“How can you stand the smell in this place?” the girl asked.
Lorena shrugged and replied without looking up. “I don’t notice it any more.”
“My mother said the whole house stinks of pickles when I come home after work.”
Lorena nodded. She continued to snatch quart jars of pickles from the line, working rhythmically to place each jar into a packing crate niche. Hundreds of times each day she put a dozen jars in a crate, sealed the lid and slid the crate onto the conveyor belt headed for shipping.
“I’ll sure be glad when this summer is over with,” the girl moaned.
Lorena smiled, wishing she could remember the girl’s name. “It will pass before you know it.” Every summer they came, young folks who spent their summer break from college working at the pickle factory. Some quit the first week, but most hung on, doggedly earning tuition money for their educational ticket out of Purdy’s Creek.
“Have you worked here long?”
“Sixteen years.” Lorena glanced up, not surprised by the shock displayed on the girl’s face.
She was relieved the girl did not ask—as some had—how anyone could survive working at the pickle plant that long. It wasn’t as if Lorena planned to work at Brian’s all her life. With better pay than taking in laundry or waiting tables, the pickle plant was a natural choice when she finished high school. She hoped to save her wages and make something of herself someday. Except someday never quite came.
After her father died, Lorena supported her mother. Together, they lived quietly in the house where Lorena was born. The years after her mother’s passing were lonely. And then she met Roscoe.
The hands lurched forward on the giant clock high on the factory wall. At three minutes past noon, the girl slouched back to the line. “That was the shortest hour of my life,” she grumbled.
“The line may get ahead of you while I’m gone to lunch,” Lorena said. “Concentrate on getting the pickles in the crates. I’ll help you put lids on the boxes and move them on later.”
With a light heart, Lorena almost skipped to her locker. She retrieved her lunch pail and hurried to the company’s lunchroom. There she could look at trees and grass through glass windows, eat, and enjoy friendly companionship for one precious hour.
Lorena tried to remember how many years she’d shared lunch with Roscoe. Ten, maybe? She couldn’t help but notice him, sitting at a nearby table, eating nothing but pickles for lunch. After a week, she gathered the courage to ask if he would like half of her sandwich. Roscoe looked wary, but accepted. From the way he wolfed down the ham and swiss, she realized he was starving. Gradually, she packed bigger lunches. He moved to her table. She learned that Roscoe’s wife was sick with a cancer that ate at their bank account as mercilessly as it gnawed at her body.
After Roscoe’s wife died, he brought his own soup or sandwich. Still, most of his salary went toward residual medical bills. He told Lorena he would never in his lifetime be able to pay off those hundreds of thousands of dollars. Nevertheless, he did his best to pare it down.
Lorena spread her lunch on the bare metal table, eagerly anticipating Roscoe’s arrival. Every few months they took an exotic vacation, the most recent being a cruise through the Panama Canal. They never left Purdy’s Creek, of course. Yet in their imaginations, the pair had traveled the globe.
Today, armed with travel brochures and magazine advertisements, she was well prepared for their first day in Paris, the city of lights. She couldn’t wait to share the boat ride to the Eiffel Tower with Roscoe.
Following days spent planning their itinerary, the pair always followed their make-believe schedule meticulously. Although their bodies sat in the lunchroom of Brian’s Pickles, their imaginations explored the world. How could Lorena ever forget the day they arrived in Venice? After Roscoe spread out pictures of the city, they imagined the rocking of a gondola as they discussed the sights to be seen along the canals. They laughed to discover Roscoe packed pizza for lunch that day, while Lorena brought spaghetti.
At a quarter after twelve, Lorena wondered what was keeping Roscoe. He never missed work, and always showed up in the lunch room within a minute or two of her arrival. Where could he be? He wouldn’t voluntarily miss out on the sights of Paris, would he?
By twelve-thirty, Lorena was alarmed. She cleaned her table and made her way to the boiling vats of pickles. “Where’s Roscoe?” she asked the foreman.
The big man shrugged. “I don’t know. He didn’t show up this morning.”
Lorena stepped back, stunned. “Has anyone checked on him?”
“I’m too busy doing his job to go chasing around town looking for him,” was the foreman’s short reply.
Lorena worried as she took her place on the line. She worked faster than normal to send the stacked-up crates to shipping. Did she dare ask for time off to go and find out about Roscoe? Would it be proper for her to go to his home? What if he was sick or hurt? What would she do?
At last she made up her mind to go in search of her friend as soon as she got off work.
“Break time,” the college girl announced, removing her smock. “Sorry to say, I’ll be back in fifteen minutes.”
It seemed only a minute passed before the girl was back. “How come there’s a stretch limo parked out front?” she asked.
Lorena shook her head without moving her eyes from the pickle jars. “No limos in Purdy’s Creek. Must be some bigwig from Stantonville.”
The girl ran back toward the lunch room, but soon returned. “The whole place is in an uproar!” she exclaimed. “Someone from Purdy’s Creek won the lottery. The guy’s over at the accounting office, writing out bonus checks for half the people in the plant. Maybe you’ll get one!”
This girl has a wild imagination, Lorena thought as she pushed a crate onto the conveyor.
She didn’t recognize Roscoe at first, never having seen him dressed in a tuxedo.
“Miss Lorena,” he said, “I’m sorry I missed our lunch. I was really busy with a lot of things, and time got away from me.”
While Lorena stared at Roscoe, co-workers clustered around them. Suddenly Roscoe knelt in front of her. He opened a ring box and held it up to her. While she stared at the diamond ring, Roscoe said, “I’m hopelessly in love with you, Lorena. Will you marry me?”
She tried to speak, but no words came out.
“If it helps you decide, the hospital bills are all paid.” He patted his chest. “And I have two tickets in here that I’d sure like to use for our honeymoon.”
When Lorena nodded to indicate yes, Roscoe jumped up and kissed her. He then stood to one side and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, Lorena and I are on our way to Paris.” He turned to smile at her. “Just like we planned.”
-by Carlene Havel