brevity_leeAt the tire repairs factory, I knew a man named Jack who had no teeth, who brought the same thing for lunch every day, a fried egg sandwich in a wrinkled and stained paper bag. He had a family he could barely support, one that didn’t have, as my father often said, “as much as a pot to piss in.” This was in 1976, a time of double-digit inflation and high interest rates in a small Midwestern town going nowhere fast.

One day, Friday the week of Christmas, I brought Jack a platter of homemade cookies. I gave it to him in the parking lot after work. “For you and your family,” I said, certain he’d be pleased.

I was twenty-one and saving money to go back to college. I had no idea that my gift would call attention to the fact that Jack’s life would more than likely always be exactly what it was at that moment. He was a poor man with poor prospects.

He bowed his head. He held that platter in his big hands, calloused and scarred, the knuckles all knobbed up, and he mumbled, “Much obliged.” Then he walked away, leaving me to feel the embarrassment I’d caused him, the shame.

The next day, my wife and I found a box of Whitman’s chocolates leaning against our front door. No card. No note of explanation. But I knew right away that Jack had left them for us.

The factory held its Christmas party at the Elks Lodge that evening, and I watched him get drunk on free liquor, so drunk that toward the end of the evening he was sick outside the bathroom, and his wife had to ask for help hauling him to the car.

Come Monday, he was back at work, cutting slabs of rubber from the mill drum. I never said a word to him about those Whitman chocolates, nor did I tell him that I wished that I or someone else had told him to lay off the booze that night at the party, to let him know he didn’t need to ruin what was a fine evening for his wife—a prime rib dinner, a few spins around the dance floor—and that was sure as heck what he was going to do if he kept guzzling that bourbon. How in the hell would you say that to a man ground down by work and the circumstances of his life on a night when he had a chance to cut loose, when the liquor was free, and for at least a little while, so was he?

Well, you don’t say it. That’s what. I regretted the gift of the cookies and all it had wrought, so I kept my yap shut.

Then the day comes when I’m back in college, and I’m in a theatre class, and one day I’m performing in a scene from Our Town. It’s the scene at the end of the play when the Webbs’ daughter, Emily, is granted her wish to come back from the dead and relive one day of her life. She chooses her twelfth birthday. February 11, 1899.

I play Constable Warren, who meets up with Emily’s father, the newspaper editor, outside on the street as he’s coming home from the train station. My character has been out early to rescue a drunk, asleep in a snowdrift near Polish Town. Constable Warren has been doing his work on a morning when it’s ten degrees below zero. He’s saved a man’s life, but still he doesn’t mean much of anything to the give and take of the Webb family that morning. He’s just a minor character, a simple man of duty, on the periphery of their lives.

I have a line at the end of the scene, a line I’ve worked over and over, trying to get it to please me. Constable Warren, when Mr. Webb says he’ll have to put word of that rescue up near Polish Town in the newspaper, says, “Twan’t much.” I want just the right balance of humility and pride and unease. Just the right hint of things unsaid, things I learned from a work-worn man one Christmas season when neither of us knew that he had anything to teach me.

“Twan’t much,” I say.

The next thing is easy. The exit. All I have to do is leave.

Lee Martin is the author of the memoirs, Turning Bones, and From Our House, the story collection, The Least You Need to Know, and the novel, Quakertown. His novel, The Bright Forever, was a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. He directs the creative writing program at The Ohio State University.

Photo by Tricia Louvar