, hearing this from his sister, knew it was both untrue and impossible. His old self didn’t act this way. He’d greeted neighbors like he welcomed not just the encounter but the physical warmth of a friend’s hand in his. He looked into their eyes and spoke of his daughter in Ohio, argued over the county sheriff elections and bemoaned the price of gas at the Texaco. The old Farrell was interested in what was going on. He had an opinion about most of it.

Since he’d been released from Providence, he sensed an impenetrable distance between himself and his old friends, as if a referee stood between them with his arms stuck out to keep them from risking an embrace or detecting the persistent ache of his heart. He couldn’t return their gaze lest they read confusion in his eyes, so he trained them on a far off imagined object, squinting a little as if he might really make it out. And when he talked about the hanging or fingered the scars on his sun-browned neck, he could count on an end to the conversation.

The old Farrell was a millwright who made $18 an hour, plus overtime, paid off his sister’s mortgage and saved a little on the side. The new Farrell was used up, a worthless-byproduct of the plant that, until six months ago, had employed 309 workers to manufacture chemicals to clean other factories and their machines. Farrell had kept the machines working. Without him, the metal bearings of the grinders, worn out from continual turning, wouldn’t be replaced and fan motors in the dust collectors wouldn’t be repaired. Columbia Mills relied on the old Farrell. So did the manager and 300 other packers, clerks and operators who stocked and ran the vast, funnel-shaped mills that spilled out powders and liquids into metal drums for shipment to factories in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Cleveland. No one ever asked the old Farrell who he was. Like him, they knew.

“They’re looking for someone down at the Texaco,” Francine told him one afternoon, a few weeks after he’d come home, as she bustled into the kitchen with a brown bag of groceries. Farrell wordlessly took the bag from her and began removing its contents to the mottled yellow formica kitchen table, item by item, as if each one bore the full weight of his cares. “It’s work on car engines, Jerome says. You could do that, Farrell. Didn’t you fix motors at the mill? I know you did. You could get that job, Farrell.”

Farrell looked across the kitchen table, right past his sister’s earlobe, through the small, soap-spattered panes of the window over the sink. “The motors I fixed are different, Francine. I wouldn’t know the first thing about fixing a car engine.” He pushed a chrome chair under the table and headed towards his bedroom without glancing at his sister.

“You can’t just walk away like that, Farrell,” she cried, tenderness momentarily forgotten. “Listen to me. People are talking. They think I don’t hear, but I know. They’re saying, you know, they’re saying you’re sick.”

“Can’t stop people from talking, Francine,” he said. “It don’t bother me.”

“Well, then, think about me. I’ve got my pride, you know. What about me?”

“You?” Farrell started. “You’ve got a job.”

“Don’t you understand, Farrell? Are you even listening to me? It’s like you gave up. You sit around like it’s your day off every day. Who do you think you are?”

“Who?” he repeated vacantly, turning the word over in his mind like a strange and delicate object, examining its contours and colors. “That’s the problem in a nutshell, Francine. I used to be a millwright. Now, you tell me who do you think I am?”

“Why, you’re Farrell Jackson,” she answered, indignation and fear mingling in her voice. “Same’s always. You’re my brother, Marjorie’s father. Millwright’s what you did. You think I’m nothing but a grocery checker? Look at me, Farrell, don’t be looking off into space like that. Look at me – is it a grocery checker you see?”

Farrell willed himself to face her. He saw sagging jowls, wispy gray hairs escaped from bobby pins and one under her chin, faded red lipstick and worried eyes behind her discolored plastic eyeglass frames. She’d grown old, he discovered, though she was only five years his senior. Her white plastic button earrings looked clownish. He wondered that he’d never noticed this before – she’d worn them for years.

“I don’t know,” he said slowly. “I never thought about it.” But seeing the blue eyes like his own grow large with tears, he yearned for a better answer, and in his yearning, he reached into an inside space that he’d never plumbed, that, had he remembered it from childhood, he’d have thought it dark and dried up. Instead, what he found there was soft and warm.

“I see my big sister” he said, and listened to what his voice would say next. “With long dark hair, and a teasing mouth and laughing eyes, like sun on the river. I see pink freckled hands, like Mom’s with the coconut smell of lotion. I see supper on the table, and air-fresh clean clothes stacked on my dresser and a patch of lilies-of-the-valley on the south side of the house.” And then he stopped, face flushed, and closed his eyes for just a moment to seal the images.

Months later, when he painted houses for $7.50 an hour, and his fingers no longer strayed to the scars on his neck, Farrell would summon up that moment as he entered Grace’s Jewelry and Gift Shop down the street from Lederer’s Hardware. He would tap on the glass showcase, point to a pair of gold earrings shaped like knots, and carry them home in a tiny box wrapped in pink paper and spaghetti-thin satin ribbon, to Francine. And she would say, simply, “That’s beautiful, Farrell. Thank you.”

Which is what she said that afternoon in the kitchen, cluttered with abandoned groceries, her voice breathy, her complaints staunched, as her brother stood there in wonder at his own words.

2 Comments on “The Millwright’s Epiphany”

  1. Kristina Lang says:

    This is a wonderful evocative story, I can see the characters. So human


  2. janelang2015 says:

    Thanks, Tina. I’m glad you liked it. jane


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