Bob Lee Hawkins was down on his luck, unemployed for the first time in his adult life. The trouble was, he didn’t have much in the way of job skills, and even if he did, there wasn’t much in the way of opportunity in these parts anyway. Bob would move on to greener pastures if he had to, but he dreaded the idea of having to pull up stakes. Aside from the three year stint he did in the Marine Corps, Bob had never ventured far from the very county he was born in.
Bob had been employed at a factory that had been built during the second world war to manufacture military uniforms. In the six decades since that time, shirts were made there; all types of shirts, from dress to casual. But the doors were closed for good now. The company had been purchased by an even bigger company who would be making the shirts overseas.
Bob worked in the snap department; imitation pearl button snaps for western style shirts. Bob was a sorter. His job was to separate the snaps by size and color when they became disarranged. He was proud of his ability to distinguish the subtle nuance between the white pearl and the shell tone, the tonal distinction of desert tan and almond. There were seventeen colors and three sizes, and Bob could sort them with one eye closed and the other half open.
Bob considered it society’s loss that his skills would now go unused. He thought of himself as a displaced artist. He was a radio operator in the Marines and had given up on putting that training to use. The police department turned him down as a dispatcher and there wasn’t a radio station for a hundred miles around.
“Why don’t you go down and see about driving a dump truck for old man Cox? Aren’t you two related?” Bob’s wife, Jenna Lee, asked.
“He’s my daddy’s second cousin. Makes us pretty close, I reckon. I don’t know how good I could drive a truck, but it’s worth a shot.” Bob told his wife.
“Have a seat young man. Lordy, you have grown since I last seen you. You’re a spitting image of your daddy. What can I do ya for?” Bill said as Bob entered his office.
“I’ll get right to the point Mr. Cox, I’m needing a job.”
“Yeah, so do lots of folks since the shirt plant closed down. I just don’t need anybody right now, all my trucks are filled.”
Bob didn’t respond. He just sat there looking despondent. After a brief silence, Bill spoke again. “I know we are blood related, third cousins and all, but I have to be fair to my employees. I can’t just fire a man for no reason, but if anything were to come open, I swear you will be the first one I call.”
This gave Bob an idea. “If one of your drivers were to suddenly up and quit, just speaking hypothetically of course, is there one you wouldn’t mind seeing go?”
“Normally, it would be inappropriate for me to answer that. But seeing as we’re kin and all, I’ll tell you. But it’s just between us, understand?”
“Yes, sir, completely.”
“I have always thought something was funny about that Ned Briley. I don’t know what it is, but I ain’t never liked that boy. He talks funny, too. Wouldn’t nothing please me more if he just up and vanished overnight. But I can’t just fire him. He does a good enough job for me and like they say, good help is hard to find.”
Bob Lee thanked Bill Cox for his time and set about formulating his plan. It took him three days to quietly gather the information that he felt would make his ploy succeed. By then it was Friday, which was even better. Friday was payday for Bill Cox’s drivers and he knew a handful of them, including Ned Briley, would be down at the Dixie Honky Tonk.
Bob arrived at the tavern at nine PM, figuring most of the patrons would be well on their way to being well lubricated, but coherent enough to absorb the information he planned on presenting. The bartender gave him a quizzical look as he approached the bar.
“Hey, aren’t you Bob Lee Hawkins, son of Robert Lee Hawkins, fourth cousin, twice removed, of the great General Robert E. Lee?” the bartender asked.
“Yes, sir, that’s me.” Bob answered, embarrassed.
“Well, that makes you a great American in my book.” Having said that, he withdrew a large, leather bound ledger from underneath the bar, titled Great Americans. He then printed Bob’s name onto a page, after which he offered Bob his first drink on the house.
Bob leaned casually against the bar, nursing his beer, trying to ascertain which one of the men was Ned Briley. It didn’t take very long to identify his prey. Bill Cox was correct, Ned did talk a might peculiar, which was an added bonus. Bob mustered up his courage and approached the table where Ned was playing poker with four other men, a modest pile of money between them.
“Ned Briley.” Bob announced in an authoritative voice.
“Yeah, that’s me. Who the heck are you?” Ned responded, looking around the table at his buddies with a goofy grin as if he had just made a witty comeback.
Bob had the attention of the entire room now. “Ned Briley, you are a dirty, lying, cheating, lowlife individual. I just thought them boys you’re playing cards with oughta be aware of that.”
“Tell us something we don’t know.” One of the other card players responded, bringing on gales of drunken laughter from the crowd.
Ned seemed a little slow to catch on and it finally occurred to him that he was being insulted, by a total stranger at that. He decided he just wasn’t going to put up with it any longer, as he rose from his chair. That was when Bob realized just how big Ned was. He was well over six feet tall and maybe close to 250 pounds. Not muscular, but not fat either, just sort of, well, beefy. The kind of fellow that could do some damage if he was properly riled up. Bob was having serious misgivings about his plan and began estimating the distance to the exit as opposed to the distance between him and Ned.
“I don’t know just who in tarnation you think you are, mister, but I don’t have to put up with this.” Ned proclaimed, menacingly.
“I’ll tell you who he is!” the bartender shouted, taking everyone’s focus from Bob, for which he was grateful. “He is a great American. I got him right here in my book.” This seemed to impress the crowd, which cast admiring glances toward Bob, bolstering his confidence. Nothing like having the mob on your side.
“Maybe this fellow’s telling the truth, Ned. I always suspected you were kind shifty.” a voice from the crowd said.
“Now y’all wait a minute here. Y’all know me, I ain’t never hurt nobody.” Ned whined, sounding desperate.
“Really, Ned? Do they really know you? I bet there is something they don’t know. I bet nobody around here knows who you really are. Do they know your big secret, that you are a Yankee? Born and bred north of the Mason-Dixon line.”
A hush fell over the tavern. All eyes were on Ned. Curious looks became suspicious glares. Ned’s head and neck turned red, his eyes bulged from their sockets. Bob imagined smoke coming from the big man’s nostrils. He roared like an angry bull as he charged toward Bob. If Bob had misgivings before, they were affirmed now as he braced for impact. There was no time to mount a counteroffensive, as there was no time to turn and run, either. All he could do was hope for the least possible amount of broken bones.
As Bob closed his eyes he felt the whoosh of air as Ned ran by him at full speed. The angry bull became a runaway freight train. Bob exhaled in relief, amazed he was still intact. The cracking sound he heard was not that of breaking bones, but of the screen door being torn from it’s hinges as Ned crashed through like an NFL linebacker.
Bob surveyed the crowd, unsure of his status among them. He saw no animosity, only bewilderment. Some seemed to be impressed with the devastation of the door.
“Like I said, the man is a great American.” the bartender announced, as he motioned Bob over for another beer, courtesy of the house.
The following afternoon
Bob was sitting at the kitchen table, studying for his commercial truck drivers exam when his wife returned from the grocery store.
“Guess who I just talked to?” Jenna asked. Not waiting on an answer, she continued. “Marianne Dobbs. You know Marianne, she lives next to the Brileys, over on Stone Creek road. Anyhow, she said they just up and moved out in the middle of the night, all their stuff just piled up in the back of their pickup truck.”
“Huh, well that’s something.” Bob said, feigning disinterest.
“Marianne said she wasn’t all that surprised. She said everybody in that family seemed a bit odd, talked funny too.”
“And you really ain’t gonna believe this. She said all this time they claimed to be from Cleveland, Tennessee. Well, guess what?”
“What’s that, sugar?”
“They were from Cleveland, Ohio!“
“Huh. Just goes to show, things aren’t always what they seem.”